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Book Summary: Burn Rate – Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind

Burn Rate (2022) is the no-holds-barred story of Andy Dunn, cofounder of menswear startup Bonobos, and his struggles with bipolar disorder. Long in denial about his diagnosis, Dunn eventually faced up to the condition – but not before it had nearly cost him everything.

Introduction: Lift the veil on what “living the dream” really meant for a CEO with bipolar disorder.

Andy Dunn cofounded an online startup that eventually sold for $310 million.

But this is not the story of his brilliance in business.

This is the story of his struggles with bipolar disorder. Of how he managed to live in denial for 16 long years. And of how he eventually had to face it – as well as the damage it did to him and others along the way.

Book Summary: Burn Rate - Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind

It’s a gripping tale that will help you understand what someone with bipolar disorder is really going through – even if they seem fine. You’ll see how this illness can both amplify human potential and try to destroy it, and why it’s so important to talk about it.

About 3 percent of the population have bipolar disorder, and this number is even higher among entrepreneurs – up to 20 percent. This connection between entrepreneurship and bipolar disorder is not accidental. At its best, hypomania drives creativity and productivity, along with confidence, optimism, and vision – all of which are required for success in business. Andy is a perfect example of that. But he also knows the price it comes with.

Bipolar disorder is not a rare condition, and it can be treated. But there is a lot of stigma around it. This story is Andy’s invitation to deal with mental illness openly and without shame.

That said, it’s also a bit of a wild ride. It might make you uncomfortable, as it tackles themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and domestic violence. So please read with care.

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • why bipolar disorder is so hard to spot and diagnose;
  • what can trigger hypomania, mania, and depression; and
  • how a CEO with bipolar disorder can successfully build a company.


When Andy Dunn was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, doctors were everywhere around him. Both his mom’s side of the family, originally from India, and his American father’s side were full of oncologists, surgeons, physical therapists, and even two mental health professionals. His sister, Monica, and he went through childhood feeling invincible.

Andy also felt special because he was smart – smart enough to skip third grade.

Being 14 in a class full of 16- and 17-year-olds was tough, especially as a mixed race kid. His classmates called him “windu” – white Hindu. But Andy was a teenager with focus. So he started pretending that the hurt and anger that came with the feeling of “otherness” weren’t there. It would take him years to learn that vulnerability is not the enemy. But we’ll come back to that – for now, we’re still in school.

One day, a classmate came back from a skiing holiday, and his glamorous stories kindled a fire in young Andy. He discovered that there weren’t only doctors out there, like in his family, but also entrepreneurs – along with their jet-setting lifestyle. Young Andy admired and envied them. He knew he was “gifted” and felt he had an entrepreneurial streak too; his psyche would later exploit this sense of self-importance.

Andy went to college at Northwestern, joined a fraternity, and enjoyed all sorts of privileges. He got internships through well-connected friends, he worked hard, and he played hard too. He experimented with psychedelic drugs, and he fell head over heels for a girl called Camila.

Things were good. Really good. He felt . . . great.

Andy’s ghost

Imagine you’re 20, you’re partying hard, you’re drinking, taking drugs, and you’re in love. Of course you’re a bit agitated and jumpy! Of course you’re somewhat euphoric! And why would you need to sleep? You’re bursting with energy!

So, how would anyone – including yourself – notice if there’s actually something wrong with you?

Before people experience mania, there’s a phase called hypomania. When you’re hypomanic, you feel like you can do anything. And the thing is, you kind of can.

You feel energized. You’re confident, more talkative than usual, and you never seem to get tired. There’s a storm of thoughts in your head; you’re bursting with ideas. You’re in a zone where creativity and productivity flourish. It’s an exaggerated experience of reality – but it’s still based in reality.

But you’re this close from crossing over into mania.

Mania is inventing your own reality. There’s no filter between inner thoughts and spoken words. Whatever comes to mind is shared with anyone, at any time – there’s no such thing as a stranger. You are the one who is sane – everyone else needs enlightenment. And nothing is accidental – everything is a sign. The hyperactive brain completely disconnects from the body, and you can go for several days without sleep, food, and even drink.

Andy’s walking across campus one day and suddenly has a realization. He’s not just gifted – he is the gift. He is going to become the president. Overcome with gratitude, he begins making plans.

It’s 2:00 a.m. now, so he goes to the 24-hour Burger King and explains his mission to a handful of customers. He doesn’t eat anything. Prophets don’t need to eat. He meets up with his friend – it’s daytime now – and explains he’s been talking to the birds.

Oh, and Camila, his girlfriend? He’s just realized she’s God. Their child will be the Messiah.

It’s later now, and Andy’s parents have come and collected him. At home, he’s wandering around naked, and he lectures them about forgiveness and the evils of drugs and colonialism.

Three doctor relatives take him to the hospital.

He’s given meds. He sleeps and sleeps. He starts coming back to himself. At first, being in the hospital feels like an adventure – he loves his fellow patients. It’s only after more meds and more sleep that he actually comes back to himself. And at that point, he’s desperate to get out of there.


The doctor tells Andy he has bipolar disorder, type I – maybe. Bipolar disorder type I is a condition that causes extreme mood swings, including emotional highs and lows and full manic episodes. The doctor explains that if he doesn’t relapse in the next five years, it could just be a one-off; perhaps it was caused by the drugs he was taking, or even his heavy acne medication.

Andy clung to that idea. So did his family of medical professionals. Maybe it was a one-off.

Within ten days he was back at college. People knew what had happened. But nobody talked about it. At all. Everyone pretended like it had never happened, including Andy.

He didn’t choose not to deal with his diagnosis because he wanted to, but because he didn’t know how. He couldn’t even hold the thought of it in his mind for longer than a couple of moments – it was too shameful, and terrifying.

But it was there, like a ghost, and it would haunt Andy for years.


Andy moved on as if nothing had happened. After a couple of years working in private equity, he went to Stanford Graduate School of Business – a place where anything is possible and you’re encouraged to dream big. It’s there that he met Brian Spaly, an ambitious, confident young entrepreneur with a particular obsession: pants.

Andy didn’t really have an obsession. He played with the idea of starting a falafel chain, or importing Guatemalan rum, or maybe carving out a niche in South African cured meat. None of the ideas gained traction. But Spaly’s did.

There were two things about pants. First, the fit – besides jeans, men’s pants didn’t come in a variety of fits. Second, the retail experience – young men didn’t like to go shopping. Spaly’s idea was simple: provide better fits for chinos and wool pants, and sell them directly online in what were still the early days of online retail.

Spaly even came up with a name for the company: Bonobos, after the peaceful, sex-loving apes.

Andy decided to get involved.


The two young entrepreneurs made an unexpected deal because Spaly wanted to go back and work in private equity for a while. Andy would be CEO and cofounder of Bonobos, and Spaly would chip in during evenings and weekends.

Unaware of Andy’s ghost, all Spaly saw in his friend was a driven, hustling young entrepreneur who could be trusted to get his company up and running. And he was right, more or less.

After securing an initial round of investment, they set up Bonobos in New York City. It started out in Andy’s rented apartment; his bedroom was stacked with pants. Andy was $150,000 in debt – and he wasn’t a trust-fund kid – but he made sure to lead the life expected of a flashy young entrepreneur, filled with cocktails, clubs, and women. As he discovered, New York was a city of chutzpah. People were confident enough to say whatever they want, regardless of the consequences.

Andy fit right in.

Bonobos got some good press, and sales grew. Andy was a man on a mission. Was he on the path to greatness? Was he changing the future of retail?

Or was the hypomania kicking in again?

Hypomania is like a superpower that can amplify your potential and make you capable of amazing things. But if it isn’t treated, it can slip out of control and ruin your life.

Up and down

Andy came close to mania in these early days in NYC, but his sister, Monica, pulled him back.

His family never talked about his diagnosis, but in an attempt to prevent it from happening again, they started monitoring Andy more closely. Monica spotted the signs – his elevated mood and grandiosity – and made sure he got some decent sleep to break the dizzying upward spiral.

But bipolar disorder has its name for a reason. It’s not just the highs.

