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The Weekend Reader
Entrepreneurship and Depression
We think of entrepreneurs as courageous. Daring. Swashbuckling. Willing to fight the odds and take risks most people would shy from. We assume they have less fear than other people. That's probably not right. Most entrepreneurs aren't free of fear. In fact, they have higher rates of anxiety and depression that most people -

  1. A Restaurant Ruined My Life - Toronto Life
  2. Investors and Entrepreneurs Need to Address the Mental Health Crisis in Startups - TechCrunch
  3. The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship - Inc Magazine
  4. The VC Firm that Pays for Founders' Mental Health Counseling - Forbes
  5. This Man Makes Founders Cry - Wired Magazine
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 Recommended Readings

1. A Restaurant Ruined My Life
Toronto Life  (29 min)

Many of us have daydreamed about starting a restaurant, only to be reminded of the scary statistics restaurant failure. Here's a story of an entrepreneur who turned his passion for cooking into a neighborhood restaurant, with catastrophic consequences.

He leads in, "
I was a foodie with a boring day job who figured he could run a restaurant. Then I encountered rats, endless red tape, crippling costs and debt-induced meltdowns, started popping sleeping pills, lost my house, and nearly sabotaged my marriage"

This is a first-hand account of the stresses and possible trauma that can come from a new venture.

The local newspaper, the Beach Metro, buzzed about the new place on Kingston Road, and soon we were busy enough that my participation, however clumsy, became crucial. I’d serve tables, cook on the line and sweat in the dish pit. We had abandoned the idea of a lunch service due to low demand, so Dorothy helped me run errands and look after general housekeeping during the day, but would leave by the mid-afternoon to pick up the kids. In the evenings, she spent much of her time at home, alone.

My days were long—often 15 hours from start to close. For most of the week, the only time I saw my daughters was when I got home from work and checked in on them as they slept. And despite business picking up slightly, I was still broke. Between my pension money and cash that people had lent me, I was $80,000 deep, with no profit in sight: for every dollar I made, I was spending three. I didn’t take an official paycheque, and when I worked the floor, I didn’t take a dime in tips. I figured as an owner, I wasn’t supposed to. At the end of our second month, I couldn’t make payroll. I was short by about $2,000.

Out of desperation, Dorothy invited her mother to the restaurant for dinner, where we sheepishly explained our problem. A sensible woman, my mother-in-law was always convinced that my restaurant was a stupid idea. We were handily making her case. Nevertheless, she agreed to lend us a few thousand dollars to cover payroll. But her loan was eaten up so quickly that by the next payday, I was short again.


Makes the case that entrepreneurs are disproportionately susceptible to mental health problems, and offers some ideas on what to do about it.

The mental health epidemic is real.
There are 18.5 percent of Americans that will suffer from mental illness this year; 4 percent of them will suffer so acutely that it will substantially limit their ability to live their lives.

While national mental health statistics are troubling, they are downright terrifying for entrepreneurs. According to a study by Michael Freeman, entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being incredibly prevalent amongst founders.
Founders are:

  • 2X more likely to suffer from depression
  • 6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
  • 3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
  • 10X more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder
  • 2X more likely to have psychiatric hospitalization
  • 2X more likely to have suicidal thoughts


"It's like a man riding a lion. People think, 'This guy's brave.' And he's thinking, 'How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?"

A study in why entrepreneurs are more prone to depression. 
Spoiler: Johns Hopkins professor John Gartner argues that many entrepreneurs can be classified as "hypomanic." Though driven and innovative, hypomanics are at much higher risk for depression than the general population, notes Gartner. Failure can spark these depressive episodes, of course, but so can anything that slows a hypomanic's momentum. "They're like border collies--they have to run," says Gartner. "If you keep them inside, they chew up the furniture. They go crazy; they just pace around. That's what hypomanics do. They need to be busy, active, overworking."


Call it the downside of being up. The same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are "vulnerable to the dark side of obsession," suggest researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. They conducted interviews with founders for a study about entrepreneurial passion. The researchers found that many subjects displayed signs of clinical obsession, including strong feelings of distress and anxiety, which have "the potential to lead to impaired functioning," they wrote in a paper published in the Entrepreneurship Research Journal in April.


One investment firm's enlightened response to the mental health problems of founders. 

Startup culture has long conditioned entrepreneurs to project a public image of “crushing it” at all costs. With a first of its kind capital pledge, one of Silicon Valley’s new-guard venture firms is looking to change that—and do away with the stigma of founders raising their hands for help.

