This story is part of State of Mind, a special package covering mental health at work. For the series, Fast Company also convened a roundtable of business leaders and advocates to discuss how to bring compassion to the workplace and looks at how Alicia Keys is expanding her business interests mindfully.
Andy Dunn experienced his first manic episode as a senior at Northwestern University, in 2000. He went from celebrating the turn of the millennium to wandering the campus disoriented. Plagued by what he calls a “firestorm of emotions,” he became convinced he was the Messiah and didn’t sleep for three nights. Dunn was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, a condition that can take someone from feeling euphoric and energized to a manic state marked by delusions, impulsivity, and even hallucinations, to the deep lows of depression. He went on medication, briefly, but left his disorder largely untreated.
Dunn went on to get an MBA from Stanford and cofound and grow Bonobos into a pioneering direct-to-consumer clothing brand. But the CEO kept his diagnosis from friends and colleagues, and even hid the signs from himself, chalking them up to the stress and exhilaration of being an entrepreneur. The mania returned in 2015, while he was in Las Vegas for a speaking engagement, and again, more significantly, a year later. Dunn experienced a psychotic break with reality that ended in a weeklong stay in New York’s Bellevue Hospital—along with a court appearance for assaulting his future wife and mother-in-law while he was in a delusional state. (The charges were eventually dismissed and expunged because the incident occurred during a mental health episode.) He began managing his disorder with medication and therapy, and disclosed it to his colleagues and board of directors. In 2017, he negotiated Walmart’s $310 million acquisition of Bonobos, and he and his fiancée married. Burn Rate is the first time Dunn has spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder.
[In late 2015,] I was invited to speak at an event connected to Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s burgeoning startup ecosystem in downtown Las Vegas. Tony was someone who I had long idolized, whose principles of how to sell soft goods online with customer-friendly policies and enthusiastic employees were embedded in the DNA of what we, at Bonobos, were doing as digital brand builders.
In our original angel investor deck, Bonobos had been pitched as “Ralph Lauren times Zappos,” and Tony’s book, Delivering Happiness, was foundational to my entrepreneurial worldview. Being invited to speak right after Tony, I felt like I’d arrived.
In the terminal at JFK before the flight to Vegas, I ran into an old friend. We had what I recall as a normal conversation. The JetBlue flight, a red-eye from JFK to LAS, was parked at the gate. I wish I could remember if I was low on sleep or what the prior week had been like. But within 20 minutes after I’d taken my seat, a thought came to me, and for some reason it stuck:
This plane is going to crash.
My fear isn’t a fleeting dash of paranoia. It is empirical knowledge.
Once I start even considering that such things are possible, I’m on my way to psychotic. With the guardians of sanity gone from the gates, insane thoughts stream in freely. At that point, I’m in trouble. I am free-associating my reality. Literally anything can happen, just as anything can happen in a dream.
Soon I might be taking any thought that comes to me as the gospel truth, or sharing those thoughts with others on a street corner, in a movie theater, or in a Burger King.
The plane is about to leave the gate when the flight attendants do the unthinkable and reopen the door to let in a straggler. It is a woman who is going to miss her friend’s bachelorette party, supposedly, if she isn’t let on. She and the bride-to-be have a teary reunion. Since the plane is going to crash, I know for a fact that this is my only chance to get out, to save myself, to see my family again.
Choosing to stay on is a spiritual decision. With the rising religiosity, and fundamentalism, of the manic mind, I show God I am willing to put my fate entirely into Her hands. Death holds no consequence to a manic person. It may even be desirable, a death wish. But that wish is usually not to die an unknown death. It’s to die the death of a martyr, a hero, or a prophet.
How am I going to become one when I might have only hours to live?
This is my first full-blown episode since college, and I understand that this time I can’t let anyone know what I’m thinking. It is lodged in me from being hospitalized 15 years earlier that if you reveal who you are, you get locked up. No part of me wants to stand up in the middle of the flight and address the passengers. I decide to tweet my thoughts instead, subtly sprinkling messianic ideas like breadcrumbs in other people’s feeds, so that my prophetic warnings will be discovered later, by the people who will study my life.
I look up from the screen only once during the entire flight—just as we are passing over the electric cityscape of [my hometown of] Chicago. This is a moment meant to be so that I can say goodbye to my family from above. I imagine them looking up from below, like Santa Claus, as my date with destiny whizzes by.
As we approach Vegas, with no crash yet, I assume that the impact will happen upon landing. I have heard somewhere that the takeoff and landing are the most dangerous parts of any flight. My work is done. To eternity we go. I close my eyes, unafraid, waiting for the end—knowing that this must be it.
Then reality interferes with my prophecy. The plane touches down. It’s a smooth landing. We arrive in Vegas without incident at 3 in the morning. I start crying: quiet tears, no sobs. Nobody has a clue what I am thinking, or who I am. I am spared. I am so grateful to be alive. I completely surrendered myself to the certainty that I was going to perish, and getting a second chance at life feels like being reborn. On the spot, I commit myself in my heart, soul, and entire being to serving God.
