Starting Up and Breaking Down

Becoming an Entrepreneur when you have Poor Mental Health: A Journey in Unknown Parts

You are probably here because you know one of three sides to me. As very few people know all three, let me say a paragraphette about each. They will quickly make clear why I am keeping this very public diary. I would say forgive the brevity, but spend a little while in my company and brevity is something you will end up begging me for. As the story unfolds you will inevitably learn a lot more about each.

Medal ceremony for the 2016 Creative Thinking World Championship

First, I am just setting out on my journey as an entrepreneur. In May last year I won the Oxford University Humanities Innovation Challenge for Mycelium, a creative thinking game. It drew upon my research into early modern memory systems, studies of the creative brain in neuroscience, and 20 years’ experience as a competitive mind sports athlete, which saw me winning the Creative Thinking World Championships in 2016 and 2017 (as well as being a past World Intelligence Champion and reigning European Speed Reading Champion). I had never considered becoming an entrepreneur (largely, as I’ll explain in the coming weeks, for the reasons set out in the next paragraph), but that breakthrough sent me, thanks to the support of Oxford University Innovation, on a journey that has been both breakneck and faltering (in no small part as I and the people advising, teaching, and nudging me learned what it means to set about a start up with poor mental health) through business courses, product design, and self-discovery. Now I am a few weeks away from incorporating Rogue Interrobang, a company that will sell the Mycelium card game and deliver unique creative thinking and innovation training to business, as well as offering mental wellbeing training to incubators and accelerators.

At the launch of Seeing Through the Fog

Second, I have lived with mental ill health (bipolar disorder, anxiety) since my teens (and am almost certainly neurodivergent – ADHD, dyspraxia at least). I have been a mental health campaigner and consultant for more than a decade. This has meant everything from being on the committee drawing up guidelines on debt and mental health for the Money Advice Liaison Group to delivering the 2017 Oxford Disability Lecture (from 16:00-32:00). Earlier this year, I was shortlisted, along with my colleague Verity Westgate, for the first Oxford University Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards for the training programme on mental ill health in the workplace, Looking Behind the Label, that we have now delivered 25 times, as well as being shortlisted as an Equality and Diversity Champion.

With fellow poets Camille Ralphs and Vanessa Kisuule at Waterstones in Oxford.

Finally, I am a writer. I have written everything from novels to spoken word, and have been heavily involved in the UK’s literary scene for a decade, running spoken word nights across the UK, performing at the Royal Albert Hall, and in The Company of Fellows writing Blackwells readers’ “favourite Oxford novel.” I have also written and spoken about the literary scene (as well as mental health and creativity) over that time – from Guardian Books Blog articles to talking about blockchain at London Book Fair.

I am various other things – ultra marathon runner, higher education manager, animal lover, too many time TV game show contestant, et cetera et cetera, but they are less likely to have brought you here – though possibly just as likely to find themselves woven into the narrative here.

Mental health (the poorness thereof) in the entrepreneurial community has become a hot topic recently. A lot of the buzz has come from a paper by Michael Freeman and others that demonstrated levels of mental ill health and ADHD among entrepreneurs that were far higher than in the general population.

But the focus of this interest, reflecting Freeman’s paper, seems to be on the direct impact that being an entrepreneur can have on your mental health, or whether certain traits might move people in the direction of both entrepreneurial life and poor mental health. They’re certainly things that interest me too, but what I want to explore most of all in this journal is another angle. What is being an entrepreneur like for someone who is already in poor mental health? Can someone who, in the definition laid out in the 2010 Equality Act, has poor mental health and is disabled, become a successful entrepreneur? What are the barriers they would face: barriers they encounter along the way from the preconceptions of others to the need to carry out day to day tasks differently from other people to the need to communicate in non-traditional ways to the fact their life story, the narrative behind their business looks different from what an investor might expect or hope for? Even barriers to taking the first step on the entrepreneurial journey. Or perhaps to ever having the dream that being an entrepreneur could be a life for “people like them.”

As I set out on my own journey, this feels increasingly like a story that needs telling I haven’t found stories about people like me. That’s probably one reason why I’m taking my first steps in my mid 40s – the message such an absence sends is clear: don’t even try going there.

And when I have come across stories of people with depression, bipolar, anxiety, or neurodivergent entrepreneurs, they have sometimes been more alienating still. We tend only to hear from successful people, and successful people of all profiles inevitably have a degree of success bias. As a consequence, what we read involves a level of superhuman willpower or resourcefulness or thick-skinnedness that feels utterly incompatible with what we know from the inside of serious mental illness. Again, the message comes across loud and clear – they don’t mean people like us.

This journal is my attempt to fill, in some part, that gap. I have no idea whether or not I will be successful. I do know I have already faced many of the obstacles I would have expected, and some I didn’t anticipate. But I have also found some doors unexpectedly open.

I want to take you through my start-up journey, warts and all, wherever it leads. And as I go I want to focus specifically on those parts of the journey where my mental health alters, or feels like it is altering, the route. Inevitably my account will alienate some. I will do my best to avoid this by making it clear at the outset all those areas in which alongside a whole slew of curveballs life has thrown me a lot of good fortune. I am aware many of the chances that have come my way are the result of this. But I hope also others will want to follow, and I hope that if they do this account will act as some kind of map. At the very least a guide to the landslides and roadworks blocking the way, and some tips and tricks for getting around them based on my successes and my failures.

Most of all, this is the kind of thing that the people on whom entrepreneurs depend need to hear. Because some of us can’t do things the way you expect us to. We can’t give you a call, we need to send an email; we can’t put on a suit and tie if you want us to be at our intellectual sharpest; we can’t hotdesk without collapsing under the weight of anxiety; we can’t give you a set of perfect accounts or demonstrate a lifelong trajectory.

There are many things we can’t do, and there are many other things we NEED (not want, not choose to ask for, NEED) in order to do stuff. But they aren’t things that impact negatively on the quality and potential of our idea. And maybe they are only things that impact on the ability to bring our idea to life if we are not offered flexibility by systems operating in an environment where you would hope innovation and flexibility and questioning whether “that’s just how it’s done” are the norm.

Next time I will look at how my mental health has shaped both my journey so far, and also the direction I want to take my business. That will involve a good deal of reflection about the things I have, for three decades, been unable to do. So a necessary counterweight, and something it is really important to get out of the way up front will be to look at the ways in which I have been exceptionally fortunate, fortune I am very aware others do not share.

And after that, I will say something about why it matters that the entrepreneurial environment is opened up to those who, like I did for so long, feel it is “not for the likes of me.” Which is tied inextricably to what I do at Rogue Interrobang. It can be summarised very succinctly by saying “I we are going to solve the world’s wicked problems, business as usual is not an option.”

I hope you enjoy the ride.

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6 thoughts on “Starting Up and Breaking Down

  1. Pingback: Unlike minds
  2. Brilliant post Dan! As someone who has struggled with mental health (depression and anxiety) since my teens, including suicide attempts, it is always inspiring and profoundly touching and helpful to hear from others who have been on a similar though unique journey. Entrepreneurial ambitions and poor mental health do not tend to sit well together and provide more obstacles than the ‘usual’ business person could expect, though I also suspect they can provide moments of lucidity, heightened creativity and clarity of thought through the chaotic globular mass that makes up modern life. I certainly have found huge challenges in trying to set up my little illustration business as the need for higher productivity as well as the inherit nature of pressurised deadlines can act as serious triggers for my own mental health conditions. I have no answers as yet on how best to combat these factors, other than trying to minimise and manage known triggers. But seeing and following someone like you, such an amazingly creative and inspirational figure, made more powerful by the fact that you have obstacles along your path to success and how you manage and tackle those obstacles is far more impressive and inspirational than those who have been gifted with good mental health and have an at least perceived ‘smoother ride’ to their goals. In battling to bring greater understanding of mental health issues, championing those that have not yet found their voices and reducing stigma around mental health, you are doing more good than I can possibly express. You’re amazing Dan, in every single way and I am truly honoured and humbled to know you and watch this amazing journey you’ve embarked on. All the very best mate. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s that combination – those moments of lucidity and difference that we can bring to the world that make it so frustrating – and so important that the world starts to recognise it’s in everyone’s interests to make it possible for us to make the most of those times when they come.

      Liked by 1 person

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