Bonobos was doing well enough that Spaly had come back on board full time. But he and Andy weren’t getting along. They bickered about everything from payroll to inventory to strategy. Andy obsessively believed that Spaly was bringing the business down. Even worse, he tried to conform reality to his feelings by seeking confirmation from others that Spaly was the source of all problems.

As Andy’s relationship with Spaly was falling apart on the outside, so was his mental state on the inside.

His mood was heading down this time – not up. It reached its worst point on a flight to Vegas one day. A strange thought crossed Andy’s mind: he wanted the plane to crash.

In acute depression, suicidal thoughts don’t come from a wish to die, but to escape the blackness – to stop living like the living dead.

Andy spent days in bed. Sometimes he’d sleep right through the daylight hours. He didn’t have any desire to start the day and face the world. But then, to compensate, he’d have a hypomanic Saturday night out in the city. And because he wasn’t able to reach the vibrant energy and charisma he was known for, he’d drink. Out in a club, he’d fit right in. This is how mental illness and substance abuse often become deeply entangled and create a vicious cycle that’s so difficult to break.

Andy had already been good at hiding what was going on inside him back in school; now, he was a master. He developed tactics to perfectly disguise his depression and make it seem like he was fine, even great. And he made sure not to reflect upon his mental state. Admitting that he was depressed would mean admitting that the mania could return at any point as well – and this was not something he was ready to accept.


People assume that the swings of bipolar disorder are sudden: you’re up one minute and down the next. But it’s more like a sine curve that gradually unfurls in cycles. You can feel the same way for weeks – and then suddenly flip.

Andy’s depressive episodes alternated with periods of elation, but he hadn’t had another fully manic episode yet. In fact, he was still clinging to the idea that his college experience was a one-off. Perhaps his current depression was just the result of a stressful job – how can you say what’s illness and what’s just life?

So he carried on, focusing on Spaly as the source of his issues. Eventually, Andy asked Spaly to step aside altogether, and, surprisingly, his cofounder agreed.

Now Andy was riding high, fueled by hypomanic energy. The emotional rollercoaster of having to raise funds worked as a sort of antidepressant. And in turn, his elevated mood made it possible to pull through even when it seemed impossible.

So when the company was on the brink of financial ruin, he had the exact brashness and energy necessary to secure funding. On one trip to a potential investor, his company credit card was declined at the car rental service. He paid for the car himself, made it to the meeting, and secured $300,000 that saved the company.

And the best was yet to come: Bonobos got venture capital funding for the first time. Things were looking good again.


The future looked bright for Bonobos, but building a company while VCs are watching you is tricky. Plus, Andy’s new leadership style – instilling fear among employees – was under scrutiny. A pattern was emerging of him enthusiastically embracing new senior hires, and then firing them within a year.

But he kept on at a tireless pace. The company dashed forward, wildly innovating. Though its initial hook was to be online-only, it started opening physical stores where customers could try on pants for home delivery. Andy tested countless other ideas too; he even wanted to launch a tech product to help other online vendors, as Shopify would eventually do.

He’d hired his old college friend Bryan Wolff as CFO and tasked him with making the company profitable. Wolff politely told Andy that he needed to change strategy – fast – and stop burning money. Soon enough, he was out the door too.

Andy’s energy kept relentlessly pushing him forward, but in one moment of reflection, he saw himself – and his ghost. What was the common thread between all of the professional problems he’d faced? Was it . . . him?

For the first time since his diagnosis nine years earlier, Andy got desperate enough to try therapy and even medication – only to come out feeling like there was no cure for whatever he was experiencing. He felt cursed and sank deeper again.

There were two groups of people around Andy at this point – people who knew about his manic episode in college but never talked about it, and people who knew nothing about it. In either case, Andy had to carry the burden of his ghost alone, which created an ocean of pain inside him. On the rare occasions when he did try to share it, he was met with a poignant lack of reaction and awkward silence, making his pain even more unspeakable.

The ghost returns

The low period ends when Andy starts seeing Manuela. She’s beautiful, intelligent, grounded. She’s perfect, and he falls in love immediately – which, when you have bipolar disorder, can be dangerous.

Andy’s on another flight to Vegas, and this time he becomes convinced that the plane is going to crash. This isn’t a hunch; he’s absolutely certain. He spends the flight preparing for his approaching death.

It’s been 15 years since his first and only manic episode. He remembers what happened that time, so he keeps quiet in order not to get locked up. Still, he sends a series of bizarre, messianic tweets, so the world hears his prophecies.

The flight . . . doesn’t crash. This, too, is a sign! He’s been saved. He is reborn. He is God. But he has to keep it a secret so they don’t take him away again.

Now, Andy is wandering the streets of Las Vegas and realizes homeless people aren’t real – they’re angels, warning us of the dangers of materialism. He’s in town for a conference and gives a speech, which he thinks goes well, although the feedback he receives is rather cryptic. He tries to give his Rolex away in a tiny restaurant because you obviously can’t wear a Rolex if you’re a prophet.

He decides to go vegan, but immediately eats a cheeseburger. He fixes the Israeli–Palestinian conflict with ease.

Somehow, he finds his way back to his family home in Chicago. They manage to get him to eat something – he hasn’t eaten for days – and they hand him a sleeping pill. But Andy now suddenly suspects that they’re trying to kill him.

To a manic mind, those who are trying to help you can become your worst enemies – which is heartbreaking for the people that love you and want the best for you.

Finally, Andy takes the pill and sleeps for hours. He starts to come down, but it will take days before he’s fully back to himself. For now, he’s communicating with Manuela telepathically. He mentally proposes, and she accepts. He changes his Facebook status to “engaged.” Hundreds of people congratulate them. She calls him, baffled.

“Oh my God,” he says – alert enough by now to pretend he’s hit the wrong button.


After that episode, Andy regained some semblance of control and realized he needed to quit his job. He found a new CEO for Bonobos and took on a board chairman role instead.

He and Manuela went on a trip to China, where she had some business to take care of. During the trip, his mood dipped as low as it had ever been. He couldn’t function. He literally couldn’t find the energy to leave the bed, even when he desperately needed to pee. But hitting rock bottom created space for something important to happen – Andy finally opened up to Manuela. She listened, offered her compassion and support, and stayed with him.

This fresh wave of depression, just after he’d quit as CEO, made him realize that it was a mistake to blame his job. He was going to continue feeling these ups and downs regardless of his work. Actually, having that job served as a kind of antidepressant; without it, he no longer had a reason to get out of bed at all.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well back at Bonobos, and hearing this reignited a spark for life in Andy. He decided to return as CEO.

Howling at the moon

Back in the US, Andy’s energy is up again. Things start well. He’s learned from some of Bonobos’ previous mistakes and focuses on profitability this time. They’re back to the classic startup aim: sell the company, or go public.

Things are good with Manuela too, and he secretly puts down a deposit on an engagement ring. Exciting.

Another exciting thing: he sees Hamilton, a show about America’s founding history. And he loves it. Especially George Washington. The character strikes a chord with Andy. Is he . . . George Washington?

This kind of self-aggrandizing thoughts come as an announcement of the upward spiral to mania.

One night, he goes to a friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn. The door code is 1225. It’s a sign: the birthday of Jesus. Oh yes, of course – that’s why his own initials are A.D.

He’s still up in his apartment the next day when Manuela comes home. He isn’t fully gone at this point, but he’s on the way there. He again declares himself vegan and eats a cheeseburger. A man called Colt knocks at the door. His name is also a sign – he must have a gun. Andy tells Manuela to hide.

Next, he has a chat with a black cat. Worried, Manuela calls her mom and asks her to come over. She soon arrives at the apartment. Andy howls at the moon. He suddenly jumps up to go pee.

There’s blood dripping down his face. There’s anger, pain. He swings. The crack of glass. Even more pain. Even more blood.

He pulls the radiator off the wall. He’s naked. He needs to recite Hamilton in full.

He’s zipped up. What just happened? What’s happening? Is he dead?


Andy is committed to Bellevue Hospital, and it takes him days to come down. But he gets there, and one day Manuela is allowed to visit.

They play cards together. He notices some bruising around her eye. He feels a deep sense of shame. She stares at him and tells him it didn’t hurt.

