An Imaginary Near Death Experience
It was a glorious morning. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I strolled down Seventh Avenue in lower Manhattan immersed in the rumbling chaos of rush hour. It reminded me that I wasn’t the only person in the city with ambition.
I was reflecting on what I had planned for the day, when I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my chest. Everything around me started spinning. My heart was pounding. The tremors surged through my body. I had never felt anything like it. I thought I was going to collapse and die.
The sunlight became blinding. The street noise became deafening. Every movement became threatening. I had to escape the overwhelming assault on my senses.
I stumbled into the nearest store and stood in a corner, hoping not to be noticed. I pretended to browse magazines and took long deep breaths. I was somehow still alive.
I waited a few more minutes and slowly caught my breath. I looked at my reflection in the glass. I was covered in sweat. I bought some tissues, and used them to wipe down my face and neck. I guzzled a bottle of water and left the store.
As I emerged onto the sidewalk, it felt as if I was about to free climb Mount Everest. I tried to shake it off, telling myself that it was nothing. Probably just something I ate or too much coffee.
I eventually made it to my office, but then it happened again. The same sharp pain. The same rapid heartbeat. The same feeling of impending doom. I ran out of the building, jumped in a cab, and rushed to the nearest hospital. I was convinced that I was about to have a heart attack.
As you may have guessed, I didn’t die that day. It turns out that all I had needed to do was relax and breathe. But in that moment, I was terrified.
This was my first ever panic attack. It had seemingly come out of nowhere. Except that it hadn’t. It had been building for months. I just hadn’t been paying enough attention. I had been too busy trying to launch a startup on my own, thousands of miles away from friends and family.
It was a sign that I hadn’t been taking care of myself. The start of a long journey towards rehabilitating my mental and emotional health. A journey that had been in the works for decades.
The Perfect Mental Health Storm
I had struggled with depression throughout my childhood and as a teenager. I had been bullied for years as a young boy. I was unhappy in high school and even more miserable at university. I grew up with low self-esteem. I had no self-confidence. I saw the world in shades of gray. I was lonely, especially when I was around other people.
The truth is that I could count the number of times I genuinely felt happy between the ages of eight and thirty on two hands.
This was the emotional backdrop for my first startup, which I began working on in 2007. Somehow, my existential struggles hadn’t dampened my aspirations. I had always been a dreamer, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I could not have been any less prepared for what was to come.
My first startup experience was a baptism of fire. Here I was. 25 years old. No partners or mentors. Just a kid with an idea and delusions of grandeur. My father believed in me enough to give me a few thousand dollars to get things started and I went for it.
Ultimately, the company never got going for several reasons, but mainly because I was a one man show. I had taken on too much. I had outsourced development. I had underestimated the magnitude of the challenge. But I learned so much from it.
I started my next company in 2012 and it showed more promise. We had a team and did more in-house. We built a beautiful website and mobile app. We manufactured products that people loved. But their adulation didn’t translate into consistent sales.
We were drip-fed revenue, which is worse than nothing, because it fools you into believing that there is hope. It masks the reality that you don’t have product-market fit by convincing you that you’re onto something, because people are buying.
This is a terrible place for an entrepreneur to be. Caught in the void between failure and success. In progress or denial, depending on your perspective. This is where I found myself.
I was living alone in New York City. Thousands of miles away from my family and childhood friends. I was in a long-distance relationship separated by a nine-hour time difference. I was working remotely, so I didn’t even share an office with anyone.
I was completely alone. No support network. No one to vent to when things inevitably went wrong. No one to share the load with. Sometimes weeks would go by without any meaningful in-person human interaction.
The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma
Life as an entrepreneur can be challenging enough. But when you are left to your own devices, every thought, insecurity, and fear is magnified a thousand-fold. You quickly become your own worst enemy.
Unfortunately, this experience is not unique to me. About half of entrepreneurs suffer from at least one mental health condition. A study by Michael Freeman, a researcher at the University of San Francisco, found that startup founders are:
- Twice as likely to suffer from depression
- Six times more likely to suffer from ADHD
- Three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse
- Ten times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder
- Twice as likely to have a psychiatric hospitalization
- Twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts
As entrepreneurs, we are trained to idolize hard work and sleepless nights. We are conditioned to believe that we must make sacrifices in order to be successful, including neglecting our mental and physical health.
We are acutely aware of the need to project an image of confidence to our team and outsiders. There is no room to admit we are afraid or depressed. There is nothing to be gained from expressing our insecurities or showing any weakness.
We even convince ourselves that addressing our mental health can be bad for business. We rationalize that innovation is correlated with obsession and that hypomania is a prerequisite for success. So, many entrepreneurs ignore their mental health problems, allowing them to fester and grow, as I did.
Over time, our company becomes our identity. The source of everything we think and feel. It can be all-consuming, displacing ties with friends and family, and crowding out self-care. The stakes can become so high that they have driven many entrepreneurs to commit suicide.
When you are running a startup, there is no such thing as middle ground. You are either euphoric or devastated. A genius or a fraud. Nothing in between.
Life can be exhausting when you only experience it at the extremes. And being alone accelerates your mental demise.
A Vicious Cycle Of Negativity
Sure enough, I soon entered a dark period, in which I considered myself to be the greatest failure known to man. I had also decided that the company I worked so hard to build was a laughing stock. A source of embarrassment.
Given my history, I was already predisposed to negative emotions. My struggles with growing my business and my social isolation eventually took their toll. Without realizing it, I had set myself on a path towards a string of panic attacks and an extended period of chronic anxiety.
It reached the point where I routinely had to excuse myself in the middle of meetings to avoid suffering a meltdown. I would hide inside the restroom, door closed, trembling with fear, trying to summon the composure to return to the potential client or investor.
The most mundane tasks suddenly became terrifying. I became anxious about being anxious, which, of course, made me more anxious. And, well, you get the picture.
Something had to give and it eventually did. I tried taking medication for a few weeks, but that didn’t go well. I tried conventional therapy, but that didn’t work. I tried meditation and mindfulness, and, while they helped, they didn’t get to the root of the problem.
The reality was that I had been carrying negative emotions from childhood throughout my life, like lead weights on my shoulders. Every bad experience brought back unresolved memories of my past. It was like reopening an old wound, except each time the wound would get bigger.
The Road Back To Sanity
Then one day, a family member suggested I take a life coaching course. It was one of the few things I hadn’t tried yet, short of electroshock therapy and psychedelics, so I gave it a shot. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
I learned how to reframe all the negative emotions and limiting beliefs I had accumulated over the course of my life.
I embraced acceptance and gratitude, and used them to help me manage the ups and downs of startup life without losing my mind.
I became more resilient and positive, and dissociated my identity from that of my company.
I rediscovered the importance of physical exercise and incorporated it into my daily routine.
I made it a point to socialize more regularly and rebuilt my support system.
I emerged from the experience stronger, healthier, and happier.
I also applied what I had learned to running my business, using it to help me navigate some of the most challenging situations I have ever faced, including launching a hardware product weeks before Covid-19 took the world hostage.
I originally became a life coach to coach myself. But, as with all good things, I fell in love with the process. I found it so rewarding that I didn’t want it to end. And it hasn’t.
Every time I coach an entrepreneur, it is as if I am coaching myself all over again. All the lows I had previously experienced have enabled me to better understand their perspective.
Sometimes the worst things that happen to us can become the best things that ever happened.
A journey that started with self-healing as the goal has evolved into an ongoing mission to empower others.
And I couldn’t be happier.