We're doomed to keep glossing over mental health until we start acknowledging this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “kintsugi” over the past couple of days. It's the Japanese art of putting together broken shards of pottery - only instead of using a clear glue, you use a lacquer dusted with gold. More than a form of art though, it's a philosophy - a way of viewing the world. It asks - what happens when we celebrate the piece’s history of imperfection, of brokenness, rather than try to "fix" or disguise or ignore it.
What’s more, it’s a recognition that this beauty and extraordinariness does not exist without the broken. That it is a fundamental part of the piece’s existence that must be celebrated equally as the “good stuff”.
I wish this was how we thought about humans and particularly how we truly view mental health.
This week, when Naomi Osaka made the decision to pull out of the French Open, what we really saw was exactly how far we are from a kintsugi mindset.
We are a society that lives to idolize our heroes but we can’t stand to examine what forges the steel that lies beneath. We love to marvel at how she’s the highest paid athlete but we have no stomach for her possible fallibility; a people primed for consumption without caring about the price.
Our heroes’ stories must be wholesome and whole. Cracks are always seen as weakness never as a history to more. A history of persistence and survival and that grit we all love to talk about.
We need to change that.
Because otherwise, we’re relying on empathy to do the heavy lifting in making mental health more widely acceptable and understood.
But in the same way it's hard to understand physical pain or being drunk or altitude sickness unless you too have experienced it, it’s nearly impossible to really understand what a day trapped in the cold fog of anxiety feels like. Or how terrifying the utter lack of will in depression is like. And while I could wish for everyone to experience just one day of it, the truth is, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
I say this as someone who otherwise would be considered all the admirable words –– accomplished, successful and the worst of them all–– happy.
But I find myself desperate to make people understand: Very rarely is there beauty without the broken.
Almost 3 years ago to this day, I hit publish on a piece I was terrified to put out into the world. Because it made me feel weak and broken and damaged. It was the first time I put words to the Dementor-like fog that would engulf me for days and weeks but that I have learned how to become bigger than. I didn't want to open myself up to doubt and question and worst of all - pity. After all, all my life I've been taught to never appear "weak".
But the world had just lost Kate Spade and Anthony Bordain and we were all talking in surfacey devastated terms that completely glossed over the devious efficacy of mental illnesses.
"Oh how could she do this to her daughter?", or, "...but he had the best job in the world!".
And today, we’re back at it, with Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open because of her mental health. Thankfully it’s not to talk about a death but a life that someone is trying desperately to save for herself.
When she couldn't be more brave and clear and upfront about the demons she's battling, it seems all we can find ourselves talking about are the sponsorships she willingly took or the rules she understood she needed to abide by before coming. All rational, valid points if that’s actually what mattered.
But those are matters of obligation and optimization.
We’re talking about survival.
Of waking up and constantly feeling threatened and under attack from all directions, and scariest of all, from within.
And of course I can only speak to the ways that this shows up in my life, which is to say it could be completely different for others. But every morning, I wake up and test the waters of my thoughts. I reach a bit further and bolder to see if they shoot out in bold, colorful jets of confidence and creativity or if they get bounced back off of a dark forbidding wall, ricocheting around my brain, making me feel small and brittle.
From there, I take stock of what must be done. If it’s a good day, I do everything I can to keep it like that. I limit alcohol, I try to be outside and active, I only surround myself with people that make me feel good about myself.
If it’s some degree of a challenging day then I go into protection mode. I push everything else out - meetings, plans, to-do’s and I go do what needs to be done. Often it's a hard workout. Sometimes it's a cafe and a book (the past year I've had to find other go-tos). Inch by inch - and I'm being quite literal here - it feels as grinding and as grueling to go inch by inch, I work to get myself back into the headspace I need to then do the rest of life - work and parenting and being.
But other days it’s not enough. And it just gets worse. Every thought, every moment can be a threat, making it all worse until it threatens to consume me completely.
On those days I can’t do anything but try to survive. I’ll make excuses to my team. I’ll cancel meetings I’ve been looking forward to for days. Not in a self preservation way. In a destructive - "I’m a failure, why would anyone want to talk to me or work with me or even be around me" kind of way.
And here’s the part I wish others could understand. Here, there is no choice. There are actions I can take but it’s terrifying here. Because it truly seems like you’ll feel like this forever. That this is all there is.
Just as lucidly as I can tell you today, on a good day, that I'm certain it always passes, at those other times, I’m just as certain it won’t. That actually, that is the true me. The other is just an imposter. A happy facade.
I make destructive choices in those moments because I think that’s what’s best not for me, but for everyone else - why would they want to be around me when I can’t give them what they need and deserve. So in business school I hid in my dorm instead of joining parties and study sessions and new ventures. Today, I'll bail on meetings or I won't hit publish on something I've been working hard on (like this piece).
