The Wounded Entrepreneur.
I remember lots of tears that spring. Surprising for a guy who doesn’t cry much. My world was crashing down on me in 2008. As a hotel entrepreneur, we were a canary in the coal mine as we experienced the early punishment of the coming Great Recession.
My long-term relationship was on the rocks. I was in the midst of a confidence crisis and had started re-reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” one more time. I needed a firm reminder of why I was here on the planet.
My mirror, Chip Hankins, who not only shared my name but also my curiosity with life and meaning, was also going through a rough time. We were both publicly extroverted but had an introverted melancholy side, too. I always admired his life as a seeker, as he was a certified spiritual advisor who performed marriage ceremonies for many friends, as did I.
On April 30, 2008, Chip took his life. He hanged himself in the large tree in front of his family’s home. During the next two years, four other friends, college or business school classmates of mine—all men in their forties—committed suicide in the Bay Area. Oddly enough, I understood the path they took—the desperate need to quiet the chaos and horror they felt inside. Along with my four other friends, Chip began to represent a private club to me…one that I considered joining.
I spent the first half of 2008, contemplating my own escape. I talked openly with a few friends and colleagues about how the idea of a car accident or a bout with cancer might help me get off the unrelenting treadmill I was on. Many entrepreneurs know what I’m talking about. Of course, I needed some kind of excuse, one that would allow me to be less responsible for holding the world on my shoulders. I didn't talk suicide with anyone at that point, but I privately pondered the Golden Gate bridge.
Fortunately, it took divine intervention for me to pull myself out of that emotional tailspin. I broke my ankle playing baseball at a bachelor party. It turned into a bacterial infection a week later, which led to a strong dose of antibiotics. And then, after giving a speech in St. Louis, I fainted and was unconscious for a few minutes. My heart stopped just as the paramedics arrived and, after a few hours in the emergency room and ICU, I found myself in a quiet hospital room with Frankl’s book in my hand, thinking about my friend Chip.
I spent the night imagining the horrors of being in a concentration camp and comparing this with feeling like a prisoner of my own mind. I was able to distill Frankl’s message to an emotional equation that served as my mantra through that dark time, and still to this day:
Despair = Suffering - Meaning.
Once I concluded that Suffering was a constant in life and Meaning was the variable, I was able to see that finding the meaning, the lesson, or the wisdom—even in the most difficult times—was the means for me to reduce my despondency.
While my life circumstances remained challenging for the next couple of years, somehow, I found a new resolve, a new “joie de vivre” that helped me make it through my emotional bottom.
I also know I’m not alone. I bet there are many of you out there in silent desperation because your historical identity—as the founder of a company or the dutiful wife, parent, employee, whatever—feels so affixed that it's smothering you. Just like the changeable weather, my life vastly improved in my fifties, although that’s not necessarily the case for those diagnosed with lifelong depression.
A couple of years ago, I started wondering about the “wounded entrepreneur” as I read of Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides. It turns out that three of my friends that committed suicide in the Great Recession were entrepreneurs who equated their self-worth with their net worth. They lived in a world, sadly, more focused on means than meaning.
Today, I’m left with the question, "How do we make the pursuit of meaning as important as the pursuit of happiness?" Happiness lives on a rollercoaster that often tracks our career and relationship peaks and valleys. But, meaning can be found anywhere—in a concentration camp, in a hospital room, at a dinner table, even in a corporate boardroom. Viktor Frankl once lamented, “People have enough to live by but nothing to live for: they have the means but no meaning.”
This is the predicament of modern man. Once we’ve addressed our basic needs in life, what do we strive for? This is the kind of question we need to be talking about at our dining table with family and friends, as well as in the workplace.
More recently, I’ve been reminded of all of this with the death of my friend Tony Hsieh and the almost simultaneous psychological institution of another friend who is a successful entrepreneur. There’s no evidence that Tony’s death in a fire was a suicide, but it does seem like he might have been on a self-destructive path chronicled in Forbes and elsewhere. We’ve got it backward in the U.S. and elsewhere. Success doesn’t create happiness. Happiness creates success.
One of my greatest joys at MEA has been occasionally helping an entrepreneur—who limps down here—see how many more options they have in their life than they’d ever imagined. And, occasionally, they’ve whispered to me about their own cancer and car crash dreams. I do this work for Chip Hankins, for Tony Hsieh, for my other friends who don’t have to choose “the bridge” as the place they spend their final moments.