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Raising humanity's psychological ceiling
Why tech founders are an underserved population, and why we should all care more than we do.
When I tell ambitious tech founders that I think they are an “underserved population,” I get an interestingly intense reaction: a mix of surprise at hearing me say it, and equally strong surprise at how much it resonates.
Why do I think they’re underserved? Because they’re striving to do something more innovative, uncertain, and psychologically demanding than most of us ever try to do—with potentially larger impacts on all of us—and yet their distinct psychological needs have gone largely unstudied and unaddressed by the mental health field.
Why are founders so surprised to hear me say this? After all, they are all keenly aware of the unsparing mental and emotional marathon they’re running every day. And many have come across the headlines signaling a “mental health crisis in startups,” with several high-profile suicides calling attention to the generally high prevalence of mental health issues among entrepreneurs. Yet most founders I speak with take a somewhat stoically dismissive attitude toward their own struggles, to the effect of “this is my chosen burden” and “I’m so privileged, what do I really have to complain about?”
This attitude isn’t coming from nowhere. When mental health advocates speak of “underserved populations,” they usually mean those with socioeconomic or health-related disadvantages that make it harder for them to access or afford care. To say that entrepreneurs are underserved—not in virtue of being women, or entrepreneurs of color, or members of some other disadvantaged group, but simply in virtue of choosing to work on something really hard and new—would probably raise some eyebrows among my fellow mental health professionals.
Besides, many of the high-performing founders I work with are, in fact, in pretty good mental health already. According to a conventional narrative within my field, these founders would fall squarely under the heading of the “worried well.” The tacit assumption is that they would be basically fine with or without my psychological help, because most of their needs have already been met. They’ve got access to at least adequate financial and social supports; they’ve developed at least the interpersonal skills needed to convince investors to give them money (and family members to give them at least some degree of patience); they’re able to manage their anxiety and maintain their motivation at least well enough to have gotten a lot of work done in a relatively unstructured environment where they are the ultimate responsible party when anything goes wrong. They also tend to be scrappy and resourceful, which means many of them are already familiar with the tools conferred by the gold-standard psychotherapy and positive psychology approaches by the time they come to see me.
So what’s left for me to do, really, other than redirect them to those tools and encourage them to make some time for self-care? If I wanted a real challenge, wouldn’t I be taking on clients who are struggling to stay alive and make ends meet, never mind figuring out how to make their venture-backed startup profitable?
The psychological needs of the ambitious
My experience has been the polar opposite: one of the main reasons I love working with founders (and other equivalently ambitious, formidable creators) is that they challenge me in ways no one else does. I don’t mean because they struggle with more than their fair share of mental health issues (though they do); I mean because their ambitions demand levels of psychological competency beyond what the current gold-standard psychotherapy and positive psychology tools are even aiming at.
Take, for example, the ambition to “make your venture-backed startup profitable”. Any idea what it takes to develop, market, and distribute a product or service that’s never existed before, in a form that’s valuable and accessible enough for large numbers of people to want to pay you for it over and over again, in sufficient quantity that your revenue consistently exceeds your costs?
If you’ve never tried to do this, you probably under-appreciate just how psychologically demanding a task it is: in particular, how much fresh and unfettered thinking, win-win relationship building, emotional self-management, authentic conviction, earned self-trust, intellectual ambitiousness, and disciplined focus it requires.
If you’re among the few who have, then you have some idea of what it took—and you may be facing the next-level challenge of maintaining a strong company culture at scale, or deciding whether and how to hand over the reins so you can move on without undoing everything you’ve done, or grappling with the existential question of what to do next, now that you’ve gotten a taste of what’s possible (but also how much work it takes).
If you’re like a significant subset of my clients, you may also be dealing with one or more of the distinct (or at least distinct-looking) psychological problems that can afflict the extremely ambitious, such as an over-reliance on gut hunches in contexts where they may be miscalibrated, or a mix of cynicism and insecurity about your ability to “get through” to others, for example. Steve Jobs is a great example of an epically ambitious builder who, by all accounts, seemed to grapple with both problems at certain points in his life. As I’ve elsewhere described his “cynicism about others” problem:
In the Becoming Jobs biography, for example, we see multiple instances in which the young Jobs gets frustrated with his team members’ performance and responds by shortchanging them the very resources and support they would need to improve their performance, thus further fueling his frustration and perpetuating the cycle. The underlying mindset, if I had to speculate based on similar patterns I’ve observed in my clients, might have amounted to something like “people either get it or they don’t”—a kind of fixed mindset applied to the talents and capabilities of others.
Even if you don’t struggle with these or other “pathologies of the ambitious,” you’ll need to blaze new psychological trails to the extent of whatever technological or cultural or scientific or artistic trails you’re blazing. New heights of human endeavor require new tools for managing every aspect of the endeavor, including the psychological. For instance, here are some of the distinct psychological needs I’ve observed in my most ambitious clients, as I wrote about here:
Beyond “setting more realistic goals”, my clients sometimes need help setting wildly ambitious goals, while being ruthlessly honest with themselves about the low probability of success.
