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Burnout vs. Mental Illness

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Since outing myself and “bravely” over sharing the story of my brief interlude with my bathroom floor, we’ve had two incredibly famous people depart life via their own hands. Their tales are their own and they join the list of 2,200 people who every day make the same final choice. Much has been written, and the grief has been felt world-wide. It’s confronting and it’s shocking. It makes us all question purpose and mortality. But the timing for me has meant a lot of what I wished to really discuss (the process and path to burnout) was lost to the theme of suicide and a lot of time was spent analysing this aspect of my confessional blog.

By no means do I wish to take away from those important themes, but I also don’t want everything to be swept into the same bucket. There’s much to be gained by talking about the “triggers” and the pathways that lead to being mentally fatigued, burnt out. It’s not an overnight thing. It didn’t just happen in a second. It took months of erosion. And whilst I am, by absolutely no means, an expert on this subject and I can only speak from my personal experiences, I can tell you that I believe that there is a very big difference between burning out and being mentally ill.

This last week hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of people have reached out and told me their stories. Or their children’s stories. Or their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, best friends…the list goes on. I’ve taken the time to respond to every single person and I’ve had conversations with people who are in the midst of their most personal and darkest moments. It’s been harrowing and eye opening. I didn’t really quite realise that I was throwing a rope out and so when people started climbing up it, it took me a bit by surprise. I asked others for help in responding to some, because I wanted to ensure I did it right.

The stories that most resonated with me were the ones from fellow founders, who recognised so much of what I had to say and were frightened for their own paths and wellbeing.

The purpose of sharing such a painfully frank story of being a start-up founder was about unburdening myself and helping myself out of the corner I had painted myself into. I did not want this to have control any longer and I was taking ownership of my life and the joy I wanted to have in it again. For ME this is centred around being a tech founder and the extraordinary pressures that go with it. If I didn’t have those, I would not be in this space. It is a highly unusual career option to choose for yourself and quite frankly not one I would recommend. It’s fraught with failure. And for 20 years I coped brilliantly with that, until I didn’t.

To be clear, that wasn’t because I wasn’t tough enough. Or because I had an “unusual” childhood. Or that I was the youngest of 7 children. Or that I am not built for this. It was simply that I was mentally fatigued. I had let it get out of control, I had lost sight of my priorities and enabled it to be bigger than myself. Was I depressed? Yes, I’m sure I was. Did this cause me immense anxiety? Yes, absolutely. Was I chemically unbalanced? No, I was not. I was fatigued, and it was situational. As far as I’m concerned, and again, this is just my point of view, it is different to a lifelong battle of depression.

I believe this is an important conversation, because every time we put a label on it and shove it into a box, we create — as Deborah Hill Cone pointed out — stigma. I’ve got a battle ahead of me as people gush “aren’t you brave” and cock their heads sideways and ask if I’m “okaaaay?” Please don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all the kindness that has come my way. But what I really want is a damn robust discussion about how we can stop our ‘bravest’ from burning out.

I’m brave not because I put my hand up and said, “fuck this nearly killed me”, I’m brave because I’ve been able to get my head around doing what I do for a living for as long as I have. I’m brave because I am okay with “making it up as I go along” and creating new things that have never been done before. I’m brave because I can fly across the world to pitch ideas to total strangers who may laugh me off the stage and out of the room or belittle my ideas and patronise the hell out of me (knowing this and doing it anyhow). I’m brave because I believe in innovation and insight, because I love bringing new things to life. And I’m damn good at it. I adore seeing an opportunity, coming up with the solution and then fighting my ass off to make it happen. The most fulfilling thing for me is seeing a customer use it and turn around and tell me how it does everything I ever dreamed of.

The only thing that makes me brave about sharing my story, is that I’m brave enough to not give a flying fuck what you may think of me after. Lots of people will write me off — and I’m ok with that, because I probably don’t want you on this team anyhow. I need people who can support this ridiculous thing better than we (collectively) have, because it has a real shot and because between myself and the extraordinary people I have along side me, we have created something very special that works. Just ask any Flossie fan. I am fiercely proud of what we have achieved.

As a nation we need people like me, and the other couple of thousand kiwis who are also bravely trying to do something entirely new that involves sticking their necks out every day and giving it a bloody good crack, even if the numbers are stacked against them. That’s where our economy will grow from and new jobs will appear. That’s how Brendan Lindsay did it. Or Sam Morgan. Or Rod Drury. Or Cecilia Robinson. They ALL have some serious shit stories too and I’m looking forward to them sharing them more with us all, so that we don’t just see the shiny “other side” of success that looks like Porsches, big watches and new Tesla’s. I love and adore that they’ve done it and are reaping their rewards (and rightly so that I feel envy), but I think they owe it to the next generation to tell the truth of how hard it actually was. How they nearly ran out of money and it was Christmas time. How they didn’t sleep for nights on end and had to figure out how to keep the family fed and kids happy at the same time as feed the mouths of a growing work force. That stuff drains the hell out of you. It wears you down. I’ve read so many stories this last week and I’m incredibly proud of so many people for stepping up and sharing. By putting that rope out there, we can all climb up and have a higher chance of success. Not sucksess.

What we need is an eco-system that can work out how to support, rather than humiliate. Normalise and acknowledge the impossibility of it all and figure out how to do it a bit better to increase our chances. No one is suggesting it will make it easier, but it might make it a little bit less lonely. Let’s get off the Dragon’s Den approach — Rowan Simpson has nailed an excellent view point — and work out how we can band together to create sustainable businesses.

Quite aside from the particulars of my industry, mental fitness is something we’re all responsible for. Our emotions and mind need as much care and emphasis as we take to keep other parts of our body healthy. It’s easy to let little things slip in and take over. It’s easy to forget to be mindful. It’s easy to put yourself last. All of the little things we do build up over a lifetime and when you’re in a crunch place, that’s when it can start to abandon you. What I’ve learned is that I have to surround myself with people who can help me at that time to not feel like all of the weight is entirely just on my shoulders. I believe I must have said that at least 30 times in the last 6 months, but I can tell you not once did someone say, “what can I do to help you not feel that way?”. Mostly they looked away awkwardly or rolled out some sort of platitude. I don’t blame anyone else, it’s up to me to choose who I surround myself with and I’ve now understood that resilience isn’t a personality trait, it’s something that needs topping up. And that’s part of my reason for publishing what I did, I’m holding myself accountable for not letting it get that bad ever again and I can tell you what, it won’t. But also I’m asking you, if you’re in my industry, help us figure out what you could do better too. I am not alone in feeling these things.

On the flipside I’ve had the most honest conversations with my children, my parents, my siblings, my friends and my employees as a result. We’ve shared tears and deep, deep conversation. I’ve been able to let go of so much and that’s why I’ve described it as shedding a skin. But that’s where I’m lucky and I know that others with serious mental illnesses are not. I can have that choice of owning up, turning up and making change and then start turning my tide. Others will fight every single day and maybe lose more often than they win. If you don’t understand depression, please read this impressive description.

Please don’t label me because it suits your catch-all definition. Please don’t read sensationalised headlines, aimed to get you to click and think you have the full picture. Take a moment to listen to the full story and ask questions and become part of the discussion on how we can ensure we improve our support foundations and avoid burn out.