It happened on one of the many flights I took between Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Sydney. I had spent the past four years living and working in Cambodia, after starting a non-profit initiative, OIC Cambodia, from scratch.
As we entered a pocket of turbulence, my hand gripped the armrest. I’m not a nervous flyer, but as I looked down at my hand, I realised my knuckles were white. I took a deep breath, and a thought entered my mind.
What if the plane was to go down and I was to die? Would it make a difference to anyone?
Maybe, I reasoned, through my death, the work we’d pioneered would finally get the recognition it deserved. Maybe, in some twisted way, this was the best thing for everyone.
I’ve hesitated in telling this story numerous times, not only because it’s deeply personal, but also because it’s not a topic often discussed. That in a world that glorifies founders, changemakers and social entrepreneurs, moments of darkness are rarely mentioned. Nobody posts on LinkedIn to say they’re “thrilled to have had visions of their own death”.
But from speaking to friends and colleagues on similar journeys, I’ve realised that I’m far from alone. If one person reads this piece, or sees that asking for help is a sign of courage, not weakness, then it’s worth sharing.
A few months passed and dark thoughts would occasionally pop into my head, but I didn’t pay them much attention.
One evening before bed, I opened a book and read this quote from Khalil Gibran.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
And I began to understand. Beneath my morbid thoughts were feelings of isolation, sadness and anger. I cried.
I had started OIC Cambodia because a large proportion of Cambodia, over 600,000 people, needed access to speech therapy. And yet, there was not one single speech therapist in country. I set up OIC to combat this, and we’d steadily grown from a team of one, to a team of 10.
In the big scheme of things, OIC was thriving in an extremely difficult climate. We’d impacted the lives of thousands, and we’d created a unique strategy, including our own exit plan, despite minimal government or institutional support. After four years of leading the team, I had handed over leadership to a mostly local Cambodia team, and moved back to Australia to support from afar.
Despite the huge gains that we’d made, all I saw were inadequacies, and how much further we had to go.
I had fallen into the trap of scarcity.
Lynne Twist writes:
“Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to the reverie of lack.”
Scarcity had forced me to focus on the setbacks and disappointments. Gratitude is almost the opposite emotion to scarcity – and I’d lost sight of this.
But it wasn’t just my mindset that was the issue. It was the role I had forced myself into.
Through sheer necessity, I had become the strong one, the one who supported others. I cared for and nurtured our staff and volunteers, and helped to mentor those who one day could do the things that I did now. I’d chosen to carry the burden of the 600,000 lives we’re affecting, almost solely on my own shoulders.
Regardless of how strong, committed, or resilient I was, no-one can carry that burden alone.
I reached out to those who I supported, including staff, and explained that I needed help. As I spoke to family and friends, I gained more perspective. As Khalil Gibran so eloquently put, I was breaking the shell but also increasing my understanding.
I began talking more to other founders or those in similar situations. We shared ways of coping and promised to check in on each other. Interestingly, almost everyone I talked to was seeing, or had seen, a mental health professional at some point.
I started seeing a psychologist. I realised what I was feeling was to be expected.
An entrepreneurial mindset and a desire to do good in the world often combine to create hope in otherwise hopeless situations. There was no argument that the situation in Cambodia was dire – not one speech therapist, and a huge population suffering. Only an attitude of hope with a side dose of insanity could change this.
But this ignores a major fact – regardless of how good anyone is at their job, there are so many things beyond our control, even the entire survival of a whole organisation.
Letting go of control is counter to my entire inner dialogue:
“I’d given up four years of my life to get this off the ground! I’m not giving up now!”
However, I wasn’t giving up. If anything, I’d equipped myself better to tackle the huge challenges ahead. As the serenity prayer teaches us, I’d learnt how to differentiate what I could control with what I couldn’t.
I truly believe that a life spent serving others is the only kind of life worth living. That in choosing to do this kind of work, self-sacrifice is inevitable. But there’s a difference in giving my life for others, and giving up my life for others. And that’s a line that needs to be kept in clear sight.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a founder, work in a non-profit organisation, or care for your parent with a disability. Moving away from scarcity, seeking help as a sign of strength, not weakness, and focusing on what I could control – these are all crucial lessons I’ve learnt.
Don’t wait to talk to someone. There is always someone ready to listen.