It doesn’t make me proud or feel strong to admit this.
But just as I felt compelled to talk openly about what failure was like with Poppy, I feel compelled to bring every ugly, dark reality of this, out into the light. So we can talk about it and render it powerless.
Even though I don’t know Naomi’s pain or struggle, it connects back to mine. Every time someone says, "it’s just a little press conference", what’s the big deal? I want to rage against the lack of understanding.
I'm not surprised press conferences are a source of extreme stress. Her sister has even said: Naomi has insecurities about the French Open and every time the press digs into it, it makes her doubt herself.
Reading that struck me in my heart. Because this is me every time I go out to raise a new round of funding. Full of scrutiny and criticism and poking and prodding to break through to the “real story”.
Imagine a day filled with meeting with really smart, engaging people that you would love to work with - whose POVs you respect on Twitter, who are just really good at what they do, who quite literally make their names on “picking the right bets”. Then imagine meeting with all of them and having them tell you why it won’t work, second guess your decisions, your choices, your view of the world. And ultimately: No. You’re great and all, but this is not a thing we’re excited about getting behind.
And listen, I get it. It's all a part of what I signed up to build a “venture scale” company that can have the biggest, broadest impact possible. I know that finding the right investors is critical to this ambition and I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many of the best (the ones that immediately get it and it feels like collaboration rather than interrogation). So naturally I completely, rationally understand and accept this part of my job.
But what’s harder to understand from the outside is that what I actually signed up for was to solve people's problems. To make their lives easier. Not to split my heart open and share my life’s work for others to judge it and find it wanting. Over and over again.
Knowing that the constant scrutiny and rejection is a painful but necessary part of my mission doesn't make it any easier. I understand we’re all just doing our jobs - that it is theirs to figure out all the ways my venture is and isn’t a good bet. I know I could and should do it differently - care less, be more removed. But I can’t. That’s just not me.
So all there’s left is to figure out how to do it on my terms that doesn't constantly destroy me and therefore, ironically, my company.
Because on this side of the table, underneath the glib advice of “for every 99 nos you only need 1 yes” is a person hearing all the ways that she’s inadequate and that she’s not enough. That she’s destined to be a failure.
I say all this not for pity. I say this so you can see another more human and more complete reality of what gets glossed over. Of being more careful the next time you say, "but they signed up for this willingly." or, "It doesn't look like she's having issues on her Instagram on that fancy photo shoot."
These are complex, messy lives being lived every day as we all know how. Every single person trying to figure their shit out as much as the next.
And as we work to figure it out, we understand our boundaries and our limitations. You see, though it might seem it with what looks like callous action on the outside, I am not trying to be reckless or inconsiderate. Rather the opposite. Each day I’m meticulously trying to figure out what might break me and avoid those things as much as possible.
On a regular day I've got battles to fight. But on days that I know I'm going to be putting myself out there for particularly intense scrutiny and criticism? Well those days I’m just trying to figure out my armor. The force field I can put up around me before I go in.
And sometimes the force field holds, and sometimes it doesn't. Like a great scene out of Star Wars, there comes a time when the shield didn't start out strong enough or you end up taking too many hits. And in those times you have to get yourself out before you're destroyed. You're not thinking about anything other than survival.
For me, it has always been coming back to my users and why I'm doing the thing in the first place. I have a doc that holds out user feedback. And I go back to that to remind me ultimately of how worth is measured. I’ll schedule to pick up my daughters from school so I remember the fierce love that lies within me. I go for a walk with a friend so I remember that life is more than anyone else's estimations.
I do what I have to to protect myself and my peace and my grace.
It might look cold from the outside when I decline to do a coffee chat or to respond to the hundreds of LinkedIn or Twitter outreaches.
But it’s not about you. It’s about survival and me doing what I need to not only get through the day, but thrive in my way.
So I’ll be damned if I sit idly by and let people judge me for that.
It’s not pretty. It’s not perfect.
In fact it’s messy and downright ugly.
But you - you have two choices. You can just leave us be. Leave the judgment, the commentary, the consideration. Just completely ignore our imperfect existence. But then you don't get to marvel at our wins, our achievements, our extraordinary.
Or you can accept us for our messy selves - witness and celebrate the brilliance alongside the wreckage.
So yeah, I'm thinking about kintsugi a lot right now. I’m tired of using the clear crazy glue that does nothing but make me feel broken and, well, crazy.
It’s nothing but gold for me from here on out - celebrating the broken bits along with the whole. Because every single time that I break a little, I figure out how to build myself back - more beautiful and valuable than ever.
And that’s worth something more, I think.