Young, Successful, and Depressed
The silent battle against depression of the young tech elites
From the surface, it seems like us young tech workers have everything we’d ever want: We are young, educated, and often well off for our age. But in reality, depression rates in the industry have never been higher. And the majority of my friends seem to be depressed, or at the very least, deeply unsatisfied with their lives.
More and more talented young tech workers are dying from depression. And as I lost friend after friend to this illness, I am having a hard time buying into the “scientific” rhetoric that a simple chemical imbalance is causing my friends to take their own lives. It’s got to be something more than a missed prescription or forgetting to pop a pill.
This post might sound self-righteous, or even full of speculative delusion. But I am desperate to explore what is causing the dissonance between the glossy exteriors and the realities of our lives. Why are we, as an industry, so unhappy? And by looking at the interactions of societal factors and the culture of the industry, I hope to find a better way to support those who are dear to our hearts.
Heroism and Individualistic Notion of Success
The tech industry has a hero problem. We celebrate the geniuses, the unicorn startups, and the 10X programmers. But not everyone can be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. What about the Sams, the Sallys, and the 1X programmers? The people who, as a part of a community and a team, build great things?
In order for people to be truly happy, they need to know that their work has value. That they are in some way contributing to the lives of others. But when we as an industry are so focused on the great and the magnificent, the contributions of everyone else seems to dwarf in comparison. Particularly your young adult intern or junior developer.
This means that young tech workers often fail to find meaning in their work. Perhaps along with celebrating the superstars, we should also celebrate the everyday people that ultimately, help prop up our industry. Acknowledge them, in the most literal sense, and let them know: Your work is valuable. And you are making a difference.
The Happiness Facade of the Young and Educated
Sure, there is a percentage of tech workers who are self-taught, non-traditional high school drop-outs. But most of them are educated high achievers who went to prestigious colleges, who had been successes from the very start of their lives. And among this population, there is immense pressure to avoid failure.
When I was younger, I was told that the world functions like this. First, I’ll work hard to get into a good college. And once I get into a good college, I’ll be able to get a white-collar, high paying job. Then, I am supposed to be set for life. What I was not told was that the real world is much less structured than school and that finding a fulfilling career isn’t as straightforward as getting an “A” in discrete mathematics.
Suddenly, bright college students who have been dubbed a success for their whole lives are thrust into the uncertainty of adult career advancement, without the structure that once guided them to the top.
Unfortunately, we’ve already built a self-identity that relies heavily on being the best. And the people around us still expects us to be the superstar, even though we are just starting to adjust to the vastly different playing field we find ourselves in today.
I’ve no room to fail now. Because the whole world expects me to succeed. — Anonymous friend A
Thus, ambitious young tech workers struggle every day to prove that they are still successful, simply because they don’t think that failure is an option. It’s a lot of pressure to hold up a front like that. Happiness can seem like a requirement, success an obligation.
“After all, if I went to Harvard, I should be doing well. And if I’m not, does it mean that there is something wrong with me?” This mentality prevents us from speaking about our issues honestly and forces us to keep pretending to be okay.
Perhaps it’s time for us to teach smart, hardworking college students that it’s okay to make some mistakes, it’s okay to fail a few times, and our value isn’t tied to whether we get into Google or Microsoft or not.
Stress and the Fast Pace of the Tech Industry
23 seems to be the new 75 in tech.
Everyone seems to be in such a rush in the tech industry. They are in a rush to get to the next raise, the next round of funding, and their next stages in life. And the tech world has a peculiar fetish for the Silicon Valley wunderkind from Evan Spiegel to Elizabeth Holmes. It sure seems like there is no place in the industry for anyone older than 35.
I’m 25. I’m too old to be successful in the tech industry. — Anonymous friend B
This has surely created a massive amount of stress among my peers. They are rushed to carve out a place for themselves in the industry, while they are still adjusting to the topsy-turvy reality of adulting.
Is it true that a tech career is as short as that of Victoria’s Secret underwear model? Or can we let the freshies of society know that it’s okay for them to explore a bit, experience a bit, breath a bit? And spend some time figuring out what we truly want without fear of being cast out like yesterday’s chicken pot pie?
(You should definitely not throw out yesterday’s chicken pot pie, by the way. You should give them to me instead.)
Is it just me, or is it really hard to make friends as an adult? Straight out of college, I found my friends separated across some twenty-two countries and half of the fifty states. Suddenly I found myself in need of a new support network since my old one was now spread thin across seven different time zones.
I imagine I’m not the only young adult who experienced this shift. Isolation is an inevitability when massive life changes happen, and friendships in the adult world seem different than what we were used to in school. The stress to make friends and connect in our new environments certainly adds strain to life.
The issue of isolation seems to be especially severe in the tech world since it’s often the quiet, introverted types that gravitate towards this type of work. And if the young adult is already struggling because of other reasons, depression has the tendency to make connecting with others even more difficult.
I have exactly zero friends in this new city. Oh boy. — Me a few months ago
Becoming more Aware
These are a few reasons why I think so many of my peers are struggling. Of course, depression is complex and not merely a symptom of adjusting to adulthood. But I hope that with this discussion, we can start to understand the unique circumstances that challenge us as a community. And in doing so, we can have a better idea of how to support those who are struggling in our lives.
For the longest time, I thought of depression as a problem to think through, my friends’ minds as balls of wires to untangle and debug. Being unable to help my friends when they were at their lowest filled me with rage and guilt. Don’t we have a better option than to see our loved ones in pain and in despair, all alone?
Through conversations with my friends, I hypothesize that maybe there is an ultimate prescription for depression: empathy and companionship. To understand where we each stand in life, to try to understand why, and to say: “I see you there, my friend. I am here. And I am here for you.”
Note to those Young Adults (Or anyone who is struggling)
I really hope it gets easier for you. And I hope you will be able to get through it, feeling better than you can ever imagine. People do make it out of depression and live to tell the tale. Hope is something that tends to disappear when depression engulfs you, but it does exist and I hope you find it again.
You have value. You are not alone, and you are not deformed, damaged or weird. Please call a family member or friend if you need to talk. They would be glad to hear from you. Lastly, the suicide prevention hotline is available 24/7 at 1–800–273–8255. It’s confidential and free. Please call if you need emotional support or someone to talk to.
You say you’re “depressed” — all I see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective — it just means you’re human. ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas