What the New York Times “death by blogging” story got right.

[ Editor’s Note: Part of me doesn’t want to even write this story because it involves the death and health of friends. Part of me feels the need to discuss the topic in order to reach out to friends who pushing it too hard. I’m conflicted. I’d ask that folks who join this discussion about stress and work please do so with civility and good faith out of respect for folks who have passed. I know, Calacanis calling for civility sounds ironic, but this is a very sensitive topic for everyone involved. ]

The New York Times wrote a somewhat sensational story–ok, a very sensational story–about the death of two bloggers. Those two bloggers had both worked with us at Weblogs, Inc. at some point so I have some insight into the individuals and each case (note: they both worked with Weblogs, Inc. briefly and part time, and they weren’t working for us when they passed–so I don’t have total insight into their cases. I don’t want to overstate my knowledge of the situations that lead to their passing). The Times also mentions my friend Om Malik who recently recovered from a heart attack, and my friend and business partner (on the TechCrunch50 conference) Mike Arrington.

Essentially the story was about four of my friends: two have passed, one who almost died, and one who is living an admittedly unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle. It hits home in other words.

The New York Times sees the common thread amongst these folks as blogging, but that’s a superficial assessment. The truth is the common thread amongst these four individuals–and it’s kind of shocking the New York Times missed this–is they were all entrepreneurs.

The Times would have been better off blaming entrepreneurship over blogging. Of course, there are tons of healthy entrepreneurs out there who are not dying, and a certain number of men between 35-60 die from stress on a regular basis, so the story’s premise is flawed from the start.

“Fake trend” stories like this one intended to get headlines. Building a story like this involves finding three of something. In this case they found three people involved with blogs who died/almost died, and put some causation there. It’s bad journalism at its finest in many intelligent people’s opinion. I can’t disagree with them, and I’m sure the author and the editor who green-lighted the story had the same debate were having: “should we run this? are we fabricating a trend when there isn’t one?” I’ve been involved in those stories as an editor.

Perhaps on the blogging front they are faking it, however there is one thing the New York Times did get right: the human species inability to deal with stress.

  • In the case of my friend Marc Orchant, God rest his soul, he was under the stress of trying to build a blog network.
  • In the case of Om Malik he was under the stress of trying to build a blog network.
  • In the case of Michael Arrington he is under the stress of trying to build a blog network.
  • In the case of Russell Shaw, God rest his soul, he was trying to build out a blog network (one he didn’t own, but worked for). He was also trying to hustle freelance writing gigs–which is an entrepreneurial effort in and of itself.

These are all examples of fairly new or first-time entrepreneurs running hard in a high-growth sector.

Nick Denton from Gawker and I both built blog networks and we both were not under this level of stress. Sure, we had some day-to-day stress, but not debilitating stress. What’s the difference? Why did Nick and I not have massive stress and these folks do? Experience, exercise, and perhaps a little perspective come to mind.

Nick and I both got our asses handed to us during the dotcom boom and bust cycle. Nick, who I am fond on and individual basis truth be known, and I spent many a lunch laughing and joking about the meaninglessness of it all. We both had massive perspective on the businesses we were building at Weblogs, Inc. and Gawker due to past failures. If the blog business took off great, if it crashed that’s life. Nick had the added security of being a millionaire.

Having lived through a crash and had to cut my staff from 70 to 12 people I understand the stress folks are feeling. That was the most stressful moment of my life. Lucky for me during that time I was also running marathons and teaching/practicing Tae Kwon do two or three times a week. I had balance in my life that let me get through the very rough downtimes.

Stress is actually helpful when running a business. Stress is the warning system that something is either going wrong or could go wrong. If you didn’t have stress you might not do what you need to do to survive as a business. A business without stress is probably not a business you want to own.

  • YouTube had the stress of a huge copyright lawsuit
  • MySpace had the stress of Facebook and the perception that the service was dangerous for kids
  • Google has the stress of Microsoft
  • Netscape had the stress of Microsoft (a justified stress)
  • Yahoo has the double stress of Microsoft and Google
  • Newspapers has the stress of Craigslist
  • New York Times has the stress of bloggers, Criagslist, unhappy journalists, and pissed-off shareholders
  • Craigslist has the stress of EBAY (of course, Craig is cool he doesn’t seem to stress but the business should stress EBAY in the market)

You get the idea. Great businesses will feel stress. Stress is like pain in your body: it’s lets you know where to focus your attention. You need pain and stress as a feedback loop.

