Slow down and focus on you

How I’ve leveraged my bipolar 2 for success as a CEO

5 strategies to manage your mental health and perform at work
How I’ve leveraged my bipolar 2 for success as a CEO
Image: Black Salmon (Shutterstock)
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Chris Federspiel is CEO and co-founder at Blackthorn Payments. He also co-founded Plative as a Salesforce Systems Integrator (SI), followed by Brainiac.

I started Blackthorn in 2015, and if I’ve learned anything over the past seven years, nothing stays the same—which can keep things both fun (new projects) and depressing (loss of some responsibilities I enjoyed in favor of scaling), often at the same time. Always in the background—and sometimes foreground—of my journey as an entrepreneur and CEO is living with bipolar 2.

While I manage my bipolar with medication and 4x/week therapy (myself, men’s group, couples group, and with my wife), I still experience cycles of crests and troughs. The trick is avoiding extremes. My disorder has required me to modify and change my approach to a few things, including my evolving CEO role.

How bipolar impacts my work

Unlike bipolar 1, where people experience episodes in a more exaggerated state, people with bipolar 2’s moods don’t generally experience spending all of their money in one day or ending up in hospitals from suicide attempts. At work, my patience and filter were thin when communicating with teammates, especially those I’ve worked with for a long time. My colleagues saw me at my worst—unwilling to be patient, agitated, short, quick to anger, and jumping over people’s roles. While this has improved over the years, I still work on it daily.

When I’m in a low or a high, I:

  • Shift rapidly from one idea to the next
  • Experience increased energy and hyperactivity
  • Find myself increasingly negative, edgy, and short on patience regardless of the scenario
  • Lack my usual filter, which tends to have the worst impact on asynchronous, rapid communications like Slack or SMS

There’s a hidden benefit to my ongoing battle with self-control, racing thoughts, and a tendency to over-commit. I can mentally manage many initiatives—but at the expense of poor memory, lack of depth, and sometimes ego depletion. Because I’m driven to take on more initiatives, add more features, hire more people, and push our product to more sales channels, it also overloads my teams and me.

Hiring to manage bipolar 2 traits

In building my company, I’ve had to increase my self-awareness and knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses, applying my strengths. How does this translate to successfully running a company? Knowing my strengths and weaknesses and hiring the right people to enhance my impact complement and assist.

A few years ago, I realized I had to update my hiring strategy. My existing team told me we needed more processes and needed to slow down a bit. So we hired people with at least 10 years of experience for various leadership roles. Our new team took a linear approach to help Blackthorn grow via defined processes and scale, quality assurance functions, and defined roadmaps.

5 strategies to manage your mental health and perform at work

Personality traits embodied by bp2 and entrepreneurs often overlap, so the trick is embracing your strengths and weaknesses to avoid burnout, sleep deprivation, and other health issues. I look at my disorder not as a handicap but as a boost.

I manage my company similarly to how I manage my life. I’ve recognized the importance of identifying triggers that could lead to emotional cycling and the value of support systems.

Here are a few other strategies I’ve used to operate with stability in my role as CEO:

1. Hire people to build systems. I value systems not because I love them but because others do, and you can’t scale without them. Routines bring order and eliminate chaos. Systems don’t stifle creativity, as many people fear. They do the exact opposite. They provide space to be creative.

2. Seek creative outlets. Finding creative endeavors can help move through procrastination and increase solutioning. I read science fiction and hope to one day write the book I’ve been outlining, I paint, and I play the drums. That passion carries into the business.

Painted my first painting since high school
Photo: Chris Federspiel

3. Make time to get moving. I exercise consistently for triathlons. Fatiguing the body without overdoing it helps me feel great, but there’s a fine balance between endorphin overload with injuries and doing too little. Finding my sweet spot means I can spend time moving daily.

4. Listen to your body and know what it needs. For me, that includes refraining from alcohol or doing recreational drugs. I started by doing only 1-2 drinks when I would go out, then down to one, then zero. Now I’m a mocktail guy!

5. Prioritize sleep. I’ve learned that getting enough sleep reduces future manic episodes. I go to bed at 9:45 each night (including weekends) because a consistent sleep schedule helps me function and keep up with the demands of my job.

An article from Syracuse University’s Entrepreneurship and Mental Health workshop identified perseverance as a characteristic common to entrepreneurs—and those with bp2. It’s certainly been the case on my journey that is Blackthorn: from flirting with bankruptcy in 2018 to scaling from just a handful to 100 employees, it’s that stick-to-it-ness that’s kept me driving my company (and pushing myself) to grow.

I’m still adapting to my role as it evolves to meet our growing company’s needs. Which includes setting quarterly and annual goals for the team and then getting out of everyone’s way—letting go of control, trusting them, and not micro-managing. In the meantime, I’ve turned my attention to brand building, including content writing, podcast appearances, and event speaking. But, overall, I’m excited to see what the future holds.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, in the US you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24/7, for confidential support at 1-800-273-8255. For hotlines in other countries, click here.