Eventually, he’s released from Bellevue. The police are waiting for him. He’s arrested for misdemeanor assault – and felony assault of a senior citizen. In addition to hitting Manuela, he’d pushed and kicked her mom.

He’s taken to prison right after having been admitted to the hospital for a mental health emergency – and he’s not allowed to see Manuela.

Often, the system barely allows distinction between criminals and people who have a mental illness; it treats them as one. With every possible favorable element of privilege on his side – an expensive lawyer, a loving family, and a compassionate partner willing to drop charges – Andy was still barely able to make it through.

Once his mood was stable, he was eventually let out of the police station too. After going to the hospital and jail, everything else seemed less difficult. Even something Andy considered impossible earlier in his life – addressing his illness.

So after 16 years of denial and hiding, he was ready to do whatever it took to stay mentally well. And the first step was to tell everyone at work about his bipolar disorder. The people on the board were understanding. The team pulled together, with an eye to selling the company. Surprisingly, Walmart was interested.

Even more importantly, Manuela decided to stay with Andy. Her mom forgave him too – she likened his condition to diabetes, saying it was an unfortunate condition that just had to be treated right. They showed him how to approach mental illness openly, without stigma, and with compassion.

Andy found a new psychiatrist, Dr. Z. Finding the right combination and dosage of medication isn’t easy; you need something that keeps both the mania and depression under control, but that doesn’t make you feel dull. Dr. Z prescribed Andy a mix of pills that actually worked, tempering both his highs and his lows.

Andy and Manuela started seeing a relationship therapist as well, which helped them get through the challenging time and rebuild their relationship.

Sometimes Andy felt awful – especially living with the shame of what he had done. Other times he felt elated to still have the love of Manuela. But at either end of the spectrum, he coped.


Even with regular therapy and balanced medication, things can go down quickly in the absence of sleep.

Andy was excited about his engagement to Manuela and had already skipped a night of sleep when his parents visited one day. Out shopping, he suddenly lost focus, flung his mom off his arm, and ran down the street. His dad managed to catch him. There was no more denial – it was immediately treated as a psychiatric emergency. Dr. Z took care of Andy and upped his dosage permanently.

Soon after that, the Walmart sale went through. Bonobos sold for $310 million. He’d done it.

Could he have succeeded without his bipolar disorder? It’s impossible to say. Andy’s learned that mental illness isn’t something to stigmatize or deny, like he did in his earlier years – but it certainly isn’t something to celebrate, either. It’s just illness. It’s there, it’s real, it has to be treated. And it is treatable with therapy, medication, regular check-ins, and transparency.

Three years later, Andy and Manuela are back in the hospital – for a very different reason. She’s giving birth to Isaiah.

Andy holds his child in his arms and feels a fresh wave of emotion. He feels fiercely protective and strong. He knows that even though his ghost is still there – and always will be – he’ll never let it get to him. For Isaiah’s sake.

It’s his duty now, and he knows he can do it.


Even with regular therapy and balanced medication, things can go down quickly in the absence of sleep.

Andy was excited about his engagement to Manuela and had already skipped a night of sleep when his parents visited one day. Out shopping, he suddenly lost focus, flung his mom off his arm, and ran down the street. His dad managed to catch him. There was no more denial – it was immediately treated as a psychiatric emergency. Dr. Z took care of Andy and upped his dosage permanently.

Soon after that, the Walmart sale went through. Bonobos sold for $310 million. He’d done it.

Could he have succeeded without his bipolar disorder? It’s impossible to say. Andy’s learned that mental illness isn’t something to stigmatize or deny, like he did in his earlier years – but it certainly isn’t something to celebrate, either. It’s just illness. It’s there, it’s real, it has to be treated. And it is treatable with therapy, medication, regular check-ins, and transparency.

Three years later, Andy and Manuela are back in the hospital – for a very different reason. She’s giving birth to Isaiah.

Andy holds his child in his arms and feels a fresh wave of emotion. He feels fiercely protective and strong. He knows that even though his ghost is still there – and always will be – he’ll never let it get to him. For Isaiah’s sake.

It’s his duty now, and he knows he can do it.

About the author

Andy Dunn co-founded the ecommerce-driven menswear brand Bonobos in 2007 and served as CEO through its 2017 acquisition by Walmart. As an angel investor and through his venture capital firm, Red Swan, Dunn has backed more than eighty startups, including Warby Parker, Oscar, and Coinbase. Dunn serves on the boards of Monica + Andy, an organic baby-apparel company founded by his sister, and the tech nonprofit Raised By Us. Named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list in 2018, he is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their son.


Health, Nutrition, Entrepreneurship, Biography, Memoir, Finance, Counseling and Psychology, Bipolar Disorder, Coping with Bipolar Disorder, Biographies of Business Professionals, Business, Autobiography, Mental Health, Leadership, Self Help

Table of Contents

Part I: Origin of the Species
Chapter 1: Windu
Chapter 2: Insane Ingredients
Chapter 3: God Is a Woman
Chapter 4: Wantrepreneur
Chapter 5: Birth of Bonobos
Chapter 6: Pants on Fire

Part II: Pants Labyrinth
Chapter 7: Shadowboxing
Chapter 8: Sine Curve
Chapter 9: Absolute Minimum
Chapter 10: Imagine Your Enemy
Chapter 11: Hypomagic
Chapter 12: Lightspeed, at Last
Chapter 13: A Diagnosis Deferred
Chapter 14: 911

Part III: Ghost Rider
Chapter 15: Life Is a Dream
Chapter 16: The Opposite House
Chapter 17: King Arthur’s Tavern
Chapter 18: Inside the Aquarium
Chapter 19: Noose to the Sky
Chapter 20: Blame Game


At twenty-eight, fresh from Stanford’s MBA program and steeped in the move-fast-and-break-things ethos of Silicon Valley, Andy Dunn was on top of the world. He was building a new kind of startup—a digitally native, direct-to-consumer brand—out of his Manhattan apartment. Bonobos was a new-school approach to selling an old-school product: men’s pants. Against all odds, business was booming.

Hustling to scale the fledgling venture, Dunn raised tens of millions of dollars while boundaries between work and life evaporated. As he struggled to keep the startup afloat, Dunn was haunted by a ghost: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder he received after a frightening manic episode in college, one that had punctured the idyllic veneer of his midwestern upbringing. He had understood his diagnosis as an unspeakable shame that—according to the taciturn codes of his fraternity, the business world, and even his family—should be locked away.

As Dunn’s business began to take off, however, some of the very traits that powered his success as a founder—relentless drive, confidence bordering on hubris, and ambition verging on delusion—were now threatening to undo him. A collision course was set in motion, and it would culminate in a night of mayhem—one poised to unravel all that he had built.

Burn Rate is an unconventional entrepreneurial memoir, a parable for the twenty-first-century economy, and a revelatory look at the prevalence of mental illness in the startup community. With intimate prose, Andy Dunn fearlessly shines a light on the dark side of success and challenges us all to take part in the deepening conversation around creativity, performance, and disorder.


In this “gripping” (TechCrunch), “eye-opening” (Gayle King, Oprah Daily) memoir of mental illness and entrepreneurship, the co-founder of the menswear startup Bonobos opens up about the struggle with bipolar disorder that nearly cost him everything.

