Your demons don’t always win

How to continue functioning and producing great works despite depression

In this sixth article I’m writing on the topic of the rise of loneliness and depression as a societal malaise and proposing solutions for it, I highlight outstanding individuals who have lived through and triumphed over depression to achieve great successes in life, often to the bewilderment of their closest friends and kin who wonder, how do you do that with depressive disorder?

This is so we are aware that our demons don’t always win. We always have an upper hand when we take control of our situations, no matter how dark and bleak, and turn the light on them. These well known figures produced remarkable works in their lifetime, you could say, while driven to desperation by their demons, but more importantly, they each mustered tremendous will to take rein of the cart in which their demons rode on and drove it up a mountain of victory instead of into the valley of despondence.

Functional depressives

I have supportive and loving friends, family, meaningful work and engaging hobbies. I have a good appetite and sleep through the night, albeit with a few pee breaks and the occasional need for melatonin gummies. While there are periods I exist in a miasma of sadness, more commonly my daily experience is a slight impairment of an ability to fully enjoy life. There is an ever-present emotional chalkboard scrape reminding me that to live means to co-exist with knowledge of human and animal suffering that I cannot prevent. Which is why I won’t leave home without my daily antidepressant. (I’ve been taking medication for more than a decade.)

My situation is far from rare.  Over 6.7% of adults in the United States - 16.2 million! - endure at least one major depressive episode annually.  My brand of misery - dysthymia, known as chronic low-level depression, occurs in 1.5% of adults in the United States annually.

Isaac Newton

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Newton needs little introduction. Known as the Father of Gravity for discovering gravity when he sat under a tree to read and an apple fell on him, Newton was deeply insecure, struggled with low self esteem, and given to fits of depression and outbursts of violent tempers. In fact, he was such a difficult man to be around he developed little if any close friendships and relationships. Despite his imperfections, Newton is widely recognized for his mathematical and scientific works and hailed as one of the world’s foremost thinkers.

Antoni Gaudi

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Gaudi was a man given to extremism. He loved deeply, could not win the heart of the love of his life, turned introverted and religious, practiced Catholicism, and once, in observance of a strict food fast, went so far it almost threatened his life. Gaudi’s deep commitment to his Catholic faith inspired and motivated some of his most spectacular works, including the Sagrada Familia, an unfinished yet magnificent cathedral in the heart of Barcelona. Gaudi’s obsessive dedication to his work reduced his social life to an absolute minimum and this isolation worsened when his father died, upon which he fell into a deep depression.

Winston Churchill

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Churchill’s severe recurrent depressive episodes heightened his ability to be realistic about the threats that Germany posed. There is no doubt that Churchill had severe periods of depression; he was open about it - calling it his 'Black Dog.' Apparently his most severe period was in 1910, when he was, at about age thirty-five, home secretary. He later told his doctor, 'For two or three years the light faded from the picture. I did my work. I sat in the House of Commons, but black depression settled on me.'

Mania enhances creativity and resilience to trauma, while depression increases realism and empathy.

Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th president of the United States. He was well known for his preservation of the Union, abolishing slavery, strengthening the federal government, and modernizing the U.S. economy.

According to friends of Lincoln, he was “the most depressed person they’ve ever seen” and it seemed that depression ran in his family.

Three elements of Lincoln's history -the deep, pervasive sadness of his mother, the strange spells of his father, and the striking presence of mental illness in the family of his uncle and cousins - suggest the likelihood of a biological predisposition toward depression.

Depression among creatives

A 2014 report published in the Guardian found that painters, musicians, writers, and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants (for depression) than professions the scientists judged to be less creative, among which were farmers, manual laborers, and salespeople.”

Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik said, “To be creative, you have to think differently. And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane.”

In his 2012 article in Psychology Today, Neel Burton references a 1970 study by Nancy Andreasen. “A creative person may be different from other people in that he is more open to experience, exploratory risk-taking, and tolerant of ambiguity. Such traits make him see and feel and understand more, but they also make him hurt more easily and so more prone to experience suffering and dark moods.”

Creativity is fueled by the demons that artists wrestle in their darkest hours.

“A creative person experiences the order and structure that others find comforting as inhibiting and even suffocating... he feels the need to escape into a richer and more nuanced ‘borderless grey.’ The freedom that he finds in this limbo enables him to enter into periods of intense concentration and focus akin to a trance or hypomanic episode. Such periods are characterized by heightened consciousness, frenzied activity, and intense productivity and are the hallmark of the creative process.

Creative people are prone to mood disorder because in order to “play creative”, they are often given to the “flow state” – extended bursts of activity, disregarding the need for sleep or food, absorption or attentional wandering, rapidly flowing thoughts – characteristics which are also associated with bipolar disorder.


Tim Ferriss

Serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, investor, podcaster and author of several New York Times best selling books including the 4-Hour Workweek, the 4-Hour Body and the 4-Hour Chef, as well as Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss is well known within the business, entrepreneurial and fitness world as a high achiever and goal-getter. Simply look at the titles of his books and you could tell the kind of person he’s made up of.

Once a secret he kept for fear of being judged, Tim Ferriss has since shared openly about his struggles - he once seriously attempted suicide (and by serous I mean he planned a step-by-step detail of how he would execute it).

He failed his senior thesis in Princeton, a relationship with a long time girlfriend ended, his failing his thesis meant he wouldn’t be able to graduate with his fellow classmates, he had to rent a room away from campus, lived and worked in isolation on his thesis - the culmination of these events which he referred to as the “perfect storm”, catalyzed his suicide attempt.

A friend sobered him by telling him that suicide is like a terrorist job - it affects more than just the person/bomber - it affects everyone around - in the case of suicide, it affects your close and loved ones and family - the effect is more far-reaching than we realized.

Tim dropped the idea and never visited it again. But he continued to struggle with depression throughout his successful career as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He has extreme anxiety especially in large groups or speaking in front of huge crowds, which is what he does professionally, and even though his Ted Talk has been viewed over 5 million times.

Tim went on to develop a strategy to stave off depression which visits him from time to time like an old friend:

“My “perfect storm” was nothing permanent. But, of course, it’s far from the last storm I’ll face. There will be many more. The key is building fires where you can warm yourself as you wait for the tempest to pass. These fires - the routines, habits, relationships, and coping mechanisms you build - help you to look at the rain and see fertilizer instead of a flood. If you want the lushest green of life (and you do), the gray is part of the natural cycle.”

While acknowledging that depression (“the gray”) is part of the natural cycle of life for him, he has come to realized that constantly getting himself active and making someone else’s day instead of his own help to lift his spirits:

“Go to the gym and move for at least 30 minutes. For me, this is 80% of the battle.”

“If you can’t seem to make yourself happy, do little things to make other people happy. This is a very effective magic trick. Focus on others instead of yourself. Buy coffee for the person behind you in line (I do this a lot), compliment a stranger, volunteer at a soup kitchen, etc. The little things have a big emotional payback, and guess what? Chances are, at least one person you make smile is on the front lines with you, quietly battling something nearly identical.”

The individuals mentioned in this post are names most of us recognize - the Father of gravity, the most famous architect in Spain, the Prime Minister of Britain who led England to victory against the Nazis in WWII, the President who abolished slavery in America and delivered a stirring address to rally the troops at the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as one of the foremost entrepreneur, investor, podcaster, author and motivational speaker.

Despite their lifelong struggles with depression, these individuals “build fires” - routines, habits, relationships, and coping mechanisms - so they could continue to produce outstanding, historical and life-altering works.