Yesterday I decided to check my email while I was walking to work and there was an email with subject line that asked a great question, a question that I feel I need to contribute an answer to. “Do we need to talk about suicide?”, read an email/article that was published by Jason Calacanis, a tech entrepreneur and former journalist. Jason’s article focused on the pressures that company founders and entrepreneurs face, and how that pressure may lead to unfortunate outcomes. Jason’s question is a great question, it’s one that needs to be opened up to a much broader audience, rather than the relatively narrow niche of startup founders.
Over the past few weeks, the tech news sites have had a flurry articles about two prominent technologists that have committed suicide. Due to the nature of the small tech world that I live in, I happen to be friends-of-friends with both Jody Sherman (who passed away this week) and Aaron Swartz. Jason’s article also mentions a third person, Illya Zhitomirskiy, a guy who lived a few blocks from me and whom I had met at a party that a mutual friend invited me to. These three people are not just people I read about on the news and then forgot about, they’re people that have made very personal connections to friends that I care about. The articles about these suicides not only acted as a harsh reminder of suicide and its impact on my life, but also of the pain that it has now inflicted on my friends.
Working in technology is a highly competitive field, particularly startups and small companies that work hard everyday to make sure they exist and are relevant in the coming weeks and months ahead. Small companies don’t have the luxury of thinking in years or six-month plans, because there’s no guarantee that the funds required for such optimism will be available when you need it. This sort of pressure and reality results in many things that I love about startups, like not wasting time or working with people that are passionate about building amazing things today (not tomorrow, or next week), but it also results in a huge amount of pressure that is imposed on an individual, both externally and internally.
For some reason our culture revels in the failure of others. Sites like TMZ are basically Human Failblogs, and our tech news sites spend too much time speculating on and diving into the latest failure of CompanyX and the founders/CEO. The humiliation that inevitably comes with failure or mistakes is only compounded by the fact the everyone seems to be endlessly entertained by everyone else’s bullshit. Our culture needs to not just recognize the amazing wins and achievements of others, or laughing at the shortcomings of others, but it also needs to embrace the learning opportunities that come with mistakes and failures.
Failing gracefully is a skill that I hope to learn someday, as I absolutely hate failing at something. Failure in startups can lead you to the end of a company’s journey, a scene that features a Human Resources person handing out documents that you sign when you’re sitting in a room with all of your (now unemployed) friends, and the realization that the company and your hard work won’t exist tomorrow. The threat of failure is scary and intimidating, but it’s not the end, it just marks the start of your transition to the next chapter in your journey.
As cliche as it sounds, your life is a journey and a story. The lows that you experience help you appreciate and celebrate the highs in your jouney, and they also can prepare you and enable you to help others when they are experiencing their lows. Personally, I’m really good at convincing myself that my struggles and fears are unique to me, and that I’m just crazy and fucked up. My countermeasure to my negative thinking is to talk to others about how I’m feeling, the struggles or hardships that I’m encountering, so that I can get feedback and potentially have my feelings and concerns validated by others. I’ve found that it’s more than likely that my concerns and fears are valid, or if they aren’t, the person can help give me more perspective and change my thinking.
I’d like to encourage everyone to reach out to their friends and family when they’re feeling overwhelmed, as it will oftentimes help give you perspective and peace of mind. I know that this process can be scary to most people, since it involves making oneself vulnerable, exposing possible flaws and weaknesses to others. I’ve come to the personal decision that I accept the risks that are inherent to emotional vulnerability, because I feel that the risks involved with not opening up to others are risks that are just too high. The opportunities for growth, learning, and connection with others are much more attractive to me, and they help combat my fear of having my feelings hurt by someone.
Simply put: If someone isn’t able to help you when you need it, or able to listen to you when you need to talk, you probably can’t have that level of relationship with them(yet). But there are many others in your life, and even strangers, that will happily take you up on the opportunity to help you in your time of need. To trust someone in this way is taking a leap of faith, but that leap of faith will pay off.
I encourage everyone to open up and to try to help themselves and help others when they need it. Our conversations and experiences with others help us learn about ourselves, the world, and the goodness in people. Listen to others, share your stories, and I bet you will experience a greater connection to the world around you, and at the very least you can usually get a good hug out of it.
To end this blog post, I think I should include the story that I told that helped me connect with others in a new way, a process and experience that changed my perspective and helped me greatly. Here is my story about my father’s suicide, a story that I posted on Quora: