Last Thursday, I received the devastating news that a friend and former colleague had taken his own life. Coincidentally, the day before, I visited my old LA headquarters where he was based and was greeted by a number of friendly faces from my past life. Despite the warm reception, I couldn’t help but notice his ominous absence. The lights to his office were turned off, the door was shut, and I heard whispers of concern for his health and well being. No one knew that day would be his last.
As a co-founder of the company, he had developed a reputation as a father figure amongst a team of kids and misfits. He was man of integrity who loved his wife, his two kids, his employees, and his business. He was one of the kindest souls I had encountered in the otherwise cutthroat digital media industry and if he was guilty of anything, it was of caring too much. Whether it was remembering employee’s birthdays, bringing boxes of breakfast burritos to the office in the morning, or doing his best to make new employees feel like part of the family, he made incredible efforts to bring happiness to the workplace.
This company had gone through its fair share of volatility over the past couple of years. The business had grown at a manic pace, further propelled by a couple of large fundraises, acquisitions, and a hiring spree. As the growth continued, so did the scale of its challenges. A number of industry veterans had joined the executive ranks and by the end of my tenure at the company, it had regressed into an environment resembling House of Cards or The Hunger Games. Executives started breaking off into factions to overthrow leaders and claim power while the founding company culture was vacuumed out, employee morale was devastated and the health of the business deteriorated. As the cancer spread and eventually took over, rounds of layoffs followed and the business drifted thousands of miles away from the original ethos of its founders. The culture had become flat out cruel, the antithesis of what my late colleague stood for. By that point, however, the founders had been elbowed out of the cockpit, no longer able to steer the ship and effect change.
There has always been a dark side to entrepreneurship, or to any career for that matter. There can be incredible loneliness, emptiness, stress, and anxiety. There can be the feeling that if a business or project fails, you are also a failure. There can be the overwhelming worries of being humiliated, of letting down your family, of losing credibility and the confidence of your employees and investors. These are familiar sentiments to anyone who has run a business. However, today’s culture of success at all costs has run away from reality, making it nearly impossible to address struggles without fearing for one’s position.
The American work environment is rife with unsustainable business practices, false posturing, vacation-shaming, and unmanageable expectations that are driving both leaders and their employees into the ground. I was recently watching a panel made up of entrepreneurs who were recognized as “disruptors,” one of the more obnoxious buzzwords from Silicon Valley. To no surprise, one of the panelists opened with the audacious statement that if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you should expect to be overweight, rundown and single within three years. I say FUCK that. What kind of bullshit example does that set for the workplace and for workers’ health and well being? The model of success should never encourage or accept the degradation of physical or mental health.
While those who loved my former colleague are now left to speculate about all the other factors that led to his death, the obvious centerpiece was the stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression he clearly carried from the business. The company is still operating and has recently started showing signs of resurgence and renewed morale, but it was likely lost to him after all the swings, shakeups, and nastiness that he had endured along the way. And that is the real tragedy. His sense of despair must have been all-encompassing and final, which is just so sad because it wasn’t reality. If a business fails, if we’re fired, if we lose our self worths, we should be able to process, mourn, move on, and find fulfillment elsewhere. However, without a culture that not only allows, but encourages the room to detach, to breathe, to open up about struggles, and to have the space to find fulfillment outside of work, this is not possible.
So here we are, left to mourn the loss of a kind and wonderful soul. This cannot just be categorized as a horrible tragedy when there’s such a clear cause and effect. It would be a disservice to his legacy, to the business, to all of those who feel his loss, and to our culture at large NOT to learn from this. While there’s growing talk about mental health in the work place, burnout prevention, etc., it’s still just talk. We need to get serious about checking into reality, embracing compassion, and making our work environments places of well being as well as success.
Lives literally depend on it.