According to numerous studies, entrepreneurs are far more likely than the general population to suffer from depression. As an award-winning Inc.com article put it:
"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, like Smith, 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."
Unfortunately, most articles about entrepreneurs and depression treat depression as an emotional response to the challenges of launching a startup. But that's not how depression works.
When you're depressed, it doesn't matter what you're doing or what is going on in your life. If something bad is happening, your depression will make it seem worse, and if something good is happening, your depression will turn it into something to be miserable about.
Being depressed means looking at the world through crap-colored glasses. Everything seems awful, even things that ought to make you happy.
For example, suppose you're on a Disney Cruise with your family and everyone is having a great time. Everyone, that is, except for you, because you're thinking:
- The cruise will soon be over.
- Your kids will grow up and move away.
- This isn't as fun as the last cruise.
- You don't spend enough time with your kids.
- You're stupid for spending so much money.
- You ought to be enjoying yourself.
- Etc., etc., etc.
That's classic depression. You can be in the "happiest place on earth" (trust me, the cruises are much better than the parks) and still you feel miserable. There is simply no experience so positive that depression can't turn it into a nightmare.
With that in mind, I think people are misreading cause/effect relationship of the well-documented correlation between entrepreneurism and depression.
Most people assume that the problems of starting a business is the cause and that depression is the effect.
I think it's the other way around. I think most entrepreneurs are at least slightly bipolar. They start businesses when they're in the manic phase: terrifically overconfident and both overestimating the likelihood of success and underestimating potential for failure.
As long as they remain in that manic phase, everything goes well. The startup might pivot, it might even fail but, hey, it's all part of the learning experience, right?
However, if you're bipolar (which most people who suffer from depression are), you eventually hit a down phase. Your overconfidence disappears. Suddenly all the problems of the startup (which were there all along, remember) seem insurmountable.
Your depression then creates further difficulties, like when founders alienate employees by blowing up at them, or procrastinate important tasks, or turn to substance abuse (all classic symptoms of depression.)
Put another way, the depression causes the problems, rather than the other way around. Indeed, I seriously doubt whether currently successful entrepreneurs who suffered from depression in the early stages of their company are completely free of it today.
Quite the contrary, many of these people are still "blowing up" at employees, for instance, long after they're so rich that they ought to be able to sit back and enjoy life. (Which is impossible if you're depressed.)
Therefore, the challenge for entrepreneurs who want to be (or remain) successful is to deal with the depression before it creates problems that didn't exist before.
Unfortunately, dealing with depression is damn difficult because depressed people often don't realize they're depressed. When you're depressed, you feel as if your negative feelings are 100% valid and based on "reality." Even when they're not.
When you're depressed, your emotions force your brain to find "rational" reasons for feeling miserable. When you're depressed you literally can't think clearly enough to realize that you're depressed.
And, of course, you can't and won't do anything about your depression if you don't realize that you're depressed.
Fortunately, I have come up with an easy way to figure out when you're depressed. I call it the "Rule of Three."
Here's how it works.
Whenever I find myself upset about some element of my life, I count it as "1." If I immediately thereafter feel upset about some other, unrelated, area of my life, I count it as "2." If I then feel upset about yet another unrelated area of my life, I count it as "3."
At that point, I assume that my brain isn't functioning correctly (i.e. I'm depressed) and the negative emotions are a symptom of that depression rather than a rational reaction whatever is going on my life.
I base this assumption on the observation (which I made when I wasn't depressed) that it's highly unlikely that three different areas of my life would become horribly broken all at the same time.
When I hit "3," it's a cut-off switch. Yes, I continue to feel the negative emotions (because that's what depression does), but I know at that point that my emotions are manifestations of a chemical imbalance in my brain and therefore inappropriate as guides for taking action.
So, rather than focus on the negative feelings or, worse, do something to "fix" whatever seems to be creating them, I simply "batten down the hatches" in order to weather the emotional storm.
Specifically, when the Rule of Three kicks in, I don't use email unless 100% necessary and absolutely do not send any email that has emotional content. As far as possible, I avoid meetings. If I write something, I put it on hold and don't post it immediately.
In my personal life, I don't decide to "discuss things" with my wife. I let my wife handle consequences if the kids act up. I certainly don't make ANY important life decisions.
Instead, I recognize that I'm not in a resourceful state and I wait until the state has passed which (intellectually if not emotionally at the time) I know will happen eventually.
Now here's the funny thing. Most of the time, a day or two later (which is my cycle), I can't believe that I was so upset about whatever it was that was bothering me.
I can't tell you the number of arguments, email wars, and disastrous decisions that the Rule of Three has allowed me to avoid.
Just as important, the frequency with which I find myself applying the Rule of Three tells me when I need to exercise more regularly, take more frequent breaks, and if the depression is persistent, get back on an anti-depressant.
Of course, I'm no psychologist and what works for me might not work for you. But I can say with total confidence that the Rule of Three has changed my life massively for the better.