I started my first company 15 years ago. According to this fact, technically, I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 15 years. But I think I always was an entrepreneur, I just didn’t know that.
Anyway, for the last 15 years I’ve been living more or less off the grid, outside the limits of an average, job-bounded person, being led by curiosity, sustained by stubbornness and dreaming to do bold, audacious or even plain ridiculous things. That’s pretty much the definition of an entrepreneur.
It was a fantastic ride. I had my share of successes. For instance, I sold my second company in 2008 and, after that, I enjoyed two sabbatical years to travel around the world. I wrote 9 books and, in 2011, two of them were translated into Korean. I also had my share of failures (won’t mention them here, because there are too many).
Oh, the rush of the adrenaline when things are falling into their designated places! The thrill of seeing your ideas transformed into real products, or services! The joy of creating and managing teams out of ordinary people, and then the happiness of sharing your vision with them. It’s like dreaming with your eyes wide opened.
Yes, being an entrepreneur is an amazing ride.
The Real Cost Of Being An Entrepreneur
Yes, there is a “but”. There is a “but” that perhaps no one will tell you about. I know no one told me about it and I had to discover it the hard way. By crashing right into it, the moment I expected it the least.
This “but” is about the cost of being an entrepreneur. The real cost of being an entrepreneur, that is.
It’s not about the fluctuating revenue, although this may be something important, if you’re used to stability. It’s true, as an entrepreneur you have no guaranteed revenue. Or, to be more precise, you are the only guarantee of your revenue, and, you know, you’re not always right, so to speak. But no, the real cost is not this one.
It’s also not about the time you spend working, time that you’re stealing, most of the time, from other areas of your life, like friends or family. Yes, you’re working two or three times the hours a normal person will work, but the real cost of being an entrepreneur is not there.
And it’s not about peer pressure either. You know, when other people tell you that you have to “comply” and put an end to all that rubbish stuff you’re doing on the internet. And get a job. And some stable income. It’s annoying, yes, but it’s not that.
Nope, the real cost of being an entrepreneur is none of the above. It’s something even more scarier than that.
Something that is so deeply interweaved into the very fabric of entrepreneurship that it’s inseparable from it. Something that cannot be avoided, that will put you down the moment you’re expecting it the least, something so powerful and deceiving that you’ll have no protection against it.
It’s the depression.
Nope, not the lack of motivation. Nope, not the deception when one of your ideas is proved wrong. Not the sadness when a member of your team leaves.
It’s the good, ol’ depression. In the most pathological sense of the word.
I know it’s hard to believe. I know there is a big contrast if you put depression near the image of a “mighty conqueror” and over bursting with self-esteem that many entrepreneurs are exhibiting.
I also know that very few entrepreneurs talk about depression, either. Because they’re ashamed. Or associate it with guilt, or with a “weak” part of themselves that no one has to know about.
But it’s there and it’s real.
And, like I said, it’s part of the package. Believe it or not, it comes from the same source as the thrill. And it’s made of the same material like enthusiasm. You can’t have one without the other.
The Personal Story
When I first met this monster I wasn’t prepared at all. I think it hit me a few years after I started my second company (the one that I successfully sold). At some point, after things started to fall into places, and all the processes were more or less on autopilot, one day, out of the blue, I felt this enormous burden on my shoulders.
There wasn’t any real outside trigger (or if it was, in the beginning, I wasn’t able to isolate it). The main feeling was like nothing is going to work anymore. Like anything I did had no results whatsoever. Like the universe was a big concrete wall around me and I couldn’t do anything about this. It scared the shit out of me, I tell you that.
In a few days I got over it. At that time, I was still drinking alcohol, and, for a while, alcohol can numb depression.
But, a few months later, it appeared again. And, after another few months, again. After many ups and downs, after a rather tedious process of self-analysis, I had no choice but to finally avoid numbing it and face it.
And that was the moment when I started to understand.
The Two Faces Of The Same Coin
The very core of an entrepreneur is an inflated ego. Not in the buddhist sense of the ego, but more like an inflated self-esteem, like believing that one can accomplish anything.
That belief, that you can do anything, is the secret engine of an entrepreneur. That belief will make an entrepreneur create a new business somewhere where no one saw an opportunity before. That belief will help the entrepreneur during rough times, when clients are few or the competition is strong.
But there is this law of the Universe that says that the highs should be balanced with the lows. Physically speaking, you can’t live on adrenaline for ever. If you try that, the adrenal glands will go depleted in a few hours and you’ll most probably die.
So, you’ll have to balance this thrill somehow. The highs must be paired with the lows.
Hence, the depression.
At that moment I understood that this is part of the game. The highest the highs, the lower the lows. The biggest the thrill, the most intense the downhill, the descending path into that darkness of “I’m not good enough”.
Once you understand this inseparable mix of enthusiasm and depression, once you accept the unavoidable law of balance you will get to a new level. The level of “I know this shit is going to hit me, sooner or later, but I’m ok with it”. Even the level of “I am comfortable to talk about it, not to be ashamed of it, or feel guilty about it”.
It’s the same coin with two different faces. On one of them is the emblem of victory, of endless exploration, of exhilaration and joy. On the other, the mirrors: defeat, fearful confinement, apathy and sadness.
How To Cope With “Entrepreneur’s Depression”
I just coined that term “entrepreneur’s depression”. I don’t know if it exists as a separate page in a psychiatry manual , but, to be honest, I don’t really care.
What I do care about is to share how I began to cope with it. I’m not over it yet, and I’m quite pessimistic about “getting over it” ever. I know that, for as long as I’ll try new and bold stuff, it will be there. And it will have to be managed.
Here’s what works for me.
1. Let It Flow
Now I don’t do “therapeutic” alcohol anymore. Not any other types of drugs, for what matters. When I’m hit by depression, I just let it flow through me. Sometimes it flows faster and I’m over it in just a day, sometimes it takes longer and I can be in the “blue barrel of depression” a few days in a row. But I don’t fight it. I just keep a low profile and try to do as much damage control as I can. Namely, I don’t act. I don’t interact either. I just stay in my hole for as long as it takes for the burden to fade away.
2. Stay Fit
Being in a good shape, physically speaking, also helps. I saw a visible improvement in my reactions after I started to run marathons. A marathon in itself is a vey tough test, not to mention the preparation, so coping with small doses of low emotions over shorter intervals kinda helped me. But any other sport will do. The level of endorphins in your body will be higher and that will make depression’s job tougher.
3. Find Someone To Talk About It
I’m not talking about a bartender here, although it may help for a while. I’m talking about a real person, someone who may understand you and support you. I know a few entrepreneurs who are seeing a psychologist regularly. With very good results. So, that works. Also, if you have a life partner who can understand your “profession” and can cope with the roller coaster, well, you’re 50% off the hook. As long as you talk to her / him, of course.
4. Avoid Guilt, Shame And Other Stupid Idiots
Accept that it’s there. Accept that the reason you’re experiencing it is your aperture to life, an aperture going way beyond standard limits and way bigger than the aperture of millions of other people. It’s like you’re one of the lucky guys who can climb to the top of Everest. Well, the very fact that you can undertake the risks of going on top of the world is the one that makes you prone to being caught in Mariana Trench too. And oh boy, it’s deep and cold and dark in Mariana Trench.
And last, but not least: remember that it really pays back.
At the end of the day, if there’s something valuable behind you, your bruises have little, if any, importance at all.