“My career was on the rise, I had the beginnings of a financial safety net …Yet I started to suffer from debilitating panic attacks”

Andy Johns Was In-Demand As a Startup Growth Guru But Couldn’t Continue The Work Until He Helped Himself First

Andy Johns was one of the original notable ‘growth’ experts, working at a variety of startups and larger tech companies to help drive product strategies that resulted in organic and sustainable user acquisition. We were fortunate to include him as an advisor to our portfolio during early Homebrew investments, and he eventually crossed over to venture himself, before stepping back to focus on his own health. It’s that effort I wanted to focus on in this Five Questions interview. Thanks Andy for being open about your own diagnosis and subsequent healing.

Hunter Walk: Thanks for doing this interview Andy. We’ve known each other for a while and I wanted to focus today primarily on your recent writings about your personal journey to find mental health and wellness. What prompted you to start talking more publicly?

Andy Johns: My mental health journey first started in early 2010. Life was good at the time. My career was on the rise, I had the beginnings of a financial safety net, I was physically healthy and active, and I had a great group of friends. Yet I started to suffer from debilitating panic attacks, nightmares, depression, and an overall sense of feeling “out of control” in terms of my own mind and mood. It scared me enough that I feared my life was at risk so I began to reach out to therapists for help.

I’ve gone through several periods of focused mental health work, largely motivated by additional ups and downs that I’ve experienced since then. In the last 3–5 years I was able to process parts of my childhood trauma that contributed to the downward spiral that struck me in my late 20s. That involved many sessions of EMDR, a few intense but transformative psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy experiences, as well as over a month in a trauma recovery center where I worked 24/7 on my mental health.

As difficult as all of that work has been, it’s given me a new life to look forward to.

Due to the changes I’ve experienced, and the incredible people I’ve met along the way that similarly struggle with mental illness, the broad field of mental health has become a passion of mine. That’s what led me to start speaking publicly about mental health. Writing is not only a part of my wellness routine, and something that keeps me on track and accountable to maintaining my own health, it’s allowed me to connect in new ways with the technology community. Fewer of my conversations today are about startups and how to growth them. They’ve been replaced by deeper, closer conversations with people about the challenges they face in life and what they can do to find more peace and balance.

HW: This is an area that’s quickly destigmatizing, at least within the tech community. Have you found the same? Or am I just seeing what I want to see, given my own forthrightness about being in therapy too?

AJ: I would agree with you. On the whole, the technology community is more open about discussing mental health than most industries. The forward-thinking and open-minded characteristics common in the silicon valley have contributed to a broad awareness and acceptance of mental illness relative to most other places I’ve lived. That’s an attribute of the tech industry that I appreciate.

Yet I’ve also experienced a passive negative response in a few cases from a few people. And I know others that have lost career or business opportunities because potential partners in a deal were weary about working with someone that has a diagnosed mental illness. At an individual level, there remains plenty of narrow-mindedness amongst some.

That’s part of why I’m writing about mental health publicly. I don’t feel like I have anything left to prove professionally. I’m at peace with the work that I’ve done and the impact that I’ve had. I don’t crave millions of dollars or notoriety like the younger me used to. I have nothing to lose so it feels not only like a life calling but also a moral imperative. All I want for myself is inner calm, connection with others, my health, and to be fully aligned emotionally, mentally, and spiritually around a cause that gives my life purpose.

That said, what I want to do at this point is help others awaken from the trauma and conditioning of their past, and to free themselves from the perceived constrains of their present condition. I want to help others become free in the way that I have.

HW: How do you decide what to share, versus what’s more personal? For me it’s less about the content and more about the motivation. I really don’t want to write up stuff that feels like I’m being performative or manicuring something into a public narrative that’s not exactly true.

AJ: I feel the same way. If it’s inauthentic, I feel an internal disgust that won’t let me proceed since it knows that I’m being false. It’s as if the inner child in me is saying, “Listen, asshole. You’ve spent enough time living with this facade. Drop it and be real.”

When I write, I think about two first principles:

  •           Reasonable vulnerability
  •           Emphasis on healing

What I mean by “reasonable vulnerability” is that I want to share but do so with appropriate boundaries in place. My audience doesn’t need to hear every single detail in order to understand the concepts I’m sharing or to derive value from it. On the flip side, if I’m not vulnerable at al,l then the article may come across as generic and inauthentic. That’s the last thing I want. I don’t want to write a generic Buzzfeed-like article on “The Top 8 Ways to Start Meditating”.

