First Startup, Second Startup
I am trying to push through with my startup. It feels hard. I feel like I have failed and must start over. Am I alone? Is founder depression normal?
Not dead which eternal lie. (In) stranger eons death may die. (And) drain you of your sanity. Face the thing that should not be. Fearless wretch, ... lurking beneath the sea… Hunter of the shadows is rising. Immortal. In madness you dwell.
I opened the door expecting my best friend, Freddie (not his real name), but saw my parents instead. We all smiled. "You're back from Syria already!" I said. "They approved it!" my mom said, extending her hands to hug me. A chill ran down my face, eyes widening. "Next year we move to Canada" dad said, a little unsure of himself. Mom looked into my eyes, her smile vanishing. "Keep it a secret," she said, "even from your best friends. We need your military clearance before leaving Iran. They hate teenage boys who leave before mandatory service. Friends talk."
The year went by. I didn't say a word.
At the airport security line, Freddie cried. "I wish you told me" he said. A dozen crying family members and relatives stood a few feet back, submerging into the haze of long term memory. "I'm sorry Freddie. It's time," I said, grinding my teeth, "I didn't make the rules in this fucking place." My right hand pressed against his left shoulder. I wanted to shed a tear, but the wells felt tired and dry.
Fives years later in Toronto, I opened my eyes, sitting in a black leather seat. The psychiatrist sat across me.
"Why do you think you wanted to kill yourself?" she asked. "I don't know. For most of my life, a dark force has clouded over me." I said. My right hand covered my left fist and rubbed against it. "What do you think your hands say?" I looked at them, as if for the first time ever. "I don't know. Ever since my first crush rejected me, my right hand hasn't let go of my left fist. I think it symbolizes protection." I said. "From what?" she said. My mouth shrugged. "When we left Iran, I felt terrified. Once the gates closed behind me, we'd know nobody. Nobody would protect me. I even left my best friend --", I paused for three seconds, "my best friend --" I couldn't continue. My body trembled. The veins in my temples began to quiver. Seconds went by. "It's OK, finish that sentence" she said. My right hand let go of the fist and held the weight of my forehead, hiding my eyes. "I left my best friend in life behind without saying goodbye" I said, hardly breathing.
"It's not your fault" she said. I shrugged. "Yeah, maybe." "No, it's not your fault" she said. I chuckled, "OK, I'll take your word for it." "Look at me!" I looked at her. "It's NOT your fault." Tears started rolling down my eyes. "It's not your fault" she said. My fist loosened and joined my other hand in supporting my head. I fell to my knees, and wept. "It's not your fault. When the Door of No Return closes behind you, it separates you from your old self. What you tried to kill has already died."
And thus, I first resurrected.
We closed the hotel door and looked at the map. "Pittsburg eats universities for breakfast, which one says Carnegie Mellon?" I asked. "The keynote speech happens here," Naveen pointed to a giant stadium, "and then we commence to graduate." We walked that way. "They must have a really important person there, like a Steve Jobs or a U.S. President. These keynotes tend to change lives." I said. "Look around you man! They made this city of bridges," he said, "And today marks our bridge to the future." We agreed, it didn't take a keynote speech to change our lives today.
At CMU we met Gladys and Todd, the directors of the program. Gladys showed us how to put the robe, hood and cap on. "No, the tassel on the cap goes to the left for Masters students", while Todd, plaid to the bone, gave us the tour in a Scottish skirt he called "kilt". "So do you know who gives the keynote speech yet?" he asked. "No!" we said. "They selected a CMU graduate. You know him from the movie '127 Hours'. Aron Ralston." Naveen and I look at each other. "Wow! Did not see that coming."
We marched, robed and capped, to the stadium. The black mass of the crowd gathered, inside the oval cathedral covered in grass, to pay homage to the moral hero. We all knew him without having met him, but we also knew his vision of himself would differ from ours.
"And now, let me invite to the stage, one of the finest Engineering graduates that Carnegie Mellon University has produced, Aron Ralston," the speaker announced, "audio and video recording of this event are strictly prohibited." Thousands of cameras disappeared in an instant. Aron stepped up to the podium. Applause exploded into a standing ovation.
"Thank you," he said, "Congratulations to all of you for crossing this threshold... I shouldn't be here today." He raised his right hand, where instead of fingers, a metal hook made him look like a reversed version of Captain Hook -- both in symmetry and character. "As many of you know from the movie, I climbed down a slot canyon. An 800 pound boulder dislodged and crushed my arm, trapping me inside the canyon. I spent five days surviving on a single bottle of water. When food and water ran out, I drank my own urine. Then I wrote my name on the wall, videotaped my goodbye to my family, and faced death." The silence of the massive crowd demanded from him to continue, even after thirty seconds.
