I hope this post will save some lives.
With some regularity I read articles about some amiable, accomplished and brilliant young kid that decides to end their life in the start-up scene. Invariably they’ve managed to come a very long way along some perceived curve of success and then there is a snag. Either they plateau in their growth, the start-up tanks or there is some other hiccup that causes trouble.
To someone who isn’t suffering from depression such things can be quite devastating. Investing a significant portion of your person (your ‘ego’), of your alloted time on this pale blue dot, investing a large amount of savings or even other people’s capital (family perhaps), and then losing a large chunk of it - or even all of it - is harsh. It’s so harsh that those that fail in their endeavour typically need a long time to recharge to try again, if they ever try at all.
But when you are prone to depression chances are that you will find yourself in the kind of funk the likes of which you’ve never seen, and which you may find too much to deal with. Start-ups are - for want of a better word - an extension of their founders. If a start-up fails, then to some degree it may feel like you yourself have failed, even if that is absolutely not the case. This is the kind of introspection that can be really difficult to deal with. The more you’re associating yourself with the company that you’ve founded, the more money you took from friends, family and investors, the more in the public eye your company is, the more you will pressured to succeed. And then if your company should fail or even simply plateau the pressure can become overwhelming - even if at a rational level you know that such failure is actually to be expected, and that there is no shame at all in this failure.
It is precisely because of this that you should avoid (co-)founding a start-up like the plague if you are depression-prone.
I can name off the top of my head five people all in their twenties or early thirties that ended up taking their own life because they found themselves at the focal point of simultaneous significant negative forces related to the ideas they were executing on. There are many more similar cases, I just don’t remember their names because I’ve had no interaction with them, and I’m not elaborating on these five because that will re-open old wounds. Rationally they did not have a single good reason between them to end things that way. They left huge gaping holes, a tremendous amount of grief and shocked surroundings behind. In some cases nobody ever even suspected that they took their troubles so seriously (or even that there was trouble), keeping up outward appearances of being cheerful and happy, right up to the moment when they took their lives.
If you’re prone to depression and you are in a start-up as a (co-)founder or if you are considering starting a start-up please, please, please don’t do it. Please get out in an orderly fashion if you’re already on-board, please don’t even think of starting a start-up if you feel that this applies to you.
Please get yourself a great job at some stable company, a research position somewhere, or any one of a great multitude of ways in which you can succeed in life and have impact - without being subjected to the stresses that start-up life will inevitably bring. And please get help to deal with your depression (these things are never easy, and never simple). But for the love of $DEITY don’t get into start-ups as a founder, and if you’re in right now get out while the getting out is good. Only you know your little secret, only you have the means to chart your future paths. Purposefully, maybe even defiantly going exactly where you shouldn’t be will only lead to trouble for all involved.
I’ve had just about all I can take of young and brilliant people ending their lives because they couldn’t cope with some perceived failure. Failure is the norm in start-up land, and that means that you have to have the mental disposition that shrugs off failure and treats it like just another step on the way to success. That’s not an optional item, or a nice to have, it is essential, a must have.
For some reason start-ups are a magnet for people that suffer from depression. As though by going up the Eiffel tower it will magically make your fear of heights go away, maybe to harden yourself against it. But start-ups are nothing at all like the Eiffel tower, standing there, serenely still while you practice your mastery by going up the stairs one at a time. Start-ups are more like rodeo rides, doing their damndest not to give you a thrill ride, but to rough you up and spit you out. Do not place yourself knowingly in positions or situations where you will have to deal with extreme stress if you know that you find it hard to deal with extreme stress!
Start-ups are not a place to get therapy, or to learn to deal with (perceived) failure if you’re prone to depression. The failure rate of start-ups being what it is, if you are suffering from depression or if failure is not your thing then start-ups are the very last place that you should be. Start-ups tend to focus a lot of energy - sometimes extremely negative, but even success is extremely stressful - on the individuals running them. And if you don’t have a natural disposition to stand at the nexus of something like that without burning up like a fuse that has to conduct too much current then you shouldn’t be there in the first place. The end result is all too predictable.
No start-up is worth a life, especially not yours.