Why Are The Unicorns Sad? The State of Entrepreneurial Mental Health

Choosing the path of entrepreneurship is, in its own way, an act of insanity.

“I want to have a lower salary, greater work stress, longer hours, more responsibility, enormous personal and financial risk, and a constant fear of looming doom,” said no sane person, ever.

But in all seriousness, a recent study found a whopping 72% of entrepreneurs report mental health conditions, compared to 48% in non-entrepreneurs.

So either someone is spiking the beer in all the co-working offices, or there’s a real problem here.

As a former neuroscience and psychology researcher working in venture capital and startups, I think it’s time to call BS on a big, scary issue that no one in the VC, tech, and startup community is talking about…

Why are the unicorns sad?

Entrepreneurs Have Special Brains

Millions of years of evolution have produced the “founder brain!” This is very exciting.

Neurodiversity has formed a special group of people who have just the right personality, cognitive capabilities, and skill-set to be founders.

Entrepreneurs are pretty helpful for survival, so evolution keeps them around. They create social and economic growth, drive innovation so we don’t die, pioneer venturing (into new lands or app ideas), and do lots of other humanity-sustaining things.

These Special Brains Have Fun Features

The founder brain is built with a whole assortment of unique features.

These superpowers are a founder’s armor that help them do the impossible. Traits like an atypical knack for creativity and innovation, extreme goal attainment and achievement motivation, and abnormally high risk propensity are seen in many successful entrepreneurs.

These Fun Features Have Dark Trade-Offs

Unfortunately, these features are also clinical indicators of bipolarity, depression, ADHD, and substance use conditions. And entrepreneurs have a staggeringly high incidence of these mental health conditions.

In a cruel plot twist, the superpowers that make successful entrepreneurs often stem from a form of mental illness.

And this disposition is actually in their genes. Researchers found that asymptomatic entrepreneurs are twice as likely to report mental health conditions in first-degree relatives than non-entrepreneurs, indicating the susceptibility is genetic rather than environmental.

But Why Is No One Talking About the Sad Unicorns?

Entrepreneurial mental health is kind of like the spider bite in Spider Man. With the poison comes a special strength – it is a burden of great power and responsibility.

There are adaptive benefits to entrepreneurs having mental health conditions. I mean, it helps to be a little crazy if you think you will start a company and actually succeed.

But the entrepreneur and VC ecosystem isn’t built to tolerate the waves of psychological turbulence. Even if an addictive or maniacal personality is behind an entrepreneur’s success, a VC wants to see a placid lake of emotional stability.

In fact, this poorly structured ecosystem can aggravate underlying conditions. When your self-marketing has an obligatory theme of “crushing it,” the cognitive dissonance can result in a spiral of depression, anxiety, and destructive behavior.

So I want to hear from you.

Email me with thoughts, big or small. Tell me what you think might be helpful for you and your company. You can reach me at carson.jmarie@gmail.com

  • Mindfulness for Entrepreneurs: Would you attend an entrepreneur-focused meditation and mindfulness series?
  • Business Psychology for Entrepreneurs: Would you attend sessions with a business psychologist, who understands both mental health and the entrepreneur’s dilemma?
  • Entrepreneurial Mental Health Policy: Would you like to see policy that destigmatizes mental health and provides resources to those who create jobs and prosperity, while suffering from mental illness?
  • Entrepreneurs and VC Transparency: Would you like to have a more transparent relationship with the venture community?

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