Failure, Depression, and Resilience.

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Climbing Mt Fuji in June 2018.

I don’t know if it’s a good idea to write this. 2018 has been one of the worst years I’ve ever had.

I figured I could talk a little bit about myself. I’m inspired by kurtiskemple’s I’m an Imposter article, and Brad Feld’s extensive writing about mental health.

I want to share what life has taught me about failure, depression and resilience.

2018

2018 actually started out great. I was in a good position professionally. I had a great time with my close friends (The Crew™️) in Playa del Carmen and a few other trips. I had arranged to work from Japan for a month in June, and I felt like I was finally setting up life the way I wanted.

But over a two week period in June and July, I went through a rollercoaster of events:

  • I failed the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), after going to Japan for one month primarily to study and pass it.
  • I climbed Mt. Fuji by myself.
  • Had a huge fallout with my best friend and saw her probably for the last time ever. We became the villains in each other’s stories.
  • Had a hard professional setback and began parting ways with my job.
  • I hurt my partner and she had to go through a difficult time on her own, damaging our relationship.

I feel that going to Japan for a month is one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made. I came back to loss on different fronts: I didn’t meet my goals; my relationships with my close friends were damaged, and we don’t have our crew anymore; I don’t know what I’m doing professionally; I lost a unique, irreplaceable friendship that was fundamental to my happiness and I’m infinitely sad about that.

Since June I’ve been absolutely devastated. I feel broken. I haven’t been able to handle it.

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Trying to recognize how I feel every day.

This year I’ve had to remember many lessons from a difficult journey in life.

For me that story begins in 2002.

Failure and Depression: What it’s like to drop out of MIT.

I’m very proud of graduating from MIT, but the truth is that it took me 14 years to do it. I was originally Class of 2004, but I was asked to take a year off by the Committee on Academic Performance (CAP) in 2002.

I didn’t graduate until 2014.

When I got to MIT I didn’t have the right mindset. I grew up in a very, very strict academically-focused household. My motivation for getting good grades was avoiding getting into trouble. Once I got to MIT I did everything but study. I focused on having friends, having a girlfriend finally, staying up as long as I wanted, eating whatever I wanted, and playing Smash Brothers.

I was surrounded by the smartest people in the world, who didn’t bother studying and still got A’s. I did that in high school, so I kept doing that at MIT, and I tempted fate as much as possible.

It turns out that MIT isn’t high school. It’s one of the toughest places in the world. It’s unofficial motto is IHTPF, or I Hate This Fucking Place. Half the kids go from being the top of their class to finding out they’re below average. There’s a suicide almost every year.

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Every year, the face of the Brass Rat (MIT class ring) features IHTFP in it.

I was smart enough and I had some victories, like barely doing any work for 18.03 (Differential Equations) and still doing well. But I did not come prepared with the discipline and focus required to succeed at MIT. My sophomore year, my girlfriend dumped me and it destroyed me. I stopped going to class, I didn’t attend some of my finals. The CAP asked me to take a leave of absence.

When you’re asked to take a year off MIT for academic reasons, you’re expected to enroll at another institution full-time and show that you can do well academically. After that, you can apply to return to MIT and finish your degree. Most people go back home, enroll in a community college, and go back to MIT after a year.

I was not allowed to go back home. I received the CAP decision while I was doing an internship in D.C., and I didn’t know where to go from there. I found myself without the support from my family or my friends. Luckily, on the last day I received support from organization running the internship, and from my friend Dan, an MIT alum who took me in and really saved me from a desperate situation.

In D.C. I learned what it’s like to get a job, what it’s like to find an apartment, what it’s like to fend off for myself. I didn’t do it well, but I was able to take care of myself enough. Eventually I found a job as a software developer. But I didn’t know how to make friends or rebuild socially.

The experience really changed me. I didn’t know it, but I was going through major depression. My friends from MIT stopped talking to me (when I explained I was in trouble, one of them said, “HAHA!”). Feeling sadness every day became normal. I was a failure. Isolated. Outcast.

I managed to get back to MIT in 2005, but I was still going through depression and I didn’t know it. I blamed myself constantly for not being able to do work. I took a medical leave.

I was part of an MIT culture that didn’t talk about depression (it has changed since). For my generation, depression was seen as a weakness. Or it was seen as something you could fake to get an extension on an assignment. I didn’t know that depression was something that could happen to me, or something to take seriously. I was raised to feel that if I didn’t have the energy or the concentration to study, something was fundamentally wrong with me and I was a failure of a person.