“Arrestingly candid . . . the most powerful book I’ve read on manic depression since An Unquiet Mind.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of WorkLife


“A brave and candid new memoir.”—Tony Dokoupil, CBS Mornings

“[Dunn’s] story . . . might just save another life. . . . Gripping.”—TechCrunch

“A humble, honest and brave look at the author’s struggle with bipolar disorder . . . Not only does the book humanize this affliction, which affects more than three percent of the population, but it offers a rare look back at where things went wrong, what could have been done differently and also provides a template for families worried about a loved one. So many things are extraordinary about this story.”—Lee Woodruff, Book Marks

“There is nothing typical about this extraordinarily brave memoir. The result is a long-overdue unveiling—a reckoning with rampant mental health stigma that is especially pervasive in the business world.”—Susannah Cahalan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire and The Great Pretender

“Many leaders and founders struggle with mental health, but few have the courage to open up about it. Burn Rate is a must-read not only for entrepreneurs but for anyone who has ever hesitated to seek help and support.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of WorkLife

“I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about the important link between mental health and achievement as well as the crucial role a great support system can be to the healing process.”—Mardy Fish, former U.S. #1 tennis player and captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team

“A brave, powerful, smart, and darkly funny journey into the heart of edgy entrepreneurship and the timeless challenges of mental illness.” —Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy Forum and New York Times bestselling co-author of A Common Struggle

“A riveting and soulful expression of the entrepreneur, Burn Rate blows away the haze of American dream myths to reveal that, often, there’s a destructive mania that drives success in this country.”—Ev Williams, founder and CEO, Medium; co-founder, Twitter

“Dunn’s raw and honest look inside his own head—and heart—will make all of us reassess how we’re really doing.”—Marc Lore, serial entrepreneur; co-owner, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx

“A beautiful and stigma-shattering account . . . I finished Burn Rate in a day.”—Ariela Safira, founder and CEO, Real

“For anyone coming of age with big ambitions, Burn Rate is a real reminder of the learning curve of self-understanding and care that is critical to success.”—Jennifer Fleiss, co-founder, Rent the Runway

“A page-turner written by a masterful storyteller, this book serves as inspiration to anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life in the face of anxiety, depression and mood swings.”—Justin McLeod, founder and CEO, Hinge

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It is not a self-aggrandizing tale of entrepreneurial success. It is not an insider’s guide to launching a startup, brimming with insights packaged for tech bros or corporate leaders looking for an edge.

This book is a ghost story.

My Ghost first arrived in the year 2000 and would haunt me for the next sixteen years; . It was a secret, known only to a handful of my closest loved ones.

My Ghost is an illness—one that can amplify human potential and seek to destroy it at the same time. For some, a ghost like mine might even seem life-expanding—jet fuel for the entrepreneurial drive—before the liabilities rip it all apart.

Here is the tabloid-ready summary of my book: In 2016, on the precipice of selling Bonobos, the startup I’d been building for the previous nine years, I flew into a manic spiral and was hospitalized for a week in the psych ward at Bellevue in New York. When I was discharged, I was met by NYPD officers, who took me to jail, where I was charged with felony and misdemeanor assault.

Thanks to my Ghost, I came within an inch of losing the woman who is now my wife, the company, and everything I cared for in the world.

Here’s the thing: I still live with it—but the Ghost, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, isn’t a secret anymore.

It has taken five years of therapy to be able to write those words.

* * *

NORMALLY WHEN YOUR most shameful life events have been hidden behind a veil of secrecy, you keep them under the rug, or in the closet, unexcavated. But what if there is nothing to be ashamed of? Then why would they need to be secrets at all?

If there was not a profound stigma around mental illness, this book would not be necessary. Perhaps it could make a good startup yarn—about the time a couple of guys hit the e-commerce moment right, despite a lot of bad ideas along the way.

The truth, though, is that the stigma is here, and it is profound. Mental illness is one of the final taboos. The business community values stability. When it comes to leading teams, shepherding capital, and governing enterprises, a steady hand is what is sought. So even as we have entered a new era, one where assumptions surrounding race, gender, and power are being interrogated more deeply, issues of mental illness in the workplace go largely unmentioned. For most of my professional life, my mental illness has felt unspeakable: a fast track to an awkward silence, a closed door, or a lost opportunity.

The thing is, a lot of us have it. A lot. The illness I deal with—bipolar disorder—affects 3 percent of the population and, by one estimate, is seven times more prevalent in entrepreneurs. That might mean 20 percent of entrepreneurs have bipolar disorder. It is an illness where suicide attempt rates approach 60 percent, and suicide “success” rates approach 20 percent. One study by the National Institutes of Health indicated that almost half of entrepreneurs deal with mental health issues. The figure was 32 percent for non-entrepreneurs, staggering in its own right.

In the world of sports, the mental health conversation is beginning, thanks to Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Mardy Fish, and many others. In entertainment, it’s understood and accepted that artists face mental health challenges: witness Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and Britney Spears.

In the business world, though, no one talks.

I’m lucky to be in a position where I have a voice—my “exited startup” good fortune insulates me from the fear of financial loss, if not social stigma or personal embarrassment. So why go there? By not discussing what transpired, I would be letting the delusion continue to masquerade as fantasy: It never happened. It won’t happen again.

To see this Ghost clearly, I needed to bring him out of the closet, to acknowledge the impact he has had on my life as a matter of public record. To deny this Ghost is to deny myself. I write this memoir to surface the darker story behind the airbrushed “living the dream” bullshit. This is a book about mental illness told by an entrepreneur lucky to have made it to the other side, even if the other side is an impermanent place full of surprises.

This book is my own story. My account is based on my own recollections, triangulated as much as possible with those of others: family members and friends and loved ones who were there for the ride. It’s impossible that I got everything right. In chapters in which I depict an episode of full-blown mania, I switch the narration to the present tense, to emphasize both the impulsive chaos of these experiences and the blurred nature of my memories of them. In some cases, I’ve chosen to alter names or identifying details, or only provide a first name, where I felt it wasn’t important for readers to know a person’s real identity, and where the imperfections of my memory would be a disservice to them.

* * *

I WRITE THIS for the families out there coping with the maddening, challenging people they desperately want to help. Let this be a reminder that there will be thanks later, that on the other side is unending gratitude for your sacrifices and for your love.

Most of all, I write this for all of you struggling with a secret you feel you can’t talk about. I hope this book serves as a reminder that there can be a path to health, integration, and healing. For me, it came in the form of a complex daily regimen of medication; therapy sessions multiple times a week with my psychiatrist, Dr. Z; a lawyer when I needed one; a sleep tracker and daily sleep report; the privilege to be able to afford it all; and the unbending, redemptive love and eventual clear-eyed determination and acceptance of a small band of family members and friends who rallied around me and who helped keep me sane. And who still do.

Let me tell you a ghost story.


The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you must first make it beautiful. In some strange way, I have tried to do that with manic-depressive illness. It has been a fascinating, albeit deadly, enemy and companion; I have found it to be seductively complicated, a distillation both of what is finest in our natures, and of what is most dangerous.

—Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind

First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God.

—Julian of Norwich


IN HINDI, THERE ARE AT least ten words for “aunt” or “uncle.” Your mother’s sister, mother’s brother, father’s sister, father’s brother, mother’s sister-in-law, mother’s brother-in-law, and on and on: they all have different names. The most affectionate term of all is masi, reserved for your mother’s sister. For my sister and me, our mom’s family was the strongest force in our childhood. Our mom has four sisters, so I have four masis; it was a profoundly and proudly matriarchal upbringing. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would one day spend thirteen years building a company named for a species of matriarchal chimpanzee.

Mom’s parents, Prakash and Dhian, were born in Rawalpindi, a city in Punjab State. In 1947, the British split Punjab in two, creating a Pakistani side and an Indian side: Muslims over here, Hindus over there. My grandparents, a Hindu and a Sikh, had to leave in the middle of the night with their two daughters. The region was thrown into chaos, with an estimated fifteen million people displaced, and at least one million killed.

Usha Ahuja, my mother, was born in this context, in a refugee town called Kurukshetra, during her family’s multiyear journey from Rawalpindi to New Delhi, where they eventually settled. My mom’s mom, our Badi Mummy (Prakash), was a child bride, not educated beyond the sixth grade. She lost two children in infancy before she turned eighteen. Then she had seven kids: five girls and two boys.

My mom and her sisters adored their father, and they feared him, too. The level of his expectations for their success was daunting. He was an enterprising building contractor, a chain-smoker, and an alcoholic. He instilled in his daughters a progressive message, ahead of its time in 1950s and ’60s India: “You don’t want to be dependent on a man like me.” His vision for his children was for them to get educated and make it to the United States. By the time he fell ill with emphysema, my mom had graduated college and been shipped first to Canada and then to the United States, to live with my Ashi Masi, by then an obstetrician-gynecologist. My aunt would go on to deliver both my sister and me.