"You know the rest too. I used a two-inch dull knife to cut off my arm and escape. But you don't know what went through my mind, when I cut through my own bones." Suddenly the image of the Freddie I cut off from my life in the Iranian airport returned to my mind. Tears welled in my eyes once again. "I graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1997 as a Mechanical Engineer." he said, "That man died in the canyon, attached to the hand I left behind. A different man walked out, to live the remainder of his life." He committed a suicide of character. "... And I wish you graduates a new life, once you leave your robes behind."
It took 13 men and machines to retrieve his hand. They cremated it.
And thus, Aron Ralston first resurrected.
We moved out of our beloved San Francisco and its sphere of rising costs, into an apartment by the railroad. "This makes a second time I leave a place I call home to hang on to a pipe dream. This time I'm dragging you away with me." I told my wife. "We met because you left a place for a pipe dream the first time" she said. I browsed for a distraction on YCombinator's Hacker News. A headline froze me in place: Startup Founder jumped to death from rooftop in Manhattan
Faigy Mayer, a 30 year old female app developer, committed suicide. The article cited: "Founder depression and suicide aren't uncommon. A study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF and an entrepreneur, was one of the first to link higher rates of mental health issues to entrepreneurship." I raised an eyebrow. It concluded "Of the 242 entrepreneurs he surveyed, 49% reported having a mental-health condition. Depression was the No. 1 reported condition among them, present in 30% of all entrepreneurs, followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%). That's a much higher percentage than the US population at large, where only about 7% identify as depressed."
"Founder Depression," I said, "People call it 'depression' in the absolute sense because they don't see the arc on which the depressive episode lies; though innocently, they throw in the word 'founder' or 'entrepreneur', implying an arc." "Depression has complex causes" my wife said. "Less so when you see the full arc. A more enlightened term for this would be Forced Resurrection."
Faigy Mayer grew up in Brooklyn as a member of a religious sect (Let's not point any fingers) that shunned her values. According to her own account, even owning a radio disqualifies you as a secularist in that sect. She discovered a more open world in their local library. And she moved to Manhattan to live in that world.
The Door of No Return shut for Faigy when she crossed the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Her faith cast her out. Even her parents shunned her. Like an immigrant parting his birthplace, and like a rock climber cutting off his right arm, in one act she severed her connection from her birth self, family, community, religion and old world. She filled that empty space with artifacts of her new values: apps that facilitate communication between isolated citizens like her. She won the battle against the closed society.
But Faigy lost the battle for a mother's love. And without love, when you walk through one Door of No Return, you seek another.
Founders don't suffer more than others from depression. They suffer from a condition that makes them believe in the certainty of resurrection beyond the Doors of No Return. When this world loses its meaning, death becomes another door.
"So you jumped off the cliff" the Great Old One asked. His rhetorical image invoked the picture of the Mostar Bridge in my mind again, and waterfalls, with nothing but the dark sea beneath them. "Yes," I replied, "though nobody ever told me what comes after the cubicle life. What comes after the jump?" "Oh, but it's been told!" he said. "Where?" I asked, opening the palm of both hands to the side. "Let me enlighten you!
"Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly, And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. (The Bible)
"So this day we shall deliver your (dead) body (out from the sea) that you may be a sign to those who come after you! And verily, many among mankind are heedless of our revelations. (The Quran)
"I began to look round me, to see what kind of place I was in, and what was next to be done; and I soon found my comforts abate, and that, in a word, I had a dreadful deliverance; for I was wet, had no clothes to shift me, nor anything either to eat or drink to comfort me; neither did I see any prospect before me but that of perishing with hunger ... this threw me into such terrible agonies of mind, that for a while I ran about like a madman. Night coming upon me, I began with a heavy heart to consider what would be my lot if there were any ravenous beasts in that country, as at night they always come abroad for their prey. (Robinson Crusoe)
"He's alive -- Alive? Where? -- Inside the whale at the bottom of the sea. (Pinocchio)
Do you see?" he asked, smiling.
"That after the jump, you get wet?" I said, chuckling. "Yes, you could say that," he said, "or that all mythology throws the hero, after the door closes behind him, into the belly of a whale, a beast, into a desolate island, or even a slot canyon" he said. "What does it signify?" I said. "Depression. They found no word for it two thousand years ago, so they used more vivid metaphors than we use today" he said. "And how do they propose you climb out?" "Find your God." "What if you don't believe in a traditional God?" "Then cut off the non-essential parts of your ego and walk out with your conscience, whatever remains" he said, smiling, holding up the palm of both hands, as if introducing himself in third person.
"Oh, great! So I'm now talking to myself alone?" I asked. "Beneath the sea of unconscious thoughts sleeps the man for whom you left your world. When you die an ego-death, he emerges" he said. "In English please?" I asked. He slammed his fist on the table in front of me, "Death comes," he said, "before birth."
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
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