As a condition of my medical leave, I was required to seek mental health treatment. I still believed that I just needed to be a little bit tougher and more disciplined, but in 2008 I finally went along with the requirement. It turns out that I really needed it.

As I was going through treatment, I finally had the emotional energy to become social. I started learning Japanese and attended language meetups. I started having more and more friends, and feeling happier. I discovered that what was making me depressed is the lack of connection to other people, and I started working really hard to pursue it. My roommate and I threw amazing parties. I met my girlfriend Lindsay, who is basically the most impressive person ever and we’ve been together since. I was in a really good place, and ready to finish my degree.

I went back to MIT in 2011. The feeling of estrangement came back, being so much older than other students. But my friends from Japanese class, Christina, Cathy, Ivana, Law, and Fluffy accepted me and I was very glad for it. I really needed that core of friends and emotional support to get through MIT.

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Graduation in 2014.

I graduated in 2014. I’m proud that I finally did it. I’m ashamed about how long it took me to do it. I feel like my degree comes with an asterisk. I feel that I’m not as good as the people who were able to do in 4 years.

Talk about impostor syndrome.

Resilience.

2018 feels a lot like 2002.

I’ve really had to dig deep to get through this year. Going from such a high in the beginning in the year to such a low has me questioning everything about myself.

I want to start a company someday. Do I even have what it takes?

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Let’s put things in perspective. I still have my health. I’m not bankrupt or homeless. I didn’t go to jail or develop a drug problem. I traveled to Japan twice, Mexico 3 times, Amsterdam, Las Vegas, Miami and Dominican Republic. I went to the World Series.

I have to recognize that I’m privileged, and others have gone through worse losses than me:

But pain is personal. Even though it’s a privileged position to be an MIT student with the ability to return, I was still deeply in pain.

I’m still in pain now. How am I still in pain??

Here’s what life has taught me about being resilient. No matter what kind of pain you’re going through, I hope these lessons I learned are helpful:

1. Identify your batteries.

This has been the most important lesson I’ve had to learn in life. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who’s content and happy all the time. I have to make sure I do things that give me emotional energy, or batteries.

Coming out of depression, I learned that social interaction is what gives me energy. I need a good solid foundation of friends in order to function. I completely lost that in 2018. My main source of energy is gone. I wish I could have it back.

Achieving goals also makes me happy. I gave myself some goals like writing some blog posts and releasing an app. They’re not the big goals I want to achieve, but it’s been helpful.

Your batteries are probably different. Maybe it’s reading a book, or not looking at a screen all weekend. Whatever it is, it’s important to continuously recharge emotionally so you can better face difficult situations.

2. Rely on your friends.

I don’t know about you, but I was raised to shoulder everything on my own and be independent of other people. It’s a lesson I’ve had to unlearn. A few years ago one of my friends came to me for advice on a difficult situation. I was really flattered that she’d come to me for help, but it also made me realize I never ask for help from anyone.

Talking really helps release a lot of the stress you’re holding on to. It’s also helpful in changing your point of view. Many times when you’re troubled or depressed, it’s because you’re locked into one way of thinking. I recently visited a close friend I haven’t seen in a long time, and it was really therapeutic.

When you ask for help, it’s important to be respectful of your friends’ emotions as well. Unloading your troubles on someone can be emotionally stressful for them, no matter how close they are to you. Before you do that, be considerate and ask if they have the emotional capacity to help you.

3. Get inspired and change your outlook.

A lot of the pain can come from being stuck in a mindset and ruminating over the problem constantly. You can help yourself change your outlook by reading books. These are the two books that have helped me a lot this year.

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The Mindset book was really helpful in helping me understand that I’m not locked into my way of being, that I can grow in every aspect of my life. During the really hard times I tend to blame my nature and I feel that things are never going to change. It also helped me understand that resilient people don’t give up when there’s a setback, but see it as an opportunity for growth.

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The book The Hard Thing about Hard Things gave me perspective on the size of my problems. Yes, 2018 was emotionally difficult, but it’s nothing compared to the stress and emotional charge of having a business that’s about to fail. It made me realize that you can only get good results in life if you’re willing to face the difficult situations that come with it.

It’s absolutely my favorite book. It inspires me to be more resilient.

4. Get Busy!

I’m a person that tends to ruminate a lot. If I have a problem and I’m alone, I tend to focus on it and play out fights and scenarios in my head over and over and over. I don’t have control over it. It’s really emotionally draining.

You have to manage yourself and give yourself a break it. At MIT I knew very resilient people who are able to distract themselves by focusing on work. Unfortunately I’m not like that, I can work and ruminate at the same time and I drain myself easily.

My solution is to schedule myself as much as possible. Putting myself in situations where I have to interact with people gives me the emotional break I need. The solution for you might be different, but you need to find a way to occupy yourself to give yourself an emotional rest.

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5. Maintain the thread.

When I’m feeling depressed, I tend to have moments of clarity where I start regaining my mental discipline, but then later, instincts and emotions tend to take over and I “lose the thread.” Hours, or a day or two will go by and I’ll realize, “shit, I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish”.

Being able to maintain mental discipline is called executive control.

One of the most important lessons I learned from when I was being treated from depression is that you have to keep doing what you were doing while struggling to deal with the emotions. You can’t let the emotions ruin your life. You can give yourself a project to work on daily and practice maintaining the mental discipline to get it done.

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What I was trying to accomplish during one of my toughest weeks.

6. Stand up to the bully.

Think about high school. Imagine that you had a bully who constantly punished you by pointing out the worst things about yourself: that you’re not smart enough, that you’re too soft, that no one cares about you, that people just use you. You probably imagine that you’d just stand up to that bully.

If you’re going through a difficult time and you have a little voice in your head telling you all that stuff, you have an internal bully. You’re abusing yourself in the same way that a high school bully would. You have to stand up and say, “no, fuck that.”

I don’t know how to maintain a positive attitude at all times, I’m very envious of the people who can do that. But I recognize that I can stand up against my negative attitudes.

Don’t punish yourself even more for going through a difficult time. It’s ok to be hurt.

7. Exercise, diet and meditate.

I think this is obvious advice that no one ever listens to. I don’t even do it. I know, I know, I know that doing exercise will improve my mood and give me more energy.

I used to run cross-country in high school and I’ve experienced the high of a good run many many times in my life. But many times I’m too stressed out, too emotionally drained to go to the gym.

File exercise under, “Shit you have to do even when you’re not motivated.”

All the successful people I admire work out regularly. It’s just part of being emotionally prepared for the day. When you’re stressed out, it’s because your body is in fight-or-flight response mode. Your body is just pumping out chemicals that make your muscles tense and put you in emotional stress. Exercise has the dual benefit of making you feel better, and burning off that fight-or-flight response.

Meditation is the practice of mental discipline. The point of meditation is learning how to quiet the thoughts in your head and focus on being present. This is how you regain executive control.

Many people don’t like doing it, they get bored or they get exposed to their fears and anxieties. I think as we grow older, our “inner universe” of thoughts and experiences expands more and more. We retreat into that inner universe, and if that inner universe is full of problems and bad experiences, we suffer.

Meditation gives you the discipline to stop retreating into that inner universe, and the ability to let go of intrusive thoughts.

Try a quick 18 minute meditation.

As I get older, I’ve been finding that diet affects my mood. Having a pizza really ruins my productivity, especially now that I’m lactose intolerant 😢. Overeating takes away my energy. I also recognize now that I gained a lot of weight over the years because I medicate my anxiety with food.

Being in emotional pain has a lot of layers, and I mention diet because it’s something that can be an additional drain. Pay attention to what you eat, and try to have a diet that gives you the best chance to get through the day.

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8. Seek help.

If you’re constantly sad and you’ve never been treated for depression, it’s a good idea to seek medical help. Depression is a real medical condition. It’s not personal weakness, just like having diabetes or having liver disease is not a personal weakness. The brain is what we are, but it’s still an organ just like our other organs and it’s subject to real medical issues.

Having a sharp pain on your leg or your stomach can be debilitating and keep you from working and having a happy life. You’d go to the doctor to try to seek relief. The same thinking applies for constant emotional pain.

I’m not a medical professional, and the content of this blog post is merely my experience and the ways that I try to cope and be resilient in my own life. If you feel you’re going through depression, it’s best to seek professional help as soon as you can.

I wasted years of my life suffering quietly because I didn’t understand depression. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

That’s my story. I’ve had a very difficult, emotionally draining year, and those are the strategies that I’ve used to be resilient. I hope something good will come from this year.

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I want to thank my partner Lindsay for being extremely supportive, despite our relationship also becoming strained. She has the emotional strength of 10 people, and I don’t know what I would have done without her. It’s been a complicated, stressful year for both of us.

I also want to thank my friends and apologize for the stress and pain I caused you this year. I’m really sorry the family broke up. I know a lot of this is my responsibility. I know I’ve been an emotional burden. Thank you for being there for me.

Thanks for reading. Here’s some ear candy:

Startup survivor, drinker of the MIT firehose. React Native developer. geosocial.io is my startup dream. If at first you don’t succeed, sudo bang bang.

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