The work begins now. Arriving in Vegas at 6 a.m. New York time, no longer discarding nonrational thoughts, and having spent the flight in an oddly calm state of paranoid delusion, I am now psychotic. And alone. In Las Vegas.
Andy Dunn, Bonobos cofounder
Manic delusions and entrepreneurial delusions, while not twins, are not unrelated. They’re more like distant cousins.”
Sitting in Alizé, the lounge of the hotel, which is in a glittering section of the revitalized downtown, I marvel at the blue and sparkling gold lights, at the brilliance of it all. I gaze around like a kid, all of a sudden swimming inside a coral-infused fishbowl, surrounded by the noises of the slot machines, the sports on TV, pretty people walking by, the smell of smoke. On the list of places a manic person should be, Vegas is last. My sensory experience is heightened, I have the energy of a freight train, and I am psychotic: There is no objective reality.
Anything is possible.
My speech is at 10 a.m. There is no way I am going to be able to get any sleep beforehand. When I arrive at the speaking venue, someone from the sponsor, a startup organization, gives me a T-shirt. Normally I never wear conference swag, [but] in this case I put it on right away, over what I’m wearing, in some strange show of solidarity with the audience. It is a graphic tee with a picture of a wolf howling at the moon. In spite of my insane inner monologue, I know I have to stay in disguise as a normal human and summon words that won’t get me arrested. My speech is bizarre, but I somehow stay in bounds—though the bounds entrepreneurs are offered are porous. I do my usual bit about bonobos, the matriarchal chimpanzees whose societies have no violence—a herald of a better kind of humanity. It converges perfectly with my underground thought process about God being a woman, and I, Her messenger. Luckily I leave out a longer bit I had just decided to discuss, about all of the world’s religions and their flaws. Afterward, the friend I’d run into in the terminal at JFK approaches me with a friend of his.
“We actually thought that was awesome.” The way he says it, and how readily his friend agrees, combined with the absence of other post-speech well-wishers, might indicate to me that something is off. But the part of me that might have been reading the room is closed for business.
That night, I go with some new friends to Tony Hsieh’s downtown Airstream trailer park. Here is a man purportedly worth hundreds of millions living in a trailer in the desert. It’s a surreal vibe, with llamas and a campfire in the middle of Las Vegas. We sit around that campfire, near Tony’s trailer, and the fire, its glow and warmth, takes hold of my mind the way it might if I were both stoned and ‘shrooming. My manic state is somewhere in the middle, though I am learning to hide my insane thoughts from others.
The ringleader of the group is a local Vegas VC who works for Tony, a deputy who is a part of Tony’s project to revitalize the city. As we sit around chatting, drinking beers, I get asked about the cofounder divorce at Bonobos. In the manic state, I decide that some show-and-tell might be useful. I search for a video on YouTube. It is a clip of [Bonobos cofounder Brian] Spaly and me on Fox Business, being interviewed, one of our first-ever TV segments. In my memory, which I relate to those assembled as color commentary, Spaly talks over me the entire time. I intend the clip as an illustration of how our personalities were too big to both exist at one company, and I tell them that he was the one who did the steamrolling. Then I play the video on my phone.
Minor problem. I monopolized almost the entire conversation.
As the small group takes in the contrast between my description of the event and the video, Tony’s deputy jokes, a little too comfortably: “Wow, you’re really a sociopath.” Everyone laughs. I laugh, too, but nervously, as I attempt to process what is happening. To the mind that has ascended to mania, revelations can come fast and furious, entire histories rearranged based on a new data point. I know what this one means: I am in fact a sociopath. I am the narcissist I’ve been looking for. Thoughts race through my mind. I need to call Spaly to thank him. I don’t, but I file the idea away, along with the renewed realization that I am the villain in my own life story.
Tony’s deputy invites us to “Tony’s house” to meet him. Inside his trailer, I greet the man himself. Brief words are exchanged. I remember something about him not being worried about climate change because humans will innovate our way out of it. Somebody mentions a startup that will gobble up the ocean’s plastic. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Tony’s dog scrambles up onto my lap. My brain, oscillating back and forth over the vanishing line between fantasy and reality, takes this as a good omen.
Tony is quiet, for the most part, sipping his drink. He seems more pensive than sad. I use the bathroom, then some of us leave. Later that night, his deputy tells me that Tony has a unique ability to see around corners in ways that others can’t.
Back at the hotel, having now been awake for two days, I take a shower. As the hot water hits me, I move to the next step of the journey to insanity: euphoric sudden truths. Everything I do now has meaning; everything ladders up to the broader mission of fixing America, saving the poor, healing the world.
There’s no need to do my job anymore. The people at Bonobos know I’ve moved on to more important things. Given my focus on initiatives outside of our core business that consistently risked derailing us, there is an irony to my being “off the grid” that I can’t possibly appreciate as it’s happening. Manic delusions and entrepreneurial delusions, while not twins, are not unrelated. They’re more like distant cousins. The capacity for one doesn’t guarantee—but can indicate—the capacity for the other.
Excerpted from the book Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. Copyright © 2022 by Andy Dunn. The book will be published on May 10, 2022, by Currency, an imprint of Random House. Reprinted by permission.