I Volunteered for This

I read an article in Inc. recently. It was called, ”The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship”. It said this, in part:

Many … entrepreneurs … harbor secret demons: Before they made it big, they struggled through moments of near-debilitating anxiety and despair — times when it seemed everything might crumble.

And it hit home.

I take every word of the article to be true. I accept every explanation and rationalization for every episode of depression it cites and every act of self-inflicted lethality it recounts. I relate to every effect. But I can’t help noting the article stops short of identifying the cause of the depression and lethality, of which entrepreneurship is only a convenient, superficial symptom.

I know depression quite well. I’m not happy about it. I’m not proud of it. And I’m very much okay now. But we need to do two things: (1) We need to stop calling everyone who starts a business an entrepreneur. (2) We need to acknowledge their agency in their own depression. I know that quite well, too.

I Quit

On my 50th birthday — January 30, 2004 — I resigned from my job at the advertising agency at which I’d been employed for four years. I did it to found O’Brien Communications Group. I was terrified. Driving home that evening, I received a call from my older sister. She’d called to wish me a happy birthday. During the conversation, she told me her husband had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was, I thought, a wake-up call.

My brother-in-law is a retired Naval officer, an Annapolis grad, completely squared away. I knew what he would do: He’d study his treatment options. He’d pick one. He’d find a place to get the treatment. He’d go there. He’d undergo the treatment. And he’d beat the cancer. That’s exactly what he did. His circumstances made me think about my own: “Really? He’s staring down the barrel of cancer. You quit your job. And you’re the one who’s terrified? Come on.”

The relief was only temporary.

Despite the fact that things went well for my new company from the outset, I sank into a deep depression. As always, I had a network of supportive people and generous spirits around me. I’d learned from experience that every time you reach out for help, your hand finds one to pull you up.

In this instance, there was one gentleman in particular who sowed the seeds of my recovery with words. He did it on two separate occasions. I have no idea if he realized the genius of his words. But I did. And I never forgot them.

On the first occasion, this exchange took place:

“Dude [he always called me Dude], do you remember being born?”

I said, “No.”

“Do you know why you don’t remember?”

I said, “No.”

“Because it hurt so damn much. That’s why. You just undertook a rebirth. Did you really think it wouldn’t hurt this time?”

On the second occasion, he said this, with slightly less patience than he’d had the first time, which actually made me pay better attention:

“Dude. Think about it. You just jumped out of an airplane. Even if your parachute opened, did you really think it wouldn’t hurt when you hit the ground?”

In his own way, he was reminding me that fear is another manifestation of pain to be endured and managed. Fear is another source of energy to be channeled and applied constructively. But despite the poetic power of his imagery, his beautiful analogies notwithstanding, the one word that carried the most weight, the one that saved me, is you.


His words made me the active agent of everything: You just undertook a rebirth. You just jumped out of an airplane. I did it. He wasn’t giving me credit. He was pointing out the fact that I created my own reality.

He was being the antithesis of the disclaimer at the end of every commercial for every new drug: “Nausea, dizziness, liver disease, kidney failure, heart attacks, skin lesions, fatal infections, ringing in the ears, bad breath, whooping cough, hyperactivity, extreme lethargy, heart attacks, hangnails, terminal hiccups, and excessive nose hairs have happened.” No, they haven’t. They didn’t just happen. Those are some of the possible consequences of the fact that you (or someone else) took that shit!

His words were also liberating. They made me go back outside the door, check my ego as I should have done at the outset, and walk back in. They made me realize — if I didn’t do anything irretrievably, self-destructively, egotistically stupid (this is why I will always contend Frankenstein should be required reading) — I wouldn’t have to live with a noxious monster of my own making.

He made me realize if I were the agent of the first step, regardless of the unexpected pain it caused, I could be the agent of the second step and the third and every one thereafter. And he made me understand callings don’t just happen any more than drug reactions just happen. But callings are not free.

In the words of Harry Crews:

The little that I have learned about the world, and, more important, that I have learned about myself, has been absurdly expensive, but I have always thought it more than worth the price. There is no other way. The miracle of the world, the miracle of a rebirth of the senses, the miracle of an accepting heart can only be paid for with blood and bone. No other currency is acceptable.

The Big Question

The open question at the end of all this might be: Why did I do it — why did I face the fear and risk the depression and anxiety I endured? There are two answers. The first is, as Grandma O’Brien loved to say, “There’s no sense being Irish if you can’t be thick.” And my skull is so thick as to be damn-near impenetrable.

The second answer is straight and not at all facetious: The only thing I was more afraid of than starting my own business at the ripe young age of 50 was the prospect of not starting my own business at 50 … then having to wake up at 60 to ask myself, “What if …?” Fear wasn’t a good enough reason not to do it.

Founding my own business did not, does not, make me an entrepreneur. It doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It only makes me a person determined to find his own way and to survive by his own wits.

The day the business opened — March 1, 2004 —  there was no one standing beside me with a bazooka to my head. Nobody made me do anything. Nothing just happened. There was more fear and pain involved than I’d bargained for. Maybe I should have seen it coming. But I caused it. I created it. I was the agent of my own fear and pain. Since that’s true, I’m not one for whom anyone should have felt bad or sorry.

I volunteered for this. And I’m enduringly grateful I did.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Mark, this article is fabulous! I love your writing style and the candidness with which you write. Anytime there is change, or we leave something familiar for something new, there is bound to be fear. It is part of the risk associated with leaving our comfort zone. When I walked away from a job I was at for 16 years, it brought with it a dose of the things you talk about in this article. But, what it also brought with it was freedom. It was liberating to walk toward something and to walk through the fear that kept me stifled for too long.

    It seems despite the anxiety and depression, however, that you’ve navigated to a positive space. Thank you for sharing your experience. Well done.

    • Thank you, Laura. It’s a singular revelation to find the path to our liberation goes through our greatest fears. As I discovered on the other side of depression, there are no bogeymen.

      I’m grateful for your comments. And I congratulate you on you self-liberation.

  2. Mark O’Brien, I read this piece carefully and it took me right back to when I stepped out and went on my own. I was excited and terrified and uncertain and determined. It was strangely satisfying to land on what I couldn’t completely articulate but you could here:

    “The only thing I was more afraid of than starting my own business at the ripe young age of 50 was the prospect of not starting my own business at 50 … then having to wake up at 60 to ask myself, “What if …?” Fear wasn’t a good enough reason not to do it.”

    Thank you for sharing and welcome to a rich community of thought leaders!

    • Thank you, Melissa. And the universe, of course, was sending all kind of signs my way, of which the call from my sister was just one.

      My inclusion in this community may be yet another sign, an indication that what I learned in starting my business — that we’re never alone and don’t have to be — is more true than I even realized.

      Thank you for being a part of such a warm welcoming. I’m sincerely grateful to you.

  3. Welcome Mark! I must say, I like the sounds of your wise friend in your journey. Your story makes so much sense to me from your emotional ride and to where you are sitting today. I am glad you took one step, the next step and then the next. I struggle with that in myself all the time. You were honest, candid and so real with all of us and I do thank you for showing up here being raw. I so get so many of your revelations that you shared and wish you the best with your company and to you owning each aspect of your experience.

    • Thank you, Maureen. I’m so grateful to hear from you and for your thoughtful comments. One of the most valuable lessons that’s managed to penetrate my thick Irish noggin is that none of us is alone. We’re all in this together. Your thoughtfulness is yet more proof of that.

      If you struggle with the next step — any step — reach out. There are more hands ready to help than you might ever imagine. I’m proof of that. And in just a few hours, I have the very distinct sense this entire community is full of people eager to help each other.

      I look forward to sharing more thoughts with you. And I’m grateful to you for sharing these.

    • A very kind reply, Mark – thank you so very much. You sense right – this is a warm and caring community. You made my evening and I will keep what you said in mind.

    • Len, thank you. I’ve been in this community for only a few hours and, thanks to the kindness of you and others, it does feel like a family already. And it positively is a wonderful forum of thoughtful leadership.

      I’m humbled by being part of this group. And I’m as grateful as I can be.

      Thank you so much for you thoughtful note.

    • Mark – That is what is wonderful about this group – you will make wonderful friends who will always be willing to encourage and help when necessary. Again, welcome.

  4. Mark, I enjoyed reading your article. Years back I started my own business as well. More business was lost than there was money earned. The only thing that saved was since I was working at home I had no extra expenses. My reason for starting this business was I got tired of giving up 50% of my income just for a desk, phone, computer and a couple of job boards to post my job orders on. It is a good feeling to be your own boss except when there is no money coming in. At no point did I think I was great but I knew I was (am) a darn good recruiter. Depression and anxiety have been a part of me for years now. Worrying about how the bills were getting paid or where the money for food there would be. People come up with titles or names which who knows what they are supposed to mean. I do what I have to do so call it whatever you like. For all of my sweat, anxiety, depression that is added on. When I cash the check my depression, anxiety are focused elsewhere.

    • Joel, I’m so grateful to you and others in this community for your openness, for your willingness to share your stories. If more people did this, I truly believe there’d be less depression and anxiety in the world. We’d realize there’s noting uncommon. And we’d know we’re all in this together.

      I’m so happy to be in this community with you.

      Thank you.

    • Mark, thank you for your extremely kind reply. I know there is a stigma that gets attached to sufferers of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. You are further stigmatized when you reveal you take medications for these conditions that were prescribed by a psychiatrist. Yes, these are a form of “mental illness” but the vast majority of us are not sick, crazy along with the other misguided opinions people have. Metting somebody like you is worth more than any amount of money can buy

  5. Mark, you didn’t share the ‘trigger’, the event that prompted you to jump into the unknown, to travel down the road unknown, pretty much alone, relying entirely on your own wits. At 38, on 1July, 1990, I took that same jump.
    I quit Clemenger BBDO and started my consultancy – not an agency because, like you, I charged everything nett. Not an agency, because our focus was to solve client’s problems and exploit their opportunities – not push them into media advertising which invariably is at most, a minor part of their best strategic way forward.
    I knew it was going to be a hard road. I started with not one client, a wife and 2 children, aged 7 and 4. But for me, the worry centred on one unknown absolute certainty. How much money would I burn, before we got in the black? But I didn’t see it as being a risk of success or failure.
    Why did I jump? Because the pain of continuing in a business in which I was going to have less control with a business model I knew was fundamentally flawed, would ultimately prove more painful than whatever pain travelling my own road my own way would take me.
    After 20 years of continuous profitable business, I commenced winding the business back to being a one man band in 2013 when one of my clients of 19 years, closed their Australian plant, focusing on their US operations, and allowing me to move my life to follow my interests here.
    Making the jump, was one of the best decisions of my life – from that point in my life, my big life decisions were the right ones; albeit not necessarily well executed.
    What was your trigger Mark?

    • Phil, that’s such a good question. The answer is multi-faceted: I knew I was never suited for the corporate life in which I’d toiled for 12 years or so. In 1998, I went to work in a small public relations agency. I felt stifled creatively because the agency allowed so little room for imagination. In 2000, I was offered a position in a larger advertising and public relations agency. I felt stifled there because there was little opportunity to contribute outside of my pigeonhole. In both agencies, I watched the owners breed distrust and foster short client relationships with business models that always charged more than the clients expected to pay and precluded the agencies’ abilities to engender trust. So, I jumped.

      My turning point was reading The E-Myth revisited. The author, Michael Gerber, divides the founders of small businesses into two camps: entrepreneurs and tacticians. He contends most businesses aren’t started by entrepreneurs. Rather, they’re started by tacticians who experience what he calls the entrepreneurial spasm “Hey! I can do that!” or “Hey! I can do that better!” As a result, the create new places IN which to work, instead of creating new businesses ON which to work. That changed everything.

      I realized then I’d jumped for the chance to do all the creative work I’d felt frustrated at having been unable to do. The bigger realization was that I really loved the larger, strategic problem-solving challenges. The creative gave me a kick. The problem-solving gave me a reason to get up in the morning and to work on my business, as well as the businesses of my clients.

      Thank you for this exchange of stories, Phil. I’m grateful to you for sharing yours. And I look forward to many more such exchanges.

  6. First of all, welcome to BC360, Mark! You’ll find amazing support here from loads of others, and your article will show that.

    I never called myself an entrepreneur; I just sort of followed one step at a time towards an unknown goal — which I still haven’t reached. That, plus how I’m wired, likely saved me from some anguish; I was just movin’ along, following a path with twists and turns that brought me here today, wherever here is, exactly.

    But I can sure see how some labels can hurt, and not knowing how to make that goal a reality can weigh anyone down! Looks like you have what it takes to succeed, so again — welcome to an amazing group of people!

    • Thank you, Susan. Given how many people I know who think highly of you, I’m delighted to be in the company of you and so many wonderful others. I’m with you on not knowing where here is exactly. A better way for me to put it is that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And I have no intention of growing up because there’s no future in it.

      I’m grateful for your welcome. I’m grateful to be here with you and so many others. I look forward to learning from all of you.

    • Thank you, Sarah. I dare say the journey might have been slightly less anxious if I’d know I’d encounter encouraging souls and generous spirits like you along the way. But we got through the tough part. And we did find kindred spirits. I feel better about the world just knowing you’re out there.

    • Ken, I’d have bet anything I replied to your comment earlier. But it’s not a risk I want to run.

      Thank you for your note. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And thank you for reaching out to me as a new member of this extraordinary community.