By far the most difficult skill I learned as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology. Organizational design, process design, metrics, hiring, and firing were all relatively straightforward skills to master compared with keeping my mind in check. I thought I was tough going into it, but I wasn’t tough. I was soft.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of CEOs, all with the same experience. Nonetheless, very few people talk about it and I have never read anything on the topic. It’s like the fight club of management: The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.
Ben Horowitz – The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Though Ben Horowitz is taking aim at venture-backed, technology start-up CEOs in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, his commentary on managing your own psychology in business seems to be true for pretty much anyone that relies on their brain and creativity as their primary means of production, which is an increasingly large segment of Western society.
In describing what he thought was one of the biggest lessons learned about his current, successful company compared with his previous struggling company, someone I interviewed recently responded to the effect of “I’ll be honest, a lot of this stuff is just mindset.”
I smirked, because he’s right, but as Ben Horowitz pointed out, we don’t really talk about it that much.
It is an amazing, first-world problem. If you have access to an internet connection and a computer, you have the most powerful tools of production that have ever existed. Though Karl Marx believed it would happen through a political system of joint ownership, the democratization of the tools of production and distribution happened through technology.
The tools of production is now the nexus of a $1000 laptop, a $40 internet connection, and a large gray blob sitting between your ears.
While this has unleashed a level of possibility previously unknown to the human species, it’s introduced a few problems as well.
One of which, is exactly how that large gray blob works. I’m going to skip the debate about whether it is in fact possible to separate “you” from the large gray blob or if you are the blob and a lot of other philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and identity that aren’t particularly relevant.
What is relevant, well known and inarguable is that our day-to-day conscious control over our thoughts and motivation remains tenuous.
Yet, it’s still quite taboo to talk about. In an era of scientific enlightenment that’s given us a feeling of control over our realities that borders on intoxicating, the admission that there’s something which can be, at best, lightly controlled and poorly explained going on in the grey blob between your ears which has profound implications on your material reality isn’t welcome cocktail conversation.
I’ve had a bit of a “blah” week.
From any objective perspective, it’s actually not that bad of a week. World War 3 didn’t drop, I’m not about to go homeless, my family still loves me and I haven’t suffered from major depression or anything on that level.
If I were to sit down and present an even remotely objective view of my life to anyone on Earth right now, it would like it’s going really well. And given any sense of perspective on my own life, I intellectually feel that same way too. I am immensely grateful for my good fortune, friends, and family yet despite my best attempts, I’ve had a string of “blah” days.
I won’t use the word “depression” even “mild depression” as I’ve spoken to people who have suffered from real depression, thoughts of suicide, and things on that level.
What I’m talking about isn’t a difference of degree but of kind.
Noah Kagan wrote an excellent post on Jason Cohen’s blog calling it micro-burnout and that feels quite close, but the word I find most accurately describes the feeling is just “blah.”
I’m talking about wanting to sleep far more than seems normal (going on 5 nights of 9+ hours – talk about high quality problems) and preferring to watch Furious 7 (the density of #Muricah’ cliches is epic, definitely go see it) and eat peanut butter and ice cream instead of sit down and work on a book.
Projects which seemed to have life and death importance weeks earlier become surrounded by a feeling of relative ambivalence.
Those things live in two different universes and I (very fortunately) have no experience with the former, but have passed through a few periods of the latter.
To society’s credit, it seems to be more and more acceptable to talk publicly and honestly severe depression. However, in some ways that’s made it more difficult to talk about just feeling “blah.” It certainly pales in comparison.
It’s also difficult to talk about because there’s quite little to say. No one really knows what’s going on inside that big grey blob, much less how to control it.
Yet, there’s massive industries built around reclaiming hours and minutes of productivity using time management and virtual assistants and relatively little about reclaiming the days or weeks we all spend with that feeling of blah-ness.
I used to believe these feelings would go away at some point after I “made it.”
Not as far as I can tell.
