This past Monday night I received the news that Jody Sherman passed away. The tributes have been written by people who knew him better than I did, so I won’t bother sharing my memories of the man, but his passing made me think of a problem in the startup community that everyone refuses to acknowledge until it’s too late. I call this problem “the show.”
The show is when we tell people things we think they want to hear. The show is what we put on every time we say we’re crushing it when the truth is a little bit less. The show is the smile we wear that hides a frown, and the laugh we share that hides a tear. The show is all the charm and the energy and the friendliness that hides the knot in our stomach and the sadness in our heart.
Perhaps the worst part about the show is that it feels like it never stops. It usually starts innocently enough; maybe celebrating your initial launch with a round of drinks and smile while you worry about making payroll. But, like water carving into rock, the steady pounding of seemingly harmless drops start to eat away at you in increments so small that some people never notice until there’s nothing left.
I’m not sure if entrepreneurs love the show or hate the show, but one thing is for sure, they all feel they have to put on the show. They put it on when they’re laying people off and when the bank account is running low. They put it on when the site traffic is flat and when the sales aren’t coming. They put it on when the hundredth VC has told them “no” and every time they say a pivot is really a success. I’ve seen entrepreneurs put on the show even after the doors had been locked and the keys had been returned. Even then, when failure was a certainty, the show didn’t stop.
We all know why we put on the show of course. We’ve all heard the importance of putting on a brave face and acting “as if.” But it seems to me the show has reached proportions that would be comical if they weren’t so tragic. Every day I see entrepreneurs posting about “hustling 24/7” and “can’t stop, won’t stop.” I’m sure they mean well, but for everyone out there who’s struggling, watching others put on a better show just adds to their feeling of inadequacy. For many, watching the show just hurts.
I can’t stop the show. It’s a part of our culture now. But I can tell you it’s okay to take a break from it, to let the curtains draw close for the evening so you can perform again tomorrow. It can be something as little as taking time for yourself in whatever way that looks like. Perhaps connecting with friends who knew you before you had to put on the show, or just finding a place where you feel safe. Ben Huh tells me he comes on our annual trip because it’s “his time, his place where he doesn’t have to put on the show.” I’ve never told him directly but it makes me happy to be able to give him that.
I hope everyone can find their place in this world, a place away from the show, because finding that place in this world may save us from losing you to another.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]