Burnout, Depression, and Suicide

Background Reading: Founder Burnout and Long-Distance Thinking 

This is going to be another personal post; less about how to close a financing or avoid legal issues, and more about the bigger fundamental issue of life outside of work. Because if you think what happens outside of work doesn’t heavily influence what you achieve at work, you’re clueless. Please move onto another SHL post if you want Startup/VC law advice.  This post is prompted by the very unfortunate passing of Anthony Bourdain, whom I admired as a voice of authenticity in a world that sterilizes and bullshits far too much.

Depression and suicide are two things with which my bloodline is far too familiar. Since I was a young kid – watching family members lock themselves in rooms for days and weeks in the dark, and openly discuss swerving their car into oncoming traffic, sometimes while I was in it – it’s been at the top of my mind.

Despite my many faults – my wife of 10 years is always happy to provide a list – one thing I know I’m good at is being observant. I watch people very closely, and pick up on patterns and subtleties that others miss.  As the old saying goes: the wise learn from the mistakes of others, the smart learn from their own mistakes, and fools never learn.

Another thing I’m particularly fond of is what I call asking the “meta question,” meaning trying to separate symptoms from the disease, and talk about the root cause of something. Because far too often people get caught up with trying to band-aid the symptoms of something, without digging deeper and probing into fundamentals. I didn’t switch majors in college from business honors to philosophy for nothing.

What’s absolutely crystal clear is that suicide and depression are way up in America. It is clearly a paradox, given that on many objective metrics, life has never been better: life expectancy, technological advancement, overall wealth, homicide/major crime rates, gender equality, etc.

The standard reaction to this rise in depression/suicide is to focus on mental health. If we just had more infrastructure for affordable therapists and anti-depressants, all would be better. But that obviously misses the bigger historical point. Life was, on many levelsway harder even just 50 years ago, and we didn’t have an army of public therapists then; yet depression and suicide were less prevalent. Clearly there is a meta issue here worth discussing.

To share my thoughts and observations on the topic, I’m going to first list out a few concepts that I’ve picked up over the years from reading, education, having good conversations over coffee, etc.:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – This is the idea that as peoples’ more physiological needs are met (shelter, food, etc.) and become less of a top-of-mind concern, their psychology shifts to prioritize “higher” needs, like love, belonging, art/beauty, etc.  People who grow up in more stable, loving environments (or societies) tend to be more open, creative, and communal, but that can also result in being more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.

Specialization v. Generalism – Economic development inevitably leads to human specialization. People in rural communities are often decent at a lot of things, and more self-reliant, because they have to be. They’re also poorer. People in advanced markets tend to have much narrower, specialized skillsets, which they then sell in the market to earn surplus income to buy everything else.

Grit – The idea that exposure to hardship/struggle can build mental resilience, in the same way that exposing muscle to pressure makes it stronger, as long as it doesn’t go so far that things start to break. Moderate stress is good. Too little or too much is bad.

Dopamine v. Serotonin  – D and S are neurotransmitters. Without getting too bogged down in details that I certainly will botch, D is largely the “desire/drive” brain chemical. Heavily involved in addiction. Serotonin is heavily involved in calmness, satisfaction, a feeling of fulfillment. D and S have a tension with each other. If D overruns things, S decreases, which leads to depression.

Higher Pleasures v. Lower Pleasures – In the way that complex carbs are longer-lasting while simple carbs are often tastier but shorter-lasting, lower pleasures tend to be activities in life that are thrilling, fun, and even memorable, but don’t have much of an on-going positive effect. Lower pleasures drive dopamine. Higher pleasures, on the other hand, tend to be less thrilling, and in specific moments may actually be difficult/painful, but they have significantly longer-lasting positive impacts. Lower pleasures tend to cost you mostly money. Higher pleasures tend to cost you mostly time, but increase serotonin.

Traditional Culture v. Market Culture – Culture is largely the set of narratives and values that swirl in our brain to tell us how we should live, our role in the world, and the underlying purpose/meaning behind it. Many moderns dramatically under-appreciate the complexity and nuance in how culture plays into life satisfaction and progress.