I talked with someone a few months ago who has, at least by my definition, “made it,” in every sense of the word. Intelligent, excellent income, loving partner, healthy, etc. They expressed a subtle sense of doubt that it was all about to disappear. I felt strangely comforted.
I posted a bit about this in a private forum and was both overwhelmed and humbled by the responses so I thought it would be helpful to share some of those resources here. And, frankly, writing is how I deal with this kind of stuff and I was supposed to have a post go live yesterday – the crumminess of which is part of the cause of stated blah-ness – so this is what you get instead 🙂
Thoughts on Thinking About Blah-ness
These are some of the broad ways that I think about feeling blah and based on reading the accounts of those more experienced in confronting blah-ness, some of them think about it as well.
1. Maybe I’m Becoming More Antifragile
Most of the great things that have happened in my life I can trace back to something terrible that I learned and grew from. I try to take that attitude that whatever bad thing is happening is in fact laying the groundwork for something great in the future.
If Ben Horowitz is right and the most difficult skill to learn is managing your own psychology in business, dealing with blah-ness is, in some sense, a highly productive exercise.
2. Look for Sources of Momentum
If I don’t feel like things are moving forward, that sucks. Often times helping out someone else where I can see I’ve made a real tangible difference, whether that’s hopping on a mastermind call, writing a big post in a forum, or just offering to help a friend bounces me out of a funk. Exercise also seems to be one way to generate momentum. Either way, reducing scope and focusing on small wins to start generating momentum seems to be a part of the path out of blah-ness.
Psychology In Business: Things That Seem To Deal with Blah-ness
My general observation is that though there are guidelines that are helpful, everyone has their own personal ways that are most effective for dealing with blah-ness. I’ll share mine and then some others that I saw frequently recommended as jumping off points.
Read Other People’s Accounts of Feeling Blah
The most helpful thing I’ve learned is that feeling blah, having super unproductive days, weeks, months, etc. is entirely normal and everyone you’ve ever idolized or looked up to has them too.
No one posts “Just spent two days laying in bed” to their Twitter account so you don’t see this, but reading a bunch of similar accounts (links below) certainly convinced me otherwise and made me feel a lot better about it.
Though some of the authors below are discussing a deeper level of realy depression than what I’m talking about here, they articulate the feelings well and I found their suggestions helpful and applicable.
Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two – I defy you to read these without laughing. Cannot be done.
Obliterate Startup Depression – “Sometimes, it lasts days and sometimes it lasts just a few hours. I always come away stronger and I’ve learned a lot in the process. I want to share a few of the things I’ve learned.”
Depression, Burn Out, and Writing Code – “When your livelihood depends on what you can do with your brain, fighting depression and the fatigued fog that swirls around it is a frightening battle.”
Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression: Making the Rollercoaster Work for You – “I just lost 9% overnight?! Fill a bathtub and get the toaster. I’ve had enough. Wait… I actually gained 13% while in the bathroom? I’m f**king Superman!”
The Startup Depression – “The darkest hour is–in fact–right before the dawn.”
Zack Homuth – Sad, Tired and Alone: My Ongoing Battle with Startup Depression – “Zak, you guys can’t keep going so hard. You need to slow down to 40 hour weeks or you will burn out and die. But, if you slow down now and you don’t figure it out, you’re dead anyways.”
Chase Reeves – Depression, Anxiety and Entrepreneurship – “We all have cracks. As Leonard Cohen says, ‘that’s how the light gets in.'”
Noah Kagan on Micro-Burnout – “Then it hits me around 2pm, I feel like shit. I can barely push myself to work, I have zero interest in doing anything AppSumo related, my teammates are chatting in our group chat and I want to be doing anything but this.”
David Foster Wallace – This Is Water – “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
“Productivity” Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me) – Tim Ferriss made the confession that he cried, masturbated incessantly, laid in bed, self-medicated and saw a therapist (I’ve done all of the above except cry and therapy – too emotionally bankrupt to cry and therapy is freakin’ expensive :). He also offers some good tactics for staying productive despite the feelings.
