Is Depression Actually Normal?

I wrote a post recently touching on my brief bout with Founder Depression.  As a result, many mentioned it on Twitter or reached out to personally thank me for writing it and to let me know they also struggled with it.

This sparked a few thoughts: “Is depression actually normal?”  And “if everyone deals with some sort of depression in their life then what can we do about it?”

I have come to realize depression is something all of us deal with at one point in our lives.  It should not be taboo or anything.  It should be addressed and talked about openly as part of the entrepreneurial education process.  As founders, we encounter depression usually from external events such as failure of a business or a negative outcome of something in which we had hoped for when we first started out.

down-the-drain

I am starting to realize being a great entrepreneur starts by perfecting how to handle the shit in your life.  Because it hits the fan waaaaay more times than you plan.  I have also come to understand the successful ones figure out how to identify the piles in the road ahead of time, and navigate accordingly before they hit something fatal.

Athletes strength train and stretch in prevention of injuries.  Why are we not doing this in the startup community?  Why are we not helping people to prevent what inevitably happens to those of us who strive for more?

The point here is to understand its not IF it will happen, its WHEN it will happen to you.  And then go into your entrepreneurial journey armed with the idea that you will at times feel very down about yourself and your company.  This is reality and this is serious.  If a founder doesn’t take it as such they are potentially setting themselves up for disaster.

Like I did.

In a recent conversation with my father we touched on this.  I noted that only when I realized I had dug myself into such a deep hole emotionally could I fully grasp where I was and what I had to do to get out of it.

I realized even though I was not in control of external events I was in control of my thoughts, feelings and internal dialog. And I was the only one who could bring myself out of the funk in which I had brought myself into.  I had to consciously think and make decisions that would place me in a neutral or positive place.

No more negative self talk.  No more whoa is me. No more pity parties and thinking I had let myself, my family and my community down.  I had to stop fighting myself, put my ego aside and choose a different path.  One that – although it has a few more twists, turns, roundabouts and curves to it – is leading me into an even better position than when I was CEO of my own little startup.

The fact is, if you are a high performer and things don’t turn out exactly the way you planned you will naturally tend to go into a dark place.  Those sort of feelings will not help you move forward in any way whatsoever, so please think now about how you will respond once you sense yourself going down.

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Finally Emerging From A Founder Depression

At times we can be our own worst enemy.  The challenge is to minimize those times.

We often hear choosing to become an entrepreneur – and the life that accompanies it – is not for the faint of heart.  This is absolutely true.  But for the longest time I didn’t really understand what it meant.  Or moreover, I didn’t fully respect the ramifications of the simple choice of taking my entrepreneurial leap.

Yet now being on the other side of this experience, I understand on a deeper level what entrepreneurship all about, and how to best navigate through it the rest of my life.  As I describe some of my thoughts and observations, I hope they might resonate with you as well and help you through whatever your situation you might be in currently.

Entrepreneurs, by default, are high performers.  And high performers, by default, are hard on themselves when times get tough.  Combine those two and you could get a deadly combination.

Entrepreneurs hold themselves to higher standards than others and often are disappointed when things don’t necessarily end up as great as they had thought when they initially set out.  But you know what?   Entrepreneurship never ends up like you initially thought.  It’s messier than anyone ever imagines and more extreme than anyone ever describes.

After I experienced a failed startup I dropped into what I now can identify as a depression.  I was not – and am not – depressed as in the clinical sense, but it was more like what you would think when people refer to the last economic depression we recently survived.  It was temporary and externally triggered.  Things weren’t right and I was responding to them certainly in a negative and self deprecating way.

It was painful.  It felt troubling.  It sucked because I wasn’t supposed to be there.  Or so I thought.

What I discovered was I denied myself some truths I should have admitted at the time.  I wasn’t admitting things like: 1) I really didn’t know what I was doing, and neither does anyone else.  2) The business was not working the way we had positioned it.  2) Startups actually do fail!  3) It’s okay to walk away rather than being so committed to a project you drive yourself into the ground.  4) Your personal value is more than just your company’s success.

I did not admit those things and the result was just that – nose dive right into the ground.  Being a friend or family member you probably wouldn’t have known it by being around me.  I am a damn good actor.  I do a great job of burying the issue and grabbing another beer to selflessly talk about your challenges and issues.

Yet deep down inside was some of the worst self talk anyone could imagine.  I was not my biggest cheerleader, supporter, believer and best friend.  If you are wondering, negative self talk is not the path to success.

