Why startup founders have mood swings (and why they may have uses)

(This post was col­lab­o­ra­tively writ­ten to­gether with Dun­can Sa­bien.)

Startup founders stereo­typ­i­cally ex­pe­rience some pretty se­ri­ous mood swings. One day, their product seems des­tined to be big­ger than Google, and the next, it’s a mess of in­co­her­ent, un­re­al­is­tic non­sense that no one in their right mind would ever pay a dime for. Many of them spend half of their time full of drive and en­thu­si­asm, and the other half crip­pled by self-doubt, de­spair, and guilt. Often this rol­ler­coaster ride goes on for years be­fore the com­pany ei­ther finds its feet or goes un­der.

Well, sure, you might say. Run­ning a startup is stress­ful. Stress comes with mood swings.

But that’s not re­ally an ex­pla­na­tion—it’s like say­ing stuff falls when you let it go. There’s some­thing about the “launch­ing a startup” situ­a­tion that in­duces these kinds of mood swings in many peo­ple, in­clud­ing plenty who would oth­er­wise be en­tirely sta­ble.

Mov­ing parts

There are plenty of stress­ful situ­a­tions which don’t cause this sort of high-mag­ni­tude cy­cling. Wait­ing on blood test re­sults from a can­cer scare, or ap­ply­ing to pres­ti­gious col­leges or com­pa­nies, or work­ing as a sub­or­di­nate startup em­ployee[1]—these are all de­mand­ing, emo­tion­ally drain­ing cir­cum­stances, but they don’t in­duce the same sort of cy­cling.

Con­trast those situ­a­tions with these:

  • Peo­ple in the early stages of their first se­ri­ous ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship (es­pe­cially those who re­ally re­ally re­ally want it to work, but lack a clear model of how)

  • Peo­ple who are deeply se­ri­ous about per­son­ally mak­ing a differ­ence in global poverty, space ex­plo­ra­tion, ex­is­ten­tial risk, or other world-scale issues

  • Peo­ple who are strug­gling to write their first novel, make their first movie, paint their first mas­ter­piece, or win their first gold medal

… all of which have been known to push peo­ple into the same kind of os­cilla­tion we see in startup founders. As far as we can tell, there are two fac­tors com­mon to all of these cases: they’re situ­a­tions in which peo­ple must work re­ally, re­ally hard to have any hope of suc­cess, and they’re also situ­a­tions in which peo­ple aren’t at all sure what kinds of work will get them there. It’s not a re­sponse to high pres­sure or un­cer­tainty, it’s a re­sponse to high pres­sure and un­cer­tainty, where un­cer­tainty means not just be­ing un­sure about which path to take, but also about whether the paths (and the des­ti­na­tion!) are even real.

Sub­con­scious intentionality

It’s easy to point to the value in eu­pho­ria and op­ti­mism. You get lots of code writ­ten, re­cruit lots of fund­ing and tal­ent, write a perfect draft—it’s the part of the cy­cle where you’re drawn to work­ing sev­enty hour weeks, check­ing off each and ev­ery item from your to-do list. But the “down” parts of­ten feel like they’re pointless at best, and dan­ger­ous or coun­ter­pro­duc­tive at worst. Most of the on­line com­men­tary on this phe­nomenon treats them as a nega­tive; there’s lots of talk about how to break the pat­tern, or how to “deal with” the ex­tremes. In our own pasts, we found our­selves won­der­ing why our brains couldn’t just hang on to the mo­men­tum—why they in­sisted on tak­ing us through stupid de­tours of de­spair or shame be­fore re­turn­ing us back to ap­par­ent “for­ward mo­tion”.

In­ter­est­ing things hap­pened when we be­gan treat­ing that ques­tion as non-rhetor­i­cal. What, we won­dered, might those down cy­cles be aimed at? If we were to as­sume that they were, on some level, use­ful/​in­ten­tional/​con­struc­tive, then what sorts of in­stru­men­tal be­hav­ioral pat­terns were they nudg­ing us to­ward?

Imag­ine break­ing the two parts of the cy­cle into two sep­a­rate peo­ple, each of whom is ad­vis­ing you as you move a startup for­ward. One of them is the voice of con­fi­dence—the clas­sic “in­side view”—with a clear sense of the pos­si­bil­ities and lots of en­thu­si­asm for next ac­tions. The other is the voice of pes­simism, with a range of doubts and con­cerns from the ob­ject level all the way up to the fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tions of your whole pro­ject.

