Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘personal’

In November 2011 Ilya Zhitomirskiy, only 26 and one of the co-founders of Diaspora, the “open-source Facebook” which received notoriety after raising over $200,000 on Kickstarter (at that stage the most successful project on the crowdfunding platform) killed himself. His mother still believes that if he didn’t start the project he would be alive today.

On January 11 this year Aaron Schwartz, a celebrated and much-loved hacker and activist took his own life. He was also 26. I never met Aaron but several friends were very close to him. One was his partner. Reading the tributes that poured in it was impossible not to be deeply saddened that someone so young, so talented and with so much to contribute had given up like this. The loss not only to his friends and family but to all of us is immense.

And just two weeks ago I read about the passing of Jody Sherman, co-founder and CEO of Ecomom. I didn’t know Jody either but he was also admired by people I admire. The initial reports avoided specifying a cause of death but he too had committed suicide.

As Jason Calicanus asked  over the weekend, should we talk about this?

Yes, we should.

Entrepreneurship is a really hard road, filled with rejection, misunderstanding and self-doubt. You pour yourself into a project only to see the world disparage or, worst, ignore it. You must deal with people telling you to get a real job, with the stresses of poverty and uncertainty, with the constant possibility, indeed the likelihood, of total failure. But your job is to project constant positivity, to always be selling your vision and product, to inspire people to join you on this mad mission.

You probably work long and unhealthy hours. You might struggle to find time for exercise, or to socialise, or to take time out to be alone and reflection.

In other words it can be a very unhealthy pursuit, not only physically but emotionally.

During the eight years I led Vibewire I had many dark days, days when I was so exhausted I was reduced to tears, days when I couldn’t see how we would continue. But then I’d go to a meeting with the Vibewire team or a potential funder or a media interview and I’d have to summon all my positivity and energy and pitch our programs and vision of the future, convince them all that there was a pathway to the future we sought.

After I left Vibewire in March 2008 my successor as CEO had an emotional breakdown just a few months later, crushed by the complexity of our projects and the constant workload and stresses involved in bringing in the funds required to keep them alive.

So how did I survive for the eight years before that? First of all, I didn’t entirely. By the time I departed I was utterly burnt out, and for the year prior to that I was just barely nursing myself through, on many days just focusing on the day before me and what I needed to do to get to the next one, like a prisoner in jail, desperately pushing myself to get what needed to be done, done to get the organisation to the point where I could walk away. Once I did it took me months to feel like I could be productive again.

I pushed myself through thanks to incredibly supportive parents, sibling and partner and a group of friends outside the world of social entrepreneurship, who cared about me rather than Vibewire, who valued me as a person, not just an entrepreneur. I would go out with them to parties in the forests which wrap around Sydney at least monthly and stomp my frustrations and stresses into the dirt dance floor until there was just the freedom and joy of movement and dancing and friendship, and my heart filled up with love, community and connection to nature. Being part of this creative, DIY community kept me balanced, with dancing allowing me to be in my body, not my head, and the friendships I formed giving me an identity outside of Vibewire, outside of entrepreneurship.

I don’t know what drove each of these innovators to take their own life. For Aaron an over-zealous prosecution and the threat of jail was clearly a unique and significant factor. All of them struggled with mental health issues at different times. But I do know that as entrepreneurs we are all prone to driving ourselves to breaking point and that one of the hardest but most important things we must learn is how to be personally sustainable, how to take care of ourselves, in the midst of stress and uncertainty and repeated failure.

One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is that you can become your venture in the eyes of many people. People would often say in introducing me “Tom is Vibewire” and I would cringe, knowing that wasn’t what we were going for at all, that it was in many ways a sign of failure to build the broad base of leadership we needed to be successful but also that it was such a narrowing of me as a person. And it’s also true that in entrepreneurship, unless you are truly gifted or lucky or more likely both, you’ll have as many bad days as good ones, as many set-backs as successes.

As Jess Lee, founder and CEO of Polyvore pointed out in a great recent blog post titled “Why are startup founders always unhappy?” even a successful growth pattern is wiggly, and as entrepreneurs tend to live mostly in the moment and also be very ambitious it’s easy to get depressed during a down phase even if you’ve experienced extraordinary success over the preceding period of time. And if you are your organisation, when the organisation is struggling you feel a failure personally.

Jess puts it this way:

Humans are terrible at understanding absolute values. We are best at understanding acceleration and deceleration, or rate of change. You are happiest when your growth is accelerating. When growth slows down, you start to become less happy. When you’re not growing, you are in unhappy territory.

This is why it’s so important to have a life outside your startup, to have an emotional floor that doesn’t undulate with your company’s fortunes.
I am not trying to generalise the experiences of Ilya, Aaron and Jody. Each was unique. But I have been finding myself thinking about these issues repeatedly over the past few weeks as tragedy followed tragedy, about my own struggles and what it takes to survive as entrepreneurs and changemakers. Ultimately it comes down to balance, however you find that, to relationships, and community and love.

So please be good to yourself everyone, and give yourself what you need to be sustainable and happy and whole.

Read Full Post »

This is a blog post I was, to my delight, asked to contribute to the “What’s Your Calling?” blog tour:

What’s Your Calling?” explores notions of “calling” from both religious and secular perspectives. “What’s Your Calling?” pushes the notion of “calling” to explore all of the stuff that makes us human: our values, our passions, our doubts and hopes. Profiling individuals from diverse backgrounds – “What’s Your Calling?” shares what people have been called to do with their lives and how they hope to change the world.