My mom’s mandate was to get trained as an X-ray tech and send money home, living with her sister so that she could pass on 100 percent of her income. With her father ill, they desperately needed the money, and my mom—a most dutiful human—answered the call to the sublimation of her own possibilities. Any dreams she had of becoming a doctor, like two of her older sisters, were subsumed by that short-term need in the late 1960s. She never complained about it. She never complains. Money was so tight that when my grandfather died, in January 1969, my mom couldn’t afford to go home to New Delhi for his cremation. It haunts her still. She has never gotten closure.

Mom’s sisters built the clichéd Indian American immigrant family, filled with doctors and married to them, too. Ashi Masi’s husband is a radiation oncologist; Shano Masi, an internal medicine physician, married a surgeon; and Dolly Masi, my mom’s younger sister, is a physical therapist. My dad’s side of the family is smaller, but also filled with medical professionals.

As I was growing up, doctors were everywhere. My older sister, Monica, and I felt invincible—there was always medical help ready for any issue we faced.

Except, of course, for the one that came.

For Monica and me, Mom was a hands-on cultivator of empathy, a self-awareness developer, and, like her own father, a setter of high hopes and expectations. She was a rare mixture of caring—tough, compassionate, and candid. She was the same at work: in her twenty years of leading a team of a dozen women in a hospital ultrasound department, no one ever quit.

“You have to love the person behind the person that works for you,” she’d say.

* * *

IN MY CHILDHOOD home we had paintings from Mackinac Island, in northern Michigan: gulls, pine trees, windy skies, rocks, and bluffs. There is a gray-blue hue where the horizon meets the lake. My dad’s eyes are that color. At six feet two inches, Charles Dunn, my father, seemed to me a gentle giant. “I love you” rolled off his tongue easily; unique, perhaps, for midwestern dads of his vintage. As a parent, he was a watchful protector, a role model for how to treat your wife, the answerer of all questions, and an ascetic who abstained from all forms of hedonistic consumption, save for ice cream. He was a walking encyclopedia. On a trip to Madrid, in 2003, I was three years out of college. Dad and I headed into the Museo Nacional del Prado. I asked if he wanted to get the tour-by-audio headset. “I’ll provide the audio,” he quipped. And then he did.

Dad’s family is multigenerational Irish, Danish, English, Norwegian, and Swedish American. One of three children, he was raised as an evangelical Christian, a Swedish Baptist. His father was adopted, so tracing the lineage becomes hazy: picture some Danish immigrants on a farm in Wisconsin, a Swedish bartender and his Irish bride, and you start to get the idea. His family moved nine times in twelve years before landing on Chicago’s West Side.

Before all that moving, and before her mood swings began, my paternal grandmother, Alva Georgina North (Nana), was a World War II hero. Nana was born in Chicago. She was a surgical army trauma nurse who arrived on the beaches of Normandy on day ten, treating frontline soldiers’ wounds on the march to Berlin and Victory in Europe, or V-E, Day. She was present for the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Back in the States, she had treated an airman named Charles Willard Dunn II, my grandfather (Dada), who would win the Distinguished Flying Cross as a pathfinding navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress, leading bombing raids over Europe. They exchanged nine hundred love letters on the European front, which Dad discovered in a trunk in the basement after his parents were gone. He spent ten years writing the story of their wartime romance, titling it The Nurse and the Navigator.

Dada dropped out of Harvard, but after the war eventually made it to medical school and became a psychiatrist. Nana became, informally, one of his patients, and he started medicating her. In an unpublished appendix to my father’s memoir, he writes of my grandfather: “Dad’s decision to become a psychiatrist was made with the expectation that his resulting expertise would mitigate the effects of Mom’s disorder. But it also gave him dark powers that could be wielded against her.”

The treatment plan included barbiturates, tranquilizers, at least two institutionalizations, and frequent moves to avoid the “embarrassment” of Nana’s difficulties. One of Nana’s commitments was a few weeks long, another a few months. When my grandmother returned home, in true Scandinavian spirit, it was swept under the rug. My dad writes of his siblings and himself: “During the good times, Jane, Bob and I—taking our cue from Dad [my dad’s father]—always pretended that everything was okay. Indeed, during the good phase, Dad himself always proceeded as if there was no reason to be concerned that the bad times were going to recur, although they always did.” In a theoretical world, my grandmother’s psychiatric issues and my grandfather’s career as a psychiatrist might have prepared us for what was to come. Instead, the family tradition did the opposite: it prepared us to bury it all.

From my vantage point, they seemed like normal grandparents, sending us money on our birthdays and taking us on trips to Marshall Field’s, where Nana, doused in perfume, would buy us Frango mint chocolates. According to Dad, by the time Monica and I met them, they had transcended the turmoil, though they bore little resemblance to the war heroes he later encountered in those letters.

Even a decade after my own issues emerged, it never occurred to me to wonder if, or how, mental illness runs in a family, let alone how shame and stigma compound generationally. A house filled with ghosts.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I grasped very little of my family’s history, and even less of the impact it would ultimately have on me. What I did know was that I was the son of an ultrasound tech and a teacher, living in a fairly modest, twenty-two-hundred-square-foot house in suburban Downers Grove, an upbringing that, looking back, was solidly middle-class.

Our parents were expert savers, lived within their means, and invested everything above our cost of living in us. They did everything for Monica and me, and had no discernible social lives beyond their kids and our extended family. When I begged for a saxophone, they saved for months to buy me one. Monica was seven and I was five one Christmas when they woke us up in the middle of the night to head to the airport. They ushered us out the door for a surprise trip to San Diego, where the main attraction for a boy obsessed with animals was a visit to the zoo.

We wanted for nothing, it seemed, but we were by no means wealthy. I wasn’t introduced to the concept of a millionaire until the seventh grade. If class differences mostly eluded me as a child, some part of me did recognize that I looked different: brown skin in a sea of white classmates. My sense of “other” translated as a form of uniqueness. Instead of burgers and hot dogs, we’d have Italian beef on the grill, with corn coated in garam masala and lime.

* * *

WHEN I WAS in second grade, my parents pulled me aside. I thought I had done something wrong. They let me know that they’d been speaking with the teacher about my skipping third grade. They wanted to know what I thought.

“How long have you been talking to Ms. Bostedo about this?” I asked, incredulous that they’d kept this from me.

“About a month,” my mom replied. I squinted at her, disbelieving.

The truth was, I couldn’t wait to skip a grade. Even at that age, I processed this as a sign that I was some kind of outlier (well before I knew the term), capable of things other kids weren’t.

Despite my mom’s attempts to keep me grounded, this sense of being special, or “gifted,” became bedrock for my psyche. The root mixture of self-importance and hubris, prerequisite for many entrepreneurs, is in some ways traceable to that year. While it wasn’t necessarily a precursor to delusion, it incepted something in me that my biochemistry would later exploit.

Andy is the most gifted student we’ve seen around here in a long time.

While the leap from “being gifted” to “being a gift” is a dizzying stretch, the possibility became a twinkle in my eye when I was eight years old.

* * *

MY TIME AT Herrick Junior High was dominated by fantasy novels, computer games, and math. While I was reading books by David Eddings and J.R.R. Tolkien, and cultivating my inner superhero complex, my friend Gavin, the school’s only Jewish student, was reading Tolstoy and Zola. We’d shoot baskets in his driveway, play chess in his living room, and eat Peppermint Patties from a jar near his front door.

One day, in seventh grade, Gavin came to class with a new jacket, saturated with brilliant colors: purple and yellow and red. I asked him what it was for, and he said skiing. That winter break, his family went on a ski trip to Aspen. I’d never heard of such a thing. No one else I knew went skiing. It was expensive, and it seemed dangerous.

His family lived in Oak Brook, where homes regularly sold for over a million dollars. The sum was inconceivable to me.

From what I could tell, there were two kinds of people in Oak Brook: doctors and entrepreneurs. Gavin’s dad, Rick, owned an auto parts retailer. One day Gavin told me his father had an office filled with security cameras. I used to picture him there, in a command center of sorts. Rick would play basketball with us in the driveway, and we’d watch movies together in the family’s home cinema. He didn’t believe in credit cards and carried around a wallet brimming with cash at all times. Most impressively, Gavin’s family had season tickets to the Chicago Bulls. To twelve-year-old me, in my corner of the world, this was the Holy Grail of professional triumph.

Looking back, I admired Gavin’s family, and I envied them, too. I didn’t know any other entrepreneurs growing up. My preteen brain sensed that there was something different about Gavin’s dad—that in running his business and employing working-class people, he knew how to relate up and down the class spectrum, and profit from his acumen. Connective tissue was forming in my head around entrepreneurship and the notion of being my own boss—and, perhaps, the ability to go to Bulls games with a wad of hundos in my pocket.

* * *


White Hindu.

It stuck.

Two years later, I was a sophomore in high school, and a new nickname for me was making the rounds. We were exiting CAT, college algebra trigonometry, a class of mostly juniors and a small cabal of precocious sophomores. As the only one of those sophomores who had skipped a grade, I was fourteen years old in a class full of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Late to puberty, I was a baby-faced boy in a classroom of young men. An easy target.

The nickname was invented by Joe, a junior. He was a year older than me and a star on the varsity soccer team. I was a mediocre member of the sophomore team, two rungs down. What made it worse was that we were friends, at least in the way a striving younger teenager thinks about friends: someone you hang out with, look up to, and want to be around because they travel in cooler circles. It was a confusing and pernicious mixture of sharing affinity in private and taking the piss in public.

It got to me. I was the kid who’d run upstairs after losing a game of Monopoly and cry behind a lounge chair to hide my hurt. My skin was thin. As the boy prince in a matriarchal family, with no brothers, a doting older sister, an adoring mom, and a gentle father, I had none of the armor most boys have by the time they get to high school. Though I was wounded, I made little of it when I told my parents, almost in passing, about the nickname.

They started laughing. It was a rare moment of my parents not being empathetic—but since I hid my hurt from them, too, they couldn’t help but react with amusement. After all, it was kind of funny. Nicknames that stick, particularly derogatory ones, stick for a reason.

What was that reason? It was a clever play on words. Sure. But beyond that, it was kids weaponizing difference, and I didn’t have the tools to process that. Our culture was a long way from caring about or even recognizing the feelings of “otherness” for a brown-skinned half-Indian kid, and so I started developing skills to pretend those feelings weren’t there. Hiding vulnerability became a survival skill for me, and like other young men, I learned to stash it behind a veil of indifference fabricated by feelings of rejection.

That’s where anger begins: sublimated hurt. If the anger and hurt are not surfaced, acknowledged, and dealt with, the combination of emotions can metastasize into depression. It would be years before I understood that possibility, and that it all begins with hiding things from yourself.

My sister knew, though. She intuited that I was bruised. A senior at the time, Monica gathered a bunch of her friends, the you-don’t-want-to-mess-with-me variety, and word got to Joe that if he kept making fun of me, he was going to get his ass kicked by a bunch of seniors. The harassment died down.

In Hindi, we reserve a special term of respect for our older sisters.


And a good didi will always protect her little windu.

* * *

BY SENIOR YEAR, my status had solidified: king of the nerds. I captained the quiz bowl team and was in the top five on the math team. I kept at it with soccer and tennis for a few years but was never good enough to make varsity. Mentally, I blamed it on being a year younger than everyone, owing to the skipped grade, but the truth is, my competitive drive was not matched by my athleticism. In senior year, I didn’t bother coming out for either team. It was a quiet defeat.

Although I was not much of a heartthrob, one girl eventually came around. When senior prom arrived, I was dating Melanie. On the way up to the summer house where a bunch of us were staying, we made a stupid decision. We went off-road. Not with pickups or a Wrangler, but with a minivan and my little Dodge Neon, a compact sedan that looked like a hyperactive frog. We got stuck in the wet dirt. As the tires spun, mud flew, clogging the small tire wells, spitting grit all over the car.

Walton was the prom date of one of Melanie’s friends. He was driving the other car, a maroon minivan, which did not get stuck. His leer irritated me, as did the way he leaned out of the driver’s window of the minivan, laughing. Angry at being made fun of, I bottled up my resentment and focused on extricating the car.

After arriving at the house, we filled the bathtub with cans of beer, partied late, and did what teenagers do when they get to spend a rare night away, unsupervised.

Early that morning, still awake and foggy from the depleted bathtub beer stash, I snuck out and transferred as much mud as I could, by hand, from my car to Walton’s. He had humiliated me. Now it was my turn. The deed complete, I went to sleep. What I didn’t consider was that my actions would only deepen my own humiliation come daylight.

In the morning, everyone saw what I had done. The mood grew somber on the drive home. We went full midwestern: nobody talked about it. My girlfriend was especially quiet. I felt ashamed. Mine was the injured pride of a frail ego, laid bare for all to see. I didn’t address it, I didn’t apologize, and nobody called me out. The only referendum was the group’s silence.

Dr. Z and I talk frequently about my desire to out-alpha any male I feel challenged by. We’re still searching for the headwaters. I revered my dad for his devotion to all of us, for how funny he was, for how he seemed to know everything. We loved watching competition together—the Cubs, Bulls, and Bears—but he was never competitive with me at all. I begged him to play chess. He didn’t enjoy beating me, and seemed pleased only once I beat him. Then we gave it up. Somehow this absence of expressed dominance, a subtle form of dominance in its own way, turned into a mixture of me sanctifying him and wanting to show every other male I met that they weren’t as good as either of us. Deifying him would turn out to be a problem.

Meanwhile, although I wanted to be No. 1, I had to settle for less. I graduated third in my class at Downers Grove North. For the high school yearbook, I was named “most likely to be a millionaire.” I was both flattered and surprised. I had no interest in business, I didn’t read books about entrepreneurs, and I wasn’t particularly coin-operated. While I tried my hand at mowing lawns, I was more candy striper than side hustler. My dream was to be a doctor, not an entrepreneur.

Maybe my high school classmates saw something I didn’t.

Do goal-driven future doctors treat quiz bowl like the Super Bowl, obsess over status, or coat their friends’ cars with mud because of a small slight?

I don’t know. But emotionally fragile, hypercompetitive, mercurial teenagers do, and those qualities, for better and worse, line up nicely with the central-casting traits of the male entrepreneur.


AT NORTHWESTERN, I LIVED IN a freshman party dorm called Bobb Hall, where alcohol was the defining fixture of extracurricular life. In high school I had been a late bloomer when it came to partying and dating; those activities had been on the back burner relative to academic work. Now I began to wing it in the classroom while my focus turned entirely to my social life.

I knew that joining a fraternity would mean a built-in schedule of one party after another, and I pledged at Sigma Chi. If Gavin’s dad was my original entrepreneurial role model, Sigma Chi was a new jolt of inspiration, as well as status recalibration. While a handful of our friends would go on to medical school, most guys in the house were all about business. Some came from money, but even those born with a silver spoon were ambitious. One such trust funder had a black BMW M3, a vehicle I envied (it was standard issue for a bunch of brothers), with the license plate MLTS. Rumor was that it had been a high school graduation gift from his dad. The letters stood for:

Most Likely To Succeed

He was mocked for it behind his back, and deservedly so. What he was putting out there, though, was something most guys in the house were already thinking.

Today, I’d call my experience in Sigma Chi at Northwestern a playground in white male privilege. My first internship and my first job out of college both came directly from brothers in the house getting me interviews at their firms. But the bonds were genuine. Guys cared about each other. They were mentors, sounding boards, and role models.

Beyond the schoolwork and the academic pathways into the world of enterprise, the swagger of the brothers was magnetic to me as a seventeen-year-old. There was a relentless “study hard and play hard” mentality. The outward posture was all chivalry and class. The conversations on the inside were different. I didn’t have the good stories. Compared to other guys, I wasn’t someone who got noticed a lot. When a sophomore started dating a woman who’d dumped me, it sank my narrative that “nice guys” finish first, and it opened a new frontier for my alpha pathologies to metastasize.

