Yesterday I saw two biopic films: “Amy” about the life of Jazz sensation Amy Winehouse who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27 and “Montage of Heck” about the life of Kurt Cobain, the grunge-rock generational voice who died of an overdose of heroin and valium at the age of … 27.
It was a heavy day, for sure. Both films were must watches for artistry. They interweave off-stage lives and conversations with amazing musical performances and they both have amazing editing and cinematography.
They are essentially the same story. Each had childhoods with some degree of parental neglect and each suffered from and was diagnosed at a young age with depression. In both cases, they turned to hard-core drugs to escape reality — Cobain to heroin and Winehouse to heroin and crack cocaine. Both had serious eating issues — Winehouse had bulimia and Cobain actually suffered from severe intestinal disorders that he claims led him to heroin in the first place to deal with the pain. They were also obviously both very talented writers and musicians and were expressing their pains and existence through words and music.
In both cases, the biopics portray suffering souls who find extreme and sudden success that casts them into the public eye in a way that they weren’t prepared for. They suffered in trying to live up to public perceptions and the demands to continue their successes. They both found themselves surrounded by influences who amplified their insecurities and drug addictions and also by the “system” of people around them who pushed them to succeed for their own interests.
As I was thinking about how I feel about the movie I Tweeted out that immediate success brings out a loneliness that few have empathy for.
[email protected] Very heavy. But needed to be seen. Entrepreneurs could learn about loneliness of success: nobody talks about
— Mark Suster (@msuster) July 19, 2015
And the immediate reaction was obvious — that failure can be pretty lonely, too.
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Of course, that’s true. I’ve tried over the years to write many times about the realism of the downsides of being an entrepreneur because there is a complete cognitive dissidence between what you read about yourself in the press and what you feel internally about where you’re at in the journey. I felt this myself as we went from a few founders huddled into a tiny room to the front page of the Financial Times, an influx of VC interest, magazine covers, invitations to high-profile events and the pressures of trying to live up to this perception and the economic opportunities everybody expected.
I was 31. I managed the pressure but it led me to gain weight, drink too much, work all the time and internalise the pressure that if I failed it would be very public and would affect the lives of everybody who joined my startup in the belief we would do something big together. It was a lot to bear.
As an industry we need to pay attention to those who are struggling as they build their startups and make sure we pay as much attention to the mental stresses of the job as we do to the business challenges like shipping product, hiring staff and raising money. I spend a tonne of time with founders discussing personal issues such as founder fighting, the fear of failure, the rejection of investors as well as dealing with real failure and figuring out the aftermath.
I think we intuitively all know about these struggles even if not enough people focus on them.
But I wanted to call out specific attention to the loneliness of success because it has its own unique flavour. With success comes more pressure not to let others down. With success you often have a public perception that you’re loaded but in reality much if not all of it is on paper. Nirvana talked about this after their first album went platinum and they were still focussed on what their daily per diem on the road was because none of them had wealth.
The road is littered with startups that shined bright before burning out. Every founder knows this. Every $10 million financing only puts more pressure on the founders to figure out how to hit the metrics to get to the next milestone and every company that raises $25 million puts a ton of pressure on their 10 competitors who haven’t.
Look at some of the biggest successes of our era and tell me the founders/CEOs haven’t gone through some serious stresses: Levie at Box, Houston at DropBox, Kalanick at Uber and recently Costolo at Twitter. We envy them all and want to emulate them but know that they are just people dealing with struggles of a different magnitude from the pressures of going public, the pressures of pricing competition, the pressures of over-reaching of journalists and regulators and the pressures of activist public shareholders with short-term expectations.
And not that I’m looking for VC sympathy but just know that I know well-known partners who have dealt with the financial pressures of capital calls with no carry checks to show for it, the difficulties of first-time funds, the challenges of fund-raising when one isn’t a brand-name VC and even founder fighting and departures of high-profile colleagues.
We should try to have empathy for each other. Know that “the grass is always greener” but that we’re all human and all going through the same struggles. That was the words from Kurt Cobain that permeated my consciousness the most. He kept rejecting the public narrative that he was special and he kept saying on camera that he was just a person. He suffered publicly as the press called his wife fat and begged people at concerts to be kinder to his wife.
Success can be a lonely place because the expectations don’t stop — they get higher. Success can be a lonely place because there is so much more at stake and so many more livelihoods and legacies that you are playing for. Success can be lonely because it is only a heartbeat away from failure and the press love a rise-and-fall story. Success can be lonely because as with Kurt and Amy you find yourself surrounded by a bubble and often a bubble with vested interests in your actions.
After watching the hatefulness of the Reddit troubles play out in front of us — whatever conclusions people draw about our leaders I just wish we could humanise them a bit more. If we did that we would have more empathy and less vitriol. And if you’re going through the struggles of success or failure — know that everybody else is, too. It’s a part of life.
[This post by Mark Suster first appeared here and has been reproduced with permission.]