If there’s one thing I knew from pretty early on, it’s that I wasn’t draw to any particular conventional career. Once I’d gotten past the “I want to be a fireman” stage nothing really grabbed me. I admired what my parents did (town planning and public broadcasting) but didn’t feel destined to follow in the family footsteps in these specific regards.

But I wasn’t particularly worried, I somehow knew the world would find a use for me and my skills and that I would find, well, a calling that inspired me to use these skills to the best of my ability. In High School I was fond of telling people “I’m not looking for a career, I’m looking for a cause”, more so, I suspect, to sound cool and differentiate myself from the more studious types around me than from any deeper understanding of what that might mean. But, funnily enough, this is indeed what happened.

However, in the absence of something to aim for or aspire to, I drifted. My grades dropped towards the bottom of my class. I was inattentive and disrespectful in class. During a typical class in year 10 I was sent from the room for talking and being disruptive. While hanging around in the corridor, reflecting on how unjust life can be, I picked up a discarded brochure, desperate for something to read to pass the time.

It turned out to be for a student exchange program to America. I hadn’t known such things existed, that high school students were allowed to go and live with another family in another country for up to a year. I immediately knew it was something I needed to do. I loved my family very much but felt constrained by my school and relationship groups. I felt defined by my peer group before I even knew how to define myself, trapped in a box I felt I had no part in making.

My parents, to my eternal gratitude, were supportive, and a year later, midway through year 11, I departed for 11 months in Spokane, Washington State. The chance to step outside my context, outside that box, was transformational. I suddenly found myself in a place where opinions “everyone” held at home were unusual and controversial. I landed at a new school, had to make new friends, and in the process had a chance to preset myself to the world anew. I had space, in a way, to reflect, and feel, to consider what I wanted from my life. As best I could as a 16 year-old anyway. I became more confident in my opinions, in myself, in my place in the world. My Mum would say afterwards that I “found myself in America.”

But it was in San Francisco, not Spokane, that I found my calling. I was invited to attend the State of the World Forum, held in San Francisco in 1995. It was a post-Cold War pow-wow designed to build consensus on the challenges and opportunities facing the world. Participants included Mikael Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ted Turner, Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Leakey, Jane Goodall, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and numerous other Nobel Laureattes, business people, environmentalists, authors, thinkers and politicians.

As the conference was about the future the organizers, late in the piece I’m guessing, decided it would be apropos to have young people present. Unwilling or unable to do a global search for worthy young leaders they partnered with AFS, the world’s biggest exchange student organization to select out of young people already in the country on their program. I was selected to attend, one of 32 youths from 28 countries.

It was a heady, extraordinary experience. The first day we arrived we were told that we represented “2 billion young people”. We participated in dialogue’s with Nobel Peace Prize winners, world leaders (including Gorbachev and then Vice-President later President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki), representatives from the UN and other global organizations and, of course, with each other. During the week I was there I slept for only a few hours a night and barely ate. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t tired. I was infatuated with a new found sensation of being included in conversation that, it seemed, really mattered. Being listened to and told my opinions mattered. I felt, in a word, empowered.

But as l left the Forum this feeling of empowerment was balanced with another sensation: dissatisfaction. This can’t be good enough I thought to myself. If we are serious about including the perspectives of young people in conversation that matter, and we must be, then it can’t be based on pretending that a group of upper-middle class kids who already have the opportunity to be in America (just happening to be in the right time at the right place) “represent” the young people of the world. I felt intensely, immediately, that we needed to build better, more genuinely representative platforms and opportunities for young people from diverse perspectives to share their stories, and that this could never truly happen inside the closed rooms of conferences.

In dissatisfaction we can sometimes find our calling: something that needs changing about the world, and the determination that it must be us to change it. This is not the only type of calling of course, but for me it was the cause I had been looking for, the focus I needed, the work that needed doing.

Since then I have been working to allow more people’s voices to be heard, to build a more democratic society and world. First my focus was on young people and event-based, founding organizations at high school and university which hosted a variety of conferences, debates and arts gatherings. In 2000 I realized that the internet was the platform I had been looking for, and media the marketplace of ideas in our society, and founded Vibewire, and organization that continues to create opportunities for political and creative expression for young Australians. Then two years at Ashoka exploring how social media could help create an Everyone a Changemaker world, one where all voices and perspectives can be heard, and more recently co-founding StartSomeGood.com, a platform for changemakers to access the resources and support they need to turn their ideas into action and impact.

For me this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, to help communities and individuals rise to the challenges that confront us and in so doing create a more equitable, sustainable and just world, one based on democratic participation and individual empowerment.

I know from my journey that a calling, or a cause, can arise at any moment, as a result of the stories you see, hear, experience and share. They can be grandiose (like mine), or humble, community-focused or individualistic, a life-long pursuit or a chapter amongst many. All are equally valid; all share an essential spark of human creativity, idealism and imagination. If you are still looking for a calling I would simply advise: stay open. Open minded, open hearted and, simply, open-eyed.  Possibility, opportunity, challenges and tragedy are all around us. The world is both an amazing and a difficult place and is made better by each person who brings their whole self into it and finds a way to do work which inspires and fulfils them.

If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. – Thomas Merton

Pic by Christopher Lehault, available on a creative commons license.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27 other followers