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Staying Sane in Silicon Valley: Stress and Depression as a CEO

I am a tech CEO, and this is how I’ve managed my mental health.

30% of all entrepreneurs experience depression, according to a study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

In May 2015, 31 year old Austen Heinz, CEO of Cambrian Genomics took his own life. In July, 29 year old Faigy Mayer, CEO of Appton jumped off a New York rooftop. 26 year old Aaron Schwartz, a partner at Reddit, hung himself in 2013. 47 year old Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom shot himself that year. One of his colleagues, 24 year old Ovik Banerjee, followed a year later. And 22 year old Ilya Zhitomirskiy, CEO of Diaspora, took his life in 2011.

 

There is a quiet epidemic called depression that is not talked about enough in the startup world. Entrepreneurs like myself are constantly pressured to put up a strong front and suppress their fear, their stress, their feelings. We share the infamous “I’m fine,” or “everything is good” after our friends ask how we are doing.

I started and currently lead a company called TINT, which has grown to almost 40 people in less than 3 years with some amazing customers. We are essentially bootstrapped and this is my first company I started right after college. I am 25 years old.

I get asked a lot how I run a company so calmly, or how I have the patience to deal with the stress. Frankly, I don’t always handle it as well as it may seem. Some days have been really, really hard. But through trial and error, I’ve gotten better at it.

I’ve dealt with the insurmountable stress of building a company by diligently taking care of my mental health — something that is often overlooked by aspiring CEOs. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can assure other entrepreneurs out there that 1) you are not alone, 2) it sucks, I know, and 3) there are simple ways I’ve practiced to help take control of your mental health. I will give it to you straight with no bullshit.

The Typical Founder

It’s a strange thing, because everyone knows that, under the shroud of positive posturing, every startup and every founder is struggling or has struggled, but we’re only supposed to talk about what’s going right.

 -Rand Fishkin

tim

When I studied entrepreneurship in college, no one told me I was going to face mental breakdowns. When I listened to CEOs talk about their journey, many left out the days they felt depressed, which made it seem that success was overnight and inevitable. Who likes to talk about their dark days? We’re taught to share the “we’re crushing it” story. I was naive, had my eyes on the prize (fame, successful exit, cushy bank account), and told myself I wouldn’t let anything stand in the way.

So when I started working on TINT I worked 18 hours a day and on weekends. I skipped out on friend gatherings, I rarely exercised, I ate nothing healthy, rarely socialized with old and new friends, went to bed at 3 am and woke up at 12 pm, and was always on my phone checking emails. I lived this archetype of the startup founder for 2 years.

At first I glorified myself and my extreme schedule — working crazy hours was a status symbol, putting me in the same group with other founders I had read about on TechCrunch. But it only lasted so long before I was burnt out. After 2 years of this depressing routine, I felt suffocated with no understanding of how to snap out of it except to keep going (which only exacerbated it). I had a short temper with my significant other, my employees, my friends, and my family. My creativity level diminished significantly. I could barely go a day without feeling frustrated at myself and those around me. If anyone asked me what was wrong, I replied,  “Nothing, I am fine.” I avoided people, wanted to be alone, and felt guilty whenever I was not working. I felt trapped.

Expectations vs. Reality

expectations

How did I get into that mentality? Expectations and naivety. Expectations from my single mother, older siblings, best friends, significant others, investors, mentors, and anyone else who I thought was scrutinizing me. They all thought I was going to be the next amazing startup founder, and while I sincerely appreciated their support, it created this subconscious expectation that started to drown me.

It was not until 2 years into this startup journey, that I understood my reality: I am not perfect and there are just some things I can never control. I will fail so many times I won’t be able count them all, but I am not a failure.

And that was the first huge step in shifting my mentality to something that was more healthy and less stressful. It started to minimize those glamorous, unachievable expectations into something more manageable because they were MY achievable expectations. I focused on just being a little smarter than yesterday and giving my most optimistic energy towards challenges.

entrepreneur

If you can accept this like I have, you start to enjoy your startup journey with a more self-fulfilling purpose: the journey itself with the right companions. You start to understand that everyone will end up in a box when they die, so you might as well enjoy the adventure along the way because it’s the memories we experience that will matter in the end. So much of success is the crossroads of opportunity and luck, completely out of your control. So accept what you can control and make the most fun out of it!

This fundamental mental shift can help impact your mental health in a much more positive way.

Tactics to manage your mental health

If the above is still too abstract or just plain nonsense, here are other ways I’ve found that help me manage my mental health.

1) Exercise the body

Seriously. There is scientific proof that exercising your body will help minimize stress and depression levels. I challenge myself to at least 1 hour a day of exercise, either at the gym, playing volleyball, biking, or a 15 minute walk around the park. If you were like me when I first started TINT, and you believe exercising won’t be as “effective” as hammering out emails, you’re wrong. Taking care of your body will ease your mind so that you can be that much more creative or efficient in your tasks.

2) Exercise the Mind

Your brain acts just like a muscle, and needs exercise. The two ways I exercise my mind is through meditation and reading.

