Mental Health, Trauma, and Startup Founders

A conversation seems to be slowly starting about mental health and Silicon Valley, or at least mental health and starting one's own company. And in a more serious fashion than "you'd be crazy to do it". Sam Altman on Founder depression started the conversations. TechCrunch continued by noting that We Need to Talk about Depression (which also has a good list of links to other similar articles) and Founders on Depression.

In my earlier post, Founders and mental health I wrote primarily about the range of mental health issues that founders can face. We should remember that depression isn't the only manifestation of mental health challenges.

Many people emailed me, talked to me in person, and even wrote a Quora question on one particular thought from that post though: that lots of startup founders I know have experienced some trauma in their past and that that trauma is often a strong factor in their motivation. Sometimes that trauma is a root cause of depression or anxiety or motivation, sometimes it is just present and something to deal with, and obviously sometimes it doesn't exist at all.

I thought I would explain the idea a little more though.

Over the last year I have found that most startup founders had some deep personal trauma in their early lives. Not all people but more than I might expect. Glen Moriarty, the founder of 7 Cups of Tea, and I have discussed it at length but it has also come up with many folks both inside and outside the YC community. It's a topic that someone resonated as something to talk about when you're stressed out and bonding late after one of YC's Tuesday dinners.

The trauma theory made immediate sense to me as I have made a similar observation about many, if not most, of my friends and classmates at Brown. Either they had screwed up childhoods and were motivated by that somehow, or that had intensely attentive parents and were trying to live up to expectations. Either way, I did not find many settled content geniuses who found their way there.

There is a fundamental difference between schools and startups though: in one you know the goalposts and in the other you don't. At school, you are told what targets to hit for success while startups are much more chaotic and kinetic. To me, the idea that some deep, often traumatic, motivation is a powerful catalyst for success, made all the more sense in the world of startups. You have to really want it for whatever reason.

And that reason is often something from one's childhood.

Perhaps I shouldn't use such a broad brush to paint so many people with so common a set of neuroses. It's certainly not the case that everyone that succeeds in life has trauma. (And not all trauma leads to success obviously). But I wouldn't doubt the predictive power of the idea either. As I talked with new friends in YC, throughout Silicon Valley, and beyond about deeply personal topics the theory seemed more accurate. Or at least I had more data supporting the idea. (Although this could all be a selection bias).

In my case, my parents had me when they were incredibly young and promptly got divorced. I lived with my mother, an alcoholic, until I was ten. At that point, we had gotten in so many drinking related car accidents together, that my step-father was asking for a divorce and child welfare agencies demanded I move to live with my father. I didn't see my mother again for eight years.

You know, perhaps if my startup succeeds my mother-of-1997 will treat my ten year old self better? I'm partially joking and partially not.

Dan, my-cofounder, his father died when he was one. His mother was in a coma for some time and had to learn how to talk and walk again. Hopefully his father will be proud of his first billion dollar company.

Time and time again, there are similar stories that come out from co-founders I meet, mostly because I can be candid about my background and this theory. Some with less intensity perhaps but no less motivating to the individual. Some with a lot more intensity but with less motivation. I don’t necessarily feel empowered to share their specific stories here but they're often there, serious, and touching. The speed and positivity with which folks, many profoundly publicly successful, respond to this idea further suggests that it hits on some truth about the startup community.

Ultimately, I spent years of my college life in a path of depression, crisis, and then renewal that have made me stable, happy, and sure of who I am. In many ways I am fortunate that that happened so early in life and not when the consequences of my errors affected many people beyond myself. But at other times I wonder if I lost a little something. Something that people who haven't faced down their demons still have. After all, I was amazingly productive and won many collegiate awards in 2007, all the while self-destructing.

This is correct in the sense that what I do now is no longer compulsive (i.e, unconscious). I was succeeding out of an unconscious drive or push. Now that I have awareness, I can see that I still have this same drive and push, but I can choose where to focus it. It isn't compulsive now.

A number of friends and many people who emailed me after the last post asked me about my experiences through depression and therapy. That write up will be my next post.