Tales of a Serial Entrepreneur
My therapist thinks I'm crazy for writing publicly that I'm bipolar. Well, she thinks I'm crazy in general, but then again, that's why I see her. Everyone, though, is crazy in their own way. In fact, it's perfectly normal to be crazy. The only question is what form your crazy takes.
My crazy comes from the fact that I tend to swing between periods of low moods and high ones, with long periods of neutrality in between. At my lowest point, I'm depressed. My life is a catastrophe, I wake up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts, and I hear you, but I can't connect with you. At my highest points, I'm hypomanic. My life is fantastic, I stay up all night because of all the brilliant plans I'm concocting, and I speak so fast that you can't understand me.
My first bout of depression occurred when I was a first-year teacher and stressed beyond belief. I put myself under immense pressure to plan lessons perfectly, deliver them flawlessly, and meet the needs of every student. But I was a first-year teacher. I shouldn't have expected that I could skip over the ten years of practice it takes to become a master teacher.
My first bout of hypomania likely occurred when I jumped into the startup life. I was beyond ecstatic to finally be living the way I wanted to -- tackling problems I cared about, with brilliant people, on projects that tested my limits, in a work when-you-want, how-you-want kind of way. The problem was, I had no contingency plan whatsoever for what to do when things go wrong. In my mind, nothing possibly could.
Why I've Decided To Come Out
I was diagnosed with being bipolar one year ago. At first, I kept it to myself. I hardly knew what it meant to be bipolar, much less what I ought to tell others. Slowly, though, I started opening up to my friends and colleagues about my experiences and now, I'm opening up to the whole world.
Mental health challenges are normal.*
Among your closest friends and business partners, every 1 in 5, on average, are experiencing depression, anxiety, addiction, or other challenges. When life happens -- a family member passes away, we move across the country, a relationship ends -- we also experience grief, stress, despair.
Mental health challenges are normal; the more we accept this, the more we can heal.
We need to be speaking openly about mental health.
I've written before about how I handle my bouts of depression. As a result, interactions like this have happened more than once.
If I can make it safer for just one person to ask for help by speaking openly about mental health, then it's worth it for me to come out.
I value living honestly and authentically.
I aspire to live outwardly who I am inwardly, so that means being open about this aspect of my life.
"How are you?"
"I could be better. I couldn't sleep last night because I was feeling anxious."
"Where are you going next?"
"I have a therapist appointment uptown."
"You seem very irritable."
"Yeah, I think I'm hypomanic right now. It's not you, it's something I'm working on."
I am not saying that everyone should come out about their mental health. This decision is a deeply personal one and there's no one right answer. I'm only saying that this is the right answer for me.
I choose to lean into fear.
Even though I'm at peace with writing publicly that I'm bipolar, I'm still afraid.
I'm afraid of people judging me for just this facet of who I am. If this is all that someone knows about me, will ze discount me as a friend or founder before ze even gets to know me?
I'm afraid my business will suffer. Should I have waited for greater career success before coming out?**
I'm afraid of people over-attributing my behavior to me being bipolar. Being bipolar doesn't determine everything I do. I purposely block out no meeting days? That's me being an introvert. I have a big idea? Hear me out. I was hurt when you thought the worst of my intentions? That's me being only human.
Yet, I wouldn't be where I am today if I haven't consistently leaned into fear. I trust that leaning into fear will pay off for me again.
I hope to educate others.
When I've been depressed, I've had people tell me, "you're throwing a pity party," "just snap out of it," and "I thought you were stronger than this." When I describe hypomania, I get "that sounds awesome" and "I wish I could be like you." The former took my self-recrimination and drove it in further. The latter misses the fact that hypomania is me living on the edge of insanity.
These words come out of ignorance and not out of ill intent. I've since repaired my relationships with people who didn't understand how hurtful they were being, and they continue to be some of my closest friends. I hope that publicly writing about my experience can now educate others as well.
How I Thrive as a Bipolar Entrepreneur
Although I didn't know it at the time, my journey toward entrepreneurship was partly driven by being bipolar. Looking back, it explains so much. It explains why I pair a deep sense of empathy for people in pain with an unwavering belief in my capacity to help alleviate those pains. It explains why my risk tolerance is so high. It's a critical part of my identity as a founder and something I cannot imagine living without. I've had to work hard to get to this point, though, and continue to work hard to get even better. This is how I do it.
I harness its strengths.
There are real benefits to being bipolar. Not everyone who is bipolar agrees, as no two people ever experience being bipolar the same way. However, I certainly find it helpful, particularly as an entrepreneur.
