Y Combinator’s Sam Altman on Founder Depression: “You’re not alone, and you shouldn’t be ashamed.”

June 19, 2014

10:40 am

In a blog post written last weekend, Y Combinator president Sam Altman brought to light the necessity for startup founders to talk about the issues they're facing and the emotions they're feeling rather repressing these notions of depression.

Reporting on and writing about the startup scene has been a truly rewarding experience for me. Oftentimes, I find myself reinvigorated and motivated after conversations or interviews with founders, whose arrant passion and strong will often make themselves known immediately. But, I mean, I guess that's to be expected right? In a commercial landscape where most ventures fail, commitment to one's idea and a little self-imposed optimism are imperative for extending the longevity of a company – that, even when times are at their worst and your startup has about two months before it dies, founders must stay positive.

“There is a huge amount of pressure as a founder to never show weakness and to be the cheerleader in all internal and external situations,” read Altman's post. “The world can be falling down around you—and most of the time when you’re running a company, it is—and you have to be the strong, confident, and optimistic.  Failing is terrifying, and so is looking stupid.”

I'm really not a victim to such naiveté, though; despite my numerous interactions with startup founders extolling the virtues of such optimism and resiliency, I know that reality is much more cruel – that founders are just as flawed and just as prone to basic human weaknesses as everyone else. Starting a new company has a lot of stresses that can put any founder at risk for depression, and keeping those thoughts to yourself can have a tendency to set you down the wrong path:

“Founders end up with a lot of weight on their shoulders—their employees and their families, their customers, their investors, etc.  Founders usually feel a responsibility to make everyone happy, even though interests are often opposed…So a lot of founders end up pretty depressed at one point or another, and they generally don’t talk to anyone about it.  Often companies don’t survive these dark times.”

It's worth considering what Altman has to say. I mean he's obviously had interactions with hundreds of startups and their founders, so he knows the extent of the prevalence of such founder depression.  But, also, when it comes down to it, for a sector that's known for disruption and innovation, why should startup founders conform to the standards of a society that fails constantly to acknowledge mental health? Why fall to the delusion of blind optimism, rather than create an ecosystem wholly accepting of all thoughts and emotions, removing the stigma associated with mental health issues?

In a follow-up response, TechCrunch's Catherine Shu wrote about her own personal experience with depression, and why founders need to remove themselves from these dated perceptions on depression. It was a very refreshing take from a fellow tech journalist, and something definitely atypical of the positive rhetoric that consumes the core of startup culture.

“Most of the founders I know have had seriously dark times, and usually felt like there was no one they could turn to.  For whatever it’s worth, you’re not alone, and you shouldn’t be ashamed.”

For anyone struggling with depression, it's difficult and nearly impossible to find others in the situation because no one chooses to be transparent about their issues. But know: you're not alone. For one: I myself struggle with major depression – like, some really rough stuff – having been sent to the psych ward on two occasions for attempted suicide, and constantly navigating various treatments, life philosophies, and therapy. Through my experiences, though, I've learned how much support can arise from those around you, and how much more open others become about their own experiences with depression. As Altman similarly points out, there are others out there dealing with similar situations – you just need to learn to reach out and talk about them:

“You’ll be surprised how much better you feel just by talking to people about the struggles you’re facing instead of saying ‘we’re crushing it'.  You’ll also be surprised how much you find other founders are willing to listen.”

Some Resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The National Alliance of Mental Health’s support hotline

Or feel free to email me.

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.