If you ask a startup founder how they’re doing, chances are, they’ll say, “Great!”
Founder are incentivized to project an image of confidence and security. Succeeding as a startup means getting the world — investors, customers, competitors, etc. — to believe in you and your idea. Being frank about your insecurities and weaknesses seems counter to that purpose.
Whether or not they admit it publicly, behind the scenes, most founders deal with depression.
I’m no exception.
As a founder, I carry a lot of weight. I’m always thinking about my co-founders, employees, investors, customers, friends, family — a lot of people to keep happy, or risk disappointing. When I think about the size of it all, I naturally start to think of my company as a life-or-death proposition.
The truth is: A startup isn’t life-and-death. It’s just work. But getting to that emotionally serene, bird’s-eye view of my situation has taken a long time.
Here are 4 practices I’ve developed — out of sheer necessity — to help me manage founder depression.
1. Meditation. Founder life is inherently chaotic. Without meditation, you never get a chance to see it clearly. There’s physiological evidence behind this: There’s “a special neural network in the brain that only comes ‘online’…when we do nothing,” according to Polish writer Olga Mecking.
I’ve found the same. Meditating basically lets me debug my brain — see my thoughts for what they are, understand which are helping and which aren’t.
If you’re new to meditating, I recommend total immersion. Try 60 minutes a day for 30 consecutive days. Don’t use any apps or guidance (though you can use noise-canceling headphones and a blindfold if they help). Meditation isn’t about not thinking, it’s about learning to observe your thoughts as they arise.
2. Journaling. You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are the products of your condition: Healthiness yields positive thoughts, depression yields negative thoughts. But especially when things go negative, it’s easy to attach too much meaning to the thoughts in your head.
Journaling lets you get thoughts out of your head and see them for what they are. Usually, when you write down a negative thought, you see that that’s all it is — a sentence on a page, not a verdict on your value as a person.
3. Ketamine therapy. A lot of people think of ketamine as a party drug. What they may not realize is that ketamine has been legal for medical use since the 1960s. Licensed therapists can administer it according to regulated guidelines.
I can personally attest to ketamine’s therapeutic powers. It separates you from your reality in a way that lets you assess it objectively. It lets you see your thoughts as if they’re not yours, so you don’t have emotional attachment to each one. It has boosted my creativity, sense of purpose, gratitude, empathy, and connection to the people around me. (I highly recommend Mindbloom, and no, I’m not getting paid to recommend them.)
4. Mortality awareness. Many view the work of life as a way to distract ourselves from mortality. I actually find that embracing mortality, facing it head-on, has allowed me to savor life more deeply.
It lets me treat my work with greater urgency. It grows my gratitude for life while I have it. It encourages me to focus only on what truly matters, and to not get swept up in meaningless pursuits.
After adopting all these practices, I’ve come to view depression in an entirely different light — a positive light. Depression is a too-heavy dose of a feeling that, at the right dosage, and when channeled properly, can be a force for good. For founders, depression can prompt you to take stock of your company (and your body) and see what needs attention.
But it needs the right kind of care — things like play, inactivity, non-work. Harder work may help with things like fundraising, but it’s not the cure for depression. To understand depression for what it is, you have to give it space to breathe.