I Work, Therefore I Am: Exploring The SaaS Mental Health Crisis With Ryan Bonnici22 min read
What are the risks of defining our own self-worth by our professional productivity? We spoke to CMO of G2.com, Ryan Bonnici, to find out how he tackled this dangerous yet prevalent habit of many SaaS-space pioneers. Read on to learn how to spot the warning signs and take action.
At the start of the year, Ryan Bonnici, CMO with the expert software matchmakers G2.com, took the radical step of posting a candid article reflecting on the serious issues that defining our own self-worth by our professional productivity can bring.
Having achieved every goal he’d set himself (CMO before the age of 30, a great salary, marriage and lifestyle), why did he still feel so unfulfilled? We asked him if there was a “wake up moment,” a point at which he stepped back and acknowledged the fact that, although he had it all, he just didn’t feel okay?
“I knew from a really young age that I wanted to be a CMO,” explains Bonnici.
“As a teenager, I remember distinctly at high school saying that I was going to be a CMO before the age of 30. I made it; joining G2 to fill that role when I had just turned 29. Leading up to that point I was always highly ambitious – I always wanted to over perform and over deliver on results. And that felt normal because I was working my way up, growing my career.”
“I achieved that ultimate goal I was working towards – and it felt really good… for a month. But after a month or so, it felt like something was missing again. And that was the wake up call for me. This drive I’d felt, it wasn’t just ambition and success – it was a band aid for me to feel self-esteem.”
A Wake Up Call
Bonnici’s moment of realisation gave him a crucial jolt of self-awareness. The drive that had propelled him through his career to date ran deeper than a simple desire to be successful; wanting to make good money and secure a solid career. Once he scratched the surface, he uncovered a deeper level to this underlying need. “Everything I was achieving in a professional capacity, I was doing just to try to make myself feel like I was good enough. In those circumstances and with that kind of mindset, really, you can never be good enough by external measures – there’s always more. And so that was a realisation. It happened last year, after I hit rock bottom.”
Bonnici’s sense of wellbeing was entirely at the mercy of his professional life. If work went well one day, he’d be satisfied, but the moment things weren’t completely perfect, he’d feel terrible. “The work utterly defined me,” he admits. “It was through that I realised there were things that I needed to work on internally around my own self esteem. So that external factors were less controlling of my internal state.”
The Road To Recovery
Having realised that something was drastically wrong with his current outlook, and that continuing to couple his emotional state to the rollercoaster of a SaaS-based trajectory was a disaster waiting to happen, Bonnici embarked on a therapeutic journey. The goal was to begin to understand what was driving that need for the external validation he felt that only professional success could bring him, and required some deep digging into his upbringing as a child and core values.
“It’s hard to connect all the dots are you’re going through something like this,” explains Bonnici. “Within a month of getting the job I already felt that it wasn’t enough and I needed more, which was crazy – because by all external accounts, for everyone watching – I should have been the happiest person in the world. I suppose, for a very short period of time, I was – until I wasn’t.”
“If I hadn’t paid attention to that misplaced sense of dissatisfaction, I would have continued to grind on down that path: being unhappy and focusing on work. How can I give bigger numbers? Better numbers? How can I be the best CMO? Will I ever be the best CMO? Maybe the CEO role is what I need?”
Did the infamous pressures of Startup culture add fuel to this fire? “Undoubtedly. Building up my team for six months placed one kind of pressure upon me, but in addition to that, there were the stresses that you’d expect to feel at executive level within a startup. People are expecting you to drive revenue and growth. I was expecting that of myself too of course, and putting a huge amount of pressure on myself.”
“That was where my mental health flatlined. I was so consumed by business, the only way I could love and respect myself was if I could be the best, earning the most money, and seeing the highest levels of success. The coolest house, the nicest car – basically, all the things society conditions is to want.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I still love those things,” he smiles. “But I’m trying to not let them define me.”
Sounding A Little Close To Home?
In speaking to Bonnici for even a short a while, it’s hard not to be impressed by the level of self awareness it must have taken to make that connection, and acknowledge a problem that needed an urgent solution. It’s fair to say that within the SaaS space, many fall into the trap or cycle of continuously going for the next big thing. Some of this article may already sound uncomfortably familiar. What was it that enabled Bonnici to see this serious problem for what it was, and not just the kind of clichéd high drive or ambition our industry is all too quick to glorify?
“I think what made it easy for me (and why it may be harder for other people) is that there were so many signifiers of success for me in terms of my life and career,” he muses. “I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but I kind of felt like I had it all. I was living overseas. I was working in my dream job. I was married to my college sweetheart. Everything looked pretty ‘perfect’, and so the fact that I still felt bad helped things to be emphasised faster. I realised things quicker. It was a weird coincidence of events; to logically know that everything was great on paper, but in reality, very much not be okay inside – it was a wake up call.”