Though alcohol was the fraternity’s currency, one friend in the house, Reuben, was doing some harder drugs and having what were termed “episodes.” He went to Europe for a study-abroad semester, and rumor had it that he came home in a straitjacket. My Northwestern buddies talked about him in hushed tones, and only in passing. The less we talked about his situation, the less real it seemed. As I flew out to New York City in 1999, in between my sophomore and junior years, for a summer internship, Reuben’s predicament was far from being at the forefront of my mind. I’d never had any mental health issues, and I didn’t do any hard drugs. I drew a hard, if arbitrary, line after booze and pot. What I forgot, or never knew, is that a sound mind is a gift that the good Lord can rip away whenever He fucking feels like it.

My internship—landed with the help of a fraternity connection—was at Deloitte, a management consulting firm where smart senior people give clients advice and junior people, who have no idea what they’re trying to do, make PowerPoint presentations, run Excel models, and pretend they’re not frauds. It was my first real job in the business world, and I loved it.

I met my boss, Debbie, in the shadow of the Twin Towers, at the marina right outside the World Financial Center. As Manhattan buzzed with the energy of enterprise, we sat at one of the tables that doubles as a chessboard. I had no foundation in business whatsoever. Studying economics was a great way to pretend I did, but marginal cost curves and ivory tower equations have little application in the real world. Nevertheless, I would pontificate to Debbie about vendor management during her cigarette breaks. I was twenty years old, arguing that rather than beating on your suppliers, Lee Iacocca–style, you have to treat them the same way you treat your customers: as partners in the ecosystem. Debbie looked at me quizzically.

The idea of mentioning Iacocca had come from my dad, a left-wing Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher who took a historian’s view of American business. Why attack the people who make your product possible? Sure, you want to buy stuff at the lowest cost. But do you? Doesn’t making sure your suppliers are winning, too, ensure the long-term success of your business? I must have seemed like such a naïve kid to Debbie, but the gist of the idea was one I’d still be discussing twenty-one years later with the CEO of the largest company in the world.

One day that August, while I was sitting in an ocean of cubicles in Deloitte’s office at 2 World Financial Center, my phone rang. It was my dad. I wondered if my neighbor would hear, from her cubicle, the calamity about to unfold in mine. I was being charged with a crime by the state of Illinois.

In our sophomore year, one of the fraternity brothers helped a number of us secure fake IDs. They were Indiana driver’s licenses and looked so good that we put our real names on them. It was a foolproof way to get in anywhere, because we could show backup, usually a credit card, if there was ever any doubt. Now we could party in Chicago. This worked beautifully for two years. Until it didn’t.

Crobar was a busy night spot in Chicago at the time. Think: industrial beats, Dennis Rodman doing shots at the bar, bare midriffs, and expensive tattoos. Thanks to that Indiana fake ID, I’d been to Crobar many times. Then one night, as my friends streamed in, I was stopped. The bouncer said that I wasn’t getting in, and that he wasn’t giving me my ID back. It was freezing outside, with the kind of Chicago winter wind that doubles as a buzz saw. I had lost my golden ticket into bars, and by summertime in New York City I had entirely forgotten about it.

Until the call from my dad.

As it turns out, that ID had ended up with law enforcement. The state of Illinois authorities sent a letter to my house in Downers Grove, and on the phone with my dad, I struggled to catch up to what he was telling me. I ducked into a small conference room, and my brain finally comprehended. I was being formally charged with a misdemeanor: possession of false identification.

Throughout my childhood, I’d been in trouble with my dad fewer than five times. The first time was as a four-year-old, when I said I didn’t want to give my grandmother a kiss on the cheek because her skin was too wrinkly. Badi Mummy couldn’t hear me, but I can still remember the expression on Dad’s face: briefly withering, then shifting to disappointment. Though crumbling inside, I stood my ground, and refused to kiss her goodbye. But this time was different. I was twenty. This was anger and disappointment, simultaneously. I’d never felt both of those together before, let alone regarding something with real legal repercussions. It terrified me.

Toward the end of the conversation my dad said that the whole ordeal was a dagger in the heart.

Those words haunted me for a long time. They laced a cocktail of emotions. Fear of the legal system. Shame. Sadness. Guilt. Self-pity for being singled out for something “everyone” did. And another feeling I wasn’t in touch with, one that grew as I reflected in the weeks and months ahead: anger. Anger at Dad for what I perceived to be an uncalibrated reaction, a puritanical worldview, and an unwillingness to forgive.

For my entire life he’d been the perfect dad. And I thought that in many ways, I’d been a perfect son.

Dr. Z would one day explain the father-son relationship to me this way: For the son, his father begins as a deity on a pedestal. The father can do no wrong. As the son ages, he discovers that his father is flawed, mortal, and full of frailty: an oedipal fall from grace. The son is filled with disappointment, hurt, and anger over his dad’s imperfections. The father starts to sink in the son’s eyes, slowly sometimes, and other times all at once. What follows is conflict and resentment. As the son’s psyche grinds against his father’s, men are forged. Boys become men. Or they don’t.

Only some dads survive the son’s journey intact.

Before they do, they all fall down.

* * *

SIX MONTHS LATER, and it was winter again. I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; summer in New York was a distant memory, as was the ID scandal. My license had been suspended for one year, but the charges against me had been dropped. A group of us were there for Northwestern’s annual ski trip. I had never skied. It was a sport, and a lifestyle, I was trying on for the first time, the once-mysterious pastime of my affluent childhood friend. I fell in love with all of it—the views, the snow, the mountains, the skiing itself, and another, unspoken feeling as well: being among those who could afford it.

The front door of our rental house was wide open. We were splayed out on the porch, without jackets, but not cold. We were of this world, but we were not in it.

Jack, one of my best friends, was drinking from a jug of water. He gave me a sip. The water tasted like it flowed from the faucet of a glacier. The Rocky Mountains looked impossibly beautiful, surrounding us like snow blankets, flecked with proud and brave pines.

In the bathroom, the tiles were transmogrifying, shape-shifting spirits. They were alive. We had eaten the mushrooms on an omelet. Not porcini, not shiitake, definitely not enoki.

These mushrooms were magic. It was the first time in my life I’d shroomed.

At some point that afternoon we decided to go to Wendy’s. The fries were hot, salty, and terrific. What I remember most is the yellow of the cup and the scorching red of Wendy’s hair.

The jacket I’d bought with my mom before I’d left was not as shiny or as expensive as my childhood friend’s, but I was slopeside nevertheless. I was also in a serious adult relationship for the first time in my life, with a woman named Camila. She had luminous green eyes, a dry sense of humor, and an industrious work ethic. She was an exceptional skier, having been raised in a Chilean ski town, and waited for me patiently as I skidded and fell, again and again, on my way down the hill.

* * *

WHAT MY FRIENDS couldn’t be expected to notice about me, a twenty-year-old kid in a state of psychedelic rapture, mesmerized by the mountains and falling in love with a woman, doing mushrooms, laughing, drinking beer and smoking pot, and talking fast and thinking faster, was that I was beginning to climb a volcano.

This is how a manic episode starts. It’s incremental at first. I didn’t know it was happening. Nobody did.

A week or so later, back at the apartment I shared with my three housemates at the corner of Ridge and Noyes in Evanston, we decided to have a New Year’s Eve party to usher in the new millennium. My housemates were Paymon, whom I’d known since junior high; Brent, a premed student who was my sophomore year roommate; and Eric, a sparring partner on Middle Eastern politics. We all lived on the same hall freshman year, and by senior year we were all still close. As one of the hosts at the party, I was hyper-focused on making sure I asked everyone for their coat when they came in. Getting those jackets onto the bed, neatly stacked, was of paramount importance. Something was starting to shift inside me.

Obsessive, goal-directed behavior, Dr. Z would tell me twenty years later, is one of the indicators of ascending hypomania. According to Google, the hallmarks of hypomania also include an upbeat, jumpy, or wired mood; increased energy or agitation; an exaggerated sense of self-confidence; mild euphoria; a decreased need for sleep; racing thoughts; and some distractibility. But at a college party, who could decipher between a spirited and talkative guy drinking Canadian Club with Dr Pepper and someone becoming hypomanic?

My sister, a recent grad of the University of Illinois, drove up from our parents’ house, where she was living, to the party that night. From a balcony, Monica and I looked down on the street. We both feared heights, we learned, for different reasons.

