Gabriela tell us a bit about yourself and your work and how that connects to entrepreneurship.
I’m the instigator and founder of DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. This means I am both an entrepreneur myself, and I help writers take on a more entrepreneurial approach to their creative careers.
I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak. Growing up I was that kid who was always starting new projects or creating a new club. Now I get to be creative and entrepreneurial every day, which is awesome.
How important is for entrepreneurs (and people in general) to take care about their mental health?
Pardon me, but I’m going to get opinionated here. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.
Mental health is one of those subjects that a lot of people pay lip service to when it comes up in the media, but as soon as the topic is no longer trending, everyone stops talking about it. It gets me so riled up that my social media feeds were on fire with posts about depression and mental health right after those celebrity suicides earlier this year, but then after about a week suddenly everybody stopped talking about it.
Depression, bipolar disorder (which I have), and other mental illnesses are chronic conditions. They don’t just go away because people stop talking about them. These illnesses don’t magically disappear just because the dialogue stops, in fact not talking about it often makes the situation worse. This is why websites like this are so important. There needs to be an ongoing conversation and a continuous awareness around mental illness. Then and only then will we be able to stop this epidemic of suicides and improve our culture’s attitude toward mental health.
So as to how important it is for entrepreneurs—or anyone—to take care of their mental health… well, if you’re someone like me it’s incredibly important. In fact, it’s a matter of life and death.
How could one take care of their mental health?
The thing that makes mental illness so complex is that there is no panacea, no one-size-fits-all solution. For some people, depression might stem from situational factors and solving a problem in their environment might be enough to improve their mood. For other people, depression might stem from an internal, even biochemical source, so no amount of rejigging their environment will fix the problem. And for some people like me, it’s a combination of the two.
The most effective way I’ve found to manage my own mental illness has been DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Basically, DBT is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, but with mindfulness and zen meditation woven in.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I suck at meditation, or at least I suck at what most people think of as meditation. Trying to “clear my mind” is my equivalent of the 7th circle of Dante’s Inferno. But that’s not what DBT is about.
Instead, it’s about having an increased awareness of your thought patterns and where your mind goes particularly in times of struggle. Training my mind in this way has been incredibly eye-opening. While it certainly doesn’t cure the illness per se, being more mindful allows me to manage my thoughts and behaviors in relation to the illness. This result has been life-changing.
Do you think that the entrepreneurial journey consists of experiences that can affect one’s mental health?
This is an interesting question because for me the entrepreneurial journey is not one I embarked on by choice. I became an entrepreneur because my mental illness was incompatible with a traditional office environment. While entrepreneurship is certainly not easy, it has allowed me the flexibility to build my career alongside my illness, rather than fighting against my illness every step of the way.
I can certainly imagine that for some people, the pressures of entrepreneurship might exacerbate their inner struggles, but for me being able to decide how and when I show up for my work has allowed me to reach levels of success I probably would not have been able to achieve in a more traditional career.
Keep in mind, though, that there’s also a downside. Just as freedom and flexibility can give us space to build our careers around our mental illness, it also makes it easy for people like me to slip through the cracks. I’ve had to build safeguards into my working life to keep myself on track. College, for example, was a tricky time for me because there was no one around to keep me accountable, no one for me to answer to if I didn’t take care of myself. Now, I make sure to build these “accountability buddies” both into my work life and into my day-to-day routines.
What would you say to people that are struggling on their way to success?
“This too shall pass.” Whenever things get challenging, I just repeat these words, again and again. And again.
It’s so easy when you’re in the depths of darkness to feel like there’s no way out. To feel like you’re drowning in the pain. And yet somehow, some way that I don’t even understand, it eventually passes. This is a true mystery of life. No matter how horrible the pain is (and believe me, I’ve experienced some doozies) at some point it starts to let up a little. You just have to hold on and be strong until you get to that point.
I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t easy. There are times when I find it very hard to trust that the pain will indeed get better, even if in my mind I know that it will. Sometimes your brain knows something, but it’s hard to make your heart believe it.
And let’s not forget all the misinformation and stigma that make mental illness and entrepreneurship even more challenging than they already are. The media loves to paint entrepreneurship like it’s this glitzy, glamorous thing, but it never shows the late night work-your-fingers-to-the-bone reality. Similarly, TV and movies often portray mental illness in all its fascinating, melodramatic glory, but rarely does it show the ugly aspects. Entrepreneurship is hard. Mental illness is hard. When you put the two together, it’s doubly hard.
But when you get through those hard moments of your mental illness, you can look yourself in the eye and know with utmost confidence that you have tremendous strength and resilience. Know that you have survived something very dark and very difficult. That is an achievement. In my opinion, that is success.
What are your plans for the future?
Does world domination count? Seriously, I have so many plans and taking over the world is just one thing on a long list.
As someone who has long struggled with the darkest side of a serious mental illness, I know that the best way to keep myself from checking out is to keep my To-Do list brimming with tons of exciting things. For me, it’s important to have plenty of unfinished business and my goal is that I will never retire.
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). To learn more and get a free Starter Kit, go to DIYMFA.com/join.