It took a few years to pull myself out of it.  It took me accepting the fact that although I knew I could be a great founder at some point in my life, now was not the time.  It took me putting my ego aside and accepting positions with other startups and companies where I could add value and learn more about building companies.

It seems elementary now, but letting go of the founder dream and using my skills in an another company was the farthest thing from my mind at the time.  It took me admitting I did not know it all and I need to place myself somewhere to both earn a living and learn more about the world of technology and growing a business around it.

This type of wisdom and perspective is almost impossible when you think you are worthless.  And that is exactly what people think when their startup fails.  They think since they could not make their own company work – one where they pretty much put every ounce of effort they possibly could into making it work – what’s their value anywhere else?  This and other similar thinking is obviously incorrect and ill applied.  Yet, I am telling you this is exactly what I and other founders find themselves thinking.

I have since pulled myself back together, landed a great position with another company here in Seattle and on the path to learning and earning!

The resulting mental and emotional clarity is refreshing. It has allowed me to stabilize my life and opened up space for other projects like Founders RAW, Coinme, and getting back to writing.  It has allowed me to establish myself as a mentor and advisor to other entrepreneurs, here and elsewhere in the world. It has allowed me to embrace and fully enjoy a meaningful relationship for the first time in a long time.

The lesson here is not that you can do things to avoid the founder depression.  More than likely it’s inevitable for you, me and every other entrepreneur.  The lesson is in identifying the oncoming founder depression, quickly observing its symptoms, and then finding mitigation strategies you can deploy to keep you afloat – and happy.

Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart.  But it is for the wise and honest.

The Value Of Social Events And The Greater Startup Community

“I was defintely in a dark place.  It was the meetups and startup events that brought me back.” – Michael Grabham, founder of Startup Grind Seattle

Who knew something as a simple as a meetup could help someone get back to feeling normal again?  But that is exactly what happened with Michael Grabham, one of my recent guests on Founders RAW.

He details how he was in a “dark place” after experiencing a big failure in one of his businesses a number of years back.  He didn’t go into much detail during our conversation but he alluded to being very down and out, probably in some sort of depressive state.

Why am I guessing depression was upon him?   Well, I dealt with those feelings as well.  Even the best of us can have our worst times, and those times can seem to drag on for so long you feel like it won’t ever get better.  That is what I think Michael was referring to when he mentions his dark place.

So how do you get out?

Like he mentions, you lean on your community and get around excited people doing cool things.  He decided he had enough and started going to meetups and other startup events here in Seattle, meeting founders and other people working on new projects.  He knew he would be lifted up simply by osmosis.

In fact, that is how I originally met Michael, at an event called Tech Cocktail held in Seattle in fall 2011.  After that, we kept meeting every month or two where he would advise me on what to do next and who I should talk to.

This face to face time was incredibly valuable to me as a rookie founder.  But amazingly, I had no idea how important it was to him and where he had been (psychologically) so recently in his past.

It’s funny, you never know what, to what degree and to what depth someone is dealing with, since we all put on these masks as we go about our day.  It’s quite possible one of the people you will talk to at your next social or networking event is deeply struggling with something, and you may never no it from the outside.

Yet they are silent screaming “please help me!”

Do them a favor and ask “what can I do to help you?”  You will be amazed at how surprised they will look when you say that.  Also, ask to get in contact with them and book a coffee/beer meeting with them so you can talk deeper privately.  I guarantee you will change their life – or they might even change yours.

I think we underestimate how important our greater community is.  It very well can save the person standing right next to you.

3 Healthy Ways To Get Yourself Out Of That Damn Rut

It’s been more than a month since I wrote last.

For someone who typically writes each day and posts numerous times a week, this is not good.

Why so much time between posts you ask?  Well, it’s been quite a ride (or fall, shall I say) down and it’s taken me a while to find which way is up.  Things have gotten pretty difficult and I admit I have taken them to heart.

If you are like me you wear your heart on your sleeve.  (what the hell does that saying even mean… heart on sleeve, it’s just weird?)  Your emotions are at the center of your being, and you live and die by how “your world” is going at that current moment.  It’s a blessing and a curse – when things are going great you are a whip to be around, but when times get tough you just shut down.

I learned a lot about myself recently and hope I can work on how I operate during tough times going forward because for such a positive guy it sucks to find yourself so down, so stuck in a rut.

A tweet the other day struck me.  It said something to the extend of “only you can inflict and create your prison.  We are prisoners to our thoughts and emotions.  You have all the power in the world to change them and your circumstances.”  

