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Male Room

I see my therapist once each week. Every session starts the same way: “So, how are you doing?” Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down. Either way, the volatility is exhausting.

It turns out, I’m not alone.

A few weeks ago, Elon Musk – perhaps the world’s most revered entrepreneur – revealed that even at the pinnacle of entrepreneurship, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress.” This news made headlines, but in the search for clicks, many media outlets overlooked the most noteworthy part of his disclosure: “Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”

The dialogue about psychological health in America is sparse; in entrepreneurship it’s non-existent.

As the recent spate of harassment scandals and gender controversies emanating from Silicon Valley’s highest ranks have made clear, startup culture is decidedly macho. This isn’t particularly surprising – after all, only 17% of startups have a female founder.[1] Any time too many men are in too small a place fighting over a finite amount of money, fame, and power some amount of chest-pounding, verbal posturing, and displays of physical dominance are bound to result. While women have undoubtedly suffered from the pernicious masculinity that infects the startup world, they are simply its most salient casualty. As Musk’s frank admission shows, there is another group that has felt painfully the effects of startup machismo: men.

If this is a secret, it's not because people don’t want to hear about it, but rather because men don’t want to talk about it.

Notions of suppressing emotions, focusing on external success, and withstanding physical pain are part of a male socialization process that begins in early childhood and persists through adulthood.[2] Men who talk about feelings – who express their emotions – are derided as weak and ridiculed as effeminate. One particularly toxic result of our emotional repression is that, unlike women who tend to internalize pain, men act out, externalize stress, and blame others for it. It might be only a slight exaggeration to draw a straight line from boyhood “masculinization” to the crude and vulgar aspects of Valley life.

To be clear this is not a problem of being male. It is a problem of being raised male. Psychologist Terry Real explains that, “little boys and little girls start off… equally emotional, expressive, and dependent, equally desirous of physical affection,” but that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.”[3] To prove the point, research suggests that females raised under similar circumstances – which few are – also suffer from stereotypically masculine traits. [4]

The result of all this is that most men emotionally detach from who they really are and instead obsess about proving to themselves and to others that they are “real men.” Unfortunately, being a real man has real costs. Musk can attest that volatility – both psychological and emotional – is one of them.

So, back to the shrink.

Last week I was down. Way down. After burying my startup – one that consumed five years of my life and millions of dollars of investor capital – I’ve been looking for work. It’s been a tough process – though I’m certain not a unique one – full of unreturned phone calls, frequent rejection, and inescapable comparison between myself and ideal candidate descriptions to which, in some way, I inevitably fail to measure up.

“It’s a humbling process, isn’t it?” Asks the doc.

I snap back, “I don’t need to be humbled anymore! How much lower do I have to go?”

“As low as you need to understand who you really are,” he replies.

He challenged me to consider that for nearly thirty years I’ve defined myself and measured my worth by things external to me – good grades, winning athleticism, and lucrative career pursuits. When we do this, he explained, we’re up when things go well and we’re down when things don’t. And, since we’re not in control of what happens outside of ourselves or people’s perceptions of those occurrences, we end up on an emotional rollercoaster.

I never thought I’d say this, but Elon Musk and I aren’t so different.

In the middle of writing this post, I found myself listening to a sports talk radio segment. The topic was a recent injury to Bryce Harper – one of baseball’s shining young stars – that resulted when he slipped on first base after a controversial decision by the umpires to proceed with the game despite a late-night, three-hour rain delay. In his post-game press conference, Harper politely questioned the prudence of proceeding with game under the circumstances. He was lambasted. The hosts read a handful of tweets from the Average Joe positing that because Harper makes a lot of money, he has no right to complain.

Perhaps this is what made Musk’s statement so jarring. Perhaps also this is why he doesn’t think “people want to hear about” the predominantly male psychological afflictions entrepreneurship elicits. However it may be less that we don’t want to hear about these issues, than that we don’t want to hear about them from someone like him. On paper, he has everything – fame, wealth, power, success, and intellect – and, in present society, this seemingly deprives him the right to express pain.

So, since I don’t have those things, I’ll take up the cause for him.

If we want to truly solve gender issues in the workforce, we can’t simply focus on instructing men to treat women differently. We must also instruct them to treat themselves differently. We have to allow for introspection, expressions of weakness, and admissions of insecurity, all of which are baby steps toward the ultimate goal of helping men better understand who they are. A truer understanding of self will not only reduce the hidden toll of psychological volatility on men, but w ill mitigate our deep-seated reflex toward misogyny and machismo that hamper sincere improvement in startup culture.

There are some who hypothesize that Valley masculinity – in spite of its consequences – is the precise cause of greatness, Musk being case-in-point. That without desires for status, accolades, and riches innovation would be stunted. But, correlation is not causation. Could it be that psychological health can speed technological progress rather than impede it?

I think it’s past time we found out.




[3] Terry Real. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression


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