Beyond “reappraising their catastrophic thoughts”, they need help recognizing when their “reappraisal” is just rationalization of what is in fact a looming catastrophe that needs to be faced and problem-solved.
Beyond “taking other people’s perspectives”, they sometimes need help disconnecting from other people’s perspectives long enough to work out their own.
Beyond “asserting themselves”, they need help seeking out relationships and communities that offer them closeness without assimilation.
Beyond “learning mindfulness skills to manage their stress”, they need help recognizing when they're using these skills as a procrastination tool.
Beyond “scheduling self-care”, they may need help powering through a week without rest for the sake of a valued endeavor.
Beyond identifying some generic values to guide their choices, they may need help articulating a mission statement that captures the full novelty of their aspirations, while allowing maximum flexibility in execution.
And, beyond all of these particular skills, they may need help determining which skills they need when—and developing the self-awareness and self-honesty to check their motives for deploying a given skill at a given time.
The more ambitious and innovative your life projects, in sum, the more formidable your psychological needs—and the fewer the psychological resources that have been developed for navigating those needs. But this doesn’t mean you either have to settle for misery and burnout or lower your ambitions. Rather, it means you need to be that much more vocal in articulating and advocating for your needs, and that much more entrepreneurial (or, as Paul Graham would put it, relentlessly resourceful) about hunting down the best available resources and boostrapping them to suit your specific psychological purposes. In addition to my own founder coaching practice and the contents in this newsletter, I also recommend Dr. Julie Gurner, Amy Buechler, and others working at the intersection of psychology and executive coaching.
A difference in emphasis: raising the floor versus raising the ceiling
Matt Clifford has written about how building a world-changing technology company has never been easier than it is today, particularly with the advent of startup accelerators and platforms (like his own organization, Entrepreneur First) to make the collected wisdom of prior founders more accessible. But for all the technical and commercial and industry-specific knowledge that founders can readily access today, the psychological knowledge lags behind. (In fact, Matt hired me to coach and consult EF’s founders largely in recognition of this fact, as we discuss together here.) Perhaps this is why the number of tech founders remains small, and the number who actually gain some traction—much less turn a profit—is far smaller still.
Why, then, are more researchers and practitioners not jumping to address the distinct psychological needs of the ambitious?
One reason, I suspect, comes down to a difference in the kinds of problems regarded as important and urgent to solve. Most of my field (along with most of our social and ethical systems and institutions, so I’m told) is focused on “raising the floor” of human functioning: lifting more people out of depression, anxiety, trauma, etc., and up to the mean level of wellbeing, resilience, self-efficacy, or whatever outcomes we’re trying to optimize. The methods and metrics used by the vast majority of psychology research reflect this focus, as I’ve written about elsewhere.
Such problems definitely need solving, and I want to see them solved as much as anyone. But I believe “ceiling-raising” problems are at least as important, far more likely to be neglected, and potentially the more fundamental of the two.
Imagine: how much more, better, and cheaper technology—including mental health and wellbeing-enhancing technology—would we all be enjoying today, if more people were equipped with the psychological wherewithal to conceive and execute on big, ambitious ideas? If they were equipped, moreover, to do so with a spirit of joyful benevolence, and to grow progressively happier and wiser and more skillful at doing so throughout their lives?
For that matter, how much more uplifting would our news cycles and social media feeds be if the world’s most influential builders—like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg—had the tools and insights they needed to up their psychological game?
These are the kinds of problems I’m most excited to solve. They are the kinds of problems almost no one is publicly talking about; in fact they haven’t even been formally identified as problems yet, because they’re beyond our current conceptions of how good a human life can be.
Some people are already living that life or something close to it, as I wrote about in my “psychological perfection” post. But even they don’t fully know what they’re doing differently or how they got there, so it’s not something they can reliably pass on or consistently maintain even within themselves.
I want to work with those people, to figure out—and help them figure out—what they’re doing and how they can do it even more and better. And I want to work with the people who aren’t quite there but are credibly aspiring to be (much like myself), to figure out—and help them figure out—how to climb to that higher level. And as I work with both sets of people, I want to distill the core underlying principles powering that climb, ultimately using those principles to inspire and empower new heights of human thriving at scale.
Meanwhile, to the most ambitious founders and innovators reading this: your psychological needs are formidable and real, not in spite of your awesomeness but (at least largely) because of it. You deserve more and better support than you’re likely getting, which is all the more reason to go and seek it out.
As for the rest of us: let’s not be too quick to deride or dismiss the most ambitious founders of our day, even (perhaps especially) when they act out or appear to be going off the rails. Instead let’s thank them for the trails they’re blazing, however unevenly, and recall that their endeavors raise the ceiling for our own.
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