Why Entrepreneurs Commit Suicide (And How to Stop It)

By Michael Kilcoyne, - In Peak Performance

Picture of a man think about Why Entrepreneurs Commit Suicide

There were days — weeks even — when I wanted to die.

I would stand at the edge of the subway train platform and half hope that someone would push me into the path of the subway so that I didn’t have to do it, and somebody else snapped a photo so they would have a cool cover story for The New York Post.

My job was failing. I felt like a failure there. My friendships were waning, I felt like I knew nobody (even though I had plenty). Girlfriend, non-existent or pretty much non-existent. Career direction? Not sure. My culinary skills? Floundering every day (not that I take too much pride in that, but still). Guy Fieri would have been proud but fuck Guy Fieri and his cheeseburger eatin’ ass.

I had so much of my identity wrapped up in things I couldn’t control that if one of them started to look shaky — or, shit, in this case, all of them — the pillars that consisted of my life would start crumbling down under my feet and the fallout would generally be devastating.

So there I was, lethargically moving throughout my day and my week, from home to work, from work to home, from work to bars, from bars to dates, from dates to home.

I remember one time, back in October 2013 when I was working at Singleplatform and things weren’t going well — job-wise — and I was panicked the entire month because I was 100% certain I was going to get fired because I just couldn’t hack it at sales and everyone was like, dude don’t worry but I was freaking the fuck out because I’d just signed a year-long lease in September, and it was October. And it was expensive, too. $1500/month. I was thinking, why couldn’t I just wait a little bit longer!? And really, did we need this apartment?

And then I made it — on the last day of the month, I essentially saved my job by throwing the equivalent of a Sales-Mary. I was elated. I think that night we went to go party at Terminal 5 for Halloween and Holy Ghost was playing and it was a sick show. And all I could think about was holy shit, I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I made it.

Why Entrepreneurs Commit Suicide

Picture of a man Feeling Stuck

Feeling Stuck

So it was strange when, a few months later, I was at the top of my game and dominating a new position at the same company, and I felt way worse than I’d ever had that month in October. My job was going well. I was dating someone.

But I felt stuck. I was like is this it?

This is it. Huh.

So I wanted to move. I told someone I was seeing at the time that I wanted to move to Denver. I think that’s a dumb thing to tell anyone, especially someone you’re seeing. I wasn’t very serious about it at the time, but I felt like anywhere would’ve been better than here. Something drastic.

Within four months, I’d made the decision that I was going to move there, to Denver. I started saving pretty much all of my paychecks so that I had enough to travel for a bit and then head out there. Nothing crazy, just enough.

And then I moved.

Since then, I’ve probably regretted the decision about a half-a-dozen times, asked myself how stupid are you!? and said all sorts of silly, self-defeating things.

But honestly, I feel like a huge pressure valve has been relieved from my life. I’m not constantly working my face off because of peer pressure and expectations. In fact, I feel like I work much harder than I ever did in New York even though I’m working way, way less.

Smart? Not hard.

And it’s been a while since I’ve ever seriously considered anything rash.

Failure is healthy.

Image of Ilya Zhitomirskiy at Wiki-Conference New York 2009

Ilya Zhitomirskiy

Ilya Zhitomirskiy

On November 12, 2011, Tony Lai, a former lawyer turned rebel-coder, received a call from an unrecognized number — she sounded panicked. It was Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s mom.

Ilya Zhitomirskiy was a coding wiz who was often lauded in the press as the next Mark Zuckerberg and had been working prodigiously on Diaspora, the social network which was seen by many as the antagonist to Facebook and even funded by Zuckerberg himself. It appeared as a less invasive platform that enabled its users to control their own information and share it with whomever they want, as opposed to allowing a company to control, and thus profit from that personal information.

“That was Ilya’s mom… She can’t reach Ilya,” Lai said.

Lai and Bickford (another roommate of Zhitomirskiy’s) assumed Zhitomirskiy was simply working on the beta of Diaspora, but they decided to check in on him anyway. They knocked, no answer. And the door wouldn’t budge. Bickford managed to pop the lock to the door with his fingernail, and nudged it open.

They found Zhitomirskiy laying on his back with a black bag pulled over his head and a line of tubing connecting the bag to a helium canister on the floor. He was dead.

And a suicide note that read: “Thanks everyone for everything. This was my decision alone.” [From the Fortune Magazine article.]

His death is still a complete mystery to many, but one can reasonably assume that the immense pressure from being expected to create the next Facebook — and drawing likeness to such superstar tech-billionaires as Mark Zuckerberg — contributed to his death. His company had gotten press from some of the largest tech-publications on the planet, had a massively successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $200,000 and received venture-backing from the likes of Fred Wilson, an extremely prominent name in the industry.

And after a few months of extraordinary press, it seemed to be floundering.

Failing on a grand level like that, it would seem, appeared to be too terrifying, too intimidating and emotionally devastating to Zhitomirskiy.

And, unfortunately like so many other entrepreneurs in the industry, we’ll never get to hear how that story would have ended.

The Entrepreneurial Conundrum

Picture of Aaron Swartz at 2009 Boston Wikipedia Meetup

Aaron Swartz

And that self-destructive feeling is not uncommon among entrepreneurial types in America (and in other countries).

Years later, Aaron Swartz, a well-known Internet activist and one of the first employees of Reddit and someone who had been embroiled with lawsuits after he had allegedly illegally downloaded JSTOR documents from the MIT library using his personal laptop, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment.

Jody Sherman, founder of Ecomom, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was part of Tony Hsieh’s radical experiment to build a startup city in Downtown Las Vegas and his company had hit a rough patch in recent months.

In May 2014, Matt Berman, founder of Bolt Barber, who was part of Hsieh’s social experiment, too, was found dead in his apartment due to an apparent suicide by hanging.

It’s not uniquely part of the American Dream ecosystem, either — in India, about 20,000 of the 100,000 suicides that occur every year happen among small business owners — farmers, entrepreneurs and the like.

In Europe, the recent economic crises that have crippled so many different industries and companies resulted in a massive outpouring of suicides by entrepreneurs, old and young, who have seen their businesses and, thus, a lot of their self-worth, evaporate overnight.

The impending doom of failure and economic cataclysm can be so self-destructive and anxiety-inducing that so many entrepreneurs  push themselves to the brink and often have no where to turn but suicide.

When you have so much of your identity wrapped up in something that you can only control so much, when it comes crashing down and you feel like a total loser, the damage can be devastating.

Makes you wonder why so many people want to become entrepreneurs.

What Failure Teaches Us

In 2006, Jason Seiken — having just recently been brought onto PBS to lead the digital team — called his team into a conference room and announced that he would be ripping up everyone’s annual performance goals and metrics, and focusing instead on something a little less tangible: failure.

“If you don’t fail enough times during the coming year,”

he told every staffer in that meeting,

“you’ll be downgraded.”

He wanted people to take more risks. To get away from the culture of stagnation that was slowly killing PBS as a power-house TV station, and relegating it to the canons of, well, an also-ran in television.

So he asked his team to start failing more, and often and making it a habit. And he rewarded them for doing so.

Quickly, those failures and risks — like a design director replacing a traditional job ad with an infographic about the position — turned into much larger wins with more wide-spread repercussions: before Seiken asked his team to start failing more, they had hardly cracked the YouTube video-sphere.

After? Their auto-tuned clips of Mr. Rogers, including Garden of Your Mind, quickly became some of the most-viewed and shares clips on the massive social network.

He had taught his team how to develop a growth mindset.

The Secret to Success: Failure and Growth

“He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has only sinned once.”  Nassim Taleb, AntiFragile

Riverdale Country School is considered one of the most prestigious private schools in the country — a beautiful campus that looks down across Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, New York, in one of the richest parts of the city.