However, it requires that I do share enough of my personal insights and experiences in order for it to be clearly authentic. That’s why I also have principle #2 of “emphasis on healing”.

I write because I want to help myself and others heal. In order for someone to be ready to heal, they must first feel safe. You don’t teach a dog a new trick when it’s shivering and has it’s tail between its legs. You teach a dog a new trick when it is calm, focused, and safe.

The same is true for people. As a result, I think of sharing my personal stories and insights as a way to make my reader feel safe. If they know that I’m being open, honest, and real, they’ll feel safe. I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve had so many people in tech reach out to me to talk about their own mental health challenges — they get the sense that they’ll be safe when they talk to me.

So, when I sit down to write a piece, I always have that in the back of my mind. I ask myself, “What can I write that demonstrates reasonable vulnerability and is written in a style that emphasizes healing.” Then, when I’m hit by a sudden motivation to write on a particular topic, I combine that with my two principles and I let the words flow.

HW: Besides continuing to make sure you dedicate time to this, are there certain types of work you now want to avoid? Or types of personalities/situations that are especially triggering for you?

AJ: Yes, there are very clear boundaries in place for me at this point. I recently wrote about the concept of an “acceptable range of tolerance” in this substack post about knowing when to stop and take a break from work.

It’s a well-established concept in biology that states that life will either flourish or struggle depending on a collection of factors, such as temperature, and that life seeks the optimal conditions for thriving wherever possible. This same concept applies to people. There are ideal conditions in which the body and mind can thrive. And there are conditions in which both will suffer.

An important point is that the conditions that are ideal or suboptimal for me won’t necessarily be the same for everyone else. We’re all unique biologically, neurochemically, physiologically, and so on. As a result, the conditions we define for optimal performance must be custom-tailored to the individual.

I’ve learned that there are a few things that are essential for me at this stage in my life:

  1.           I won’t work for or with assholes. I’ve had enough experiences with bullying growing up to know that it creates a lot of internal emotional disharmony. And I still have work to do regarding my ability to set boundaries with authority figures in particular. I quickly fall outside of my range of tolerance when around aggressive people with sharp elbows.
  2.           I work less and make less money in exchange for a quieter, more balanced schedule. I will not allow myself to do more than 20–30hrs per week of work. That will force me to maintain plenty of time for self-care while also forcing me to work smarter rather than harder.
  3.           I must maintain a daily schedule of wellness activities. If I don’t, my nervous system quickly drops back into a default stage of alert agitation (this stems from having Complex PTSD). That involves exercise, hot sauna and cold shower/bath whenever possible, walks outside when the weather is great, waking up early and going to bed early, and making sure I have a clean diet and take my psychiatric medications. If I do, I’m much more resilient when I face adversity.
  4.           I also focus on “heart-centered” work instead of “head-centered” work. What I mean by that is I have a boundary around doing work that purely comes from an intellectual place. For example, much of the work I did earlier in my career was motivated by making money and gaining notoriety. That’s fulfilling to my ego but not my spirit. Now I’m focused on heart-centered work that satisfies my spirit — the inner voice that knows what is fulfilling for me. If I find myself falling back into old patterns of working on projects because of financial gain as the prime motivator, then I know I’m pursuing work from ego as opposed to work from a place of love and compassion.

HW: What are some resources that you’d recommend to folks who want to start thinking more about their mental health — like the 101 foundational stuff?

AJ: I have a complete list of my favorite mental health and spirituality content here. It’s a public Notion document that anyone can access.

In terms of foundational sources, I have a few recommendations:

  •           This interview with Dr Gabor Mate covers the relationship between childhood experiences and how we present ourselves to the world as adults. He is a true master of his craft and covers complex subjects with utmost clarity and compassion.
  •           The Body Keeps the Score is my favorite book on mental health and how to heal from trauma. It is comprehensive yet accessible. And it leans on a modern understanding of mental health in what is referred to as the biopsychosocial model. This book makes it clear that mental health isn’t simply a “chemical imbalance.”
  •           The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello is my favorite book on philosophical and spiritual perspectives on health and happiness. It contains a series of short, simple essays that you can read dozens of times and still find new meaning contained in them. I like to read this before I go to bed as a sort of brief meditation.
  •           Tribe by Sebastian Junger elegantly and simply covers our need for human connection and how loneliness sits at the center of why so many people are anxious and unhappy.
  •           How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan is the ultimate beginners guide to psychedelic medicines and how they can be used to help people heal and change in ways that betters their lives.

Thanks Andy! While each person’s challenges are unique, it’s really important to realize that everyone is dealing with their own shit, and you’re not alone in the journey.