Without culture, humans are just advanced monkeys. Traditional culture is the accumulation of centuries of slow-changing values and life-structures interacting with history, human psychology, social dynamics, etc. Market culture is the result of marketing/advertising messaging, often informed by PhDs in psychology and neuroscience, nudging people to engage in activities that ultimately maximize economic growth for someone.

Bottom-up Organic v. Top-Down Theoretical – There are two ways that cultural values, systems, and ideas in general emerge. A bottom-up “organic” approach starts from the ground, interacting with all the nuances and variables of reality, and iterates “upward” over time to arrive at an equilibrium.  A top-down structure starts with logic or theoretical principles, focusing on a kind of abstract consistency, and then imposes itself “downward” on reality. Organic emergence is messy, iterative, and often slow. Top-down is “cleaner” and more consistent, and usually faster. But also more prone to extreme errors. Traditionalists (at least those who aren’t dogmatic) tend to favor organic emergence of ideas. Intellectuals tend to favor the top-down.

Individualism v. Communalism – The free market pushes individualism as a primary value, because it maximizes economic growth. The more differences we can parse out among people, slowly nudging them to like different things, pursue different paths, the more things we can sell to them. It may feel like “discovering yourself,” but there’s a lot of outside nudging involved. Communalism, on the other hand, emphasizes similarities and long-standing histories between people. It’s driven by more traditional value structures, which focus less on peoples’ economic outputs, and more on their deep relationships to one another. It also is more constraining on individual freedom/choice.

Age-Mixing – Somewhere along the way, society got the idea that it’s better for everyone if people of the same age spend all of their time with each other. I suspect industrial-age schooling, and the efficiencies of standardizing education, are partially at play. Yet the evidence is clear that age-mixing produces significantly better outcomes on a psychological level. When you age-mix, older people (including older children) learn responsibility and empathy, and how to teach the younger. They also feel more “needed,” which gives life a sense of meaningful purpose apart from their market value.

And the younger benefit from the longer-term perspective of people who’ve “been there” and know how life progresses, instead of just being focused on immediate wants/needs. When people fail to age mix in their lives, they tend to be more hierarchical, competitive, myopic, and neurotic.

Ok, that’s a lot, and it took a while. But hopefully at least some of the concepts were enlightening. Now, using those concepts, here are my own personal observations/thoughts from my own life, my family’s history, and observation of others regarding the “meta” question of why society is so much more depressed and suicidal:

Affluence has taken away a lot of the hardship and struggle that once was a defining feature and motivator of people’s lives. Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I know so many people today whose life largely boils down to specialized work and leisure. They do one narrow thing that someone pays them for, and they buy everything else, so that they have “free time” to do things they enjoy; which usually involve seeking entertainment in the market. Specialization obviously makes people wealthier. But is there a point beyond which it makes people less happy?

Now you can order any meal you want on Uber Eats, and it’ll be delivered right to your door. That’s fantastic. It’s efficient. But what if the act of cooking, and even the act of picking out ingredients has some deeper psychological benefit that we missed? Now we can Lyft or drive to wherever we want, but what if the act of walking does something for us that we missed (and I don’t just mean burn calories)?

Market economics (and culture) says to specialize. Only do what has the highest market value, and you can just buy everything else. But traditional culture says hyper-specialization makes you fragile. You may become wealthier, but you also become less self-reliant and therefore more dependent on the market. And the idea that everyone should just do one narrowly defined thing, and then seek “entertainment” the rest of the time, is a speck in humanity’s evolutionary history.

Is the person who works their own garden and cooks on the weekends  just wasting their time on inefficient activities? Should the person who works on their car in their garage just stop wasting time and send it to a mechanic? Maybe. Or maybe there’s something more there than top-down market theory can grasp.

Social revolutions told people to throw away traditional, organic culture and “be themselves.” Modern “top-down” market culture then filled the void. The idea that you are born with some inner core “you” that you must discover over time, free from the influences of everything external, has a very romantic sound to it. It’s also totally false, or at best extremely incomplete. “You” are heavily a by-product of your environment. You don’t “free” yourself from culture; you simply adopt one over another.

