This has been a hard week for those of us who care deeply about depression and the people who wrestle with it.
Both entrepreneur/designer Kate Spade and chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain took their own lives this week, leaving many to wonder why people who seemed to have it all would go to such lengths.
If I’ve learned anything during my entrepreneurial journey, it’s that people who have ambition, vision, and big dreams tend to suffer from what author Nassir Ghaemi calls “A first-rate madness.” The genius is often offset by battles with personal demons.
That there is a link between creativity and mental illness is known to some extent, details regarding that link are mostly unknown.
Entrepreneurs are, if nothing else, creators. They thrive on the unknown and live to create something out of nothing. With that drive, however, comes an increased risk of depression and mental illness.
While I don’t claim to know precisely what happened in these particular cases, I do know that the stresses of living a high-profile, creative, or entrepreneurial can take their toll on people, both physically and emotionally.
I want to be very clear about one thing. I don’t have all the answers. Like everyone else, I’m just trying to find my way in a complicated and challenging world.
I have, however, learned a few things along my personal entrepreneurial and creative journey that have helped me navigate challenging situations, particularly in regards to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Let’s be honest about the difference between mental illness and circumstance
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that there is a stark difference between mental illness and the shared human response to challenging circumstances with which we are forced to deal.
For so long there was a stigma associated with mental illness, and people were afraid to entertain the idea that they might be suffering from its effects. Fortunately, this stigma is starting to give way to a more honest and understanding view of the matter. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or not, you have to ask yourself “Have I suffered from panic, anxiety, or depression my whole life, or is this something new?”
If you find that your feelings and sufferings are part of a larger pattern, please don’t be afraid to talk to a medical professional.
In many cases, anxiety and other symptoms are biological. No matter what you try to do, or how you try to cope, you won’t be able to run away from the underlying biological problem. There are, fortunately, solutions and treatments out there that can help.
If what you’re experiencing is relatively new for you, there’s a reasonable chance that it is mostly circumstantial. This is where I can offer some insight, having dealt with this type of emotional stress firsthand.
Keep things in perspective
A few years ago, Business Insider published a great article about the depression epidemic in the startup community. According to the article, only 7% of the general population report suffering from depression, but a whopping 30% of founders report dealing with its effects.
That statistic is staggering but entirely believable.
Entrepreneurship is an intensely personal journey, and it’s incredibly difficult to separate your identity from the business that you’re trying to create. Soon, business setbacks (of which there are many) seem like personal setbacks, and depression can quickly take root.
The key is always to strive to keep things in perspective. Life, like business, is a journey full of ups and downs.
When talking to entrepreneurs and other creatives going through tough times, I often encourage them to think back to high school. For most of us, there were moments in our high school lives that seemed to be monumentally crucial that in retrospect seem childish.
At the time, of course, the pain and anxiety that you experienced were real and raw. However, the more distance you gain from the situation, the less painful it becomes.
While the problems that you’re facing right here and right now may seem insurmountable, it’s important to realize these too will pass and fade in time.
Entrepreneurs have to accept the fact that the odds are stacked against their success. Most new business ventures fail, and even those that are eventually successful take a long time to get off the ground.
Setbacks will outnumber successes, and there’s a good chance that most days will be stressful. That’s the game we chose to play and the ability to embrace these realities is what makes us entrepreneurs.
Still, when challenges pile up, it’s easy to feel like the world is ending and that we’re failures. I recently had lunch with a good friend who was in the process of shuttering his third startup in seven years.
During our conversation, I reminded him that in his brief career to date, he’s accomplished more than the vast majority of people do in decades.
His pedigree and experience put him in the top one percent of people in his age group, and, as a result, his opportunities are vast. Sure, the latest venture didn’t work out, but he can and will live to fight another day.
Wherever you’re at this point in your life, there is an excellent chance that your current endeavor will not be your last. In fact, many of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world hit their stride on the second or third attempt.
Consider the case of Mark Cuban. Before he struck it big by selling his business to Yahoo, Cuban had a string of failures. After failing as a cook, carpenter, and even a waiter he remarked, “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you failed. You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times, and I learned from them all.”
The lesson here is that there are second (and third and fourth) acts in life, and it’s important to remember that whenever you encounter failure.
Don’t be afraid to get help
I’m fortunate in the sense that I have a fantastic support network I can call on when I need help. My family and friends are always there when I need them, whether it’s to listen to my struggles or to lend a hand.
Not everyone is as lucky. Entrepreneurs need to be able to reach out and get help when they need it. This can be difficult in a world where everyone feels the need to be “crushing it” all the time. Asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness, which leads to people merely keeping their difficulties to themselves.
We in the entrepreneurial and creative communities need to change this mentality. People should feel free to get help without the fear of judgment, and it’s going to take a few strong influencers to initiate the change.
I know a few people in the industry who care about this deeply, including Structure Capital (a team of high-profile venture investors based out of San Francisco), but more are needed. There are good people out there who want to help. It’s just a matter of having the courage to reach out.
There will be bumps, setbacks, and even catastrophic failures on any worthwhile journey, but remember that you’re not alone. Keep your challenges in perspective and live to fight another day.
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