A naive man­ager might as­sume that one of these ad­vi­sors is bet­ter than the other. Cer­tainly one of them is more “pleas­ant” to have around. But it’s al­most triv­ially ob­vi­ous that you’ll build bet­ter mod­els and more ro­bust plans if you keep both of them in­volved. It’s not just about bal­anc­ing pos­i­tive and nega­tive out­looks, or con­struc­tive and de­struc­tive im­pulses (al­though that’s a part of it). It’s about the pro­cess of build­ing an ac­cu­rate map in un­ex­plored ter­ri­tory, which of­ten re­quires a kind of leapfrog­ging of pro­vi­sional model-build­ing and crit­i­cal model-tear­ing-down. You start with a bad but work­able model, col­lide it with re­al­ity, and then re­fine the model in re­sponse be­fore col­lid­ing it again. Both halves of the pro­cess are crit­i­cal—a good en­trepreneur needs both the abil­ity to fol­low a line of think­ing to its con­clu­sion and the abil­ity to throw the line away and start from scratch, and would be equally crip­pled by a lack of ei­ther.

Why de­spair?

Startup founders, as­piring film­mak­ers, and would-be wor­ld­savers “have to” be en­thu­si­as­tic and pos­i­tive. They have to sell their mod­els—to skep­ti­cal in­vestors, to po­ten­tial hires, and oddly of­ten to them­selves—and many peo­ple strug­gle to hold both de­ter­mined con­fi­dence and fun­da­men­tal un­cer­tainty in their minds at the same time. In­stead, their brains use mood to en­courage them to al­ter­nate. The eu­phoric half of the cy­cle is where as­sump­tions are taken to their con­clu­sion—where you col­lide your mod­els with re­al­ity by build­ing code, at­tempt­ing to en­roll cus­tomers, and so on. And the de­spair half is where those as­sump­tions are challenged and ques­tioned—where all of the fears and doubts and wor­ry­ing bits of ev­i­dence that you’ve been hold­ing off on look­ing at are al­lowed to come for­ward.

In­ter­est­ingly, the real power of the down cy­cle seems to be less that it al­lows thoughts like “maybe my startup will never work,” and more that, be­cause it al­lows such thoughts, it also al­lows “maybe my un­der­stand­ing of the sales land­scape is wrong,” or “maybe the product man­ager we’ve just spent three months get­ting up to speed is ac­tu­ally a ter­rible fit for the team.” De­s­pair can be a key that un­locks whole swaths of the ter­ri­tory. When you’re “up,” your cur­rent strat­egy is of­ten weirdly en­tan­gled with your over­all sense of re­solve and com­mit­ment—we some­times have a hard time crit­i­cally and ob­jec­tively eval­u­at­ing parts C, D, and J be­cause flaws in C, D, and J would threaten the whole ed­ifice. But when you’re “down,” the ob­vi­ous­ness of your im­pend­ing doom means that you can look crit­i­cally at your past as­sump­tions with­out hav­ing to defend any­thing.[2]

Mov­ing for­ward (or back­ward, as the case may be)

Our recom­men­da­tion: the next time you’re work­ing on some­thing large, im­por­tant, and very, very un­cer­tain, don’t re­sist the oc­ca­sional slide into de­spair. In fact, don’t even think of it as a “slide”—in our ex­pe­rience, it stops feel­ing like a slide as soon as you stop re­sist­ing it. In­stead, rec­og­nize it for what it is—a sign that im­por­tant ev­i­dence has been build­ing up in your buffer, un­ac­knowl­edged, and that it’s time now to in­te­grate it into your plans.

Un­der­stand­ing the sub­con­scious in­ten­tion­al­ity be­hind this sort of mood swing doesn’t make it any less painful, but it can make it far more pleas­ant—eas­ier to en­dure and eas­ier to mine for value. Think of it as an effi­cient and use­ful pro­cess for build­ing ac­cu­rate mod­els un­der stress­ful un­cer­tainty, and trust your­self to hold to­gether in both states, re­sist­ing nei­ther.

There’s a ver­sion of you that is good at mov­ing for­ward—that has the en­ergy to pour sev­enty hours a week into your cur­rent best guesses, stretch­ing the parts of your model that are cor­rect as far as they can go. And there’s a ver­sion of you that is good at deal­ing with the darker side of re­al­ity—that is ac­tu­ally will­ing to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that it’s all garbage, in­stead of just pay­ing lip ser­vice to the idea. Em­brace each in turn, and the re­sult can be pe­ri­ods of high pro­duc­tivity fol­lowed by pe­ri­ods of ex­treme flex­i­bil­ity, a com­bined strat­egy whose av­er­age util­ity of­ten seems to out­weigh the util­ity of an av­er­age strat­egy.

[1] The ex­am­ple of sub­or­di­nate startup em­ploy­ees seems per­haps par­tic­u­larly re­veal­ing, since they share the same un­cer­tainty and long hours as their bosses, but are not ex­pected to come up with the same kinds of strate­gic solu­tions.

[2] Alter­nat­ing be­tween de­spair and for­ward mo­tion may also be a good strat­egy given hu­man work­ing mem­ory limi­ta­tions. :)