My dad was a psychiatrist and my mom was a civil rights activist, so I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where mental and emotional wellness was openly discussed on a regular basis. Still, when I became the cofounder and CEO of Starcity, a venture-backed startup trying to solve housing affordability in cities, I fell victim to a true entrepreneur’s dilemma—the internal pressure to run myself ragged.
This pressure strained my relationship with my family and made me stressed out all the time. At the time, my daughter Charlie was a few months old, and she would often wake up in the middle of the night and need some love. Because I was so sleep-deprived, when she did wake up, I would jolt out of bed and either be angry and confused that she was affecting my limited sleep schedule. When I would reluctantly help out, I was never able to fall back to sleep. This was a painful cycle, and my wife made it clear that this behavior was not sustainable for everyone. I was disappointed in myself and knew this was not the type of father and husband I wanted to be.
The breaking point for me came when I saw a friend (let’s call him Tim) who had a successful sale of his startup really struggling to find purpose and care for himself. Tim is a great person—very smart, charming, and seemingly put together. He had worked over a decade to build a fantastic company, had received investments from a top venture fund, hired hundreds of people, built a beautiful product, and been on the cover of major magazines. But looking back on his journey, he had many regrets.
“How could this be? He seems to have everything!” I thought to myself. In further discussions with Tim, it was clear to me that he hadn’t prioritized his own health and wellbeing. He had been going through the emotions and just chasing outcomes. So in the end, even after a successful sale, he was left feeling empty and full of regrets. That’s when it became obvious to me that something had to change in my own life if I wanted to be truly successful, not just professionally, but personally.
One of the most prevalent myths in Silicon Valley is that the only way entrepreneurs can achieve the pinnacle of professional excellence is by aggressively “optimizing” their lives. This “always-on” focus has become a disease where leaders get to rebrand addictive behaviors—sacrificing sleep, exercise, family, and sometimes, rationality—as actions to be emulated in order to devote more time to work.
The reality is that entrepreneurs are just regular people, like you and me. Like all of us, they have a breaking point—the only sustainable way they can be great leaders is by prioritizing their own mental health. “Hustle porn,” at its heart, romanticizes people grinding themselves into oblivion, which can result not only to poor leadership but, in the long term, can shorten your life and cause irreparable harm.
This issue extends beyond Silicon Valley. We’re living in a society of people who are working harder than ever, delaying having families, becoming socially isolated, and trying to do so much—just so we can post on social media that “we’re living our best lives.”
While being an entrepreneur undoubtedly requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice, ultimately, building a company that lasts is a marathon. Failing to take care of yourself will increase the odds that you’ll burn out.
If I’m not eating well, exercising, and making time for my family and friends, I’m not prioritizing myself. As my wife put it so well during the darkest days, “you have to train like a professional athlete.” Though I didn’t want to hear it at the time, she was totally right. I started to set my life up like a pro athlete. I wanted to have an athlete’s extreme focus and dedication, while also taking care of myself in a way that would allow me to show up and be my best every day.
When I put myself last, I’m much more likely to be more emotionally volatile, erratic, and prone to making decisions from a place of ego and emotion. That is not how a company should be run. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to always act from a place of empathy and rationality.
As I’ve begun to speak more openly about my own mental health journey, I’ve had a number of entrepreneur friends share their own struggles with me. While it’s been heartening for me to hear about these shared experiences, I’ve noticed that many of my peers are afraid of speaking out more publicly, because they’re worried about scaring off the investors who hold the purse strings to their dreams and they fear a public reaction that will make note of their privilege.
Here’s the thing: If you’re concealing your feelings, you’re going to have regrets. There’s no time like the present to share how you’re feeling and what you’re struggling with. Rather than asking fellow entrepreneurs “How much money have you raised? What’s your growth rate? How many employees do you have?” Try asking, “What keeps you up at night? What can I do to help you? What are you doing to take care of yourself?” When we speak out about these issues, we become accountable to each other.
If you’re not willing to prioritize your mental and emotional health and be honest about it, not only will your work suffer, you’ll never be able to engage thoughtfully with the people around you. And when you face criticism, you’ll take very long to recover.
I work every day to ensure that I don’t slide back to the place I was. If you find yourself in a similar state of mind, constantly on edge and unable to find happiness, I hope that some of the things I’ve learned will help you:
Look out for your wake-up call
Hitting bottom isn’t always a dramatic crash. Sometimes it’s a slow sink to the bottom. Perhaps you’ve been feeling a general sense of malaise or you frequently find yourself thinking “I don’t feel like myself,” or “I’m bummed out.” Maybe you’re more tired than usual but you can’t put a finger on why. Perhaps you have a constant burning sensation in your chest or a pit in your stomach. When you listen closely to what your body and mind are telling you, then you can take productive action.
Create routines that prioritize mental health
For me, that includes forgoing coffee in the morning and drinking a big glass of lemon water, eating lightly throughout the day, and avoiding sugar and carbs. Whether it’s changing your diet, incorporating exercise into your schedule, or just putting time on the calendar to play with your kids, do what makes you feel good.
Work in line with your body’s rhythm
Structure your schedule to make the most out of the times where you’re naturally most energized and focused. If you’re introverted and need peace and quiet in the morning, block out DND (do not disturb) time on your calendar. If you have a lull in the early afternoon (as most humans do), schedule walks to re-energize yourself.
Make time for silence
As entrepreneurs, there’s an endless amount of networking events, podcasts, books, and other resources that promise to unlock the very insight we need to be successful. But some of the best insights come from time to yourself and thoughtful reflection. Adopt a meditation practice or find other forms of quiet time when your thoughts can flow freely.
Personally, I don’t sleep with my phone in the same room, so that when I wake up, I can start the day with 10 minutes of quiet mindfulness. I also make it a point to write down one thing that I’m grateful for and share it out loud with my wife. This really starts the day off on the right note.
Find space to unplug
Stepping away from your devices and taking time to unplug allows your brain time to digest everything it’s learned recently. It’s also important to take time off here and there, and completely shut out work and the digital world. You’ll thank yourself for it later, and it will also show your employees the importance of preserving their own mental health.
Give your emotions credit
You’re going to experience a lot of ups and downs as an entrepreneur. Don’t hide them or shut them out. You’ll be amazed at how much of a difference being vulnerable can make, to you and the people around you. At Starcity, we have an end of the week all-hands called “Friday Jazz” where we wind down. We talk about our successes and failures of the week and we end it all with a smaller break-out session called “if you really knew me right now…”, where people are able to be vulnerable and share the good and bad that’s happening in their lives in a safe, supportive setting. You’re not required to go deep if you’re not ready. However, I have noticed that group sharing creates some positive peer pressure that results in a higher rate of people opening up.
Cultivate (and listen to) your inner circle
Whether it’s your spouse, your therapist, a roommate, or a close group of friends, those who know you best often are able to see the signs of burnout before you are. While it can be tempting to dismiss their warnings when it’s not convenient, they have your best interests (and long-term health) at heart.
Be supremely grateful that they are there for you. Ask them to hold you accountable. (You can do the same for them, too.) You have to be explicit about this. Say “I’m working on myself, can you help keep me honest?” Most importantly, get rid of people who don’t treat you well, and prioritize people who bring you joy and push you to be better.
Jon Dishotsky is CEO and cofounder of Starcity, a developer and operator of coliving for the working class. He was inspired to start the company after seeing decades of the cost of living increase over time and few solutions being proposed around housing affordability.