It seemed more powerful when I read it but I think you get the point.  We are responsible for what we are thinking, feeling and how we react to the world around us.  We can get mad or just get up and get moving again.  It’s amazing how this realization gets lost in the craziness of the world, one which seems to be getting crazier by the month.  As we become overwhelmed with grief and frustration we often forget that it is us, ourselves, who actually create the response of stress and feelings of frustration.  Yes, something against your will or want might have happened in the world but it is actually your response to what just happen that results in negative feelings and emotions.  Extended for a period of time, this negative energy and emotion can build up and start to tear you apart inside.   It’s a crappy feeling for sure.

If you see where I am going you might notice I am starting to describe the first signs of depression.  Why am I talking about this on a blog meant for entrepreneurs and techies?  I touch on this because no matter who you are, if you are not careful you will find yourself tumbling down a path directly towards depression.

I recently identified these patterns in myself and here’s what I have done to keep me going and start my climb back to better places.

Identify something Centering to hold on to.

For some time my profession actually revolved around it but for my entire life  health and fitness has always been a cornerstone.  No matter my circumstances, I am committed to remain in top shape.  It centers me.  It allows me to go into a mode of top performance – against myself – toward overcoming challenges and achieving success.  Everyday.  Or a few times a week at least.  Doesn’t matter if it’s just a simple workout, it feels great to accomplish something as simple as physical exertion and intense movement.  I am not OCD about my physique, a bodybuilder or a crazy powerlifter.  I am just a healthy individual that uses health and fitness to gauge how I am doing internally.

Interestingly, internal health is directly reflected externally by our weight and body size.  I could have allowed stress to get the best of me, decided I was too busy or too lazy to continue staying active, and lost my edge.  I would have started to get pudgy and gain weight, requiring me to buy new clothes, spend more money and adding more frustration to my already over-stress-filled world.  The unfortunate reality of this would be I continue to lose confidence and the downward spiral would only accelerate… toward.. I don’t know what.

Knowing myself all too well, this reality would be devastating.  Health is not only a very important aspect of life, it is how I personally feel “energetic”, “confident”, “young” and “normal”.   It’s all I have known for my 30+ years of life.  I don’t want to lose those and maintaining a consistent commitment to exercise just 30 minutes, 3 times per week has kept me in solid shape and helped maintain what confidence I have left.

When you find yourself flailing around and losing control in your life, find what you can to hold on to and help keep you feeling “normal”.

Identify just one thing that needs to change

As a founder you give up a lot, but most likely you will give up financial stability to pursue your goals.  Not only is it frustrating, it can become very stressful and result in increasingly insurmountable challenges.  This is definitely what has happened to me and for a time there I did not know what was actually happening or what to do about it.  It feels something like the moment when one fire starts over here, another one starts over there and before you know it you are caught in a forest fire with no way out.  The one main fire started a rage of other fires that started to engulf my life.

The best thing to do is identify just one thing – presumably the biggest and most drastic fire in your life – and only worry about improving that one thing.  Figure out what needs to be done and how to go about making positive changes, then do it.  For me, it’s simply finding a way to support myself until my own company can.   Make a commitment to change the circumstance, no matter how difficult it might be.  Don’t worry about all the other distractions or issues, they will only get in the way of changing the ONE thing that needs to be changed.  It may seem like elementary advice but you will be surprised at how effective it is.  Once you have accomplished the task, now look toward the other challenging issues in your life and choose the next thing to improve.

Trust me, this approach is the only way out of impossible circumstances.

Remember what it was like to be a kid

I have spent more time than normal around my young nephews recently and I noticed something about children I admit I am extremely jealous over.   As you watch young children you will notice they will be laughing, smiling, playing, running, screaming, crying and back to laughing again – all in about five minutes time.  Although young kids cry too much for my liking, within five minutes they seem to forget what they were crying about and they go back to having a great time playing and laughing.  Young children are the most resilient human beings on the planet, intuitively understanding things always work out for the best.

I have no idea why but as adults we somehow lost this ability to look at the big picture and forget we were “devastated” just 5 minutes ago.

And this is a tragedy.  Realize there would not be such a thing as depression if we retained the same “short attention span” characteristic young children posses.

I urge you to go back to being a child inside, find things you can be truly excited about and enjoy the moment for what it is.  When something goes wrong, give it the respect it deserves for a short moment, and then forget about it.  Move on to the next shiny toy and smiling face.  Because with all the tragedies and crap happening in this world our own happiness is all we have, and it’s directly under your control.  Worrying about what happened 5 or 10 minutes ago only hurts yourself.

So that’s my Happy New Year go kick ass in 2013 speech.  It’s good to be back.