“He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” Chinese Proverb
It was with some dismay that I read of Austen Heinz’s suicide in an article that appeared on my Facebook feed. By all counts Heinz is a poster-boy for a malady that is affecting the start-up culture today. A brilliant but wayward entrepreneur, an out-of-the-box thinker and apparent free spirit whose demons overtook him. And no-one saw it coming.
As a clinical psychologist and co-founder of two ventures, I am no stranger to the stresses of the start-up ride. The more I read the article, the more it resonated. Heinz is the most recent casualty on a list of high flyers that includes Aaron Swartz (co-founder of Reddit), Jody Sherman and Ilya Zhitomirsky. I wondered just how much depression and anxiety is permeating the denizens the start-up nation.
We proudly trumpet our mega exits from the social media rooftops. But this wondrous clatter masks a difficult reality: most startups fail. Of course, we know this. We have become masters of the reframe. Failure is the nature of the beast, we say. We intellectualise it, glorify it in the form of ‘fast intelligent failure’ paths. In the face of obstacles, we project optimism. We greet dwindling credit lines and rejected prototypes with practiced smiles and plan Bs and Cs. “It’s darkest before the dawn” and “Fake it till you make it” holds sway.
These attitudes are laudable, and can often be the difference that sees a fragile project through its birth pangs. Much has been made of how the the unique set of circumstances faced by our start-up nation produces entrepreneurs, by combining mandatory military service which rewards creativity and resilience under pressure with the ambition of immigrant nations.
But what of the fear of failure, when we have investors to account to, staff to pay, the expectations of family and friends to meet? What of the human cost of being eaten by the voracious tiger that we find ourselves astride? And what of the cost of keeping on riding?
A recent study by Michael A Freeman in the USA reports alarmingly high levels of depression, anxiety and ADHD in the entrepreneur population, with close to 50% claiming a mental health condition. More troubling still, over 70% said there were mental health issues either with them or in their immediate families.
My guess is the numbers in Israel might be higher – there is the extra burden of a six day work week, reserve duty, and the stresses of living in this region, and I would welcome a link to any research. But even if not, the far greater proportion of the population involved in start-up initiatives suggests we might have a serious emotional health crisis on our hands.
Another valid question is that of the chicken versus the egg: does founding a company provoke depression and anxiety, or is the rags to riches mythology around the industry which draws in people who already skirt the edges of inconsistent healthy functioning?
Most importantly how can we help?
The first order of business is confronting the taboo. As a response to these breakdowns in the industry, Sean Percival, Ben Huh and Brad Feld have blogged about their own inner struggles to overwhelming email response. As Huh says, the problem is often not access to resources, but that asking for help is so at odds with the notion of the CEO as a tough male. This macho mentality is especially pronounced in Israeli society.
Next, no matter how much one might wish to offload, we will never do so if it means we lose investors to the competition. By actively breaking the pact of silence leaders can normalise talking about the struggle which everyone knows everyone else is going through.
Veterans of the industry are also in a position to step in and provide beginners with the benefit of their experience. Newbies should expect things to get tough, and when they do, the old guard should be reached out to as mentors. Newbies are likely to fail, and this does not mean that they are failures. All too often, dedicated and overzealous youngsters conflate the money value of their companies with their sense of their own personal worth.
Also peer to peer networks are being spawned to offer troubled leaders free or affordable access to emotional support.
Finally, we need formula for leadership that rewards self-discovery. Here’s one I like from Jerry Colonna: Effective innovation = practical skills plus radical self-inquiry.
A hallmark of responsible leadership is to explore our vulnerabilities, the better to recognise our strengths and blind spots. The friends and clients I have that have been game-changers in their respective fields, who understand the benefit of exploring their foibles and hang-ups ultimately work more efficiently.
Whatever the answers to this largely hidden syndrome, we should be shining our collective entrepreneurial flashlight on addressing it. So that unlike what happened to Austen Heinz, we see the next one coming.
*This article owes a debt to this excellent piece