Silicon Valley told itself a good story, the best one, really: It was saving the world. For nearly a decade, this gave the modern tech worker purpose, optimism and self-confidence.
Then came the bad headlines, followed by worse headlines — about the industry, about the country, about the world. In search of reassurance, tech workers commandeered the old hippie retreat Esalen, co-opted Burning Man, got interested in psychedelics and meditation. It wasn’t enough.
Now, across Silicon Valley, anxious tech workers are finally admitting they have a problem. And they are going to therapy.
“The questions that are percolating in the national consciousness are making tech work not as glamorous or as noble as it was,” said Meredith Whittaker, a Google researcher who resigned in June, in part to protest the company’s military contracts and its ethics around artificial intelligence. “There’s a lot of anxiety. How could you not have that? Tech companies are fueling some of the most egregious human-rights abuses.”
Silicon Valley is approaching its anxiety the way it knows best. So now there is on-demand therapy. Therapy metrics. Therapy R.O.I. Matching therapists with clients using the tools of online dating.
Even therapy start-ups offering the familiar elements of care — talking with a licensed person in an office, surrounded by succulents — emphasize streamlined paperwork, a data-driven approach and happiness analysis. The cure for tech’s ills, they hope, is more tech.
“The best therapists get you better 10x faster than average ones,” promises one such start-up, Kip. “We took world-class providers, supercharged them (and you) with our smart software tools, and designed a seamless experience for both clients and providers.” Another recent venture, Reflect, calls therapy “the gym for your soul.”
The language the companies use is aggressive for something quiet and personal like therapy. But in the Bay Area, founders see little virtue in applying a measured response to a market opportunity.
“What we’re out to build is a new mental health system,” said Alex Katz, the founder of Two Chairs, a therapy start-up that has six clinics in the Bay Area. The company raised $21 million in August.
Traditional therapists scribble notes and review them later, possibly with a mug of chamomile. In the Kip system, notes quickly turn into data. Weeks of therapy are broken down with quizzes to determine exactly how happiness and anxiety levels are progressing, and how quickly.
Kip offers an app that encourages clients to record their moods in real time, prompted by questions that a therapist can choose to have pop up throughout the day. “That way they’re not subject to recency bias,” said Ti Zhao, the company’s founder.
The new data could provide insights that typical therapists would not come up with on their own. But there are risks. Elizabeth Kaziunas, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University, studies mental health tech and privacy. She noted that these apps gathered and organized data that you might not want gathered.
“There’s no guarantee or legal protections built in,” Ms. Kaziunas told me. “This mental health data could be bought or sold.”
For example, an anxiety diagnosis could raise my life insurance rates, she said, adding something new for me to be anxious about. “It’s kind of scary, isn’t it?” she said. “Like when you think about it?”
Recently, I downloaded Stoic, a new mental health tracker app. It promised that after a few days of logging my moods, I would get “charts and insights.” I did a fear-setting exercise, based on a TED Talk by the life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss. The app asked me to pick a fear (the oceans rise and create an uninhabitable world for my unborn children), then imagine the worst that can happen (we all die) and decide what I can do to prevent it (nothing) and repair it (again, guys, I’m dead). I closed the app.
‘He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior’
Those funding the therapy start-ups see an entire cohort of tech employees who long ago fused their sense of self-worth to their work, and who are emotionally adrift now that the industry is under assault.
“It’s one thing to be grinding for a big tech company that you believe in, but once you start questioning that company’s motivations, that can make the eight hours a day that you work not feel as fulfilling,” said Michael Seibel, the chief executive of Y Combinator, the start-up investment fund and adviser.
Others feel anxiety or even despair about the environment, democracy, or just the everyday crucibles of work and status-mongering.
“In Silicon Valley,” Mr. Seibel added, “we did not talk this much about mental health even three years ago.” He estimates that more than 50 related start-ups are coming onto the scene. His firm just funded three: Stoic; Quirk, an app that uses cognitive behavioral therapy to treat people with anxiety and depression; and Mindset Health, which creates hypnotherapy apps that it says can treat anxiety, depression and irritable bowel syndrome.
Mindset Health was founded by two brothers, Alex and Chris Naoumidis, who previously created a peer-to-peer dress-sharing app for women. When that app failed, the brothers felt overcome with anxiety.
“We fell into this period of mental health problems,” said Alex Naoumidis, 24.
The brothers tried some of the existing wellness apps — meditation products, mindfulness tools — but remained unmoored. Their father suggested in-person hypnotherapy. It gave them the idea for Mindset.
I downloaded their app ($64 for an annual membership), clicked into the Calm Down section and started a session called Change as a Process. As a first step, the app suggested that I text a friend or tweet to the public the quote “He who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.” For the next 19 minutes, a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.
I did another module, Increase Productivity, which is voiced by a peppy younger man — a start-up bro right in my ear asking me to repeat after him: “I give myself permission to know what I want to be and what I want to do and do it efficiently.”
Somewhat more motivated, I contacted a bunch of the San Francisco area’s traditional therapists and life coaches to ask if anything was changing among their clients. Several told me that a couple of years ago, clients were coming in mostly because of personal issues, but that now they were reporting anxiety about global trends, like climate change and the rise of dictatorships.
In response, some old-line therapists are shifting toward the new market.
“I have seen an increase of people in tech feeling more hopeless. They often say, ‘I don’t know if my job is helping anybody,’” said Krista Regedanz, a psychologist in Palo Alto. “People who want to change the world and have good energy around it — I’m seeing a lot of them come in saying: ‘I don’t know. Does it matter?’”
Last year, May Bartlett, a life coach, started Global Impact Coaching to answer questions about how one’s work might be helping or hurting the world.
“They come in and say, ‘I feel like I’m floating in this vast universe, alone, with no purpose,’” Ms. Bartlett said. “And there’s a lot of this existential dread.”
She designed the program for clients who feel overwhelmed by the news. They wake up to push alerts about obscene actions at the border followed by alerts about species that are dying off, then alerts about people being denied the vote. They are unsure whether they need to quit their jobs.
“One of the most detrimental things is knowing all this information and not knowing what to do about it and feeling helpless,” Ms. Bartlett said. “It’s hard to feel good every day when things seem to be getting worse.”
The fire hose of information about the world is constantly demanding empathy. Ms. Bartlett said she often had her clients think about themselves and their work or mistakes in “the vastness of history.”
“Yes, stuff is hitting the fan right now, and the world is terrible, but if you look at it through 13 billion years, you see: O.K., this is a tiny blip,” she said. “There have been other times of chaos and destruction.”
‘I deleted all the news off my phone’
The tipping point for my own bleak terror began when — I know it’s dumb but — Bitcoin fell. That was the last great fun we all had, and it turned out to be a bust almost beyond measure. The days of goofiness were done, I felt. The news alerts were getting to be a lot. I had, as they say, feelings of powerlessness.
And I had no idea, really, how to find a therapist. The last one I saw I had discovered by searching on Yelp: “best therapist + gay + five stars.” So who am I to judge efforts at smarter matching than that? When I started to notice the raft of therapy start-ups, it struck me as a reasonably healthy trend.
As Allie Stark, a wellness coach in the region, said: “There’s a beauty in existentialism. It’s also very paralyzing.”
Tech workers are starting to be more open about mental health in their own industry. Justin Kan, the chief executive of Atrium, a law-tech company, has been vocal over the last year about his personal struggles and the pleasures of therapy. He found he felt better when he stopped getting so much new information.
“Something that helped me was I deleted all the news off my phone,” Mr. Kan said. “I don’t have the stock market app or Twitter anymore. And that did improve my mood.”
This being San Francisco, there is a longstanding local group for existentialism. The Existential-Humanistic Institute, founded in 1997, is a collective of therapists and philosophers who have been puttering along in mostly quiet private practice for years, working with clients who are struggling not only with relatively ordinary issues but with their very purpose on earth. Interest in their approach appeared to spike along with the rise of Donald J. Trump.
In June, their movement published a textbook: “The Wiley World Handbook of Existential Therapy,” with esoteric chapters on theory but also more practical sections on how to find meaning. “It’s a big revival,” said the organization’s leader, Kirk Schneider.
Dr. Schneider, 63, cited technology itself as one reason for ambient emotional chaos. But he said clients were also suffering from broader social forces — a fear that inequality will lead to violent uprisings, a panic over global authoritarianism, a sense that they are not contributing to the common good.
“The goal is to move from a sense of abject terror and paralysis,” Dr. Schneider said, “to a gradual sense of intrigue and eventual wonder.”
New clients want help unplugging. Amy Eliza Wong, an executive and life coach in San Francisco who sees a steady stream of tech workers, said most of them came to her wanting to tune out despair-inducing headlines and to get back to the business of crushing it.
“There’s a feeling of ‘Let me just turn it off,’” Ms. Wong said. “‘I don’t need this white noise. It’s not helping.’”
The tech positivity movement stirs
This is not to say, of course, that the entire region is mentally imploding. San Franciscans still go to work and read the news. The big tech companies are still attracting eager job applicants. Google is not disbanding because everyone has gone to learn the cello.
There is even a countermovement pushing back on too much self-reflection and news-driven self-flagellation. Its leaders argue that the old optimism worked just fine and that Silicon Valley must march forward.
Followers can be found rallying tightly behind the militant sunniness of venture capitalist Twitter. There, the old fathers of the industry send out a constant stream of start-up bromides. This is the tech positivity movement.
“Optimism, ambition, and recruiting. Will this recipe work for your start-up too?” Paul Graham, a co-founder of Y Combinator, wrote on Twitter last month, in a typical missive. “Yes.”
“Founder-mentality means not caring who gets the credit,” Naval Ravikant, a co-founder of AngelList, tweeted this month. The koan has basically nothing to do with my life, but I found myself nodding.
Still, I was curious what start-up therapy really looked like, and I signed up for a session with Kip. The app prompted me to take something called a DASS-21 before my session. The first question: How often have I found it hard to wind down this week? (“A considerable degree.”)
When I got to the office of Anja Schmitz, one of the Kip therapists, it was completely normal. There was a sofa, a chair and a sandy Zen garden with rakes.
Afterward, before I was even out of the building, I got an in-app assignment — a self-assessment to do during a period of anxiety.
I headed to catch the train home. The station had been taken over by a promotional campaign for Twitter. Giant ads with blown-up tweets wrapped around every column, covered the walls, blanketed the floors. “Twitter is a mosaic of madness,” read one of the messages under my feet. Another: “Twitter is garbage and I am a raccoon.”
The crowd was the usual — extremely technical-looking laptop backpacks, a lost young man with a plastic bag leaking beer that a tunnel gust sprayed into my mouth, which had been agape. Almost everyone was staring at the walls. I tapped into the Kip app.
“Was the trigger internal (like a thought) or external (something happening around you) or both?”
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