Wild Success vs. Depression

TL;Read Anyway

Around 2.5 years ago, I lost my mind.  I was working on something (I still am) that I thought would change the world.  It’s big, but of course, without traction, that’s just my opinion.

I was a year or so in, and I was encouraged by my progress in domain understanding, product strategy, and overall product status, while at the same time frustrated that I hadn’t made more progress.  I imagine this is typical of founders who are aiming as high as they can.

In the thick of what I now know were the early stages, I tried to predict the future.  I tried to extrapolate ‘current’ status into next steps.  I tried to anticipate risks.  I tried to anticipate rewards.  I thought through the potential losses and, should my plan succeed, the optimistically ‘guaranteed’ rewards.

I saw my future-self as a successful, well-regarded CEO… one with many accomplishments and accolades.  I was considering what “ultimate success” would look like, and my Ego took hold.  It was a thought experiment, to be sure, but I was so confident that I believed I could will it to be so.  Not only COULD I model the future in my mind, but I SHOULD do that to predict future risks for my business.  That was my mindset.

I saw money, freedom, and the like.  How high could I go?  I saw a statue erected in my honor.  After all, if I succeeded to the highest possible degree, a statue was inevitable.  Bill Gates will get statues.  Why wouldn’t I surpass that?

Don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t delusional, or at least I didn’t think so.  I was firmly grounded in the religion of MVP, but in my downtime, after I ‘clocked out,’ my thoughts wandered to predictions.  I can’t bet on myself to fail, so I bet on myself to succeed, and I needed to see what that looked like to the fullest degree.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.  This was an ego out of control.  Psychologists would likely tag my file with “God Complex” or some such  though I’ve never seen a psychologist.  It wasn’t healthy in the least, and the highest of highs I got from fantasizing about ‘success’ was coupled with an unexpected low.

As I visualized myself as a statue, I couldn’t help but see it in the context of death.  Rarely people who are alive and thriving get a statue, so my thoughts meandered to death and the meaning of life and the finity of existence.

I then reverse-engineered the idea of having a statue of myself erected.  I saw that it was meaningless, and that everything that led to the statue would fade and be meaningless too.  I felt alone.  I felt fear.  I lost it.

I’m a positive person, and I have it good.  I have many, many things to be thankful for.  But in that moment, I lost faith in life itself.  If the best I could muster was a future where people built statues of me, and if those statues were completely worthless, then what the hell did any of my big plans matter?

I spiraled downward, and quickly.  That entire thought process took place in a single evening.  I lost sleep that night, and I woke up the next day afraid.  I didn’t understand the fear, but I felt it.  I felt it at my core.  The thought experiment for what my life would be like if I were to succeed beyond my wildest dreams still ended in nothingness.  Every fiber of my being was shaken, and I was different from who I was before.

When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t the same person.  I couldn’t shake the feeling of hopelessness.  Regardless of what I did, I would die.  And if that was inevitable, then wtf was the point?

And that feeling persisted.  It didn’t come and go.  It was constant.  I tried to shake it, but I wound up crying in my car in the parking garage days in a row.  I collected myself, distracted myself, but I was different.  Seeing my future self as non-existent removed the taste from my mouth; it took any joy I found in the real world and replaced it with an existential question of “why the hell am I trying this? Why the hell am I doing anything?”

I’m not religious.  Hell, I’m probably an atheist.  But I thought about going to Church.  I thought about the meaning of life.  I looked for logical ways around meaninglessness.  I found none.  I was married and had two young kids, but I still found no meaning or purpose.  I started drinking more… then every night… then more every night.  I knew it wouldn’t help, but I was willing to kill the fear with whatever I could find.  In hindsight, it was slow suicide.  I knew it was killing me, not the fear, but I couldn’t find anything better.

This went on for ~2 years.  I was still building my “big” product, but the effort wained.  I convinced myself of excuses for why I wasn’t moving my plan forward.  In actuality, I had tied the idea of success to death, although I didn’t understand it at the time.  I just smiled to the outside world while I silently, solemnly gave up on everything.