I now meditate 15 minutes a day — I used the meditation app Headspace to help me develop my practice. You might fall asleep the first few times– that’s normal. After you get through the learning curve, you will see how much it can calm your racing mind to be the most effective it can be. Sometimes, I’ll listen to guided meditations on the bus, or relaxing peaceful music during work. It works wonders.

3) Accepting “everything happens for a reason”

My tattoo inked on my right inner forearm.

This is one of the most challenging concepts I have accepted and even inked on my body. It has become my personal mantra. If you believe this like I do, it can be one of the most powerful ways to deal with your mental health. We hear about startup unicorns all over the news, and feel a sense of FOMO if we’re not the next unicorn. But if you can truly accept that everything does happen for a reason, and be OK that your growth trajectory is not as fast as ‘Silicon Valley’ fairytales, you will see yourself that much more focused on what you can control. I would recommend reading Basecamps’ DH writing on ‘Reconsider’ and Kickstarter’s Yancy writing on ‘Resist and Thrive.

4) Volunteer in your Community

Startup people work 80 hours a week, I get it. But if you want a great way to remind yourself how fortunate you are, surround yourself with those who are less fortunate by volunteering. Recently, I have offered a couple hours of my week to mentor low-income youth and assist in pet shelters. I used to believe it was not worth my time from a business point of view, since I could be generating more value in my startup with those hours. But volunteering has allowed me to be more effective day-to-day at work because I come in with a more grateful attitude. I realize the problems I have are minimal compared to what the world deals with. When you put things into that sort of perspective, you’ll be able to reduce your stress tenfold.

5) Take a Break

vacay

I am NOT the best at this whatsoever, so I’m not going to preach it like I am. With encouragement from my teammates, I am trying to get better at taking a break. I have taken a vacation once a year with the founders at Buffer on secluded islands to just relax the mind. No drinking, no smoking, no partying, just meditating and having intellectually stimulating conversations. Here’s a challenge for you startup founders: put a picture of your next vacation destination and use that as motivation to build the processes and foundations so you can decrease your bus factor and leave for vacation for a month, knowing your team will thrive without you. This actually makes for a healthier company as well as a healthier you.

6) Talk to other CEOs

This is one of the more enjoyable methods I have practiced to deal with mental stress. Many times that I am stressed, it’s because I feel lost and alone. Speaking with other founders and CEOs has allow me to understand that I am not alone, and I’m often surprised by how much we have in common, in terms of the challenges we’ve faced.

Questions I ask when I meet with other CEOs:

1) What’s keeping you up at night? 2) How do you relax/destress? 3) What was the most stressful time in company’s history? 4) Are there other CEOs you talk with to bounce ideas off? 5) What are inspirational books that you have recently read?

7) Visit a Psychologist

I have not done this as much, but the few times that I have, it was mind-opening. There is a negative stereotype that if you visit a psychologist, you are mentally unstable. I decided to visit one, and now recommend others to, because as a CEO, you’re constantly listening to other people’s problems and helping them solve them. As a CEO, I sometimes need to keep things to myself to so I don’t unnecessarily scare my team, board, investors, family members, etc. Sometimes you just need a safe zone to vent and have an objective 3rd party observer listening with absolutely zero judgment.

8) Check in with your teammates.

In addition to talking with a psychologist, I’ve added a mental health check-in with my two co-founders at our weekly co-founder meeting. We make sure to share our struggles, stressors, and our wins. Since our minutes from these meetings are shared with the whole company, I hope this sends a signal to our whole team that it’s ok to talk about your mental health, and check in with each other.

With Open Arms

This took me some time to write because I wanted to show my genuine interest in helping others who are facing challenges with mental health in the startup world. I have, and I wish it upon no one. That being said, I do want to offer some time to you if you resonate with the above and need some advice. Or even if felt like this was helpful, tweet at me or connect with me. If you want to email me, you can find it with this tactic (trying to avoid spammers bombarding my inbox). I just ask you to be considerate and reasonable with your ask as I am not a professional in this matter.

I hope you found this meaningful and impactful, and I want to leave you with this quote:

Finally: Realize that you’re not alone. Everybody is struggling, whether you see it or not. Everybody is fighting demons of their own making, the only difference is that some of them hide it better than others. If you look hard enough, or if you talk long enough, you’ll see it too. Everybody is doing the best they think they can. They really are, but they’re imperfect too. This was maybe the hardest truth for me to internalize.

Armando Biondi

 

Resources to help you realize you’re not alone in the mental challenges:

There’s a dark side to startups, and it haunts 30% of the world’s most brilliant people

Work Hard, Live Well

Depression Among Entrepreneurs is an Epidemic Nobody is Talking About

Startup CEO: The Loneliest Job in the World?

This is scary for me to share… but maybe, hopefully, it will help you

What does it feel like being the CEO of a startup?

-@timsaekoo

CEO, TINT

Comments
  1. This was a very heart warming and eye opening disclosure by a very wise and sensitive man and CEO. We are all falling prey to mental dysfunction induced by our glamorous but less than natural lifestyles and work cultures. Would love to hear more thoughts about this and a chance to engage personally with you on this topic if it could be ..

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