What We Talk About When We Talk About Startups, Depression, and Michael Arrington’s Blinders

Were we drawing too much from one news story? There was always the possibility that maybe in the startup community, depression wasn’t discussed simply because it didn’t exist, and that the type of people to get into these endeavors were just, maybe, broadly immune to these issues. After one day of reporting the story, we were pretty sure we were on to an issue that was as endemic as it was unspoken for.

Heading Out

There’s one other criticism the story received that we wanted to save for our final word on the matter, which was less a criticism of the narrative than a disagreement with the premise.

From Foursquare engineering brain Harry Heymann:

I dunno, when people ask me how I’m doing I routinely tell them “God, it’s killing me.” I think the rigors of a leadership position at a startup (or really any position at all) are a pretty common topic of discussion these days. Pretty much everyone understands that working at a successful startup is likely to have a strong negative impact on your life, health, relationships, and overal mental state. I’ve also had quite a few discussions on the importance of combatting this and methods to do so.

We’d disagree that everyone understands it in a coherent way, but we’ll concede that not enough emphasis was placed on the way many of the founders we spoke with extolled the virtues and rewards of dealing with all the rigors that come with startup life, something Josh Weinstein and his friend “Chris”—another 25 year-old founder who had dealt with depression—made especially clear: in the end, it was worth it, with the notation that there are better ways to deal with it than most people do. That said, Mr. Weinstein also mentioned the ways in which he and other founders deal with it. More that didn’t make the original cut, from Josh Weinstein:

Whenever people ask me how I’m doing, I give them a very honest answer. If we’re not doing well? “We’re not doing well.” It’s not good for the reality distortion field, but I guess you could say my reality distortion field is just reality. And general optimism. One of my mantras is that hope springs eternal. If you keep going, it’ll work out.

I’m very open. Most people aren’t. What Chris was saying is that founders can’t be.

Where in society is it socially acceptable to talk about it your issues except for ‘Blank’ Anonymous? [Some of us] have Founder Therapy. It’s like Founders Anonymous. You talk about stuff you’ve gone through. If you’re open about it, and you tell someone that you’re going through a tough time, you’ll hear back: “Yeah, I’ve gone through a tough time, too. This is what I did to get through it.”

Harry? Point taken. As for other founders, as many in story explained—as well as many of those discussing it agreed—the most dangerous facet of this problem is also the most easily solvable: It’s not talked about enough. Before we wrote this story, we were pretty convinced it was a discussion worth having. On the way out, it’s now become pretty evident that talking about depression as endemic to young startup founders is less a matter of measurable value than it is necessity. Surely, there will be those—like, for example, your Michael Arringtons—who’d rather not hear it.

And of course: It’s a shitty reality to deal with. But, of course, most of the ones worth dealing with generally are.

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek