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Justin Kan of Atrium shares how therapy helped him cope with burnout

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Founder and investor Justin Kan has had more than 15 years of success in the startup space — but while his career skyrocketed, his health took a steep downward turn.

On a recent episode of the podcast The TwentyMinuteVC, Kan (who sold his previous startup, Twitch, to Amazon for $1 billion, and has raised millions in VC funding for his current project, the legal startup Atrium) told fellow founder Harry Stebbings that he spent years dealing with burnout.

“You can be burned out no matter how successful you are, and you can be unhappy no matter how successful you are,” Kan said. “That’s something that I have experienced.”

When he couldn’t hide the pressures of the entrepreneur’s life anymore, the founder was candid about his realization that therapy could be a valid path to recovery.

“I think it’s very cathartic to have someone to talk to,” Kan said. “It’s effectively a mechanism or construct that we’ve created as a society to make you feel as though you have someone to talk to and that you’re not alone.”

Meanwhile, therapy has been shown in large-scale research to be effective in surprisingly little time. A 2017 meta-analysis of 207 studies found that when you have the right fit with a therapist, your levels of neuroticism can start to decrease in as little as a month. (Neuroticism is a well-researched personality trait associated with both being more sensitive to threats and thinking about them over and over, in a process called rumination.) So if you’re someone with a lot to worry about, like a startup founder, it makes sense that therapy could be incredibly helpful.

More and more data is showing that Kan’s experience of overextension is all too common. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization classified burnout as a syndrome. According to the WHO, symptoms of burnout include exhaustion, cynicism toward your job, and feeling less capable at work. A 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees in the US found that 23% said they felt burned out at work very often or always, and 44% said they felt burned out sometimes.

From Kan’s perspective, it’s difficult for entrepreneurs to avoid burnout because they so easily tie their entire identity to a company. Founders often internalize the outcomes of the company into their own sense of self, which Kan said is a recipe for feeling depressed, and ultimately burning out and quitting. This is the difference between what psychologists call harmonious passion, where you love what you’re doing and can do it sustainably, and obsessive passion, where you’re identified so much with your job that it consumes you.

To Kan, prioritizing your mental health plays a central role in long-term strategy.

“As a founder, you are a very active component of your company,” Kan said. “If you burn out you aren’t doing your customers or your investors or your employees any favors. You need to create a situation inside your company where you are going to be retained for a long time. I think that’s your obligation if you’re good.”

This isn’t the first time Kan has been candid about self-care. Earlier in June, he talked about his decision to give up alcohol permanently, after he realized that he often relied on drinking to get him through stressful situations.

“You can have all the success in the world and still be unhappy or engage in toxic behaviors (and you will not be alone),” he wrote for Business Insider. “But it is never too late to make changes in your life.”

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