So as age-mixing gave way to age-sorting, and people stopped taking advice from grandparents, family, traditions, etc., the market was there to fill the void. But the values of the market are top-down and profit-driven.  When a grandparent tries to teach their grandchild about life, one can assume that in most circumstances the child’s long-term well-being is an end-goal. When a market actor teaches a child something, there can be any number of other incentives; often tied in the end to economics.

Remember that organic, bottom-up progression involves slow evolution; strongly path-dependent on the past, which is assumed to carry a kind of underlying wisdom/understanding that is perhaps difficult to articulate, but is nevertheless there. On the other hand, top-down progression is about intellectual consistency with some defining value structure, like freedom, or fairness.

Older generations had their views on family, life roles, responsibility, money, work, and they were the product of slow evolution over time, integrating feedback from history’s experiments and mistakes. They had their problems, for sure, but evidently large-scale depression and suicide was not one of them. Then social revolutions came in and demanded corrections, many of which made sense at a theoretical level, and were amplified by market incentives. But top-down theory breaks down when it hits messy, multi-variate reality.

Without getting too bogged down in specifics, there is a meta issue here: a theoretical framework that hyper-emphasizes individuality and freedom may be more productive economically, and intellectually “purer” but it breaks-down, or at least reveals fundamental flaws, when it hits the reality of human psychology; which evolved on older, more organically evolved values.

Modern market culture pushes us to pursue things that lead to greater economic activity (dopamine), while neglecting those that may actually make us happier (serotonin), but can’t be monetized.

There’s a better job for you in another state. Go, pursue “your” dreams. You can visit your parents, childhood friends, and cousins on holidays.

If you have kids now, you’ll get “tied down.” You can always have them later (maybe…). Build your career. Travel the world.

Why are you wasting time cooking for yourself? Bill a few extra hours, and have the food delivered.

Your parents’ and grandparents’ views on life are out-dated. “Be yourself” and “follow your own path” with your peers, who largely feel the same.

Apologies to my millennial friends with romantic notions about how the “experience” of travel “expands your mind” and is “life changing.” I love traveling too. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize really good marketing when I see it.

There’s a big difference between what makes you wealthier, free-er, or more “empowered” (abstract concepts that, conveniently, have a way of increasing GDP) and what actually makes you – advanced monkey with a brain evolved over millennia – happier and more resilient.

The market’s individualism (liberating, but cold and detached) and traditional communalism (constraining, but warm and connected) are competing goods that need to be balanced. We are sucking at that balancing. 

It is much harder to balance competing goods than to simply let one take over our lives, even if the former is far better for us in the long run. When virtually all of the messaging/reinforcement in our environments supports only one side (because that’s the side that literally pays for messaging/reinforcement, including advertising and our educational infrastructure), that’s where so many of us end up.

Individuality, freedom, and financial wealth (all quintessential American, market values) – “following your own path” “pursuing your dreams” “not getting bogged down” “crushing it” – are real, valuable things. They’ve all played a key role in my life, for sure.

But the happiest, most resilient people I’ve known (men and women) have never “bought” fully into the market ideology (and it is ideology) that they are the be-all end-all of life. They understand that what’s old may be flawed and constraining, but if it’s old, that means it’s lasted. And things last for a reason; even if that reason isn’t easy to explain or fit within a theoretical framework. Freedom, empowerment, etc. are surely valuable. But so are durability and longevity; in other words, life paths and values that have been proven to “work” in the long-run.

As another old saying goes, winning is not the same as winning an argument; not even close.  The human brain is not designed in logic.  There’s no reason to expect an optimal human life to be either.

So if someone asks me for my thoughts on depression and suicide: sure, more therapists, discussion, and anti-depressants; certainly for the specific people who need emergency help now. But the meta-answer is to ask deeper questions about humanity, and to start questioning the life values that have been sold (and I do mean sold) to us; no matter how much we think they are supreme. Because we’ve clearly broken something, and it’s worthwhile to look back and examine a time when it wasn’t broken. 


Also published on Medium.