Building a Company While Battling Depression

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Most of us put on happy faces at work. We project a positive attitude even when we’re sad. We act confident to mask our imposter syndrome. We pretend we’ve got it all together, even when things are falling apart. Sometimes that can be okay in a fake it until you make it kind of way, but too much faking can take a toll, and in a world where we’re increasingly encouraged to be open and honest and bring our authentic selves to work, why shouldn’t we be talking more transparently about mental health? Why is there such a stigma around these issues?

Today’s guest is here to talk about her own struggle with depression, which she managed while raising six kids and building a $500 million toy company focused on bringing more joy into the world. She’ll explain how she finally found the courage to talk publicly about it and what she’d like to see individuals and organizations do to protect and promote mental health.

Melissa Bernstein is co-founder along with her husband, Doug, of Melissa & Doug. She recently launched a new initiative called LifeLines, and released a memoir called LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey From Profound Darkness To Radiant Light. Melissa, thank you so much for coming on the show.

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Thank you for having me, Alison. I’m so honored to be here.

ALISON BEARD: So we’re going to get into some dark topics today, but let’s start with the light and success that is your toy company, Melissa & Doug. How did this company come to be?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: That’s such a fun story. Doug and I always say, actually he says, because he’s the funnier one, “We conceived a company out of wedlock,” because we founded our company when we were just dating. We were actually 22 and 24, and right out of college we had followed the conventional path, because in those days, you didn’t up and start a toy company. I mean, that was unheard of. You didn’t start any company.

You basically studied something in college that would become your career, and you got on that treadmill and you rode that treadmill to the end of your life. And we believed that and we followed convention and started doing that. And pretty much about maybe just a few months into it, we both realized we didn’t know where our meaning was and we had a hard time getting out of bed and feeling like we were doing something worthy and that would touch the world in a way we want it to. So we decided we would go away for a weekend to a bed and breakfast and we wouldn’t leave until we decided what we were going to do that lit us up.

ALISON BEARD: Great. So you decided on the toy company and then how did it become a success?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Gosh, I mean, that took many, many years. We tried a number of different pathways that really were, I guess you’d call them failures, until we started to find our legs. And I think the first light we saw was when we had a brainstorm for something we called a Fuzzy Puzzle.

It was based on just a talk we were having while driving in the car about our favorite childhood toys. And we both said, “Huh, wouldn’t it be amazing if there could be a puzzle with texture?” And I think that was our first little bit of aha that we could take adult boring, lackluster category like puzzles, that had never been reinvigorated from the first designs that came out maybe 100 years prior, and that we could take that type of timeless category and inject some pizzazz into it.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and that was hugely successful. You went on to launch more wooden toys, do arts and crafts, make believe, et cetera, bringing all this joy to so many kids. Were you struggling with depression at this time?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I mean, I was born existentially depressed. So this wasn’t triggered. It is who I am, because of my overexcite abilities that enable me to create from the boundlessness of white space. My blurse, my blessing and my curse, is I have this highly over excitable personality, and I think one of the over excitabilities is intellectual. One is imagination, emotional. There are five of them, but those really give me my ability to create, but also make me really sad about the realities of life and our existence. And many have said that what I suffer from is actually not a pathological condition, it’s a philosophical condition, because they’re real questions, but that most of us hide our eyes from. So I couldn’t ever quite understand why everyone seemed to be denying the truth and the reality that I saw so clearly when it plagued me to such an extent.

So I always suffered from it, but what I did, it was so dark and threatened to submerge me for so many years, that the only way I’m still here and the only way I was able to survive was to repress and deny and disassociate from all the darkness and the demons in my head that told me life was futile and I should just end it, and really anchor to a facade that was, “Everything’s fine. Everything’s great,” and became this high achieving perfectionist that I rode right into middle age and denied even from myself that I was suffering from such despair.

ALISON BEARD: Now, we know that startups are particularly difficult for mental health, because it’s all nighters, it’s many ups and downs. Did you find that things got worse during that period that you and Doug were really building the beginnings of the company?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I think having Doug was the best thing ever, because I’m a cup half empty, he’s a cup half full, and I definitely couldn’t have done it alone. I mean, I was terrified of taking risks and failing when we started Melissa & Doug. And, of course, becoming a product designer cured me of that very quickly. But the fact that I had him I think made it so we were in it together, and actually, that part, interestingly, it wasn’t challenging at all.

And I think because I was such a soldier and thought through so much, I mean, fighting through existential nihilism, there’s nothing harder. It’s like you’re fighting through quicksand every single day. And I hid that from the world. So starting a company, to be honest with you, was actually easy compared to that.

And I think the years that we built Melissa & Doug and raised our children, in a sense, it sounds crazy, but they were the easiest years because I had so much going on in my life that I couldn’t think. And thinking for me is a very bad thing. My brain is a prison and it takes me down really quickly. When I have to do and put one foot in front of the other and make it happen, it really is somewhat comforting for me.

ALISON BEARD: Right. And you were so successful with that soldiering on mentality, the damping it down, just ignore it, just keep going. So when did you decide to drop that facade and be more honest about your mental health issues?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: So I don’t think I ever would have been if the cry of my own soul to be seen authentically didn’t get so loud I could not repress and deny it any longer. Because I was in such pain, I was resisting it with all my might and pain plus resistance equals suffering. And I was suffering to such a degree and so exhausted, I mean, when you denied everything you are and everything you feel and you hide it all from the world and adopt a facade, it is utterly exhausting.

I was hiding it from everybody. Because to admit it would have been to accept myself in totality, and I had never accepted myself for being this dark churning person that was rejected by conventional society my whole life. Any time I showed a shred of my despair or my curiosity or my hypersensitivities, people were like you are weird and I didn’t want to be weird, I wanted to fit in more than anything. My favorite toy as a child, we didn’t have a lot of funds for toys, but I had a Barbie and I wanted to look like Barbie, I believed you should look like Barbie. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to have Ken as my boyfriend. And I wanted to fit in. I couldn’t. No matter what I did, even when I tried to fake it, it felt so hollow.

I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, and it broke me in middle age because I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t do it any longer. And one day it was like the final straw, it sounds dramatic, but I truly cracked. And I realized that day that I can’t do this any longer, it sort of just hit me. A couple of dots, to be honest, had started to connect that made me see that I actually was afflicted with a condition called a name and I wasn’t alone, and actually others who were afflicted with the same condition were beautifully creative. And I started to see that may be my creativity had another side of it that left me with this sort of burdensome personality. And I started to see that the very thing that gave me the ability to create was the thing that I had tried to deny and depress and kill my entire life.

ALISON BEARD: So tell me about how you began sharing this with other people, your family, your coworkers, and then eventually the broader public of Melissa & Doug customers?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: So I had two dots connect that were really profound. The first that I mentioned that I suffered from existential despair and the second that I had what are called overexcitabilities, which is a heightened arousal of your central nervous system, which makes me feel more acutely 24/7 than some others, and it tends to show itself in highly creative people. And when I realized this, I knew I had to share it. And so I decided to come out, so to speak, three years ago on a podcast. It was a bunch of really deep soulful people that talked about their deepest, darkest secrets and I felt like that audience would be really receptive to my message.

It was a big delay between recording and airing, so I forgot that I had even done it. And I almost didn’t believe I had, because no one knew, including my family. And I only knew it aired, because I truly forgotten it aired, when I started getting letters. And I’m not talking one letter, I’m talking hundreds of the most soulful letters ever saying things like I’m sitting on the subway sobbing because you gave words to the ineffable in my life and you are talking about exactly what I’ve experienced. And after maybe receiving 50 letters, I knew that this is how I needed to spend the rest of my life. Because all the people who wrote me and I ended up having conversations with most of them and really talking about these stigmatizing qualities that they had never admitted or shown to the world. They said to me, Melissa, I feel so akin to you in what I’m feeling, but the difference is you found your channel out of darkness, I have not. Help me to find the light. And I knew that if someone who was in the darkest despair ever and carried around a bottle of pills for a year, wondering if she should end it, if I could find my way out, I knew I could help others do the same. So that was really when the genesis of Lifeline started.

ALISON BEARD: Tell me about the reaction within your company. You are this senior leader, the founder, the chief creative, who I’m sure everyone looks up to and probably assumes has the perfect life. So how did people react internally?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I think the reaction of the company mirrors the reaction of people in general, because, obviously, they’re just people, too. There’s such little discussion on how we respond to people who admit they have a mental health issue. There’s so much work done on grief and what you say when someone passes on to someone who’s suffering from that, but very little in mental health. I would say it goes one of three ways. Either people completely ignore it and you can tell they’re very uncomfortable, and even when I’m walking in town, they’ll look at me. They’ll look with horror, like, “Oh my gosh. It’s her. It’s the depressed lady.” I’ll see them put their eyes down and kind of run across the street.

The second, which I get a lot, is they’ll look uncomfortably at me, get the courage to come over, and then sort of pat me awkwardly and say, “I’m so sorry,” which I can laugh at now. But when people said that to me as a child, if I ever let it out, sorry means they pity you. When someone says they’re sorry, it means something’s wrong.

Then the third, which is the most beautiful reaction, is when someone comes over and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, Melissa. This is so incredible. I want you to know that I feel you. This is something I’ve struggled with. I want to become as courageous as you in doing this, and I am on your team. Whatever you want me to do, I’m here for you.” That’s when I smile, and that, I get emotional. I say, “Thank you.”

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. As a senior person in an organization, how do you move your employees, your team members to the latter reaction?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: It’s very simple. All we can do is show our own light, shine our light and show our vulnerability. I wrote a verse the other day, it’s: “I can navigate your journey, but can’t wear your backpack, too, for you wouldn’t learn the lessons that enable real breakthrough.” That’s what I’ve learned. All I can do is share my story and show my own vulnerability and show people. I think one of the greatest lessons I can show people is that this elusive pursuit of happiness we’re all striving to achieve that leaves us all feeling inadequate is a lie. There’s no such thing. Society sets these unattainable standards for us and then sort of laughs at us when we can’t attain them. Every single one of us goes through life feeling unworthy and incompetent, and it doesn’t discriminate. I felt the exact same way as the person who’s struggling on welfare.

We’re all the same when it comes to that, and I want to be the face of someone who says, “I wanted to have it all. I went for it all. I wanted to have a huge family. I wanted to have a $500 million business, and it’s not perfect by a long stretch. I have no balance, so don’t think there’s balance. I am definitely not happy all the time. I have lots of issues with everything in my life, but I’m still leading a really fulfilling life. Despite the fact that I have existential despair and I struggle many days, I’m really glad to be here. I’m really glad I tried to have it all, and I know now that being imperfect means it will not be roses every day.”

ALISON BEARD: Right, right. So it sounds like you’re saying this mental health work certainly starts at the individual level, but what can team leaders, colleagues, bosses at the top, CEOs, what can they do to encourage more people to share and de-stigmatize these issues?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Yeah, it’s very simple. It’s share their truth. Don’t put on the facade yourself. If you can be honest about your struggles, others will do so the same. Everywhere I go now, people stop me, people that were wearing the facade, and they say, “Melissa, I want to share a story.” They tell me a story, like their whole life story, because I shared my truth and they now feel that they have permission to do the same. It’s so simple, yet we’re terrified to show that our life is messy when it’s the truth. That’s why I want to go out as far and wide as I can and say, “I am leading a messy life, and it’s awesome in its messiness. I’m not trying to say otherwise. So all of you, too, can lead your messy lives and know that you’re not underachieving. You’re not failing. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing.”

ALISON BEARD: Should they give employees opportunities to talk? Should bosses when they sense that someone is feeling down, when they sense that it’s sort of been a long period of feeling down, should bosses be proactive about soliciting that sharing moment from their team members?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: They absolutely should. I really think that it’s going to become … What I’m seeing, to be honest, just in the response from Lifelines, which has been nothing short of overwhelming. I mean, after COVID, there may be no one who doesn’t suffer from some form of mental illness. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had tremendous anxiety in the last year.

So I think in a way, if there is to be any blessing in this last year, it has, I think, made our walls a little less rigid and given that opportunity to talk about things that we didn’t talk about. I as the head of a company, I would really make these discussions every week, an hour a week, and even as a leader to say, “Open door. Come in, and anything you want to talk about, I’m happy to talk about.” At Melissa and Doug, when we were in the office, people would come in all the time. They’d always have this look, like, “I know I shouldn’t be bothering you,” because they felt bad doing it. But I was like, “Come on on in.” They’d say, “Can I speak to you for a minute?” I always knew it was going to be something about the work, motherhood balance. The minute the door closed, they’d burst into tears. It was always something that was going on in their lives.

When they felt seen and heard, their despair, I mean, it didn’t go away, but they felt so much more comfortable. I would always say, “If you need to go out and get some air, if you need to take the day off, do it. This is much more important than your job here. And it never went the other way. Like they appreciated it and they did what they needed to do to heal themselves. And sometimes it took months, and that was just fine. They still were able to be productive members of our team.

ALISON BEARD: And what about mental health benefits in organizations? What would you like to see there?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Oh my gosh. I mean, in our society, we have such an epidemic and so few people that can afford good care. So I think something dramatic needs to change so that people can receive the help they need. And one of the criticisms, of course, I get all the time and I’m so open to it because I know it is, “Melissa easy for you to say, you have access to good mental health benefits.” And I do. I have like the best therapist in the world who really helped me through. And so many of the people I speak with say, “I can’t afford a therapist.” Or even the ones that can they say, “The therapist I can afford, it’s a three month wait and I don’t know if I’ll make it till tomorrow.”

ALISON BEARD: And at the moment, at least in the United States, corporations need to provide that since there’s no universal healthcare.

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: They really do. They really do. And now the co-pays, the benefits end at a certain level. I mean, it’s really tragic for a lot of these – because a lot of these conditions they’re not fixed with 30, 60, 90 days. I mean, these are lifetime conditions that you need a long period of therapy to overcome the patterns that have developed in decades. Unfortunately they’re not quick fix. There aren’t quick fix solutions to them.

ALISON BEARD: So now you’ve moved from wearing two hats, mom and your title is chief creative officer. But now you’re the founder and leader of LifeLines. So are you going to keep balancing all three, juggling all three?

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I absolutely am. And Doug thank goodness is my partner again with LifeLine. So he is shouldering so much of that as well. But yeah, the truth is I love all three so much. I mean, obviously I get joy out of being a mother, I love nothing more than creating toys. It is literally like my salvation and there’s nothing more profound than connecting with someone who has always felt alone. It brings such bomb to my soul. And I cry with these people. I mean, to make someone who’s in the darkness feel like someone has seen them, to me there’s no greater gift. And they say that to me. I mean, they’re sobbing and they say, “Do you know, I haven’t felt seen in,” some of them say, “10, 20 years.” And you understand why they’re so depressed. I mean, they’ve basically untethered themselves from any sort of human connection. So I feel responsible for all these broken souls that long to find light but just can’t quite figure out where to dig for it.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Well, I’m glad that you’ve found your light. I hope that many more do. Thank you so much for being with me today.

MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Thank you, Alison. That means so much to me.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of the toy company, Melissa & Doug and leader of the initiative LifeLines. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, we get technical help from Rob Eckhardt, Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR Ideacast. I’m Alison Beard.

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