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Founder and CEO Alek Matthiessen on The Importance of Mental Health

Plus how he finds time to exercise.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Alek Matthiessen: The first thing I do when I get out of bed every morning is grab my journal and start writing. I write about how I’m doing, how I slept, how yesterday went, and anything else I need to tell myself that day. Taking that time in the morning, despite a long list of to-dos, gives me a peaceful sense of relaxation throughout the day and helps me organizes any feelings I’m having.

TG: What gives you energy?
AM: Working out, sleep, writing, and curious people. Exercise has always been my rock since I started in high school. It has the magical effect of forcing you to have hard conversations with yourself that translate to outside the gym. Sleep is another big one I think most founders don’t talk about enough. Burn out is real. As the leader of your company, you want to be in a creative, relaxed space so you can make informed long-term decisions. Someone that is running on only a few hours sleep isn’t as well-equipped to make those choices. Writing has probably been my longest habit. I started writing when I was 13 and have filled up over 50 journals since. For me, it’s my most helpful mental health routine because it forces me to get all of my thoughts out on paper in a linear story that I can understand. Finally, the energy of curious people is truly infectious. I love people who ask questions simply because they’re curious, rather than having an objective they need the answer to. That’s probably the liberal arts student in me.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
AM: My most important hack is to not give up your values, especially when it comes to starting a company. As a founder, you’ll have pressure from all directions to work long hours and through the nights. You have to define a sustainable lifestyle for you that includes family time, working out, and time for your mental health, and then make sure not to budge on it as your business starts to grow. Otherwise, what’s it all for anyway?

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
AM: Awaken The Giant Within. I read Tony Robbin’s ground breaking book when I was 18 and for the first time, a book gave me a plan on how to act on all of this creativity I felt lived inside me. It was the perfect medley of inspiration and execution that I needed to define the live I wanted to have – and how to get it. It also included exercises in the book to help you discover what you really wanted which I particularly enjoyed.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
AM: Unfortunately, it sleeps on my bed side table – but – a book is on top of it. I always worry about emergency calls in the middle of the night, so I want it to be around for that, although, I know it’s not supposed to be.

TG: How do you deal with email?
AM: I actually don’t have email setup on my phone. I check it regularly throughout the day on my computer, but when it was on my phone, I felt it was too addicting.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
AM: I take a walk. In Latin, they have a phrase, “Solvitur ambulando”, which means, “Figure it out by walking”. There’s something so magical and comforting about moving your legs and walking while thinking.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
AM: I felt extremely burned out in the last startup I founded. I was 22, I raised money, I hired employees, and I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t stick up for my own values enough, and if you don’t do that, they will surely move. I was working around the clock, not journaling, not exercising, not taking care of my own mental health, and as a result, I was making poor business choices. It’s no surprise that the business eventually failed. That’s when I took a hard look at what I did well – and what I could do better – and realized founding and growing a business doesn’t have to be sacrificial.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?AM: As a founder, I’m always worried about the business failing and that I should be doing more. What’s really important to remember though is that the life journey of someone who is creative always goes through ebbs and flows. The really key thing to understand is you have to make amazing stuff you love. That’s what makes the failures worth it.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
AM: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” This is my favorite quote of all time because Ira Glass nails it. Every creative person knows this to be true and hopefully finds solace in knowing the creative struggle is one that is shared.

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