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Archive for February, 2013

Oscar statues -  ebbandflowphotography on flickr

So yesterday was the Oscars and Twitter was near-ruined for the day. So many tweets telling you no more than what you would be seeing happen on TV if you had chosen to watch it, perhaps with the addition of sparkling commentary such as “love her hair.” Urgh. So much vapidity.
But what’s really caught my eye as been several tweets along these lines: “I’m watch the Oscars with my kids and the actresses are too skinny. I wish they could be good role-models for my daughters.”

Here’s the thing though:  They don’t need to be role-models for your daughters at all.

To some extent that’s up to you. You already know the actresses are too thin. That’s unlikely to have suddenly changed since last year. You know that it’s a world (the world of Hollywood and the red carpet, not of all filmmaking of course) which is obsessed with a very specific definition of beauty, of which thinness is a central tenant. And you should surely realise that by making a big deal about it, getting excited, having a night in with your daughters and ooing and ahhing over the red carpet you are communicating to them that this is what really matters. That this red carpet celebrity is the highest order of achievement in our society. That being young and beautiful (and, yes, thin) is a critical component in making it in life.

I don’t mean to get all judgey here. We all have our vices and our distractions. I love sport and will no-doubt end up transferring a sense of disproportionate importance over it to my son, but at least sport has an active component of doing, of running around and being part of a team, even if the sportspeople you see on TV are not good role-models in other ways.

But celebrity culture is a cancer, distracting us from things that really matter by making us care about lives barely glimpsed or understood. Not the art produced by these stars, but the aura of stardom itself. The phenomenon of people being “famous for being famous”, of reality TV devoid of real skills (not competitions like Masterchef but voyeuristic exercises like Jersey Shore or Big Brother) and magazines devoted to the practice of harassment and embellishment, practices you implicitly endorse when you purchase Hello or OK! Or any other celebrity gossip magazines. And most concerningly it manifests in the increasing number of children who, growing up, aspire simply to be “famous.” Not to achieve anything in particular, not even to be rich, which might imply success in a specific industry such as music or films, but, simply, look-at-me, know-my-name fame as an end in itself. And because kids aren’t idiots they understand that there’s a strong correlation between fame and looks.

So if you don’t want your daughters to embrace red-carpet walking super-skinny female actresses as their role-mode then maybe skip the pre-Oscars show. Watch the ceremony, which is at least about artistic output, but skip the bit that is purely and simply about how people look and what they’re wearing. Because your daughters deserve to know that success is about what you produce and the meaning you create, not just your waistline and hair. Our fame-obsessed society will push their values at them no matter what you do, but it’s you inviting it into your living room and communicating to your children that this is what matters.

And if this all seems a bit over-the-top for a light-hearted bit of family evening entertainment, that’s fair enough. I know you work hard and you deserve to switch off a bit and enjoy a spectacle with your family. I totally get that. But accept that it’s not about role-models. Don’t blame the stars, they’re just doing what they’ve got to do to succeed in a system we all contribute to. Find great role-models for your daughters in other places, in changemakers, entrepreneurs, scientists or athletes.

/end rant.

Photo by ebbandflowphotography made available on a creative commons license on flickr.

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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.

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