I wish I could tell you that I figured it all out… that I found logic that pulled me above the desperation and lifted the sad, sad cloud I imposed upon myself.  But that’s not the case.

My recovery was gradual and slight.  Each day was worse than the last, until the next day wasn’t.  It was slow, arduous, and heavy.  I still could 100% believe in what I was working on, but personally I was a wreck.  It hurt every single aspect of my life, and I saw no way out.

I never contemplated suicide as a solution, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it as an idea.  I thought about people who committed suicide.  What drove them to do it?  Was it the same thing I was experiencing?  That’s a scary path to travel down.

I wish I could say that I had a turning point.  As fast as my depression came on, I wish it had dissipated as quickly.  But it didn’t.  I hit my own rock bottom (not knowing it at the time), and then started the slow, heavy climb out.

After some time, probably 2 years later, I realized that I wasn’t as bad anymore.  I just went about my day, hiding my internal, ego-driven anguish, and after a certain point, things started improving. The weight I felt got lighter over time, and I started to realize that I would recover.  Focusing on my family and friends helped the most, along with working really hard to live in the present rather than some fictional future I dreamt up.

I’m now 3 years into this startup journey (it’s a marathon, not a sprint, right?).  I still feel down from time to time, but nothing like I felt before.  In retrospect, Alcohol and lack of sleep’s effect on serotonin uptake probably played a lot in my brain’s chemistry, but the ego-steroids that I was on because of my startup ambition fueled the depression more than anything.

If anyone made it this far through this, I’d also like to write about how tech journalism and venture capital fuel these problems based on my experience, so let me know in the comments if that’s something that would be of interest.

    • It’s a shame you didn’t read it, it’s something that I’m sure many founders can relate to, myself included.

      Often times it’s hard to articulate what we feel and even harder to discuss it, kudos to the OP for doing both very well.

  • To OP and more so anyone else reading who has issues with depression while working as an entrepreneur:

    I have both managed and struggled with depression, anxiety and bipolar for years while starting up two businesses.

    The one thing that has helped me the most has been Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – I would recommend to anyone.

    The issues OP writes about – predicting the future, “black + white thinking “(i.e. you can only be a Bill Gates or an abject failure) – all are very well addressed by CBT.

  • Action.

    Committing yourself to the very moment that you are in and blocking out everything else is the key. You must stay busy, engaged even if its cleaning out your sock drawer. Then you move to the next task immediately with no hesitation and the same dedication and attention that that moment deserves. Each moment that you complete in this mind set will start the building of your confidence. You must exercise immediately and make it a daily routine even if it is something as small as doing 5 push ups or doing imaginary arm curls for 60 seconds. You build on that as you go. All of the power of healing is in the “NOW” it does not live in the past or in the future. You have to realize that you only control the minute for which you are aware and nothing else. When you take a shower you should focus on the water hitting you and how wonderful it feels in place of that terrible thing that your mind has you spinning that may not happen. Tying your shoe should be done with the same focus. This is the way out of your despair. It also eliminates the meaning of life question that is not within your ability to answer.

    As far as creating products and services that change the world they are built just as I have laid out above, one moment at a time. It is via this process that greatness is built and dreams are realized. Imagine if Michael Jordan had thought about his statue during any of his games or the moments that defined him. How long would he of lasted if he wasn’t intent on destroying the opponent in front of him or giving the moment his everything.

    Get busy even if the task seems it has no meaning – you will find happiness and for the moment in hand you will find the purpose that you so desire.

    Charles Lindbergh told a friend by the name of Jim Newton that when you commit yourself that “unforeseen forces” will come to you aid and that he had learned that with his flight over the Atlantic as he struggled to stay awake. Committing yourself is learned in small steps by committing to the moment in hand and if you need a place to start do so by focusing on breathing and start there.

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