On Founder wellness

This article is the twentieth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on August the 6th, 2017.

In the very first column in this series, I wrote about the loneliness of entrepreneurship. Add to that the stresses of building and running a fledgling business, with the worries of making cash last, making sales, making payroll, and just making it to the end of the month sometimes, and we have the makings of a psychological nightmare for founders. In the recent years, there has been more than one founder suicide, a sad outcome which is often preventable.

Nobody, no failed or successful founder, can tell you how it is supposed to be. A venture isn’t about rational factors alone. As founders we give so much to it that we can lose the plot. If however getting out of bed gets harder, it is time for a rethink. Here are some pointers.

Recognise the signs.

There are signs when we aren’t coping. Others can sometimes see them before we acknowledge them. These signs include (but are not limited to): poor sleep patterns; inability to concentrate or get anything done; messed-up appetite or eating patterns; loss of energy and focus; creeping substance abuse in the form of increasing use of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, pot etc. in the name of needing a kick, relaxation, help to fall asleep, stress relief.

Ignoring these is not wise. Inadequate or poor sleep affects our judgment including moral judgment. Poor nutrition affects energy levels but can also contribute to stress. The impact of substance abuse on judgment, motor skills and on general wellbeing is widely known too.

Ignoring any of these is unhelpful to your ability to be a good founder.

Take stock and distinguish busyness from strategic progress.

When I see stressed founders — and I include my former self in those — I ask if they stop and take stock. It is a simple step but powerful in its impact on focusing one’s efforts.

Do you feel purposeful in your pursuit, or are you just cranking the handle? Can you distinguish busyness from strategic progress?

Being permanently busy hampers our ability to engage in deep and creative thinking.

Schedule leisure.

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”

Welsh poet William Henry Davies’s ode to Leisure might be anathema to most founders, as they flinch when I ask what they do in their free time. “I have no free time.” “But you have the same 24 hours as everyone else.” “Um…”.

Every once in a while, the question gets heard. And then they stop.

You schedule meetings, don’t you? How about scheduling a form of downtime as you would an important meeting? This is after all just an appointment, one you keep with yourself.

What should your leisure look like? Anything you want it to look like, as long as it utterly distracts you from work, recharges you and energises you. Some find solace in nature walks and hikes, others in books. Yet others cook or find time to help social and charitable causes. A few engage in extreme sports. Find what works for you and commit time to it, weekly if not daily.

Talk to people not related to your work or Startuplandia.

And do that regularly. One of the key essentials as a founder, focused on one’s narrow goals, is to keep perspective. That requires looking above the parapet and being open to being challenged.

The story of the well-known “innovator” Square comes to mind. The idea was to let small merchants accept cards using a square dongle. It worked well in the USA. But Europe and the UK were far more advanced in their card security features. The dongle had no capability to accept chip-and-pin enabled cards. The famous founder did not dig in his heels, but worked to understand the limitations of their offering and explored other avenues.

People not invested in your space may detract but many a time, they also have views which may make you think.

Build a wellness and self care routine.

It wont be much fun, would it, if your company is celebrating milestones and you are sitting under your desk rendered immobile by your anxiety, or worse, in hospital with stress related illness.

Wellness is not a hipster idea. Wellness – physical, mental, psychological, spiritual – enables us to follow our dreams, giving our best to all we do.

And if we don’t give the best to our startups, really, why are we bothering?

Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

My 2015 in books

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman had my reading interests down pat. This year was bountiful, so much so I have backlog which I carry into 2016. This was also the year I returned — partly — to print books, mainly in order to read more, read faster and retain more. The glare of the screen on the iPad is not conducive to hours of reading, although it is fun to carry several dozen books at once in one’s bag! So some of these books were read on dead tree, others electronically.

Here are the ones that stood out.

The most affecting book I read was Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, And Body In The Healing Of Trauma. Along with his team of researchers, van der Kolk has spent years understanding the nature of trauma and the mark it leaves on people and then how to palliate or reverse the damage. Embedded in the book is also the story of how they made the case, in vain, to have developmental trauma disorder included in the DSM, and how child abuse may be the biggest public health challenge of our times. It is not an easy read but an affecting one.

The most viscerally moving poetry I read came from Warsan Shire in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth. As a diasporic Indian in England, I find her writing has always struck a chord with me but this year, the year of so many refugees having to leave home forcibly only to arrive at the doors of those erecting walls to keep them out, her writing resonated deeply.

I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I come from is disappearing. I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric was another book of poetry that touched me deeply in a year of unprecedented racial violence and police brutality against black Americans in the USA.

The most recommended and frequently gifted book by me this year was Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: The True Cost Of Not Having Enough. Whatever your lens – society, policy, economics – this book will challenge your perspective and do so with empathy and evidence.

The most perspective-giving books I read were Elmira Bayrasli’s From The Other Side Of The World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, and Jonathan Gil Harris’s The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian. At first glance, they look not like each other at all. But they are. At their foundation they both are books about unusual things human beings are doing and have always done, and in doing so how they traverse the question of identity. Bayrasli is Turkish-American from Brooklyn, Gil Harris a Newzealander fluent in Hindi, teaching Shakespeare in India, via the UK and the USA. They tackle innovation and identity respectively but they aren’t as disparate themes as may appear to be the case.

The most droll book I read was undoubtedly Bream Gives Me Hiccups: And Other Stories by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is known to most as the actor who played a socially challenged young Mark Zuckerberg in the film Social Network. His collection of fictional short stories, are in the voice of a 9 year old boy, whose parents are divorced and who lives with his mother, reminded me of both David Sedaris (as many others note too) and Noah Baumbach.

The best social and cultural commentaries were found in two quite dissimilar books, namely Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast: The lessons we learned from eighties movies (and why we don’t learn them from movies any more), and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Freeman has written a fast-paced analysis of how the 1980s Hollywood tackled tough themes such as abortion rights and class issues, while resolutely writing strong female characters, all of which seems to be on the decline since the 1980s ended.

Related read: Francine Stock in the FT in Why Abortion Is No Longer Out of The Picture traces the history of abortion in cinema, through Alfie, Dirty Dancing, Knocked Up, Cider House Rules and Juno, while nodding to the films Grandma and Obvious Child, released this year:

Lily Tomlin, the 76-year-old lead of the new film Grandma, is attracting seasonal awards-talk like static. It’s a fine performance, drawing on her back catalogue of sharp-tongued, volatile misanthropes, the natural melancholy of her features suddenly illuminated by that huge smile. It also plays on her being a gay woman.

But the film’s real political significance lies not in age or sexuality but reproduction. The engine of Grandma’s plot is the search for funds to terminate her teenage granddaughter’s unplanned pregnancy.

Abortion is still a tricky subject onscreen. Most intimate activity is out there — birth, circumcision, puberty, nudity, masturbation, simulated (and real) sex, young sex, old sex, animal sex, 3D sex, death. Yet the medical or surgical resolution of an unwanted pregnancy (over a million a year in the US, nearly 200,000 a year in England, Wales and Scotland) rarely occurs in films, or at least not to characters close to the central storyline.

Turkle is a long-standing observer of the co-evolution of society and technology, and in this book deals with how we are losing empathy and the art of conversation — eye contact, listening, engaging, responding — with our devices being the centre of our lives.

The most fascinating anthropological commentary I read this year was on clothes and women. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Sharpton’s Women In Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear upset many a book critic. It is a series of narratives by women and conversations between women, all talking about clothes, the memories built in them, the symbolism, the shared and sometimes not-shared fears and quirks. It is a good thing reliable book critics are so few and far in between that the vast majority can be dismissed in the pursuit of interesting materials that get published.

I encountered an unusual, innovative format in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, by JM Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, him an author of fiction and her a psychotherapist. In conversations over email, they explore the nature of truth, fiction, constructed truths, objectivity, the ideal self and many related themes in identity. I read the book through in a flight from London to San Francisco earlier in the year.

The book I re-read this year was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl’s experience of surviving concentration camps in the Holocaust makes for sobering reading, as much as his advice on getting perspective in tough times rings true.

The most relatable book, this year when my siblings and I dealt with a medical emergency with one of our parents, was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? As the only child of parents, who are holocaust survivors, Chast documents in this alternately funny and poignant book what it is like to watch the slow physical and mental decline of one’s aging parents, to witness our heroes become unreasonable and unpredictable, to accept that our soft-lens dreams of generations living under one roof are just dreams, and to let go before they go.

Finally in my research and professional interest area of decision-making, I read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy and Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving. Gigerenzer’s work in heuristics was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink, and in this book, Gigerenzer discusses how we assess risks. It is less dry than I just made it sound! Thaler’s book is quite – perhaps by design – droll and explores the myth of human rationality in decision-making. It is a great read, and at the risk of annoying many fans, much more engaging a read than Daniel Kahneman’s tome last year.

My 2015 backlog — or books-in-process as I call them — being carried over to 2016 includes Niall Fergusin’s Kissinger, Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect, Anne Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business. I am also half-way through re-reading The Balfour Declaration which will no doubt carry into 2016.

Happy Reading in 2016!

Some of the books 2015

Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.

Our mothers, ourselves and risk literacy

The web is on fire with Ms Angelina Jolie’s honest and unsentimental account of her elective, prophylactic double mastectomy, appearing in the New York Times. She writes about her mother, who died at 56, having suffered cancer for a decade. She also writes about how she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. Her risk profile, she writes, was estimated at “87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer”. This risk would manifest itself before menopause is reached.

Not for me to comment on how our mothers – living or not – continue to shape our lives. I lost mine when I was 4. As far as I am concerned, I will never find out what she may or may not have suffered from, had she lived to age 46 (which was the age at which Ms Jolie’s mother’s cancer was diagnosed, according to publicly available information). Or longer. Every day I live defies all risks I may or may not know of.

But in this age of “austerity”, and living in a country with a publicly funded healthcare system being ravaged by budget cuts and the looming threat of privatisation, I worry. Alas the NHS’s postcode lottery is all too well-known for us to hide from it.

When TV celebrity Jade Goody died of preventable cervical cancer at the age of 25, it increased the uptake of pap smears in the NHS. When Kylie Minogue made the news of her breast cancer public, there was a 20-fold increase in the uptake of mammograms and early screening. There may now well be a worldwide surge in the uptake for genetic testing for BRCA mutations, which may be attributable to Ms Jolie sharing her experience.

Which is not all bad news. An estimated 20000 breast cancer related deaths could be prevented every year in the UK, not all attributable to advance knowledge of genetic markers.

I am sure you all know everything I have written so far. So I come to my main point. It is both a policy concern and a societal concern.

Risk literacy in the general public is rarely if ever discussed, even as risk communication remains ever-present, slightly sensationalised, yet incomplete or poor. For instance, BRCA mutations are almost exclusively discussed as a risk factor for breast cancer, following which ovarian cancer. Why not discuss that BRCA mutations may almost double the risk of cancer of the fallopian tubes? Which can be detected early and treated.

We still haven’t fully explained, in plain English, what it means to have a risk of X% versus Y% of getting A or B type of cancer. Risk really is a two-part concept: an undesirable outcome and the probability that it will come to pass. The probability may be expressed in numerical terms — making it sound, to most people, very accurate and reliable, which may not be the case — or in generalised terms such as “negligible”, “considerable”, “very likely”. Thereon it is a case of how one’s own risk propensity matches up to the description of a risk. That is what decisions are often guided by.

Here’s a story. A friend of mine, who had her first child at age 34, was told she had 1 in 1200 chance of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. She said she took the chance. She is a highly educated, mathematically literate, senior pharma industry executive and struggled to explain to me what it really meant. To take that chance. She finally said: “Whatever I get I shall deal with.”

So that is what it comes to. Dealing with it.

Ms Jolie dealt with her risk in a certain way and shared her decision in unsentimental language with the broader public. It will increase awareness about BRCA for sure, but will it lead to better-informed decisions? Hard to say. Not everyone who gets tested — with the myriad (if you will ignore the pun**!) of genetic testing firms mushrooming in the market — will have access to the sort of counselling Ms Jolie might have had access to. Increasingly the choice to get screened or not is being left to the patient, even as this review took place because too often women are informed of the benefits of screening but not the harms. Back to risk literacy then.

Ms Jolie’s candid sharing of her experience needs to ignite a debate on risk literacy — not just BRCA mutations, breast cancer, or preventative mastectomies.

I have a final point. Men get breast cancer too. Because the absolute risk is low, the increase in the chances of a BRCA mutation carrying man getting breast cancer by age 70 or beyond is dramatic. This is also the age, when a lot of medical and health insurance policies start to enforce exclusions on the insured. With institutionalised differences between how men and women are treated by the healthcare system, surely risk communication about BRCA should include the risks to men, shouldn’t it?

Of course, I care about the issue as it affects men — I have only one parent left and it is my father.

(** If you missed the pun please read this. As well as the history of the company. Thanks.)