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.
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.
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