Launched by Felicis Ventures, the program will commit 1% on top of every check the firm writes in non-dilutive capital earmarked for “founder development” in coaching and mental health. The money, which will be available no-strings-attached for years after the investment is made, can be used by Felicis' founders to cover costs such as therapy sessions, leadership coaching, development programs
and peer CEO groups.

5. This Man Makes Founders Cry
Wired Magazine (17 min)

Jerry Colonna helps CEOs make money by making peace with their demons. 

Colonna has earned his street cred as a tech coach. After working at one of the first companies to sell internet advertisements in the early 1990s, he joined Wilson to form Flatiron Partners, the high-flying New York venture capital firm that had spectacular wins during the early dot-com years — and then a dramatic demise when the market crashed. He has strong operating experience, and can advise on everything from the terms of a round of funding to the right candidate for a chief financial officer position. But that’s not why he’s an effective coach.

In tech circles, where founders are nearly hardwired to describe everything as awesome, promise every business is growing, and work until they drop, Colonna has empowered them to take on — and tend to — their own mental health issues He does this by talking about himself. In the early aughts, Colonna was consumed by a deep depression that left him suicidal. His years-long healing process seasoned him, transforming him into a Buddhist empath bordering on New Age. “There are a lot of people you can go to who will teach you to be a better manager,” says Soundcloud CEO Alexander Ljung. “Jerry understands the psychology of leadership.”

We don't like talking about depression. It is, by definition, "not fun." And though in the past few decades we've learned a lot about brain chemistry's role in mental health, we still haven't yet overcome the nagging misconception that people who are depressed are somehow "weaker" than others. 

Admitting depression is particularly taboo for those who rely on the confidence and financial support of others to succeed in their careers - I'm thinking here not only of entrepreneurs but of pastors and politicians. In biographies, we read of many presidents who suffered from depression - from Lincoln to Grant to Teddy Roosevelt. They achieved incredible success despite their terrors of the mind. But try to name a modern politician who is actively running and admits to depression. It'll be a short list. The same is true of pastors - I know many pastors and many secretly admit to wrestling with anxiety and depression but don't feel they have the freedom to admit that to their congregation or to anyone. Doesn't the leader of the flock have to be strong?

Entrepreneurs similarly are used to wearing a mask. In order to raise money and convince smart people to join their team, they have to project confidence and an air of inevitable success. Meanwhile they are constantly on the brink of failure, sweating whether they will make payroll, whether their product will find a following, whether they have what it takes to run the business. The combination of real "we-may-or-may-not-make-it" stress and a perceived feeling that it's not okay to share their feelings of vulnerability lead many entrepreneurs past anxiety into depression. Plus, they've often put everything on the line, sometimes taking out credit card debt, or draining their 401ks. The stakes are high. 

Because their work is so consuming, many founders let their relationships deteriorate. They don't feel they have the time to invest in outside friendships. Or they feel that it would take so long to explain their stresses to someone outside the business it wouldn't be worth it. Or they just don't want to give up the impression that they have their crap together. As a result, they feel not only scared, but lonely too. 

I know this because I've lived it. I've fought through several bouts of depression in my adult life, often related to work stress and entrepreneurial stress. I've had those nights where you wake up at 3AM and can't go back to sleep. I've had stretches where I basically had no appetite for months. I'd lose 20-30 pounds and my pants would look baggy and my belt too long. Friends would say, wow you are looking great! And I'd have to decide whether to lie and say "Yeah, I've been exercising a lot more" or admit that the most effective diets I've ever done are sadness-based. 

I had lunch this week with two good friends. One of them, Joe, said his non-scientific and anecdotal experience over decades has been that about 40% of type-A go-getter people struggle with depression. Our other friend, Matt, who works in leadership development, said he thinks the percentage is way higher than that. It's hard to say for sure because, again, we don't talk about it. I just know it is prevalent enough that these days, when I meet an entrepreneur or a pastor or a politician, I assume they are either currently wrestling with it or have in the past. But I also assume they don't want to talk about it. Or they do but are afraid of being rejected. So I'm sharing more of my own journey because sometimes you need to realize you aren't the only one. 

I'm happy to say I'm doing well now. Our business is growing. I feel good. But I also know I need the support of friends and family because the demon is never far. For me, feeling good is a disciplined combination of exercise, getting enough sleep, getting outdoors in the sunshine, medication as appropriate, spending time with people I love, and recentering my thoughts on grace through faith.  

I'll close with a link to this piece that had some good thoughts and advice for founders and the people in their lives about how to spot depression in an entrepreneur (or anyone else with people-pleasing career temptations) and how to help. Thanks for reading. 

- Max
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The Weekend Reader is a guide exploring culture, technology, and the meaningful life in the modern world. 5 or so handpicked, personally recommended articles in your inbox every weekend.

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