Successful entrepreneurs achieve hero status in our culture. We idolize the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Elon Musks. And we celebrate the blazingly fast growth of the Inc. 500 companies. But many of those entrepreneurs, harbor secret demons: Before they made it big, they struggled through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair–times when it seemed everything might crumble.
Until recently, admitting such sentiments was taboo. Rather than showing vulnerability, business leaders have practiced what social psychiatrists call impression management–also known as “fake it till you make it.” Toby Thomas, CEO of EnSite Solutions (No. 188 on the Inc. 500), explains the phenomenon with his favorite analogy: a man riding a lion. “People look at him and think, This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” says Thomas. “And the man riding the lion is thinking, How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”
Not everyone who walks through darkness makes it out. In January, well-known founder Jody Sherman, 47, of the e-commerce site Ecomom took his own life. His death shook the start-up community. It also reignited a discussion about entrepreneurship and mental health that began two years earlier after the suicide of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old co-founder of Diaspora, a social networking site.
Lately, more entrepreneurs have begun speaking out about their internal struggles in an attempt to combat the stigma on depression and anxiety that makes it hard for sufferers to seek help. In a deeply personal post called “When Death Feels Like a Good Option,” Ben Huh, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network humor websites, wrote about his suicidal thoughts following a failed startup in 2001. Sean Percival, a former MySpace vice president and co-founder of the children’s clothing startup Wittlebee, penned a piece called “When It’s Not All Good, Ask for Help” on his website. “I was to the edge and back a few times this past year with my business and own depression,” he wrote. “If you’re about to lose it, please contact me.” (Percival now urges distressed entrepreneurs to seek professional help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you run a business, that probably all sounds familiar. It’s a stressful job that can create emotional turbulence. For starters, there’s the high risk of failure. Three out of four venture-backed startups fail, according to research by Shikhar Ghosh, a Harvard Business School lecturer. Ghosh also found that more than 95 percent of startups fall short of their initial projections.
Entrepreneurs often juggle many roles and face countless setbacks–lost customers, disputes with partners, increased competition, staffing problems–all while struggling to make payroll. “There are traumatic events all the way along the line,” says psychiatrist and former entrepreneur Michael A. Freeman, who is researching mental health and entrepreneurship.
Complicating matters, new entrepreneurs often make themselves less resilient by neglecting their health. They eat too much or too little. They don’t get enough sleep. They fail to exercise. “You can get into a startup mode, where you push yourself and abuse your body,” Freeman says. “That can trigger mood vulnerability.”
So it should come as little surprise that entrepreneurs experience more anxiety than employees. In the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, 34 percent of entrepreneurs–4 percentage points more than other workers–reported they were worried. And 45 percent of entrepreneurs said they were stressed, 3 percentage points more than other workers.
But it may be more than a stressful job that pushes some founders over the edge. According to researchers, many entrepreneurs share innate character traits that make them more vulnerable to mood swings. “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,” says Freeman. Those states may include depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.
Call it the downside of being up. The same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are “vulnerable to the dark side of obsession,” suggest researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. They conducted interviews with founders for a study about entrepreneurial passion. The researchers found that many subjects displayed signs of clinical obsession, including strong feelings of distress and anxiety, which have “the potential to lead to impaired functioning,” they wrote in a paper published in the Entrepreneurship Research Journal in April.
Though launching a company will always be a wild ride, full of ups and downs, there are things entrepreneurs can do to help keep their lives from spiraling out of control, say experts. Most important, make time for your loved ones, suggests Freeman. “Don’t let your business squeeze out your connections with human beings,” he says. When it comes to fighting off depression, relationships with friends and family can be powerful weapons. And don’t be afraid to ask for help–see a mental health professional if you are experiencing symptoms of significant anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, or depression.
Freeman also advises that entrepreneurs limit their financial exposure. When it comes to assessing risk, entrepreneurs’ blind spots are often big enough to drive a Mack truck through, he says. The consequences can rock not only your bank account but also your stress levels. So set a limit for how much of your own money you’re prepared to invest. And don’t let friends and family kick in more than they can afford to lose.
Cardiovascular exercise, a healthful diet, and adequate sleep all help, too. So does cultivating an identity apart from your company. “Build a life centered on the belief that self-worth is not the same as net worth,” says Freeman. “Other dimensions of your life should be part of your identity.” Whether you’re raising a family, sitting on the board of a local charity, building model rockets in the backyard, or going swing dancing on weekends, it’s important to feel successful in areas unrelated to work.
The ability to reframe failure and loss can also help leaders maintain good mental health. “Instead of telling yourself, ‘I failed, the business failed, I’m a loser,’ ” says Freeman, “look at the data from a different perspective: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Life is a constant process of trial and error. Don’t exaggerate the experience.”
Last, be open about your feelings–don’t mask your emotions, even at the office, suggests Brad Feld. When you are willing to be emotionally honest, he says, you can connect more deeply with the people around you. “When you deny yourself and you deny what you’re about, people can see through that,” says Feld. “Willingness to be vulnerable is very powerful for a leader.”