Ol' Dead Eyes

Mental Health: A Curse on Ambition by Andrew Barrie

Earlier this year I was invited to speak to a group of scale up company founders. The brief was to talk about how we bootstrapped a business from 2 guys and a dog to global domination. Hero malarkey.

I’ve never told that story. There is something about looking back that makes me uncomfortable – but that’s for another blog – so I had to hunt out some material.

That’s when I stumbled on this photo from a news article in the Herald. It hit me like a punch in the stomach. I welled up, got a bit breathless.

Look at it. You probably don’t notice anything unusual. Couple of suits posing for a pic. I’m the handsome one by the way.

But I know the story. I know what a mess I was in. I see my dead eyes. Burnt out. Toast. Alone.

Worse, I know what happened next.

This was taken in 2006. Our business had pivoted from consultancy to FinTech. We had grown from 6 to 60 staff in 2 years and were going global. Goldman Sachs had just invested in us – the reason for the photoshoot. A celebration. “Wow Andrew, you must be so proud!”

But I was already well on the way to a near mental breakdown. The panic attacks started shortly afterwards. The strains of expansion, feeling of responsibility, not wanting to let anyone (or myself) down. The way that strain makes you behave to others around you. Hypersensitive, failures of trust. Mum had passed away the previous year which I now recognise as more significant than I did at the time.

Within one year, I resigned as CEO and started a nine-month sabbatical - bitter, twisted and fallen out of love with what we had created. Within two years we almost lost the business – that story’s for another day.

The fact I can write this story is because I survived and it all ended up OK. I went back, we focussed our energies and managed to make a business that I am incredibly proud of. I’m still married and my kids still speak to me. Result. But I’m not making this part of a ‘fail before you succeed’ message. I wish I could have been more open as I was going through that crisis or even before it. Does any amount of ‘success’ ever make up for the mental scars and hurt you can create? The role of failure is important, but complex. For another day.

I told this story to the scale-up group. Maybe not what they expected, but what a response. Just speaking about it seemed liberating.

Now, living with it, I know what to look for in an individual. The curse of the ambitious. Dead eyes.

Every week I meet great people with ‘Dead Eyes’. Founders who have lost direction, isolated, busy but lonely. Grasping one straw and then another. Fallen out of love with their idea, but too deep, too trapped to let go. Every one of them I want to hug, to help, to say it will be ok. But it isn’t. Not there and then. Maybe ever.

A recent survey of founders (Livingstone) found more than 40% felt ‘isolated’ and 1 in 6 were ‘constantly lonely’.

I believe we need to rethink how we support these great, ambitious, fragile souls. The culture of our ecosystem, the way we organise and focus, the qualities and infrastructure we build. Let’s get the glint back in Dead Eyes.