RGSoC Day Off story — My lessons learned from avoiding a burnout, twice.
TRIGGER WARNING - This article, and pages it links to, contains information about depression, burnout and/or suicide which may be triggering to survivors.
When was the last time you saw a blog post or meme embracing and celebrating people that regularly work 60+ hours every week with no weekends or vacation? We, founders and entrepreneurs, are supposed to hustle and play all-in with our time and effort regarding what we are working on. And it’s not only founders, but also their employees, who are often being “incentivized” to adopt this kind of approach.
I’m also a startup founder. However, as a founder of a mental health technology startup, I consider myself much more mindful of my own mental health than most of the other founders, entrepreneurs or investors. Our goal with Mentegram is to bridge the gap between the clinicians and people suffering from issues like depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Our software platform helps clinicians and their patients reduce the paperwork what gives the clinicians an opportunity to provide more efficient care to their patients.
I really like the RGSoC tradition of having the Day Off — a day on which students are meant not to work on their project and instead, do anything they’d like to do. This day is your chance to take care of yourself and to be mindful of your mental health. This year, it’s on August 18th. For some students, the Day Off just means “not coding”; for others, it’s the possibility to try doing something new and exciting or to spend the day outdoors and with friends. If you need some ideas on what to do on your very own day off, here are some of the ideas. The only rule is: no work, no commits, no learning code for that single day. It may be difficult, but very rewarding if you can follow through ;)
While running a company and working for a startup is usually a lot of fun, it’s like riding a rollercoaster. You will get really sick when you don’t take any breaks and if you keep riding anyway, you will never want to ride a rollercoaster again. Or at least not anytime soon.
You never ride a rollercoaster for way too long, because you feel when you start feeling sick. However, many people don’t realize when their mind starts feeling “sick”. What I mean by “sick” are the early symptoms of depression, burning out or maybe anxiety. While I’m no clinician and have no clinical background, having worked with therapists as well as going to therapy myself helped me better understand how the mind works.
By all means, this post doesn’t intend to serve as a clinical advice and I don’t take responsibility for any actions that you decide to take after reading it. Instead, I’m sharing my story; my goal is to raise awareness and help you realize that you should be aware of your own mental health. By sharing stories like this, I believe that we are fighting the stigma. Many celebrities have done so as well: Whether it was Katy Perry live-streaming her therapy session, the British Royal family campaign to get Britons talking about mental health, or Michelle Obama standing up for mental health. I’m not exactly sure what started it all, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say it had something to do with the suicide of Robin Williams.
Being aware of your own mental health is important, and being aware of mine helped me avoid burnout or depression at least in the following situations.
1. Unsuccessful fundraising
The first time it happened, we were trying to raise a second investment round for Mentegram. It didn’t go well, because we were too early for what we wanted to achieve. Even though many investors gave us very positive feedback on what we do and on our elevator pitch, they still ended up backing out from the deal quite early. We learned the lesson the hard way: The positive feedback was giving us very high hopes—and when you fly high, you fall really deep. That’s when I also realized that no-one would most likely give you negative feedback when your goal is to improve mental health of millions of people around the world and you were on the right track. Just too early and without a validated sales strategy.
The positive feedback made me work long hours and very hard. I remember updating our pitch deck during Christmas to make sure that the investor would get it on time. I’m not sure why their deadline was Dec 28th. We traveled from Slovakia to Norway to visit my brother and his family. On Christmas Day, I was sitting in the living room in a comfy chair right next to the Christmas tree. My wife, my parents as well as my brother with his family were having fun watching Christmas movies, enjoying the company of each other and eating all the good things that you can imagine. I remember putting my earphones and music on because I needed to focus while I still wanted to be in the same room with them.
Fast forward to June: We still didn’t have the investment and we started running out of money; I was out of energy and literally unable to focus on anything. Our sales didn’t work well because I spent too much time on fundraising, but the fundraising wasn’t going well either. But most importantly, I was in some kind of half-operational mode when I wasn’t really able to do much work. That’s how my summer went and I’m really thankful to my wife who supported me and helped me recover. It was end of summer when we managed to raise the round that we needed to, and all was good again. Not only me, but the whole team felt like re-born.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but looking back, it was close. If I didn’t take the summer “half-off”, I can’t imagine how I would have been able to continue even with the new investment. I really learned the lesson the hard way, because I could have done things much better and with lower effort during those eight or nine months. It almost feels like the completely wasted few months of my life. The only good thing about them is probably the fact they helped me avoid a similar situation this year.
It doesn’t have to be a big “project” such as fundraising for my own company. It can be a client project that takes too much time because the client keeps requesting changes, it can be a toxic colleague that makes you feel like you don’t want to get out of bed and get to work or even a bug that you aren’t able to resolve. It happens to all of us; the important thing is not to wait and hope that it will end. It’s much better to take your life into your own hands and do something about it. Even though it’s definitely not easy, and may be way outside of your comfort zone. Take a break, speak up, be confident and fair, definitely not arrogant. Many people don’t do it and in many situations, it works wonders. Time is our most precious resource, let’s not waste it.
2. Fighting with time
As every startup, things are going at times well and at times not so well. However, we changed our approach to business development and things started getting better. That would make you think that there was no way for me to start feeling depressed when things go well. But because we changed our sales strategy, seeing the outcome took quite some time. Even though it was exactly as we planned it, it was too long. It got to the point where I felt there was almost nothing I could do to make things happen. The progress was still happening as we planned it; I felt helpless.
I used our software to take depression assessments and I noticed a negative trend. My wife also noticed that I was losing motivation to do anything, even outside of work. I didn’t even want to go out much or spend time with friends — I just sat on the sofa watching TV on weekends.
Around that time, I met a friend who was seeing a therapist. We talked about it and he said how much she helped him. I asked him to give me her number, I called the therapist and scheduled an appointment. It was a few months ago. I told her my story, we started speaking about my emotions, feeling and everything. It took one or two months and I started feeling much better. I felt that I didn’t need to measure my depression, because I was able to handle the triggers much better.
One of the actions that definitely takes most of us outside of our comfort zones is sharing our problems — and feelings — with other people. We are worried and concerned about how the other people would perceive us. However, you would be surprised that close friends and family usually offer help. Of course, I don’t want to false promise anything and it’s likely that you will meet people that will not understand and act arrogant. There is no reason to take it personally though. Speaking with close friends that you trust almost never hurts. And if you are really worried or feel that it may not be enough, reaching out to a therapist is really the best possible thing that you can do. Think of it as your mind having a high fever: You would see your doctor in such case.
What do I want to tell with these stories?
Be mindful of your mental health. Understand when you are sad for a reason and when you are not. Understand when you feel stressed for a reason and when you are not. Be aware of the usual symptoms when they keep showing up, such as losing motivation, losing interest in meeting friends, doing less physical exercise, spending more time binge watching Netflix or TV. If you do spot them, take a break. Get a good night’s sleep. Find someone to talk to about it, ideally a person in a very similar situation to you. For me, it’s other startup founders. And don’t be afraid to ask for help and even reach out to a therapist.
RGSoC has a trust committee to whom you can go if you experience any personal issue you’d like to discuss with someone. While it’s not a replacement for therapy, you should know that the team is there to support you and to make you succeed throughout the summer without having you make compromises on your personal well-being.
As you can see, there is nothing to lose.
If you want to read more about my journey to mental clarity, read the story on Huffington Post.