It’s interesting to note that although Bonnici is still keen to quantify his success, it’s within the context of a healthy, realistic approach to the culture of comparison so rife within SaaS.
“There are obviously people who have achieved way more than me. People start companies at 20 and become billionaires. I’m nothing in comparison to them. But that’s not a very healthy way to think about things. Such a tiny fraction of a percentage of the population who achieve a career like that – to compare yourself to that tiny minority, it’s unhealthy and it’s dangerous.”
For Bonnici, gaining the perspective that everyone’s was a different journey, not wanting the same things or holding themselves to identical standards, was immensely helpful. If he could, would he go back and gift himself this insight at an earlier point in his career?
“I wouldn’t take it back,” he muses. “I sometimes wonder what my life would have looked like if I had worked on all my personal issues and self esteem back when I was younger. Part of me thinks that I’d be more successful and happier than I am today, but another part thinks – maybe I wouldn’t? Although I’m grateful to have it under control for often than not now, it was a big part of what drove me to be compulsive in terms of keeping pushing for more, up up up.”
A Red Light: Spotting The Warning Signs
It’s interesting to note that Bonnici was hitting the start his third decade as many of these issues and the need for their resolution came to a head. It’s a time when many experience a personal shift in attitude and priorities, often presenting as something of a crisis. How did he know that something bigger than the existential dread of leaving his 20s was afoot?
“I was more and more stressed and anxious,” he recalls. “I was getting more depressed. I was even having some quite scary thoughts. Not in the sense of actually taking action there, but sometimes when I would be riding my bike to work, at my lowest, I would find myself do something impulsive like running through a red light. I wasn’t actively trying to hurt myself but I was becoming more and more reckless. It was definitely not a great time for me.”
Doing The Work: How Family And Therapy Helped
Interestingly, before having his Damascus moment and taking tangible steps towards recovery, Bonnici had already been seeing therapists for a few years. What was it about these previous efforts that meant he wasn’t seeing results? “My schedule was so erratic with work, and I was travelling internationally so often, that I wasn’t seeing my therapist as frequently as I should have been – perhaps once a month? It kept getting kicked into the weeds. When I finally got settled in Chicago I started seeing a therapist twice a week. I wanted to go deep really quickly.”
Bonnici’s wife is also a clinical psychotherapist, and he himself majored in psychology at University, which is how they met. “She obviously doesn’t ‘treat’ me as a patient as that would be weird, and unethical,” he smiles. “But she really knows how to give me space, and was amazing at giving me the support I needed when I was in that place. When someone’s depressed there’s really very little that those around them can do. You can give them space and you can ask them if they want to come out and do stuff, but mostly they won’t want to go to that party or that dinner with friends – that was certainly my experience at least. She was amazing in that she would let me do what I needed to do. There would be whole weekends where I wouldn’t leave the couch. She would just ask me what I needed, make me food. She wouldn’t pressure me. It sounds corny, but she really was my rock.”
“When the time came for me to get help, there was never any stigma around me going to a psychologist – I understood and respected what they did. It took a good six months to a year before we really got deep. I don’t think I cried in front of my therapist until six months in. My theory is that if you haven’t cried in therapy then you probably haven’t got to the core of stuff – you’re still guarded and protecting yourself.”
Up until that six month point in therapy, things got worse and worse for Bonnici. He was going deep into the place she knew he needed to go, but it also made everything a lot more turbulent in the short term. Once they broke through that initial resistance, things started to get much better.
“I think with therapy it always gets worse before it gets better,” Bonnici suggests. “You have to peel back the layers, and break down the lines of defense that you’ve built up over the last 30 years. They might have been helpful at some point in your life. If you were bullied as a kid for example (as I was), then not trusting other kids at school becomes a protective act towards yourself. But if you’re 30 and you still don’t trust anyone that you meet, then that’s not a helpful strategy anymore.”
He thinks that that’s where most people’s biggest mental health issues stem from; mechanisms that were helpful for us when we were growing up with our family and our friends become dysfunctional when we’re older. We act as though we’re in the same situations we found ourselves within in childhood, when in reality, things have changed and our old coping strategies are misplaced.
Initial Public Offering: Spreading The Word
Bonnici is adamant that none of his colleagues would have known what he was going through during this period of crisis and eventual solution. Once he started to see the light at the end of the tunnel, he gained life changing perspective. “There’s stuff that I’ll always be working on,” he acknowledges, “but I got enough clarity to move forward.”
As someone who’s always been very open publically in terms of social media, sharing, writing and talking about his experience felt very natural. At the start of the year, NBC News published an in-depth article written by Bonnici, focusing on how improvements to his own mental health had helped improve his performance as a leader.
Did publicly sharing his journey come naturally, or was it a more intimidating prospect? “It’s kind of who I am,” says Bonnici. “I think there are many people going through similar issues that they just don’t talk about, or even know how to talk about. So many people on my team and at my company and more broadly have reached out to talk about their own challenges since I opened up about my own situation.”
Actions speak louder than words of course, and Bonnici is also seeing the benefits of taking the lead in that respect.
“I had a mini anxiety attack at work earlier this year and immediately cancelled all my meetings. I sent a message around letting my managers know I wouldn’t be available for the rest of the day as I was taking a mental health day. I didn’t give specific details, but crucially I didn’t say I was sick or try to just push through. I wanted to be authentic and real. As a result, people seeing that message later told me that they felt like they could do the same thing if they found themselves in a similar situation.”
Happy leader, happy team.
When your work accomplishments are the thing that you lean on for self esteem, in a leadership position, the impact of this goes beyond your own personal experience. “If my team wasn’t doing perfect work, then I wasn’t perfect,” frowns Bonnici. “In the way I was viewing things at that time, they were a direct representation of me. My mentality was; if they do bad work, then I am a bad person. Obviously this wasn’t accurate or super logical. In some ways, as a leader, you are responsible for your team of course, but my mindset meant that I would put more pressure on the team to be perfect. I still put pressure on my team of course” he grins, “but it’s coming from a different place now.”
Since decoupling his self-worth from his professional performance, Bonnici feels like his relationship with his team has become a lot more authentic. Whereas previously he would have put a lot of pressure on himself to be able to instantly solve every problem that his team came to him with, he no longer feels that he needs to have the answer for everything. It’s made him become a better listener. Additionally, as he no longer feels the need to control outcomes to the same degree, it’s helped him to empower his team.
“The outcome isn’t going to be indicative of who I am,” Bonnici says. “If we don’t get the result we’re looking for right away, it might be indicative that my marketing team are struggling – which might mean that I’ve not been the best leader in that context. But crucially, that doesn’t mean that I am not a good person.”
Under Pressure: How Does The SaaS Space Accelerate Underlying Tendencies
The fast-paced and innovative nature of the SaaS space means that we’re often under increased amounts of pressure to perform in the first instance. When Bonnici joined G2.com they were 150 employees (today they’re closer to 400.) “When you’re that size or even smaller, you’re still building out your product and product market fit,” he says. “It’s not a guarantee that you’re going to be successful and most companies fail eventually. So joining a small company – and especially in the realm of tech and the internet, where as we all know, the world changes so quickly – makes things extra stressful, extra risky.”
He attributes that pressure to compounding but not causing his own issues. “We spend the majority of our lives working, so if your mental relationship with the concept of work is not in a healthy place, then that’s not going to set your health up for success as a person.”
Mental Health: Up And To The Left
If leaders could do one thing to help improve mental health in their workplaces, beyond all top down initiatives and wellbeing schemes, Bonicci champions the simple act of talking about their own.
“Ideally, leaders should be talking about their mental health in the same way that they would talk about going to the gym. No one is afraid to put a gym session on their work calendar before the head into the office. I do Peloton every morning and I have that on my calendar. I’m not embarrassed for people to see that. I feel I should be equally open about my weekly check ins with my therapist, so I have those publicly on my calendar too. I really do think that’s the best thing that leaders can do – talk and be open about their own mental health journey.”
As everyone’s circumstances are different, Bonnici sees this general acknowledgement as having the greatest capacity to help people. “I don’t think that talking about individual tactics and strategies is really as useful, because what works for me might not work for you. The biggest breakthrough is just realising that it’s okay to ask for and seek help. Whether that’s a meditation app or a therapist – not being embarrassed about needing any of those things. Just like I need to go to the gym because it helps me feel great and stay fit and healthy.”
By removing the shame and secrecy from the act of seeking professional help, Bonnici hopes that people will be more likely to speak to their own therapist – “because that’s where they’ll have the most progress.”
Removing the stigma from seeking help was so important to Bonnici that he joined Bring Change To Mind – the organisation run by Glenn Close. “The average time it takes people to seek professional help regarding a mental health problem is something like eight to ten years,” explains Bonnici. “The biggest indicator of reducing suicide and depression and anxiety and work burn out is reducing the stigma surrounding the area. It means people will be getting help up to ten years earlier than they would otherwise have been getting it. Something like 80% of people will have some kind of mental health problem at some point in their lives. They’ll go through a short period where they have anxiety because of work, or it could be something much longer term – but only about 10% of those people get help. Such a small fraction of people that need help get it, and when they do it’s probably only after suffering for years. The vast majority aren’t getting any help at all.”
