Sometimes.. it’s OK to not be OK

Depression and anxiety are all too prevalent in the startup ecosystem. Mohit Bhatnagar shares insights from Michael Phelps, who battled depression throughout his Olympic journey, to help founders navigate rough patches and foster mental wellness in the long startup journey ahead.

Mohit Bhatnagar

Published October 13, 2018

Once in a while you meet someone who forces you to pause and re-imagine your relationship with the world. This happened to me two weeks ago when I had the good fortune to be on stage with Michael Phelps at Camp Sequoia, our annual founder summit, in Singapore.

The interview was humming along; we were talking about what it takes to be a champion, and how to sustain success. He told us how he practised seven days a week instead of six, because those Sunday sessions gave him a 52-day edge on his competitors. “If you want to achieve what no one else has, then be ready to sacrifice more than anyone else has,” he said. It’s a point that really hit home with our founders.

Then he opened up about something else that hit home twice as hard. The loneliness, stress and anxiety that comes with this kind of commitment. The isolation. The depression. And how it’s OK to not be OK.

There were periods of time, Phelps shared, when he just didn’t want to get back into the pool. There was a time when he actually thought about taking his own life. Luckily he sought help to get out of that black hole, got better and is now committed to making mental health a serious point of discussion globally. He talked about staying alert to the signs, building a network of friends and supporters he could open up to, and ‘sharpening his tools’ during good periods so he’s ready when that black cloud returns.

Phelps’ candour was heartfelt and powerful. Here was a man who has excelled like no other in his chosen field. The world’s most decorated Olympian – with 28 medals and 23 of those Gold – telling it like it is.

It got me thinking about my world. We are fortunate to have a ringside view of a founder’s journey and I’ve seen how it often unfolds. It all starts with a strong sense of optimism – a feeling that there is nothing to lose. A founder and his/her band of brothers and sisters set out to change the world. When the founder achieves a degree of success, they become an inspirational figure to their team. People start to hang on to their every word, look to them for a dose of motivation every day. The pressure builds.

Then the media gets involved. Founders see their pictures splashed on magazine covers, newspapers and social media. Investors and well-wishers become unconditional cheerleaders and ‘retweet and like’ every word they post. The founder goes on to perhaps win industry awards and their public profile is raised even higher. Basically, the entire system pushes the successful founder higher and higher up on a pedestal.

But a pedestal is lonely. It’s isolating.

Founders often tell me they have nobody to talk to about their worries and their self-doubts. Their staff look to them for direction and reassurance; they feel they can’t afford to even appear to waver for one moment. They feel compelled to give good news to their investors and don’t want to let their well-wishers down. As that sense of isolation grows and anxiety sets in, it becomes harder to reach out.

Isolation, said Phelps, is an early sign. If you find yourself pushing other people away, that’s the start of the downward spiral. He shared that depression is actually quite prevalent in the world of elite sports, but nobody wants to talk about it because athletes are supposed to be strong.

This really resonates in Asia, where depression is not widely discussed, and society still views the roles of women and men through a certain lens. I’ve met female founders who feel they must never appear weak, because they must counter gender stereotypes. I’ve met male founders who say they find it hard to open up to anyone, even their wives, about the anxiety they’re going through because men are supposed to be pillars of strength.

So what should founders do?

Don’t let yourself get isolated; build networks with other founders and find mentors that you can turn to for advice before anxiety sets in. Everyone at Sequoia India considers it a medal of honour to get that 2 am call/Whatsapp; it tells us we’ve built a level of trust and the kind of relationship that a founder can rely on.

If needed, reach out to a health care provider and get the counselling and medical help you need. Phelps talked about the sense of liberation he felt when he realized it’s ok to talk about his depression. That being open is core to feeling better – and that feeling down doesn’t mean you can’t come back and win again.

Phelps got help. He built a trusted network – a community – he could open up to. He got back in the pool and won again. He continues to seek help when he needs it. And he’s become a champion for the cause, partnering with Talkspace, which provides online therapy, and sharing his story to help drive awareness.

That’s the success story we all need to hear. That’s inspiration.

I will forever remember meeting Michael Phelps – not just an Olympian but a wonderful human being.

This column was originally published on LinkedIn.