How to Run a Start-Up Without Having a Breakdown

My experience taught me that putting your mental health first is key to creating a successful business, maintaining positive relationships, and combatting burnout.

GaudiLab/ Shutterstock
GaudiLab/ Shutterstock

You don’t just get “cured” of anxiety and depression. It’s an ongoing thing. Thankfully, I’m self-aware enough to know that I need to work on it constantly. So, I took other measures to help myself. Though completely foreign to me, I started to meditate as part of my effort to realize that while Big Think is important, my mental health and well-being are much more so. I’d be even better if I meditated daily and not in fits and starts, but it is still very helpful when my mind and emotions are getting the best of me. (“Realize, Victoria, it’s just a thought. What you are thinking is not really happening. You are okay, right here, right now.”)

I reread books on creative visualization — a concept I’d learned about from Shakti Gawain’s book Creative Visualization before starting Big Think—and began to practice some of the methods. It is true (at least for me) that often, as I think, so shall it be. And, I’m creating the reality around me, at least mentally. Even when I first read the book, it did expand my thinking and get me to loosen up. I think it served as a help when founding Big Think. 

I utilized the concept of going with the flow as opposed to struggling to make something happen. The river will carry you in the direction, I understood. If you fight against it, you will surely go someplace, but it will be full of struggle and maybe not nearly so good as where you’d have gone if you just relented and let it carry you. I’ve never thought that means you don’t try; it just means that once you are in the river, you need to have at least some faith that it  will take you where you need to go. The more you struggle, the more you will suffer, and you’ll be less likely to get to a positive destination.

During the course of Big Think, for long periods of time  I reembraced the belief that the struggle was important. I needed to struggle, to suffer, in order to actually achieve. And quite honestly, I thought that if people saw me do so, they would have more confidence that I was working hard. Honestly, though, who cares about working hard? I’ve long said it’s the results that matter. But in this instance, with investors and cli- ents, I felt that they expected me to show I was killing myself and sacrificing everything to make Big Think work. This was untrue. And the harder I was working, the more I was clinging to things, the more success, business and personal, was eluding me. There is a Buddhist saying my dad has often shared with me: “Grasp, and it shall surely elude you; open your hands and it may come.”

I grasped for much of the time I’ve run Big Think. It’s not joyful. When I’ve been at my best, I’ve lived with open hands. Being “in the flow” is just an easier and more pleasant way to be. Example of when I’ve grasped? Desperately trying to raise money from VCs and individuals over and over.

There was a point in 2013 when things looked really bleak. It felt like we were going out of business. I was desperately trying to figure out any way to get money, and doing so in a very panicked way, which people can see immediately. Chill is the way to be. I hit a wall. I thought, Okay, then, we’re going out of business. And I had a sense of peace. I literally let go. That same week, I was introduced to a man we’ll call Jerry. Jerry is a very successful entrepreneur. After working for tech companies including eBay, he started and sold a company to Alibaba for a whole bunch of money in 2015.

I had literally no expectation of the meeting and just took it out of politeness. Jerry came to our office late one afternoon and we walked down the street for coffee. He had a wonderful, calm energy. He asked me about Big Think and I told him about what we’d built, who was involved, and our struggles. It was as though I were talking to a friend and just being totally straightforward—no attempt to “sell.” His questions about the company and about me were exceedingly thoughtful. Then, he asked me what I wanted.

Wait a minute, I thought, nobody’s asked me about me before in the process of starting and running Big Think. This man actually seemed to care about me and my needs. Wow! And he didn’t even know me. We had a very nice time together. He learned about me and Big Think, my family, what I was proud of, what I thought our shortcomings were. I learned about him. After about ninety minutes, we went our  separate ways. I left thinking, Well,  that was pleasant and he’s  a  good man. I had been “me” the whole time. Not anxious, just real.

The next day, Jerry called and told me he was going to invest $500,000 in Big Think. Whoa. Just when we were desperate for cash and I had not even asked or tried to pitch him. Over the course of the next year, Jerry put in an additional $500,000, and a year later got one of his friends to also invest $500,000. He is a man of integrity.

I don’t know for sure, but one of the reasons I think he took a chance on Big Think is because he saw my humanity. Yes, he respected what we’d built and the mission, but I feel, most of all, he saw someone honorable and real, trying to make some- thing work. Jerry is on Big Think’s board today and is one of my most trusted advisors. I feel if I’d gone into the meeting with him stiff and with a feeling of anxiety and need, the outcome would have been totally different.


Anxiety doesn’t just go away, and it’s important  that I find new ways to combat it and make myself feel better mentally. So, in 2019 I took a drastic step to improve. Picture this: rural Tennessee, May 2019, and the person once dubbed the Digital Goddess by David Stern handed in all her devices and attended a weeklong, off-the-grid retreat for self-actualization and learning from others. My friend had told me about  Onsite Workshops and how profound it was for him. I was skeptical, but after a tough 2018, that spring felt like a good time to revive. I wanted to examine myself and my relationship with anxiety in a serious way, not just superficially manage it with medication. This trip was a little out of my comfort zone, to say the least.

First we committed to healthy living (as in no alcohol and, for those who use, no drugs) for at least a week before we arrived at Nashville International Airport, where we were picked up in a group bus. It is not a rehab facility; it’s a program designed to help you get to your true self and understand the main thing holding you back. Anybody who knows me well knows I am not a “ joiner,” as my mother would say. I like to be alone, and group activities make me nervous.

When I arrived at the facility, I immediately had my phone and any digital devices taken away from me and was shown to a room I’d be sharing with two other women. I was concerned about how I, someone who cherishes being alone, would fare for six full days and nights with strangers, in an intense daily program of “experiential therapy,” which involves group processes including role-playing past and current relationships. All meals were eaten together and there was no opting out of anything (of course, I managed to figure out a way to do so — I could only join so much without an escape hatch). One of the best things I took on board there was the con- cept (and then reality) of examining anxiety. Asking myself the question, Am I okay right now? Am I in peril in any way? This was very different than my norm of spiraling into forecasting the doom that was likely to come my way at any point in the future. Bringing my mind back to the here and now was one of the most important lessons of Onsite.

The immersion into experiential therapy started off slowly, to try to ease the tension in the group. We did exercises together to reveal ourselves to the group and help them understand where we came from. To say it was intense is an understatement. People discovered things about themselves both by participating in the exercises and by observing others do them. Imagine spending seven hours a day with nine other people and a therapist in a small room sitting in a circle when the objective is to break down barriers.

I was uncomfortable at first, and my go-to in such situations is humor. That’s okay to some degree, but it doesn’t truly allow openness. Slowly — I think slower than all the others in the group — I began to feel more at ease. I started to lose the attitude that this was some hokey, self-help, culty thing, and everybody there was crazy (except me).

Later, a woman in my group told me her impressions of me at the start and at the end of the week. She said, “From my perspective when I first met you, you seemed much more quiet and reserved and observed a lot. Maybe it took a minute for you to participate in what was going on. Maybe unsure of it all? But since then, I think you have come out of your shell and have almost sprouted wings like a butterfly. You are not afraid to speak your truth and show the beautiful things you possess inside.”

Excerpted from Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur, by Victoria Mongomery-Brown. Published by HarperCollins. October 6, 2020.

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