The dark side of the entrepreneurial mind
Touched with Fire
Behind the glamorous startup grind is a menacing statistic — according to a study, a staggering 72% of entrepreneurs are affected by mental illnesses, compared to just 48% of non-entrepreneurs.
Tip of the Ice
For those who have started your own business, or even for those who haven’t, you can probably imagine it to be extremely stressful.
For starters, entrepreneurs often face setbacks while juggling between roles, struggling to make payroll for a business that has a high risk of failing (over 75% of venture-backed startups fail).
But it may be more than a stressful job that pushes some founders over the edge.
Let’s dive deeper.
1. The Dark Side of the Entrepreneurial Mind
Innovative, ambitious, motivated risk-taker…
Studies have shown that many “mission-critical entrepreneurial traits” that we admire could also be their nemesis. A lot of these traits often overlap with clinical features of bipolarity, depression, ADHD, and substance abuse — suggesting the possibility that many entrepreneurs share innate character traits that make them more susceptible to mental health conditions.
“People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to have strong emotional states,” — Michael A. Freeman, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in UCSF.
Those states may include depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.
Then, we immerse the same group of people into…
2. Startup Culture Toxicity
Ah, the startup hustle. The 24/7 grind we glorify.
Everyone is in an endless, brutal neck to neck battle where “you can sleep when you are dead”. Founders feel a constant need to be online and available to their partners, clients, investors and employees round the clock. Taking time off for themselves and going off the grid is a luxury or feels almost like a crime.
Such is the startup culture that is normalized and even celebrated.
A Man Riding a Lion
Complicating matters is what social psychiatrists call “impression management”, otherwise known as the “fake it till you make it” mentality.
Go on any startup conference, demo day, fireside chat, founder’s panel and you will find that everyone seems like they’ve got their sh*t together in the startup space.
Toby Thomas, the CEO of EnSite Solutions, explains the phenomenon with his favourite analogy: a man riding a lion. People look at the man on the lion and think “Wow, look at that brave man on the lion, in perfect domination and control over the beast.” While the man riding the lion is thinking “How the hell did I get myself in this situation, and how do I get off without being devoured alive?!”
This not only intensifies feelings of inferiority and depression for entrepreneurs comparing themselves to all these “lion riders”. Hiding emotional vulnerability (or vulnerability of any sort) in the startup culture also isolates entrepreneurs, causing them to feel as if they are alone in their struggle.
Crawling out of Darkness
We all know the saying “it’s lonely at the top” — but what little people realize is that the journey to the top is lonely too, and even worse right back down at the bottom.
“They are very successful people, very visible, very charismatic — yet they’ve struggled with this silently. There’s a sense that they can’t talk about it, that it’s a weakness or a shame or something. They feel like they’re hiding, which makes the whole thing worse.”
This was from Brad Feld, Managing Director of the Foundry Group, when describing how hundreds of entrepreneurs reached out to him on email in response to the blog he started on his episodes of depression.
“If you saw the list of names, it would surprise you a great deal,” said Feld.
Entrepreneurs have struggled silently with anxiety and despair — it’s time to change that.
Long way to go
Indeed, slowly but surely, the stigma around the topic of mental health is lifting and people are becoming aware — thanks to campaigns led by both the public and private sector, and advocates in various sectors coming out of silence to share their personal mental struggles.
In 2019, for instance, even in the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, major thought leaders such as the UK’s Prince William and John Flint, CEO of HSBC, among others, have come together to discuss Mental Health in a non-stigmatizing manner — that’ pretty big.
Mental Health — let’s talk about it!
One of the very first steps of getting better is to
Get yourself a support system.
Do not isolate yourself.
Talk to people about it.
Be it your family members, close friends, church group, a mental health professional, or fellow members in a mental health forum…not only will you realize that your sentiments are shared by A LOT more people than you might have previously thought, you will also gain insights from other people’s mental health journey, and maybe shed light on someone else’s too.
Stay tuned for “Entrepreneurs — Let’s Talk Mental Health: Part 2”, where we discuss when one should seek help, and explore the cure to mental health issues in the entrepreneurial space.