Three years ago, I received news that an entrepreneur friend of mine had taken his own life.
As it is with most suicides, the initial response was shock… It just didn’t add up.
From the outside, things seemed to be going fairly well. He always looked sharp and broadcasted a general energy of optimism. And on the business side, he wasn’t in any trouble, or failing, or headed toward financial ruin.
Since then, I noticed an obvious trend emerging. The same thing has happened four more times with other entrepreneurial acquaintances. And as I brought this issue up with people, I came to discover that I’m not alone in seeing this.
Many of the high-level entrepreneurs I talk to have at least one story about a friend, or someone they know, who took their own life after some years in business. If you’re not an entrepreneur, you would have already seen plenty of names for yourself in the mainstream.
Kate Spade hung herself at 55 years old. Aaron Swartz (partner of Reddit) did the same at the age of 26. Same with Austen Heinz (founder and CEO of Cambrian Genomics) at 32. Anthony Bourdain at 61. The list goes on.
This shit isn’t new. The facts show that entrepreneurs experience dramatically higher rates of psychiatric disorders like ADD and bipolar. The risk for depression and addiction are anywhere from double to triple the average population.
As an entrepreneur who has watched and lived this struggle countless times, I want to share my thoughts on why I think we’re seeing this pattern, and what we can do about it, so you can help yourself or someone you know who has been wrestling with burnout.
Many entrepreneurs are noticing these symptoms but are still not even fully aware of why they’re feeling so messed up. Once you understand some of the many factors contributing to the issue, you can start to recognize them in your own life, and then you’ll know where to focus on making changes.
Here are some common reasons why entrepreneurs struggle:
– Entrepreneurs face frequent isolation. Often working on creative vision and strategy on their own, entrepreneurs spend a lot of time alone. Even if they’re surrounded by people, they may still feel alone. Because as they become more successful in business, it’s common to find there are less people they can relate to or confide in. Genuine interactions and true friendships, which go deeper than business and strategic transactions, are few and far between.
– Entrepreneurs live outside of society’s default mode. With all the opportunity that opens when you step outside the norm and forge your own path, the challenges are just as big. Entrepreneurship might seem glamorous and exciting to some, but it can be an incredibly emotionally and mentally volatile life (especially if it’s not being managed properly.)
The once ordered and routine world becomes the wild West, which is part of the initial thrill. You’re living outside the domestic rules and structure. You make your own schedule. You’re making most of it up as you go along. But that means there are few reference points to stabilize and reassure you along the way, keeping you from falling into a sense of spiritual vertigo. At times, you feel like you’re out to sea, overwhelmed, crazy, and surely about to drown.
– Personality. People who become entrepreneurs tend to be restless, creative, impulsive, autonomous types, with big stockpiles of energy. There’s something in their makeup that has them predisposed for going all-out and enjoying risks. While this is one of their strengths, all of that intense, erratic energy is directed back onto themselves when things go sideways.
– Entrepreneurs constantly deal with failure and rejection. Nobody sees the litany of losses and crushing moments behind people who achieve significant success, in the capitalist sense. There is an insane level of stamina that’s required to make it through the inevitable gauntlet of “No’s”, competition, flops, failed launches, and near-fatal flaws, then trying to recover before doing it all over again. Without the right emotional support and physical self-care, it won’t be long before they feel like there’s no way out of this gruelling cycle, which cause some people to break.
– Entrepreneurs often feel trapped (in a cage that they built for themselves). When you have been chasing a sense of freedom for so long, suddenly feeling like you are locked in a prison of your own design can be utterly defeating. Many entrepreneurs skipped higher education to triple down on themselves and their ideas. If that path they prized starts to feel like a trap, it can trigger an internal collapse. They may feel like there are no alternatives, or that their life was one giant mistake.
– Losing their identity. Because entrepreneurs tend to throw themselves into things so deeply, their identity merges with the business. There are no boundaries on work hours. Their personal value is tied to their business’ value. The same goes with their sense of success. One day (especially if there was a sudden value shift) they may wake up and feel like they don’t even know who they are, or how they can carry on.
