Mental health and storytelling, professional and personal, with Nick Bowditch
Marketing speaks with Nick Bowditch about mental health issues in the workplace, understanding, and personal and brand storytelling.
The only person in the Asia-Pacific region to have ever worked in the marketing department of both Twitter and Facebook, Nick Bowditch now works as an investor and mentor in the world of start-ups. His personal struggle with mental illness has him played an active role in his approach to personal and brand storytelling.
Marketing spoke with Bowditch prior to his appearance at November’s Wired for Wonder event, where he’s running a workshop about storytelling, and delivering a keynote speech about how he deals with mental illness by viewing it as a gift in his professional and creative life, aiming to shift the focus on how we think about mental health issues.
Marketing: Is discourse around mental illness coming along fast enough, in your opinion?
Nick Bowditch: On the back of RUOK Day and Movember – big public health pushes – the issue has come miles and miles.
But there’s still – especially with blokes – a long, long way to go. Even for me. I’m pretty open about my stuff, and how my mind works and how I wish it would work. Even with that, sometimes I do feel a bit of dread talking about it or bringing it up to people. It’s a bit of an ‘un-Australian’ thing to make yourself vulnerable, to make yourself seem a bit weak. Especially as a bloke.
I know for a fact that the more we talk about it, the less scary it is. I know that every time I do talk about it, at an event or whatever, the huge amount of people who message me, or come up to me straight afterwards and say ‘that’s my story mate, you’ve just told my story’.
It’s good and bad. It’s bad that so many people have some sort of issue, some sort of struggle, but it’s good, I think, that the discourse has changed enough to where we can say it out loud, even to ourselves.
M: What’s the story you tell, in terms of turning the perception of it on its head?
NB: As someone who is entrepreneurial, someone from a start-up or small business background, a lot of the things that people tell you – or you tell yourself – about your mental illness being a downside can be perceived, and you can talk yourself into thinking it’s a good thing. For instance, I’m not very risk averse. That can be a downside. In terms of emerging businesses or new start-ups, especially new funded start-ups like that, people in those businesses tend to be very conservative. So, to have someone to advise them or invest in them who is not so risk averse, because of the nature of how they think, can actually push things along pretty well.
Also, I obsess about tiny little things way too much. That crazy obsessive thinking can actually uncover a lot of scaleable, minute observations and considerations in business that other people might gloss over, might not obsess about as much.
While there’s a perceptions that these things are defects, and not gifts, they will always be defects. Some of the time, these things I can see and I can implement in my life and my business as well as my personal life, as being an advantage to me over other people.
Part of my mental wellness – and lack of wellness sometimes – is I have depression, I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I live with addiction, and OCD is a big part of all of those things. That OCD, while it can be frustrating, and frustrating for other people around me as well, it can actually be really advantageous to what you’re trying to do, or what you’re trying to achieve, but you can also see stuff that other people might overlook.
Even the most negative of things can still be seen as positive. For instance, because of my depression I fatigue really easily. That means I get the rest I need. In this crazy start-up world that I live in, people almost wear it as a badge if they run themselves into the ground – how much they can work, things like that. I think we might have that a bit wrong.
The worst word in our world is ‘hustle’. It drives me fucking crazy that for some reason you’ve got to ignore everyone else in your life, ignore your family, ignore your own needs, for the sake of being able to post on Twitter that you’ve just done a 20 hour day.
There’s a lot of speakers in this space, and a lot of really famous people with big followings on social who just talk about how much they hustle, and if you’re not doing it, then you’re not trying hard enough. It’s a shame.
Also, with my depression, when it’s at its worst, my creativity is at its best.
I write things that are much more impactful, and much more real, I design things better, my sense of intuitive UX and UI is much better when I’m really low. And I can feel it too sometimes, where I just think ‘shit, I can’t do it again, I can’t do another day of this.’ Then I’ll think about things I have to get done and then I can get them done, because my mindset is different, it’s changed.
M: That’s interesting. There’s a concept of managing energy, and managing peaks and troughs in energy, that’s the same kind of thing in a few different dimensions, in regards to the cycles the brain goes through.
NB: Totally, when you’ve got that creative layer on top. I’m not a super creative person, but I do write much better when I’m not feeling great about myself or about the world. Even down to the point of not feeling pressure and not feeling nerves, because part of my brain is deadened a little bit because I’ve got other stuff that I’ve got going on, flowing around. The PTSD.
