It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rob McElhenney’s darkly comic masterpiece, has become known for embedding serious social commentary within its frequently absurd narratives.
In one of its newest episodes, the show mocked how the sitcom format frequently trivialises serious issues. For instance, Dennis, a lead protagonist and, frankly, a psychopath, discovers that by putting a laugh track behind it, another character’s crippling OCD becomes a whimsical spectacle.
The episode’s treatment of a serious mental illness wasn’t just to make you laugh. It skewers how flippantly our society can approach mental health problems. These serious illnesses, bereft of any physical, visible wounds are all too easily ignored or transmuted into something comic or admirable.
This theme reared its head once again during a recent - and absolutely superb - report for CNN by Mostly Human’s Laurie Segall. It's worth watching in full, but one of the stories recounted by Segall is that of a Silicon Valley exec named Eric Salvatierra. During his career, Salvatierra was known for pulling all-nighters. He was celebrated for his commitment and work ethic.
The truth was far darker, though: it was Salvatierra’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder - a mental health condition typified by manic bursts of productivity and deep lows - that enabled him to work these superhuman hours. Essentially, one of the symptoms of Salvatierra’s illness had made him a hero to his colleagues.
Although he was eventually diagnosed, Salvatierra lost his battle and took his own life. The heartbreaking theme that emerges from this tragedy is how startup culture fed these issues. “When you’re swimming, you don’t notice there’s water all around you,” Moz’s founder Rand Fishkin tells CNN in the report. “It’s a badge of honour to show how busy you are. Sleep is not cool, pregnancy is not cool. All these things that normal people need ... are excluded from the acceptable portion of the culture.”
In one of the report’s segments, Segall mentions Startups Anonymous. Something akin to PostSecret, the site is an anonymous forum where founders post deeply personal stories about failure, anxiety, depression and feelings of inadequacy.
My lowest point was definitely towards the end of Wahooly’s life. It left me with a lot of questions.
The site’s top post is simply titled: “We’re shutting down and I’m scared.” It reads: “I’m scared. I’m also sad, disappointed, ashamed, embarrassed and deflated. But mostly just scared.” The fear is something the site’s founder Dana Severson identifies with.
Now working as the director of marketing at Promoter.io, Severson previously founded the crowdfunding platform Wahooly and helmed it until its failure in 2014. “My lowest point was definitely towards the end of Wahooly’s life. It left me with a lot of questions,” Severson tells BusinessZone.
“I was going to lose the trust of my investors, my employees, I didn’t know how I was going to deal with it financially because we had debt that we didn’t have money to pay off. There were a lot of factors that went into that shut down. It came down to me being really scared.”
More generally, Severson also deals with generalised anxiety disorder. The disorder, Severson explains, adds stress to the already taxing life of a founder. Even something as simple as air travel - particularly flying over water - harbours considerable fear for him. These struggles were coupled with the oft lonely life of founding a business.
In a column for BusinessZone, Blue Cliff Media’s founder Gavin Bell admitted the “loneliness of it all has been the hardest thing”. “Being an ‘internet’ business, I’ve been able to run my business from my bedroom. I could literally roll out of bed and get on with a good day's work in my PJs.” To fight this isolation, Bell explained, he makes a concerted effort to get out and meet people.
This loneliness is one of the main reasons why Severson founded Startup’s Anonymous. “I was looking for help and similar experiences. And what I found when I was looking for answers, a lot of time people will only speak about their experiences after they succeeded,” he explains. “I didn’t need it at that moment, I didn’t want to hear about success. I wanted to hear from people that were in the weeds that were going through the same things I was going through.
One of the big ones people don’t talk about is: you can control your exposure to risk.
“That experience of relating to people and getting through your struggles is a lot to do with mental health. That’s how I dealt with anxiety in the past is finding people with similar issues. It gives you a sense of belonging and helps you understand you’re not alone.”
Rob Fitzpatrick, a Y Combinator alum and serial entrepreneur, has experienced some stultifying lows, too. Most acutely, it was the failure of his startup Habit Industries. “I was super burned out afterwards,” he says. “I spent two or three years in burn out. I killed my savings, I had raised a million dollars straight out of university and it was more money than I had ever seen and I’d lost it. It weighed heavy and it took a while before I felt ambitious again. I wasn’t able to put that burden on my shoulders again.”
By his own admission, the burnout he felt after Habit’s failure was compounded by his inability to ask for help. It wasn’t necessarily deliberate, he explains. ““In my first startup, I couldn’t do that and I had no idea whether this was going well or not. I didn’t even know whether I should ask for help.
“If you’re just there and you don’t know why or how to change it, it’s just like ‘this feels bad, but I don’t know what to do about it’. For me, the most important thing was to have other people around I could say ‘this feels hard’ to, and realising it's meant to be hard and it’s not just me.
“So now, when I’m working on a company, I know when I’m screwing up and I know when I have screwed up. I can recognise the question and say ‘oh that’s a problem and I don’t know how to answer it’. So I’ll go and proactively seek help.”
If you’re leading a company it's a very stressful process and you’re expected to always be on call and clear-headed.
One of the most recurring themes on Startups Anonymous are founders who feel they are shouldering the brunt of their companies. The stress and anxiety in many of the posts are tangible. “There are a lot of people that put their faith and trust into you,” says Severson. “Your co-founders, your investors, your employees; if you’re leading a company it's a very stressful process and you’re expected to always be on call and clear-headed.”
It doesn’t leave much room for your own well-being. “Often times that leads to stress or a trigger that brings about anxiety and depression. The impostor syndrome is particularly prevalent; pretending everything's okay.”
It’s something that Fitzpatrick has ruminated on extensively, too. “One of the big ones people don’t talk about is: you can control your exposure to risk,” he says. “Certain types of ideas expose you to more risk than others; running your business in a certain way exposes you to more risk than others.
“There are also things you can do that expose you to guilt - or emotional risk, let’s say. If you bluff your investors, let’s say you lie to get them on board: ‘yeah, we’re fucking killing it, we’re amazing’ and they give you money and then you lose it, you feel bad because you cheated them.
“But if you speak to investors differently and say: ‘Obviously, it’s a startup. We don’t have these answers, these are the real numbers, here’s what we’re struggling with, this is what might kill us.’ And they make their decision as adults, then I have no guilt.
“The biggest thing is not that I’ve become more callous. Instead, I’ve become better at managing my exposure to financial and emotional risk.”