Is Everything Okay? How To Recognize Your Own Warning Signs
Declining mental health presents itself in different ways to everyone. For some it might mean eating more junk food. For others, they might stop going to the gym. For Bonnici, he recognised a strong signal of problems in his own mental health as an increasing attachment to his mobile phone. “I can’t put it down,” he admits. “Even when I’m watching the TV, I’ll have it in my hand. I’m not enjoying the TV, and I’m not enjoying the phone. I’m just trying to numb my feelings. I love watching TV and I love being on my phone sometimes, sharing photos, reading the news etc – but when I notice that I’m doing all these things obsessively and I’m not getting any enjoyment out of it, I realise I’m avoiding something.”
We all have a tendency to numb our feelings when they’re too difficult to deal with in the present moment. Bonnici suggests that if you find yourself undertaking anything in excess, but not enjoying any part of the experience, that you might be guilty of this.
“It might be that work is chaotic – and so you’re checking my email every minute, even though I’m at home or I should be going to sleep. For me, when I start to see the signs that something’s not right, I try to take stock and slow down. I’ll take a day off and recharge. I’ll avoid my phone – I’ll put it in a drawer when I get home and make it off limits for that night. I need to actively make decisions around what I really want to do.”
What kind of activities can help when you feel control sliding away in this manner? “Usually I want to go on walks with the dog and chat with my wife. Just to feel a connection with someone else. The way I personally numb out is through technology, just mindless scrolling on my phone. And so connecting with a person in an intimate way – talking, with my eyes closed. It slows everything down – you’re present with your emotions. You can feel that someone else is there. You’re living in the present moment. Usually when we get stressed, we’re not in the here and now – we’re living in the future and thinking about how we might fail or we’re thinking about the past and what we didn’t get done.”
What’s a simple, instant action that people can take when they do start to notice themselves slipping into a repetitive, destructive loop? “It’s not always easy to do but most of the time the best thing to do is just to stop and breathe,” suggests Bonnici. “Turn off the TV, put down the phone. Close your eyes. Just breathe. Sometimes I admit that I can’t do that – I’m too wound up. But it does help.”
Be Your Own Angel Investor
We live in an age when #selfcare is a buzz word used to sell expensive scented candles. However, Bonnici is a huge advocate for the practice of self care in its truest sense, and has found it a real help in his road to recovery.
“Even something as simple as having a nap can be great. If I’m stressed or anxious, my sleep declines quickly, and my brain won’t switch off. I lay one of those Shakti mats – the bed of nails – and the feeling of that will help me fall asleep in a matter of minutes. I’ll sleep for an hour and wake up feeling so much better. It resets me.”
Over the years, he’s also learnt how to build self care into his regular routine, as something that is non-negotiable. “Once a week I do an hour of acupuncture, an hour of trigger point massage and a chiro session. I do it all back to back; two and a half hours of intensive self care. Needles all over me, then cupping, so bruises all over my back, every week religiously. I’ve learnt that I run at a different speed than other people. It’s just who I am. I don’t know how or if I can change that, but I have learnt that I can manage it through a combination of practises.”
He acknowledges his privilege in being about to access help of this kind. “It’s really not something that I take for granted. But I work hard and I reinvest the money that I make into myself, to help me operate efficiently. It’s taken time to learn what I need to do to keep myself balanced.”
“Self care used to be a luxury – I’d get a massage on holiday perhaps. But as my mental health started declining, I started to use those tactics to survive. Initially they helped me cope. Now, I think I don’t need it quite so much but I still get great benefit from it. Before it was stopping me from breaking – now it’s keeping me balanced.”
While he’s gotten pretty good at listening to his body and realising what it needs, Bonnici recognises that he’s still not quite as good at listening to his thoughts and values in the same manner. “I definitely still spend more money as my mental health declines” he admits.
“I buy more clothes, I buy gadgets. That was always one of the things I reached for to help me cope. Sometimes it’s a means to an end; you dull an emotion by eating or spending more. Shopping, food, drugs. These are all things that we use to numb ourselves and disconnect from our feelings. I still do that sometimes but it’s definitely less. It’s the compulsive need – the ice cream, the new pair of shoes. I have enough of the things. I don’t need more. It’s not sustainable and it doesn’t fix the problems. The problems needed to be fixed through therapy.”
Want to hear more from Ryan Bonnici? He’s speaking at SaaStock Australasia, December 3 – 4. Find out more about the event and get your tickets here.
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