Now, adding to the issue in the story is that many of the folks listed were leading unhealthy lifestyles that included bad diets, smoking, drinking, and not sleeping. That alone will kill you. If you add the stress of building a business and growing older you’re really pushing the envelope.

Mike Arrington has no balance in his life right now and I’ve been working with him on the issue. Having no line between your home and your office is just not acceptable: he has to kick people out now. (this coming from the guy who had 20 Mahalo folks at his house for four months last year). Om Malik didn’t have balance in his life from what he’s explained, and now he is explained over and over the balance he’s setup. I’m really happy for Om.

Now, the collapse of my first business was hard on me, but I knew in my heart of hearts I was a good person doing the best I could. I had family, friends, and other core activities that made me who I was and I was able to carry on. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t sleep many nights. Of course, I was also only 30 years old. If I was 30 pounds heavier (like I was when running Weblogs, Inc), wasn’t running marathons (which I stopped in 1999), and was 36 the Silicon Alley Reporter experience might have killed me, who knows. Scary thought for me, and part of the reason I’ve radically changed diet and exercise over the past couple of years.

Stress kills men. It’s a fact. An ugly but true fact.

Does this mean you have to become a hippie and leave work at 4pm to go rock climbing and not aggressively build your startup? Does this mean you can’t be a workaholic? Yes and no.

If you have tools for dealing with stress you can burn the midnight oil and never feel stress. I’ve always worked really hard but very rarely had stress. As time goes on I feel less and less stress. In some ways I think I’ve realized that life is just a big video game and if one game doesn’t work out you put another quarter in and try again. It’s no big deal. That’s the great part of the society and time we live in: you can go for it, fail, and then go for it again. Nothing is lost, a lot of experience is gained. You can’t act a fool, but you can reach for the stars and miss.

There are techniques for dealing with stress and folks have to learn them and they have to learn them now. I am worried about my friend Mike Arrington. He has to get an office space, he has to change his diet, he has to sleep, he has to exercise, and he has to delegate. He’s starting, Heather is a great asset in that regard.

The good news of the NYT story for me is that Mike’s quotes are a cry for help. He’s looking for a solution to his stress. Here is the best one I can give him: it’s all a big game, don’t take it seriously. If TechCrunch were to implode–and there is a chance that every business could implode–you could run it down to just Mike blogging every day like he did at the start and have a great life. That should give Mike the freedom to know it’s all upside. He’s playing with the house’s money to a certain extent. Everything is icing when you turned a hobby into a 30-50M business.

Of course, taking that from your brain into your heart is not so easy. It takes time to get that perspective.

I’m going to do a longer post on dealing with stress but here are the most important things I can think of:

1. Diet
2. Exercise
3. Spending time with good friends doing fun things
4. Perspective
5. Sleep
6. Talking about things that cause you anxiety with people you love and trust (i.e. letting the steam off)
7. Flow moments (this is a blog post in itself)
8. Vacation

Stress is the number on work-place issue in my mind. We’ve got to figure out ways to deal with it. I think I lack some perspective on the issue since I don’t experience it. I’m going to do some followup posts but I’m hoping this post will bring some folks out of the wood work to discuss the issue and how they deal with it.

What are your ways of dealing with stress?

6 thoughts on “What the New York Times “death by blogging” story got right.

  1. No one really seems to talk about this subject, at least in a
    healthy and constructive way. I was writing a list for myself
    to reference when I’m feeling extra stress. For me it really
    boils down to resetting. I need to reset my mind every day in
    order to focus and maintain a good perspective. I like how you
    said it’s all a big game. That’s what it really is, the game of
    business, and when you think about it, it’s pretty damn fun.

    I came up with 14 or so things I try and do:
    http://techburner.com/2008/09/23/dealing-with-startup-stress/

    I hope Mike finds a balance. I used to work out of my house
    on my last startup. It’s a good way to save money in the early
    stages, but I think it’s worth it to get an office just to help
    with the life balance. I tend to work normal hours at the office
    then go home and take a short but needed break. Then work 5 or
    6 more hours from home in a more leisurely fashion. This has
    helped quite a bit.

Leave a Reply