Choose your own adventure…
They say there are 5 stages of grief. Over the last 6 months I’ve gone through periods of extreme sadness, then anger, then denial. Eventually I came to bargaining and battling the urge to give up or continue on emotionally drained and emaciated. I’ve been grieving the death of my love for my business. I’ve been living the burn-out.
When I got through the second to final stage, depression, I hit a wall and became someone I didn’t know. I would stay up at night feeling like a complete failure. I would consider giving up completely or ending my life because if I couldn’t do this ONE thing (operate a subscription business that puts toys in a box and sends them to 4 year olds) how could I ever be successful? How could I ever feel validated? How could I ever do anything impactful?
Owning a withering business can feel like loving a dying family member. You’re grieving every day before they’re gone, preparing yourself for the let down. And when the business itself isn’t dying, but your love for the business itself is dying, its even sadder because you cant help but wish you were different or more prepared. You start to believe that if only that deal came through, if only that customer didn’t yell at you, if only that one person believed in you, that none of this would feel this way and you’d be successful. You love this thing so much, but it hurts to watch it did.
Unfortunately, love is rarely enough to keep anything alive. Not a person, not a relationship, and not a successful business. Only a strong foundation, and… well- money- can keep this machine tuned-up and efficiently running. But when the money never comes you’re left with your foundation and when that begins to crumble, you go down with the earthquake.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. At this point you’ve begun to make peace with the fact that you just cant hold on to this idea forever. That the mere potential of wealth and validation is not worth fighting for anymore. That maybe you dont have anything to prove to anyone. You realize that you just spent hundreds of sleepless nights weighing your personal worth against the worth of your business, and start to see how fucked up that is. How could a business failing ever be more devastating than taking your own life? I’ve wondered this a lot in the last few weeks since the fog began to clear and I started my long trek to the other side of grief.
When I began to feel this way a few months back, I looked to google and Reddit forums for any sense of solidarity. I found the story of Jody Sherman, the co-founder of Ecomom, who took his own life in the face of financial burden both personally and professionally. In the end, his love for his trade did not save his life. Then there was Austen Heinz, Founder of Cambrian Genomics, who died from suicide in 2015. In a Business Insider article written about Austen’s death, Y-Combinator president Sam Altman said “That was a reminder to me that you can’t predict which founders are struggling.” The list goes on and on. The weight of failure can be smothering. The need for success and validation can be daunting. And eventually it can be a death sentence.
There are a lot of ways in which we cope with pain and suffering, and its not always suicide. Add in the insanely infatuating alcohol induced start-up culture, and it makes for a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms. You want to sit down and talk about your issues? Lets grab a drink. You’re having a hard day at the office? There is free beer in the commons area. In some ways, a lot of start-ups believe that alcohol leads directly to productivity, but when you are already struggling with the fear of failure and probably clinical depression, alcohol can become a vice that goes completely un-talked about within the entrepreneur communities. I’m not above that shit- I drank a lot of booze the first 6 months of running this business.
I’ve struggled with the shame of every failure, the memorizing high of every victory, and the plummet to the bottom when the high wears off. I’ve told people that a big win for the business can feel better than smoking crack (Okay, I’ve never smoked crack, but I’m going to make this assumption anyway.) But the withdrawal hits just as hard. When the wins get fewer and farther between. When the highlights are laced with disappointment and you start to look anywhere for the one positive thing that will get you THERE. Eventually, it just doesn’t hit the spot like it use to.
I had to wake up. It was time for me to get sober, so to speak, and find peace and validation within myself rather than relying on my business to give me a sense of self worth.
I put a lot of myself in to this business. I’ve regrettably sacrificed nights with my daughter, and days. I’ve let the fear and shame drive me to fits of rage towards my husband. I even lost my best friend and co-founder because of my inability to see outside of the “what the business needs.” I don’t want to ask myself if it was worth losing so much for. I’ll make myself sick over it. I’ve been able to adapt to the needs of my business without feeling guilt in the moment.
So, where do I go now? Do I walk away with the peace of knowing that I tried my best? Do I continue to wade through the shit, hoping for a pay-out? Do I put my tale between my legs and finally say “I NEED HELP and I wont stop you from helping me even though I have control issues” ? I’m not really sure right now. What I do know though, is that the further away I get from the business emotionally, the more I remember what it feels like to be content. The more I can focus on the things that fulfill my core values. But does anything good ever come without sacrifice? Can you have the best of both worlds? Do I have to be a depression riddled workaholic monster to be a success story someday? Man, I just dont know. But, I am so glad that the dust is settling, and I have the energy to ask myself these questions. Maybe this is the only way to get to where I want to go. I’ve come to accept that my love is dying, and now I need to figure out how to reanimate it… or maybe bury it.
Who wants to write the eulogy?