In a series of tweets earlier this week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke candidly about stress and his mental health.
When asked about his picture perfect online life, the CEO responded, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”
When asked if he were bipolar, Musk tweeted, “yeah.” Then added, “Maybe not medically tho. Dunno. Bad feelings correlate to bad events, so maybe real problem is getting carried away in what I sign up for.”
Then finally this: “If you buy a ticket to hell, it isn’t fair to blame hell …”
A lot of people felt that last one.
It’s important to point out that a bipolar disorder diagnosis can only be confirmed by a physician. The condition, which requires medical management and support, is nothing to be ashamed of. But Musk’s tweets were an important window into the life of someone who more than occasionally suffers under the weight of the ambitions he once readily signed up for.
“Anyone with many responsibilities – especially those that impact other people – are certainly at risk for high amounts of stress,” explains Dr. Richard Yep, the CEO and executive vice president of the American Counseling Association in Alexandria, Va. It’s a short trip to burn out, anxiety, anger, and depression, he says. “The feeling of ‘never being able to please everyone’ can lead to a feeling of isolationism,” he says. “It would not be surprising to see that those entering the executive ranks – or those who have been ‘the boss’ for many years – will begin to feel stress and anxiety that then could lead to various mental health challenges,” he says.
The stigma of admitting to the effects of stress or a diagnosed condition is profound. “Senior executives managing their disorders are dealing with their issues, and at the same time, they are putting up their guard,” says Wendy Murphy, head of the Human Resources Practice at RSR Partners, an executive search and leadership consulting firm. Organizations that want to better help high potential executives cope with mental illness need to have policies in place that are directed by a trusted chief people officer (or his or her equivalent), who has the ear of senior management. Those policies need to feed the human part of leadership – such as the candid conversations that let people set boundaries, ask for support, and take time-outs to care for themselves. “If those partnerships don’t exist, or if the executive is surrounded by the wrong people, the situation can bleed into risk.”
Younger rank-and-filers who are living with some sort of mental or physical limitation have found an unexpected ally in novelist and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang.
Wang, who lives with late-stage Lyme disease and schizoaffective disorder, has been dealing with various illnesses since she was a pre-teen. Her essay on her thoughts on diagnosis is a must-read. Here’s a snapshot of her 2013: “I spent most of that year spinning in and out of different harrowing beliefs: there were spiders in my brain, my husband had poisoned my tea, there were cameras spying on me in every corner of the flat, and so on. 2013 was also the year that I surrendered my last benchmark of sanity, otherwise known as my full-time job at a fast-paced startup company.”
And yet, in spite of everything, she persisted. She’s moved on from her work in health care, to produce an extraordinary amount of writing, winning awards both for her novel, The Border of Paradise, and her forthcoming essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. Her message? If she can succeed, so can you.
She is the founder of The Unexpected Shape, an online resource for “ambitious people living with limitations.” We all have them. “It’s the shape that our lives take when we realize the boundaries that exist around it,” she says. “Our lives can look beautiful within that shape.”
It is a true trove of candid advice – she offers an e-mail course called A**-Kicking With Limitations – but where she really excels is in erasing the intersection between illness and achievement. “The key thing to remember is that you are still you and even if it feels like your illness or your mental health condition is really taking over your life there are still aspects of you that have nothing to do with that,” she said in an interview with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. The contributions we make through our work are a vital part of who we are.
Of course, we need C-Suites to be committed to designing systems that support people with invisible limitations, particularly those who don’t have the embedded privileges of someone like Elon Musk.
But back to Musk for a moment. To answer his assertion, yes, people do want to hear about the lows and unrelenting stress. By publicly grappling with the unexpected shape of his own life, even briefly, Musk added an admirable element to an important conversation.
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