Jerry Colonna and Jason Calacanis on TWiST – One of my favorite This Week in Startups interviews of all time. Jerry and Jason discuss Jerry’s own depression/direction change, the randomness of luck, willing things into existence, self merging with work, and how leaders define reality.
Depression and Entrepreneurship with Jerry Colonna and Rand Fishkin – For anyone struggling with depression, it’s helpful to know you’re not alone. Rand Fishkin, founder of SEO Moz recounts asking in a rooms full of founders and CEOs: “How many of you struggle seriously with depression or severe anxiety or emotional issues?” He watched almost every person raise their hand.
The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship – “It’s like a man riding a lion. People think, ‘This guy’s brave.’ And he’s thinking, ‘How the hell did I get on a lion, and how do I keep from getting eaten?”
People – Hang out with them. Sometimes I’ll start to feel blah with no explicable reason and then realize I haven’t left my apartment or talked to a human in three days. No bueno. If you can get a regular meet up going (Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons are almost always free for most people), that’s been a good way to institutionalize socializing with people for me. Even if they don’t have anything concrete to offer, just talking to people about it feels good.
Meditate – I use the Headspace app. I like it and it makes it easier to meditate for me since all I have to do is press play and follow instructions.
Exercise – Cue the Tony Robbins tape about physiological changes driving psychological changes. Sometimes a 30 minute trip to the gym will take me from “my life is over” to “I’m crushing it.” Heavy weight training is my personal favorite, but a lot of people have cited Yoga as well.
Go to sleep – I got this from my mom as a life strategy for cutting losses short. If I’m having a rough day, I’ll go to sleep at sundown. I’ve gone to sleep at 7pm in the afternoon before. Waking up at 4am with nine hours of sleep and a whole day ahead of me (almost) always make me feel better.
Downside management – Don’t make any major life decisions and try to maintain perspective that you’re having an irrational emotional response (which is human).
Writing – It’s cathartic for me and a good way to just get this out of my head, as you can see.
Other Helpful Recommendations:
Get off the Internet – You evolved to have the stimulation of an African breeze, not a billion tweets a minute. Less stimuli are good.
Sleep – Seems to be highly personal. I react by sleeping a lot. Other people react by not being able to sleep at all. Either way, try not to beat yourself up about it.
Vitamin D and Sunshine
Re-read Inspiring Books – Man’s Search for Meaning is usually my go to.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up AKA Welcome to the Human Condition
I’m pretty dubious of this whole be-happy-all-the-time self-help bullsh*t. All the people selling that dream who I’ve met in person are just (or more) susceptible to blah-ness as anyone and any appearance of “I love my life all the time” is a carefully constructed facade – which must be exhausting to maintain.
Self-help Author Mark Manson wrote an article about how he used to get tons of emails from high school guys about how their girlfriend broke up with them and their lives were over.
“Dude, relax. You’re okay.” he would respond.
Obviously, these moments seem absurd in retrospect and I frequently laugh at myself in moments of blah-ness knowing how absurd it will look in the rearview.
To agree with Jason Calacanis: “If I look back on the couple of moments of success I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life, they all seem to come after a good ass-kicking.”
P.S. – None of these ideas are mine. All credit goes to everyone that sent these articles over and shared their experiences and research.
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson
Derek Szeto says
At one point, it seemed like every new article that Mark Manson wrote was the exact advice at the exact moment I needed to hear it.
That’s how your writing seems to be for me now.
Thanks for having the courage to do the hard work of going through these experiences, analyzing them, thinking on them, and then reporting back with lessons, systems, and insights for the rest of us.
This is an article I can see myself returning back to and referencing a lot in the future.
Taylor Pearson says
If I’m timing them right for you, that’s the best sign I’ve ever gotten that I’m on the right track 🙂
Glen Thomson says
Agree with Derek! Respect.
Taylor Pearson says
Thank you sir.