– Entrepreneurs can often be subject to vicious public scrutiny. If an entrepreneur is in a certain sector, or hits a certain level of success, they will begin to get media attention. Once you’re in that spotlight, one wrong word or simple misunderstanding can have you torn to pieces on the national stage. Watching your reputation get publicly slandered is devastating.
This isn’t much different from what celebrities experience, like musicians, actors, or politicians, but it’s something that most entrepreneurs simply aren’t equipped for. They likely never expected it, and they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with it on top of the already massive mountain of stress.
– Neglecting the body’s basic needs. While obsessing over the business, it’s very easy to skip meals, workouts, rest, and have little to no downtime. With no end to the workload, no one to call breaks, and all the pressure on their shoulders, they can go the whole day drinking multiple cups of coffee and then getting very little sleep. All the while never drinking enough water, or getting enough nutrients to hold their bodies and mental health together.
– Carrying the weight of excessive responsibility. Especially once other people get involved in the company (investors, shareholders, employees) and the initial excitement and drive wanes, it can suddenly dawn on them just how many lives are hanging in the balance of them being able hold this whole thing together. Their families. Their livelihoods. That right there is enough to make most people snap (even risk tolerant entrepreneurs).
Entrepreneurs Need To Update Their Core Values
Here’s the main thing I really want to talk about. And it’s the least considered problem for entrepreneurs, which is:
Not switching out the core value that’s driving them forward.
For example, your initial fuel source for success might be: gaining freedom, or making money, or proving your father wrong about you. And that might work for a while, but eventually you need to swap out that fuel source for something better. Just like a professional boxer who is fighting solely off of anger – it can only last you so many rounds before you gas out, or implode.
Once that first batch of steam wears off, or you finally wake up to just how shallow that core motivating factor has been, it can turn your life upside down. Causing you to question everything, lose motivation, feel like a fool and berate yourself, or think your entire life is a sham. It’s a full-on life crisis.
But this is meant to be a good thing.
Turbulence and questioning are supposed to be one step in a bigger evolutionary process. It’s okay to change your values. And it’s okay to be driven by some small-time egotistical bullshit once in a while. That doesn’t mean that the trails you blazed during that time are meaningless, or not worth continuing.
We’re all drawn down certain paths for deeper reasons we don’t fully understand. If you’ve hit the point where you can recognize you’re lacking some more durable core values – great! The opportunity to shed, refine, and transform should be exciting. Now you can intentionally review and update your value system.
Push Vs Pull: Two Kinds of Fuel
“Push” values are in effect when you’re pushing away from something (ex. poverty, feeling worthless, anger toward parents, etc.).
When starting out, we’re usually propelled by this internal mechanism of pushing. Some people live their entire lives at this level. Others (through awareness) choose to evolve to the next stage.
Eventually, for both your success and sanity, you need to start being pulled towards something greater (ex. love, impact, contribution, service, alleviating suffering, etc.).
This gives you much more sustainable energy to work with. Your motivating purpose and cause are now much bigger than yourself, and any pettiness or neuroticism. “Bigger than yourself” is the key phrase.
Because some people might be aware of the sense they’re being pulled toward being famous, being worshipped, or getting approval. But deep down, those are just pushes away from confronting their core fears of being worthless and unimportant.
(Speaking personally for a moment, this was very much my story. My first few years of entrepreneurship were driven predominantly by a sense of wanting to disprove my worthlessness. This made me super productive, but it wasn’t a clean burning fuel source (being driven by my misdirected ego) and so I eventually burnt out, hard. The thing that ultimately saved me from this burn out cycle was switching my core driving factor from being one of disproving worthlessness, to one of serving humanity and doing my part in helping human consciousness advance.)
Another common one is wanting to feel special, and different, like a superhero. Again, that all comes back to a fear of being worthless, invisible, and boring.
It’s natural for some part of you to want to be seen, and recognized for your creativity and hard work. But…
(This next sentence is long, so read it twice if you have to. It’s an important one.)
