The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

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“It’s not as fun being me as you’d think…I’m not sure I’d want to be me.”

This is a quote that you would never expect to hear from a billionaire, let alone one who is revered in our society as one of the most brilliant and influential leaders of our generation. Elon Musk is an outspoken, oft misunderstood, entrepreneurial visionary. Constantly thinking ahead of our time, he is currently working to recreate the way we travel on both ground and in space.

In the early years of Tesla and SpaceX, a tremendous amount of pressure surmounted as Musk struggled to find cash infusions to keep his businesses afloat, borrowing massive sums of money at a time and burning through nearly $4 million dollars per month in order to meet payroll and keep his brainchildren alive. This pressure was taking a toll on him. Plagued by intense nightmares, he began to self-destruct.

“He lost a lot of weight, bags formed under his eyes and he looked like death itself,” his ex-wife Talulah Riley said. “I remember thinking this guy would have a heart attack and die. He seemed like a man on the brink.”

The journey of entrepreneurship is filled with self-doubt, criticism, rejection and extreme stress. These combined with a lack of financial security and intense levels of both ambiguity and accountability can quickly spiral into an unhealthy and unsustainable cocktail of depression and anxiety.
While the idea of starting a company is trendy, few individuals, me included, truly know the dedication, vulnerability, and loneliness that is required to take an idea and turn it into a successful entity.

“Only by reading beyond the headlines and looking deeper into the stories of founders like Elon are we truly able to explore the dark side of entrepreneurship. As of 2018, statistics show that one in five US adults experience mental illness in a given year.53 As we narrow the scope, it has been shown that entrepreneurs are significantly more at risk than those in other professions.

A new study, which was approved by the UC Berkeley Institutional Review Board and published in the journal Small Business Economics, found that mental health differences directly or indirectly affected 72 percent of the entrepreneurs in this sample, including those with a personal mental health history (49 percent) and family mental health history among the asymptomatic entrepreneurs (23 percent).” While these findings are still considered preliminary, it is very interesting to see. “the correlation between entrepreneurship and mental health disorders.

In the statistics below, the first percentage represents the experimental group of two hundred forty-two entrepreneurs while the second represents the comparison group of ninety-three non-entrepreneurs both males and females ranging from ages eighteen to forty-five. The third percentage reflects the general population.

The results of this study showed:
•Depression: 30 percent compared to 15 percent and 16.6 percent
•ADHD: 29 percent compared to 5 percent and 4.4 percent
•Addiction: 12 percent compared to 4 percent and 8.4 percent
•Bipolar diagnosis: 11 percent compared to 1 percent and 4.4 percent

Furthermore, 32 percent of the entrepreneurs in the study reported having two or more mental health conditions, while 18 percent reported having three or more mental health conditions. Now think of those who were bullied and already have a higher chance of developing these mental illnesses. It can be scary combination. More and more entrepreneurs have revealed their own struggles with these issues, helping to further reduce the stigma of mental illness. In some extreme cases, entrepreneurs cannot separate their professional identity from their personal identity, viewing entrepreneurial failure and existential failure as one in the “one in the same. They let their determination and drive fully consume them as they drown in a combination of debt and anxiety that ultimately drives them to take their own lives.

This is why it is so important to develop your nerve and never let the voices in your head overshadow your own worth. More importantly, by overcoming adversity you are able to build the self-awareness needed to draw a line to signify when enough is enough and to seek help when needed. As an entrepreneur, or even just a hard-working employee, it is crucial to acknowledge that there is a point of diminishing returns and that no dollar, recognition, or press is worth sacrificing your mental or physical health. Yet, for many founders, especially those whose companies are on the brink of failure, this is easier said than done.

Start-ups are time consuming, emotionally taxing, and alienating. As a leader, there is a constant pressure to remain calm in even the most tense, high-stake situations and to do whatever it takes to make your dream a reality. This mentality can take a massive toll on anyone and undermine the productivity of both the founder and his or her business. The biggest mistake that many founders make is ignoring the connection between their mind and body, leading them to experience burnout. Entrepreneurs who do find the correct work-life balance often follow set routines to keep them both physically and mentally fresh.


© Randy Ginsburg, 2020 | Want to chat? Email me at randy@randymginsburg.com