Casey Ames says
Great post Taylor. This part here matches a problem I have:
“People – Hang out with them. Sometimes I’ll start to feel blah with no explicable reason and then realize I haven’t left my apartment or talked to a human in three days.”
I have the freedom to work from home… most times there’s no one to talk to at home. It kind of catches up to you. Even going to a coffee shop can help solve this or a walk.
I do think hanging with people can be the wrong answer if you’re not seeking out people who give you energy though. There’s lots of energy draining people, and being misunderstood by most doesn’t help fix the blah problem.
Taylor Pearson says
Yea, I can totally relate with the apartment issue. I lived in a studio 20 minutes away from anyone I knew for a part of last year and I realized I would get irrationally sad every Wednesday. Finally realized it was from not talking with a real human face-to-face since Sunday :/.
Being somewhere that makes it easy to meet up has become a major criteria for me.
Agree on people as well.
I thought Rand Fishkin’s insight on this interview was really on point – https://www.reboot.io/episode/7-relationship-entrepreneurship-depression-jerry-colonna-rand-fishkin/
Basically, the people that help are the ones that say “I get it, that sucks.” I hate when people try to cheer me up when I’m mid-wallow.
A.J. Dunn says
Amazing post. And like Derek, this is impeccable timing.
I think being around people is huge. Making plans is important. When I’m ‘blah’, even if invited to do something, I’ll typically opt to stay home. Even if it’s a hot girl! When I have things planned with people, I look forward to that and it also motivates me to get shit done so it’s guilt-free socializing.
I think the next level to this is having some kind of weekly, scheduled, in-person thing. Muay thai, guitar lessons, entrepreneurs meet-up (something along those lines). Because when we feel ‘blah’, making plans doesn’t seem all that attractive. There’s also some accountability built into your socializing (Hey man, why weren’t you there last Wednesday?!) I have yet to do this, and I’m excited to deploy this tactic and see how much this eradicates the ‘blah’ times in my life.
Thanks again for the great content amigo.
Taylor Pearson says
Thanks AJ, glad you enjoyed. Writing it definitely made me feel a lot better about it. Have you ever tried Sunday brunch? I’ve been organizing a weekly brunch for the last ~year and it’s been fantastic. No one makes plans for 11am on Sunday so it almost always works schedule wise and it gives me something to look forward too if I’m grinding away during the week.
I have a SOP I can share if you want to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m going to have to agree with Derek when he says thanks for “thinking on them, and then reporting back with lessons, systems, and insights for the rest of us.”
You just did what myself and I think many others are unwilling to do… think about the why. Why am I feeling this way.
It continues to amaze me how often I feel “blah”. In fact just Monday I think I got through one email, five YouTube videos, and quite a few Netflix shows.
And that’s not the only time that’s happened in the past week.
Usually when the blah hits I just get upset with myself and try to kick myself into gear. Somehow I developed this mentality that entrepreneurs are always on. You gotta go go go. Even when you don’t want to go go go. If you don’t want to go go go when you don’t want to go go go then your a whimp and you should get out of the game.
My inclination is to blame all those Gary Vaynerchuck videos for giving me that mindset. But, then, you’re probably right, he’s most likely dealing with the same thing just not pushing it out there for everyone to see.
Maybe that’s the problem, with all this content so readily available. People are putting forward their best self in attempt to gain trust, admiration, and loyalty. So we end up watching everyone’s highlight reals and comparing them to our play by play. (not my original thought)
I don’t know, but I love that you are having this conversation, and would love to see more entrepreneurs open about the blah and ways to overcome the blah.
Thanks for posting. Spot on!
Taylor Pearson says
Thanks for the long thoughtful comment Luke.
I definitely think a certain aspect of it is that people want to put their best face forward and as a result often choose not to show the “rough edges” of themselves so to speak. I’m sure I’m just as guilty as anyone else in 99% of cases.
A lot of the mindset stuff is particularly difficult to articulate to others and even to myself. When to keep pushing vs when to back off is something I go back and forth on.