Which is perplexing, then, that Dominic Randolph, the school’s headmaster, is concerned with anything but keeping the school and its measures of student performance the same.

Instead, what he’s been trying to look at is character and, rather, what elements of character are better indicators of student success than GPA?

As Randolph explains in a conversation with Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure… And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Though good-grades, hard-work and a northward pointing moral compass all ultimately have different impacts on the success of individual students, the true key to success, he argues, is just the opposite: failure.

As Carol Dweck writes in her article, Even Geniuses Work Hard, “Students with a fixed mindset tend not to handle setbacks well. Because they believe that setbacks call their intelligence into question, they become discouraged or defensive when they don’t succeed right away. They may quickly withdraw their effort, blame others, lie about their scores, or consider cheating. Students with a growth mindset are more likely to respond to initial obstacles by remaining involved, trying new strategies, and using all the resources at their disposal for learning.”

So the key for survival, it appears, is not in teaching students how to work hard and perform exceptionally well in controlled environments, but to overcome failure.

One high school in Chicago, instead of teaching students that they’ve failed or done poorly on a test, simply writes, Not Yet.

As Dweck argues, “The word ‘yet’ is valuable and should be used frequently in every classroom. Whenever students say they can’t do something or are not good at something, the teacher should add, ‘yet.’ Whenever students say they don’t like a certain subject, the teacher should say, ‘yet.’ This simple habit conveys the idea that ability and motivation are fluid.’

Picture of a man who won't let go of his bag that is stuck to the ceiling

You Are Not Your Company

Every day, I feel like a complete and utter failure that I haven’t developed the next Facebook or written a best-selling novel, but I keep trucking because I know my failures and short-comings mean that I’m growing. That I’m developing something, because I’ve trained myself to focus more on growth, and spend less time on needless bullshit. (Which, I’ll admit, is a privilege, too. I’ve been insanely lucky. But luck is relative.)

Are you a failure? You may have failed, but at least you’re growing, right?

Those same concepts that Dweck discusses and that Randolph teaches in his programs can be applied to becoming an entrepreneur: failure is to be expected.

According to research by Shikhar Ghosh, three out of four venture-backed startups fail. And 95% of startups fall short of their initial projections. And if your company nosedives, you’re a failure, right?

In an interview with Inc. Magazine, CEO of Mixbook, Andrew Laffoon recalls running out of money for his startup three times, and getting countless no’s when he asked for more from venture capitalists. For weeks he says he felt sick to his stomach.

What he learned from that experience was to separate your identity from the company as much as you can. “If your identity is all wrapped up in this company you’ve built,” says Laffoon, “when someone rejects it, they’re rejecting you.”

Failure is part of the process. We need to learn to accept that as a crucial part of growth. As a crucial part of becoming an expert.

Wracking up small failures and recognizing the importance of failure in growth isn’t just important, it’s practically fundamental.

And lastly, as Brad Feld recalls in an article in Inc. about when he first started writing and openly discussing his occasional bouts of depression that he went through as an entrepreneur and as Managing Director of Foundry Group, openness, particularly about your emotions is important.

“When you deny yourself and you deny what you’re about, people can see through that… Willingness to be vulnerable is very powerful for a leader,” says Feld.

Don’t try to hide your emotions, because it won’t help you, and most people can see right through it.

And separate yourself from your failures — they’re not a reflection of your abilities, they’re simply part of the process.

Are you a failure? Maybe something you’ve invested time and energy and thousands of dollars in is failing, but you are not your company.

Are you a success? Not Yet.

Lastly, an important resource:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1 (800) 273-8255 (website and live chat here). It’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in both English and Spanish. Outside the US? Please click here for a list of international hotlines.


Mike Kilcoyne is a writer and speaker on his own website, sharing ideas on resilience, dealing with stress and being a badass.