In the weeks leading up to the launch of Startups.com in 2012, I was coming off running 5 startups at the same time, 3 of them venture-funded (high stakes), on top of launching this one. I got married, had a child, lost my grandmother, moved across the country, and had nearly every major life event you could have happen — in less than 12 months.
On this specific day, I was at lunch with my co-workers and something about me just felt “off.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was feeling dizzy for no reason and my body felt like it wasn’t mine. After lunch, I hopped in my car and headed home to rest. While I was on the phone with my wife, driving on the highway, I said, “You know, I don’t feel right…” and as soon as I said that — my world went black. My heart had stopped beating.
Fun fact — when your heart stops beating, you’re basically dead. I had that bizarre momentary thought where you realize you’re about to die, where I said “Holy shit, this is how I die!” right as the lights went out.
Needless to say, I didn’t die, and in fact, I recovered in time to keep control of the car. But let me tell you, this isn’t something you need to experience twice in life to understand the impact of it. Before I knew it, I was in the ICU with doctors trying to figure out what happened to me. After a couple of days of review, it turned out that I had a severe panic attack.
Just Stuff Those Emotions Way, Way Down
Here’s how the doc put it to me. He said, “Here’s a list of all the major life events that tend to cause this level of reaction in a body. Check the boxes for any that apply to you.” I basically checked all of them, to which he responded, “We’d be having a conversation if you checked ONE of these. The fact that you checked all of them is exactly why you’re here.”
But that wasn’t the whole story. It wasn’t just that a lot of life events happened to me, it was that I didn’t feel comfortable processing them, which I’ve found to be a massive problem in the startup community. We push it all down, way down, where we never talk about it. We feel like all of those problems need to be shouldered by us, absorbed by us, and dealt with in our own convoluted self-therapy session.
Except it doesn’t work. We don’t process those emotions and we don’t ever purge them. They stack up inside us like plaque in our arteries (sometimes literally) until, whether we like it or not, they come back for us.
We Process or We Perish
There’s no version of being a Founder where we just keep doing everything right, drink from a firehose of personal validation, and just can’t stop high fiving life. That’s not how this works. We are constantly sprinting into the abyss making mistake after mistake, while the pressures of life just keep mounting.
Where we screw this all up is we keep thinking that there’s this alternate universe where we made all the right decisions, this process was flawless, and none of these horrible feelings ever existed. And so we take our “mistakes” as punishment, we push them deep down, and avoid processing them. That would be like falling off a ladder, breaking your leg, and avoiding the hospital because you say “I should never fall off ladders.”
If we don’t process this stuff, which often means talking about it out loud, it’s going to crush us. The single most destructive thing we can do with all of this is ignore it.
The Startup Community Needs to Change
I believe a lot of this has to start in the startup community, which is why I’m writing this. I think the narrative of this superhero Founder that just heroically smashes through every obstacle unscathed is total bullshit. I tried it, I was successful, and it nearly killed me. So that’s the best-case scenario.
Founders — we need to start opening up about what’s in our heads. We need to be brave and share what we’re so stressed about. We need to humanize this job because as it stands right now we’re buried in a fictitious narrative that applies to absolutely no one and is destroying everyone.
I think this responsibility extends beyond Founders to all of those people around them. I’m talking about investors who take very little concern into the well-being of their Founders, co-Founders who feel like it’s “not their place” to unpack these problems, and even employees who probably don’t realize their boss isn’t that “parental invincible action figure” they grew up with.
It doesn’t take much to change this. Ask a Founder how they are. And when they naturally defer, ask again — and again. Every moment we open someone up is one step closer to avoiding disaster. Take it from me.