Almost every impact entrepreneur I know has experienced significant depression or anxiety over some stretch of their journey. I have a few simple recommendations for anyone going through this. Funders of impact entrepreneurs have a enlightened self-interest to offer long term mental health resources to the people in whom they invest.
I got a nice response for the previous post on The Long Startup. A number of people got in touch to share their own experiences and add a few things to the list. Some people talked about raising money. Some people talked about recruiting. Some people talked about working with government. But every single one of them talked about depression, anxiety and the effect this work has had on their mental health. And most of them thought they were the only person going through it.
I don’t know why this was so surprising to me. People are finally talking about depression in mainstream entrepreneurship. I can’t be the only person who reads Brad Feld’s blog specifically for the posts on depression. You should go read them. As an admirer of Brad Feld’s, I would offer that impact entrepreneurship is like regular entrepreneurship only it takes much longer, there are fewer examples you can refer to and in most cases you don’t get to dream about being rich at the end. Another thing I have been reading about lately is Imposter Syndrome, which is when a high achieving person lives with constant anxiety that they will be found out as undeserving of their achievements. Anecdotally, Imposter Syndrome seems to effect women, highly educated people and creative people disproportionately. Guess what group of people is disproportionately educated, creative women? Yep, impact entrepreneurship. For what it’s worth, almost every man I know has experienced it too. I literally jumped for joy when someone gave me a term to describe how I had felt my entire life.
Thanks to the Brad Felds and Sheryl Sandbergs of the world, there are now plenty of places you can go to read about the mental health challenges of being an entrepreneur or being a person trying to balance career goals with other life goals. I won’t restate them here. I would point out that impact entrepreneurs face these same challenges with a few added wrinkles:
- Impact startups can take many, many years in the “I don’t know if this is going to work” or “Who here needs to get paid next week” phase. Living with this kind of stress for years on end can be toxic.
- Impact entrepreneurs have a higher level of responsibility for other stakeholders. If you fuck up, you’re not letting down a procurement manager at Intel. You’re letting down a kid who needs to go to pre-school or a farmer who can is working to support his or her family.
- For 95% of impact entrepreneurs, there’s no massive exit to dream about, no “I’ll live like this for 3 years and then I’ll cash out and retire.” For most, your reward for staying in business is that you get to keep doing this. Forever.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I self-medicated until I was almost 30, and it had a pretty toxic effect on my work and my relationships with other people. Since then, I have managed by being mindful of my own mental health, being aware of my natural cycles and the situations that either fill up or draw down my emotional reservoir, but it’s definitely a work in progress. There is a longer story that explains why I am blogging to you from an office above a beer store across the street from my kids’ school, but we don’t know each other well enough for that yet. I am not a professional (Note: If you are in trouble, go see a professional. Please.) but I have my own tips and strategies that I share with anyone who asks. As importantly, since I have become more comfortable talking about my own challenges, people have been more inclined to share theirs with me, and any time someone shares something useful with me, I file it away in my “Hey, I should tell other people” file. Here are a few:
Reject counterfactual thinking - At their darkest moments, the top two laments of impact entrepreneurs are:
- “Maybe I am doing this all wrong”
- “I worry that that this whole thing was a waste of time”
When I used to work in large organizations and have my own attacks of Imposter Syndrome - when I was sure that I would be found out and fired at any minute - the best thing I could do was compare myself directly to my peers, about half of whom were mouth-breathing jackasses. (Just kidding person reading this blog I used to work with!) That would calm me right down. The problem with being an entrepreneur is that you don’t have peers to compare yourself to, and you will always be lacking in comparison to your idealized self.
Find a Peer Group - One of the most helpful things for a person going through a rough patch is just to know that their situation is not unique. Unfortunately, a lot of impact entrepreneurs are isolated from anyone who shares their experience. Find at least three people who are in the same boat as you, preferably in a completely different area. Talk to them at least once month. You will likely find that being helpful to these other people is its own reward.
Find a Mentor - Find someone who has done something similar to what you are trying. Find someone you can speak honestly to about how you are doing. Talk to them at least once quarter. By the way, your investor is not your mentor. You need to reserve the right to shine them on occasionally.
Talk to a Professional - Like I said, I am not a professional. If you are having real trouble, don’t read my dopey blog. Go talk to someone who knows what they are talking about.
Don’t Sacrifice Too Much - A mentor of mine, someone who has founded two different successful social impact companies, said something pretty profound to me a few weeks ago. “Now that I know how it turned out, I'm glad I did it, but I am also glad I didn't sacrifice anything important to get here.” We’re talking about social changes that happen on a decadal scale, and a lot of the things we try don’t work out. Pay attention to your family and your friends. Have a good time. Take care of your health. After all, you’re going to be doing this job for a long time, and who knows how it will work out. Be happy while you’re doing it.
One big idea for funders: Fund mental health services for your portfolio
When I was at the Lemelson Foundation, we funded a great organization called Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation. LMPBF provides pro bono connections for impact entrepreneurs to attorneys around the world with specialized legal expertise. A entrepreneur can call LMPBF, describe the issue they are facing, and they are connected with someone who will help them. We figured, correctly I think, that having access to good advice on patents and contracts greatly enhanced the odds of success for the social impact inventors that Lemelson supports. It was kind of a no brainer.
Well, I think foundations and investors who support impact entrepreneurs have a similar opportunity in front of them. You are encouraging young people to embark on a career path that promises great personal (and sometimes material) rewards but that also promises a decade or more of the kind of mental health issues mentioned above. One could argue that these funders have a moral responsibility to provide long term mental health resources to their entrepreneurs, but I think there is an even clearer argument that a relatively small amount of money spent on things like peer leadership, mentorship and access to mental health professionals protects their investment. It seems like another no brainer to me.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on mental health, in honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month. Be nice to yourself. Be of service to other people. Call me if you need something.
And laugh as much as you can.