Being bipolar has been linked to creativity, the ability to see connections that other people cannot see, and grandiose ambitions. A proclivity for hypomania increases risk tolerance, goal-oriented behavior, drive, and self-esteem. Depression, when carefully treated, nudges people to manage risk, prioritize, and empathize. In other words, being bipolar confers both vision and the attitudes necessary to turn vision into reality.
I manage its challenges.
At the same time, being bipolar is not an excuse for acting in ways that may negatively impact myself or others. I am diligent about doing what I need to in order to live well, do excellent work, and contribute positively to the world.
I'm insanely disciplined. I use the Productive app to remind myself to take medication, exercise, and sleep. I use Reporter to track my moods throughout the day. My schedule is so intentionally organized that I even schedule time for spontaneity.
I monitor and respond to the status of my mental health. The moment I cannot sleep through the night is the moment I know something's wrong. I immediately sit down, reevaluate my priorities, and clear my schedule of anything non-essential in order to focus on my well-being.
I direct my own thought processes. If I start to feel anxious, I think to myself, "What's the worst that could possibly happen?" Since the answer to that question is rarely anything catastrophic, I am able to stop stressing and start focusing on managing risk instead. If I've suddenly come up with something brilliant, I've learned to temper my excitement by sharing the idea with trusted advisors before diving headfirst into a project.
As a result, the last few times life circumstances have threatened to send me into a downward spiral, I've been able to fall into the safety net that is my strong relationships, healthy habits, and a growing set of cognitive tools that help reframe negative thoughts. I've arrested slides toward depression long before I slid too far.
I build my startup around my life, not my life around my startup.
I am an entrepreneur because I crave freedom, independence, and creativity -- all hallmarks of someone who is bipolar. My startup is built around these needs. Because I crave freedom, my business is completely remote. Because I crave independence, I will always maintain ownership over my core business. Because I crave creativity, I say no to anything that's repetitive in favor of the newest challenge.
Being an entrepreneur also gives me the ability to be my full bipolar self. I can schedule therapy appointments for the middle of the day without ever having to ask a manager for time off. I can pick and choose the projects I want to work on so that I never get overburdened, stressed, or bored. And, one of the reasons I can come out as bipolar is because I'm an entrepreneur who owns my own business. It's not like anyone can fire me. Not everyone can say their lives are as perfectly suited for their mental, emotional and physical needs.
I am constantly learning.
I wasn't always so even-keeled. During my worst bout of depression, I overly relied on the people closest to me, draining them of their energy. At the time, I didn't know how to ask for the help I needed while ensuring other people's well-being. I also didn't know what hypomania was until my psychiatrist mentioned it as something I was potentially experiencing. However, I've applied the same insatiable curiosity that I have towards my business to my understanding of being bipolar. I ask questions, read books, watch videos, and learn from others who also deal with complicated mental health situations.*** I am constantly implementing changes that improve my quality of life.
I seek support.
I once confided in a friend that I was feeling antsy, like there was another level I was climbing towards, but that the climb, while exhilarating, was scary, and would include a lot of falls along the way. I will always remember my friend's response: "Well, you have friends who will pick you up, and if anyone can do it, you can."
My Encouragement To Founders Struggling Alone
I'm bipolar, but being bipolar is not the only reason to make mental health a top priority. Much of what I do -- seek support, learn, harness strengths -- are things that everyone can do to live a life that's full of positivity, engagement, meaning and purpose. I've had founders tell me:
"I have no idea what the hell I'm doing."
"I don't want to get up in the morning."
"My mind won't stop racing."
"I can't sleep."
"I can't. I just can't."
My encouragement to them, and to you, is to seek support. There is no weakness in asking for help, there is only strength. What we do is far from easy. We all experience pain, fear, and despair. This is part of what makes us human. What also makes us human is our compassion, empathy, and capacity for unity. In short --
We're all crazy.
Let's be crazy together.
*I personally intentionally avoid the term "mental illness." On one hand, "illness" implies that it's no one's fault, that it can be diagnosed and managed like physical illnesses. On the other hand, not all mental health challenges are negative, nor are they limited only to those who are diagnosed. Our feelings and fears are a natural part of being alive.
**Part of the reason I'm coming out now is because I haven't quite "made it" yet. Entrepreneurs like Brad Feld have already been doing the good work of normalizing mental health challenges by writing openly about his own. He however, was already extraordinarily successful by the time he came out. I want to build on his work by showing that we can talk openly about mental health even at the beginnings of our entrepreneurial journeys.
***For resources on mental health, please see the Nexus Works on Pinterest Mental Health Board.
Written for The Startup Couch: We aim to positively influence startup founders, so that they can continue to do what they do best: create game-changing innovations.
Originally written for The Startup Couch: We aim to positively influence startup founders, so that they can continue to do what they do best: create game-changing innovations.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder, please contact your doctor.