The Curse of the 37-Year-Old Founder

"I'm at a point in my career and life where things are really stacking up — starting a family, buying a house, and of course this new startup. I feel like I'm working 10 jobs. Is there a point where this just starts to break? Because, I'm feeling something right now, and it's not good."

July 14th, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter

The year I turned 37, my heart stopped. Not figuratively, I mean it actually stopped beating.

We were in the early days of launching Startups.com, and I was at lunch with our team. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something just didn't feel right, so I told the team I was going to head home and lay down. As I was driving home, I called my wife and told her "I'm heading home, something feels off..."

And as I said those words, my heart stopped — while driving. My world went black.

For anyone that has had their heart stop, you can't ignore it because, well, you're sorta dead. In my case, I came to quickly, recovered the car, and drove the next few minutes home. As soon as I got home I phoned my co-workers (who were 5 minutes away) and asked them to come get me. I was lying on the floor of my living room staring at the ceiling wondering what was next.

Before I knew it, I was in the ER getting every test you could imagine. I had just become a father for the first time, and all I could think of was losing the family that I just created.


"You Have All Of The Problems"

After a couple of days of testing, it turned out my heart was just fine. What I experienced, the doctor told me, was a severe panic attack. After 18 years of running my body nonstop in true "startup hustle" fashion, it just gave up. All of those moments of ignoring the stress, of pushing down those emotions waaaay down, and forgoing my health all came to a head.

It turns out, it doesn't matter if we process those things, our bodies do it regardless, and yes, they have a threshold.

During my analysis, the doctor gave me a list of all the life events that can typically contribute to this type of reaction. They included things like a job change, marriage, new child, death in the family, chronic illness, move, etc. I checked almost every single box. He told me any one of them could put me here, but in true Founder fashion, I had to lead the pack by doing all of them.

It's (Not) Cool, Everyone Is Doing It

I walked out of the hospital thankful to be alive but also wondering how in nearly 20 years I hadn't heard a million Founders exclaim the same outcome. Maybe it was just me. So I asked a bunch of my Founder friends if they had ever experienced any of these symptoms or challenges.

Nearly every single Founder said "Oh yeah, all the time. I had my last panic attack last month!"

Here's something that was crippling all of my Founder friends and yet no one had ever mentioned it — ever. As I continued more conversations with more Founders, I realized that this topic was more pervasive and more painful than nearly any other challenge Founders were going through. It felt like a Twilight Zone moment.

37 Is So Unlucky

Now the next data point really threw me — consistently, nearly all of the Founders I spoke to had the same type of "final breakdown" at age 37. I had never mentioned how old I was when we talked about it, and some of these Founders were older than I was. At first, I thought it was just this bizarre coincidence, but as I unpacked this over the last 10 years, I realized it made total sense.

37 is typically when most major life events are happening all at once, from building a family to buying a home to being neck-deep in a startup. It's not that these issues don't occur earlier in life, it's that by 37 our bodies and minds are out of energy to absorb them. Of course, the same eruption can happen at any age, but I can count nearly two dozen cases of my own recollection where it specifically happened to Founders at 37.

But this isn't about the perils of being 37. This is a cautionary tale that we are, in fact, mortal. All of that anxiety manifests whether we want it to or not. All of those life events that we keep ignoring because we have to "press on" aren't being ignored by us. Our bodies and minds can and will run out of gas, and when that time comes, the cost is grave.

Ten years later I haven't had a panic attack. I've changed every habit that was killing my body and mind and learned that the success of my startup simply cannot come at the expense of my body. This shit is real friends, and if we don't get in front of it, we're in for a bad ending.

In Case You Missed It

Why No One Tells Founders "It's over, move on." (podcast) No one ever actually tells Founders it’s okay to quit. No one except other Founders, of course.

Retiring Early is a Broken Concept Retiring isn't really our end goal, so we shouldn't aspire to it. What we really want is to shape our life the way we want it to be.

When am I "too old" to launch a startup? When is it "too late" to start a startup? Is there a point where it's no longer feasible to assume the risk associated with starting a company?

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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