The gift of that for me is that I can speak at events like Wired for Wonder in front of 1000 people, or do a radio interview, or do an interview with Marketing mag, and I don’t feel consumed by the gravity of it. I just get it done.
Everybody struggles with something, and everybody’s great at something. If you let your mental health decide that for you, you’re always going to be behind the eight-ball.
Whether it’s mental wellness or mental illness that’s making that decision for you.
M: What’s your message to businesses in terms of managing staff? In corporate life, it’s something people would traditionally never bring up in the workplace. Is it a matter of opening that up, or is it just a matter of understanding differences?
NB: It’s understanding. It’s empathy. You would make a negative business decision if you ruled someone out as part of your recruiting process if they voice one of these things as being part of their life.
That said, it’s still a business risk, but everyone you employ is a business risk. You’re seeing the absolute best of someone when you interview them, more often than not.
It’s still a deeply personal thing, too. To even admit this stuff to yourself – as unfortunately it’s been stigmatised so much – is a really personal thing.
As an employer of ten people, you would absolutely being employing somebody out of those ten who has some sort of mental illness issue. Whether you know it or not.
Often it’s just disguised, or it’s presented as someone’s crazy OCD stuff. They have to have the coffee mug pointing this way, or they have to be in at a certain time, or they’re the ones that always service the photocopier, or whatever that craziness presents as.
To think that there’s no-one in the world like you is pretty shit. I feel like if more and more people talk about it, particularly in the workplace, it would normalise it, and we’d get on with it. That said, it’s still a very, very personal thing for a lot of people.
M: It’s not like you’re advocating managers to suddenly call everyone into their office to talk about their mental health. That wouldn’t go down well.
NB: No one wears a badge. You don’t know. You would never know, for a lot of people. A lot of those people would never know about it themselves.
M: I notice you’re still using the word crazy. Do you think language is important in terms of having a list of words to avoid, or is that not really the point?
NB: Not for me. I’m certainly not an authority on these things. Words have power. They’re hugely important. I talk about being ‘crazy’ because it’s just a nice simple way for me to say it out loud. Other people, that would be really offensive and really hurtful. I make a habit of trying really hard to speak in the ‘I’ as much as I can. I just talk about my stuff. My journey, my whatever, my craziness.
For other people, words like manic, or crazy, or depressed even, are misused a lot because of vernacular. I’m on both sides of your question. I absolutely believe that words have power, and words are very important. I also think that I speak as much as I can as telling my story. I’m not an expert in mental illness. I am an expert in my own mental illness, and that’s the only thing I can really talk about.
M: You’re speaking at Wired For Wonder about mental health and storytelling. Are the two linked?
NB: They’re not really linked. I’m the link. I’ve always been good at telling stories. As a brander and a marketer, you have to be. I have found that the more that I’ve looked into, studied and used stories professionally, it’s helped me a lot personally too.
A lot of the punters at Wired for Wonder aren’t going to be necessarily from business, it’s a festival of ideas. I can definitely say that when I got better at brand storytelling, I got much better at telling my own story. Even to myself. Being able to write things down own things, and not get lost in your own story when you write it, means you get to write the ending.
Otherwise that story owns you. I feel like the two are mixed, and the two are connected. Even if it’s just because I’m giving both. The better I’ve got at my professional work and my professional storytelling, much better and much easier my personal storytelling has become.
M: What are you up to these days professionally?
NB: I write a lot. I’ve just finished a book which will be out in a few weeks. It’s been an effort. It’s been awesome. It was punishing, writing it.
It’s now in the easy part where it’s in other people’s hands. That’s a big part of my life. I do a lot of speaking, both about mental health issues in entrepreneurism as well as storytelling and branding and marketing. I come from a background of having my own tech startups and then working at both Facebook and Twitter in marketing. That’s compelling for people to come and hear that.
It’s unique but won’t be forever, sooner or later I won’t be the only person to’ve worked in marketing at both brands, so I want to make that hay while the sun shines! I consult with and invest in start-ups and mentor people in the start-up world as well. And I’ve got four little kids, that takes up most of my time.
Nick Bowditch is speaking on mental health and running a workshop on storytelling at Commonwealth Bank’s Wired For Wonder event, an eye opening event in Sydney 15-16 November and Melbourne 17 November.