FINDING BALANCE: THE EMOTIONAL SIDE OF THE TECH INDUSTRY
The tech industry is one of the most innovative, powerful and influential industries in history. It seems like every day there's a new success story of a start-up or a lucky CEO that hit the jackpot and became a millionaire practically overnight.
It's definitely has been glorified in many ways and it doesn't show signs of slowing down. I mean in what other industry is it the norm to have a ping pong table, beer on tap and unlimited vacations?! Facebook's campus is pretty much an adult playground with unlimited free food.
As a therapist, and also someone who has indirect exposure to this industry and "startup life" it has been fascinating, beautiful and terrifying all at the same time, to see the impact of tech unfold.
I have witnessed incredible innovation, forward thinking and action oriented positive change. While at the same time, witnessing glimpses of another side, that might not be as wonderful and glamours on the inside. These high stakes positions often require endless hours of coding, stress and high-pressure situations that impact the well-being, family, friends and mental health of these forward thinkers and entrepreneurs.
After wathcing Mostly Human a documentary series that takes a deeper look into Silicon Valley, I was inspired to write this post and share my clinical perspective on this topic.
One thing that really struck me about this documentary was its focus on the mental health of the founders, engineers and even investors of these companies. The pressure that comes with an evaluation of a company being worth millions, if not billions of dollars is intense.
Silicon Valley companies have been the leaders and advocates of changing the culture of work. While it is undeniable that there are many benefits to focusing on "happiness" and work/life balance in the tech industry. It is also important to reflect and acknowledge that there are many individuals who may be struggling are often overlooked or afraid to show their suffering, stress, and pain due to fear of "killing the vibe" of these positive expectations.
Here are some things that are important to acknowledge for both tech companies and employees about their well-being and mental health:
KNOW WHEN ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: Eric Salvatierra one of the top executives at PayPal committed suicide, in 2012 after suffering from mental illness (Bi-Polar II and depression). In the documentary, his wife opens up about how Mr. Salvatierra was often praised at work for his endless hours of coding, staying up late nights and "going the extra mile." However, it was never known or acknowledged that many of these sleepless nights of writing code, were attributed to the hypo-manic episodes of his mental illness. These episodes of excessive energy, grandiose thinking, lack of the need to sleep and feelings of invincibility are often followed by debilitating depression and feelings of shame that can last for days, weeks or even months. In Eric's case, he was given positive reinforcement and praise for something that was unimaginably painful for both him and his family.
Engineers can easily get into the "zone" of coding, spending endless hours staring at a computer screen, solving problems and building amazing products. It's inspiring and sad all at the same time.
As a clinician, my concern is when is enough... ENOUGH. When do you know it is time to step away from the screen and back into real life? Limits can become blurry when so much is on the line and you are passionate about the work you are doing. However, it's important to be mindful of the impact that this type of work can have on your physical, spiritual, mental and relational well-being. Setting limits and boundaries is important- and remembering that you need a break is important.
PUSHING AWAY OTHER SUPPORT SYSTEMS: When you are out "changing the world" and building amazing companies, it's easy to have tunnel vision and loose perspective on other aspects of life that matter. The high levels of stress that come with building a Start Up can lead to less energy or time that can be dedicated to relationships, self-care, fitness, and health. This can quickly lead down a path of isolation, loneliness, and depression.
At the end of the day, success is not measured solely on how much money you make but on the quality of life that you live and the people that you share it with. When the pressure begins to "come home" with you and trickles into your relationships with your partner, friends or family, is it really worth it? It's important to constantly check-in with the people in your life and ask them for feedback about how you are making them feel. Are you caring your stress home? Irritable? Missing out on important life moments? It may be time to reflect on life and priorities.
SUPPRESSING FEELINGS: As mentioned before, many tech companies focus on "happiness" and creating a fun culture for their employees. Obviously, this is mostly a pro for the most part. However, life is life and sometimes it isn't all rainbows, sunshine, and roses. It can be scary and difficult for some people in the industry to acknowledge their "negative feelings" and show them at work. As humans we can not always be happy! 1. our brains aren't wired that way 2. that would make life super boring, 3. difficulties in life often give us meaning. It's unrealistic to expect someone to always be positive and give 100%.
Yet, if a company is investing millions of dollars into a fun and cool work space, free snacks, amazing benefits, unlimited vacations and all the other perks that often come with Start Up life... There is unspoken expectation that you show up with a good attitude and are ready to work your ass off. Don't think that Google's campus is an adult playground for no reason- it's a socially engineered masterpiece that unconsciously gets employees to stay there longer and work more hours.
For this industry to be sustainable and to truly change work culture, there needs to be more space for people- to be human. To feel safe enough to talk about both their positive AND negative feelings without fear or judgment. The more you suppress feelings the more likely you are to burn out and that's not good for the company or anyone else.
REMEMBER WHY YOU'RE IN IT: This is a big one. When there are investors, media, customers and millions of dollars involved, it's really easy to get caught up in everything. There's no arguing that it's exciting and scary all at the same time. But, at the end of the day, as a therapist, I am a firm believer that our lives are built on purpose and meaning. In our final moments as we take our last breaths- we don't remember the stress, sleepless nights staring at a computer screen or the evaluation numbers of our company. We remember the people we love, moments we cherish and adventures we had and the thumbprint that we leave behind on others.
It doesn't matter if you are a CEO, founder, investor, engineer or team member- it's important to remember why you entered this industry in the first place and that you are worthy, whether your company succeeds or fails. Your purpose in this world is more than your last evaluation, a round of investment or salary.
It feels like the best way to end this blog and sum everything up is by leaving you with a direct statement from one of the most influential people in tech and arguably the world during the final days of his life.
I leave you with this:
“I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to. At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death. In the darkness, I look at the green lights from the life supporting machines and hear the humming mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of god of death drawing closer… Now I know, when we have accumulated sufficient wealth to last our lifetime, we should pursue other matters that are unrelated to wealth…Should be something that is more important: Perhaps relationships, perhaps art, perhaps a dream from younger daysNon-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me.God gave us the senses to let us feel the love in everyone’s heart, not the illusions brought about by wealth.The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me. What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love. That’s the true riches which will follow you, accompany you, giving you strength and light to go on. Love can travel a thousand miles. Life has no limit. Go where you want to go. Reach the height you want to reach. It is all in your heart and in your hands. What is the most expensive bed in the world? Sickbed… You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone to bear the sickness for you.Material things lost can be found. But there is one thing that can never be found when it is lost – Life. When a person goes into the operating room, he will realize that there is one book that he has yet to finish reading – Book of Healthy Life. Whichever stage in life we are at right now, with time, we will face the day when the curtain comes down. Treasure Love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well. Cherish others.”- Steve Jobs