When the selfish yearning for the outside to improve how you feel on the inside outweighs the pure motivator of how you feel on the inside making you want to improve the outside, you’re headed for trouble.
Something bigger than you, like making an impact, serving others, or spreading love, these are the kinds of values that can last lifetimes (because they can never truly be completed). But our initial push values (like making a million dollars) can be outgrown very quickly. Because as the years go by, and we learn through failure and success, we are continually evolving and seeing things about our mindset.
We see where we’ve been immature and unwise. And when we have these realizations, it’s not uncommon to feel surprise or even guilt about how we’ve been operating up until that point.
Now imagine yourself a decade into a life-consuming business venture that completely defines you, your existence, and your direction in this world. Your nervous system is completely shot and you’re running on fumes. Suddenly, by a variety of events, you realize that one of your key driving forces behind it all was just a deeply buried personal insecurity.
Or maybe you realized that you thought you were winning by playing the game of life a different way. But in the end, the cash, the notoriety, and sheer achievement still aren’t fulfilling you. Everything you climbed the mountain for was just an illusion.
What To Do If You’re Burnt Out
If you are an entrepreneur and feeling burn out, depressed, or suicidal, I’m urging you: Please take these on. The cycle won’t change unless you do. And it’s actually relatively easy to do. What gets in the way are all of the stories in our minds (held on to by our egos) that tell us that isn’t the case.
“But I have X amount of dollars at stake, and Y amount of people, and Z amount of e-mails to get to…”
This is part of the problem: The inability to separate work from yourself. It bleeds into every moment of your day. There’s no psychological and emotional partition. You stop being a human and reduce yourself to a chess piece in your own self-perpetuated game. Meanwhile, all of that capital, all of those people, and all those e-mails would be in even better hands if you took more time to take care of yourself.
If your mental health, longevity, family, and life itself are important to you, please do the following.
1. Make sleep a priority
For too long, the capitalist and entrepreneurial attitude has belittled sleep, basically dismissing it as a masturbatory pastime for the soft, weak, and lazy. We might as well have tattooed “HUSTLE” and “GRIND” on our foreheads.
In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous “6 rules for success” speech, from a University commencement address, he says: “I know some people out there are saying, ‘Wait a minute, I sleep 8 hours, or 9 hours.’ Well, then just sleep faster.” The crowd laughs. Sweet. Thanks for the great advice…
You will hear this basic message coming from the majority of the biggest business moguls we look up to: Suck it up. Get up. Slap your face and seize the day.
Look, having diligence and work ethic are one thing. But compromising your sleep, health, and brain don’t need to be factors in the equation.
Right now, sleep science seems to be all the rage. We’ve finally been able to collect enough sophisticated data to flip the conventional wisdom on its head. We used to look at “spending a third of your life in bed” as being a pitiful flaw in human beings. When really, that fraction speaks volumes to how critical it is.
For the average entrepreneur, there’s no such thing as a sleep schedule. The stress and constant screen time put their circadian rhythms out of whack. Plus, they don’t regard it as a significant enough of a priority. Ironically, the first thing we’re frivolously sacrificing is what could make the biggest impact on our success (not to mention our mental health). Deep sleep improves your cognition, creativity, emotional resilience, memory, and alertness.
Invest in the right pillows and mattress. Get blackout curtains. Regulate the temperature in your bedroom. It might save your life. At the very least, it’s guaranteed to extend and enhance it.
2. Eat healthy meals with healthy friends and people you love
Socializing regulates the nervous system and relieves stress. It also gets you out of your head and pulls you back in touch with what really matters, which is the human relationships in your life.
There’s so much stress and abstraction in the world of business. It exerts a force of gravity that pulls you into your mind – constantly running mental analysis and problem-solving software. You’re constantly vigilant against threats. But this is the essence of being in survival mode.
We’re also meant to relax, let go, switch gears, and forget about the risks in life for a little bit. We’re supposed to laugh, and talk, and appreciate art. No goals. No metrics. No KPI’s.
