The Hard Thing about Hard Things

not working things

I like to rant, apparently.

I’m told all the time by strangers how they’re entertained by my bluntness and honesty. It’s not really ranting, I reply, it’s about expecting, or at least hoping for honesty in an industry full of agendas. People tell me that I’m open, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I speak my mind. The truth is I don’t, not always, not when I need to. There’s one topic I should talk about more, but I shy away from. It’s a topic we all say far too little about.

My depression and the fact that I’ve suffered its effects for nearly three decades is a matter of public record; I came out about being bipolar in a book I authored five years ago. I blogged about it at the time, too, about the stigma and the ignorance that typically greets any mention of it, about the disservice of countless Hollywood scriptwriters and TV shows that bastardise the disease, stretch its symptoms to demented, murderous extremes.

That was before I co-founded an accelerator programme four years ago. Dealing with founders and investors every day, it’s never felt an appropriate topic of conversation. It’s not something I like to burden my colleagues with, and it’s hardly an admired character trait as far as investors are concerned. For the most part, it’s a secret, one I rarely give oxygen to.

And that makes me part of the problem. The problem is that this industry I adore for its potential and possibility often demands more than most can reasonably give – and we don’t talk about that. We can’t create the extraordinary and the ubiquitous from the comfortable and mundane. Taking a startup from nothing to everything is relentless. It hurts, it’s painful. But we all have a different tolerance for pain. Not all of us thrive under pressure. Not all of us can cope.

That pressure comes from investors, competitors, journalists and conferences that idolise the few, but mostly it comes from the founders themselves, who realise the need to be extraordinary, who feel they need to live up to the ideals of glamorised outliers. And it’s not just founders, but their teams who feel the strain, too. Building, launching, iterating. Learning. Raising. Failing. There are few constants and little comfort.

Ours is an industry where failure is accepted and celebrated as progress, except when it’s on the inside, when the world stops making sense. When we’re unable to unpack our heads after days and weeks and months of struggle. When we’re as low as it’s possible to be because nothing fucking works and what the fuck is the point. When our failure is internal, we don’t wear it proudly as a badge.

A startup is the hardest thing you can do with your life; there are so many less damaging ways to be successful. Unfortunately, a quieter, easier life is not enough for many of us, not once we’ve noticed bits of the world that don’t work properly. We’re compelled to fix them.

So we have a choice. We can go it alone, be strong, be bulletproof when co-founders and employees and investors ask what’s wrong. We can hold on our doubt and fear and hopelessness, try to parse it, figure it out, deal with it by ourselves.

Or we can talk to one another. Go for a coffee and tell somebody we’re struggling. Unpack our heads, try and make sense of it all out loud.

When we talk about the tech community in London, we talk about how it supports and looks after its own, but I don’t see that happening when brilliant, smart people lose their way. Depression isn’t picky about who it fucks up. It’ll take down the strong and the weak, and those who pretend depression is what happens to other people. It kills people. Sooner or later, it might take someone you cherish.

There’s no cure for depression, but there is relief – and that’s you, and it’s me. So here I am, always happy to grab a coffee and chat, because while I won’t be able to fix your world, chances are I can help you make sense of it. I’ve been there myself. I’m still there, if I’m honest.

If you’re struggling through the days, take me up on the offer. If you’re not, help someone who is.

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