It’s great to have mammoth ambitions. Maybe you want to hit 100 million dollars in sales this year. Great! Go do that. But those goalposts on the horizon will be fleeting dopamine hits. Your striving for “more” needs to be balanced with the knowing that you’re okay, loved, and fulfilled in the here-and-now. As someone once said, “if you can’t be happy washing the dishes, then you can’t be happy.”
Engineer more unstructured social time into your life. Set several weekly dates with loved ones to connect over a meal. Take your practice of embodiment to the next level by cooking it yourself. And if you can’t cook, then learn how. It will likely be more fulfilling than any business win you’ll have that day.
3. Find a mastermind or group of similar people who you can regularly confide in
Combat the isolation and insulation of the entrepreneurial lifestyle by finding (or creating, if you have to) a support group.
(I have been a part of an entrepreneurial mastermind for the past seven years and it has served me so deeply. I really can’t recommend this step highly enough. But, to the best of your ability, make sure that any group you join’s core values are based in truth, vulnerability, and genuine connection… as opposed to exclusively ‘connecting’ over business jargon and egoic oneupmanship.)
The majority of the pressure surrounding our struggles can be alleviated by sharing with others who are going through the same thing. It gets normalized in your mind, and you can share tools and perspectives for how to manage it.
Collectively agree on a regular day and time where you’ll meet up in person or have a video conference call. Take turns checking in on how you’re doing, past and future challenges, and share resources. If everyone is committed to being radically honest with each other, you can co-create the single greatest source of intimacy and support that any member has ever experienced before.
4. Make time for a hobby
Keep some screen-free activity in your life that has zero direct connection to your business. Examples could be: painting, music, building models, yoga classes, martial arts, wood work, archery lessons, rock climbing, raunchy amateur burlesque, or whatever else gets you into an enjoyable flow state.
Carving out this time is an inherent reminder that you, and your life, are about more than just entrepreneurship. It gives you an outlet that creates healthy separation and bolsters a fuller sense of identity. I recommend choosing something with an unlimited ceiling in skill (ie. playing an instrument, dance, or most any recreational activity) because it supplies another way to satisfy your cravings for growth and improvement.
And if you are concerned about ANOTHER entrepreneur who seems to be struggling, depressed, or suicidal, here are a few things to consider:
- Read my article “How To Respond When Someone Tells You They’re Feeling Suicidal”. Even if your friend isn’t having difficulties that extreme, there are key points around how to approach any issues they may be dealing with. Bring compassion and love, and you’ll have the best chances of getting through to them.
- If this post hit home with you, ask if they would be willing to let you share it with them too, so they can get a little more context and support in acknowledging what’s going on.
- You have a perfect excuse to take action on point number three. Start a mastermind group with them, and extend an invitation to a few of your close colleagues you respect, or other entrepreneurs you want to get closer to. If that’s not workable, for whatever reason, set up a weekly call with them. Frame it as something that you really need personally, and it would be awesome if they would help you meet that need. This puts you on even psychological ground and increases trust and openness.
It’s fair to assume that almost every entrepreneur has struggled, or is currently struggling, with burnout and/or mental health issues to some degree. While these issues are severe and chronic, they are remarkably easy to prevent.
First, you have to know that you’re not alone. Then, bring a little awareness to what specific habitual sticking points and mindsets are holding your cycle of burnout together. Is it obsessing with no breaks? Not sleeping? Once you discover a healthier outlook and value-based driver, nurturing yourself and leaning on like-minded people will keep you thriving for years to come.
The blunt truth of the matter is this: when you are veering towards a place of burnout in your entrepreneurial ventures, it’s almost always because your ego has taken over. A part of your mind has convinced you that you won’t be worthy/loveable/enough unless you are constantly striving, achieving, and doing more – but that is complete and utter bullshit. You are worthy, loveable, and enough, just by existing. If you don’t believe me, call someone up (right now) who cares about you and ask them if they only love you when you’re winning. I dare you.
Dedicated to your success,
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