“What if I fall?” Monica said.

“What if I jump?” I said.

Dr. Z says that inside all of us is a death wish.

A TV was on in the house. A news report showed a group of South Koreans. They were waiting for the Messiah to arrive, praying on their knees.

The next day my friend Daniel and I went to the mall to see The Cider House Rules. As I rocketed up, I became convinced that the movie was a revelatory event in my life. The film is based on the John Irving novel and stars Michael Caine and a young Tobey Maguire. It is a story about a man who breaks with his father figure, only to become just like him later in life. After I saw it I told anyone who would listen that it was the best movie I had ever seen. It’s a good book and a decent movie—but it’s not The Godfather.

The next day, I got a ride from school to our fraternity house from a friend. She was struggling with a relationship that was ending with a mutual friend. I felt terrible for her. Now, in my increasingly perilous state, I decided to make something up to help her feel better.

He’s gay.

How do you know?

He told me.

Who is he with?

His brother.

I meant his actual brother. My underlying intent was to make her feel better. To do so, I invented a story that wasn’t true. As I got out and closed the car door, I felt a clear sense of having helped her, a good deed complete.

To say that I was lying would be inaccurate. Lying is what we do when we intend to mislead someone. In my decompensating state, I had no intentions, just unfiltered dream-state experiences. Imagine waking up one day and being like, “That was a crazy dream,” except it was a dream for you and real for everyone else.

* * *

FROM THERE, my memories race and blur.

I’m no longer hypomanic at this point. I’ve crossed the line to mania. Hypomania is talking excitedly about the guy you just met who you are going to marry. Mania is talking excitedly about the watermelon you just ate that is the reincarnation of your grandfather. Hypomania is a vibrant experience of reality. Mania is inventing your own reality, living out your unconscious in Technicolor.

In a room in the fraternity house, I talk to my parents on the phone. First Mom, then Dad. I go back and forth between crying and not crying. This rapid cycling of moods is textbook for someone who is losing it. I bring up what my dad had said to me that summer, in the wake of the fake ID incident, and I let him know that drinking is wrong—he’d been right all along. All substance use is wrong.

At this point I am (1) making up reality for myself and others; (2) experiencing a gurgling grandiosity; and (3) cycling between mood states.

I am also on a college campus where the norm, for me, is staying out late, pulling all-nighters, having weird conversations, and abusing substances. Dr. Z says that everything is overdetermined. While we search for clean-line narratives, there is no one clear singular input that catalyzes a breakdown. There are usually multiple vectors, working together.

Now the ingredients are all percolating.

Gothic conflict with Dad, weathering his disappointment. The first earthshaking love of my life, and the rising biochemical joy produced by intimacy. Ecstasy the previous summer, mushrooms two weeks prior, marijuana and alcohol as daily staples. Some powerful acne medication to treat the volcanic archipelagos on my back. Throw in the arrival of the year 2000, to which I, in my mood-altered state, attach great significance. Then the fatal decision to stop sleeping, eating, and drinking water—and with it, a flash of divine insight.

I am on foot, striding across campus, walking wherever my feet take me. The whirlwind of thoughts and feelings brings tears to my eyes as I pass the Charles Deering library. President Bill Clinton suddenly comes to my mind. Choking up with joy and gratitude, I know that one day I will be the president, too.

It is the year a.d. 2000. Wait. Those initials are the same as my initials.

The Messiah is coming back.

And I know who He is.

It’s Me.


LEAVING CAMPUS FILLED WITH MESSIANIC zeal, I head to the only twenty-four-hour spot in town: Burger King. It is two a.m., and there are only a handful of customers. I strike up a conversation. Society isn’t right, I declare. It isn’t fair that some people have more opportunities than others. The inequality of the world, the country’s history of racism: It is criminal. And I will fix it.

The non-manic person processes day-to-day interactions alongside private thoughts, selectively sharing what they think. For the manic me, there is no gauge. I say whatever comes to mind to whomever I want, whenever I want. There is no such thing as a stranger. Every thought and interaction is seismically important. It is my own personal Truman Show. Dr. Z tells me there is even now something called the Truman Show delusion, where everyone is an actor in your personal life movie.

In this state, uncomfortable truths are confronted, sometimes surprisingly coherently, other times entirely unintelligibly. Feelings I have about society that I had bottled up, including anger or anguish about the state of the world, surge like a geyser. Homelessness, a horrible fixture of daily life, becomes a cruelty that requires immediate, personal action. The people who tolerate it, who don’t welcome the homeless into their homes: they are the ones who are insane. As I empirically depart from sanity, in my own mind I become the only sane person there is. I am the seer. Everyone else is my flock, a people in need of enlightenment, conversion, and transcendence.

The truth: that night, as I moonlight as a remedy to the world’s ills, I transform into the liability in chief. Here I am, a walking stereotype, a Northwestern undergrad in jeans and an Abercrombie & Fitch sweater, standing before three random Burger King customers, and not shutting up. They regard me with indifference, perhaps a hint of amusement at my cosmic ranting. I make a declaration that I will be giving a speech later in the week. They say they’ll come. I believe them.

At some point I leave BK. I haven’t eaten a thing. There is simply no time to eat or drink. There is too much to do to save the world. Sleep is the farthest thing from my mind. It is, I realize, something that I will never need to do again.

It is nearing five a.m., after hours of roaming, when I ring the doorbell of a random Evanston house. I pick a residence by instinct, knowing that no matter which one I choose, I will be well received.

The man who answers the door has disheveled brown hair. I ask if I can come in and talk to him. My fundamental knowledge is that he will say yes. Who wouldn’t want to talk to a prophet? Manic me experiences life as destiny, an inevitable future with absolute truth, where wishes and ideas are manifest, without question. The world unfurls from my imagination like a solipsistic version of that self-help book The Secret. Solipsism: the belief that there is only one mind in the universe, and you yourself are that one mind. I am now conjuring reality.

The guy at the door looks at me like I’m…insane. The door slams.

I am undeterred.

There is no fear and no filter.

* * *

AS MY CONDITION deteriorates, on the streets of Evanston, I run into Nick Ehrmann, one of my best friends at school. It wasn’t an accident. My friends are increasingly attuned to something amiss. They are looking for me.

Nick had been with me on the ski trip. He knows me as well as anyone, and how big of a deal it is for me to be in a healthy, serious relationship for the first time, with Camila. His mom, Lisa, is a trained psychologist. When he finds me, he gets me on the phone with her. I explain to her that Camila and I are to have a baby, who will be the Second Coming.

Offline, Nick’s mom tells him to get me to the hospital. What she doesn’t tell him is that my delusional state is likely an indicator of drug use, mania, or schizophrenia. After we hang up, she prays it’s not schizophrenia. I am noncompliant on going to any hospital, and escape from the clutches of my conversation with Nick by telling him I am going home to sleep.

* * *

BY DAWN, I have wandered back to my shared apartment. I run into my housemate and friend Eric later that morning. I tell him about the speech I’ll be giving later in the week, and the folks from Burger King who are coming. He is concerned, but chalks it up to a friend who has been going out too much. I have no memory of the next twenty-four hours. Eric sees me again the following morning; I am looking harrowingly tired, bags under my eyes. I tell him I rode Chicago’s elevated train, the “L,” all night. Then I slip in that I am speaking to birds.

He looks at me quizzically.

“You’re talking to birds, Andy?” he says. “Like, they speak English to you?”

“No,” I say, growing irritable. “Of course not. I talk to them in my head.” I loved Dr. Dolittle books as a kid. Now I am part Dr. Dolittle.

Eric and our other housemates, Brent and Paymon, are gravely concerned. After another unaccounted-for twenty-four hours, they surmise that I’ve been up for three nights in a row. Dr. Z says that a manic person can stay up for four or five nights before crashing. That is how much the runaway brain disconnects from the body.

When I next see Eric, I inform him that Camila is God.

“Camila is God?” he asks me.

“Yes,” I confirm.

“So who does that make you?” he asks me.

“I’m going to be her Moses. I’m going to spread the word. God is not a man. The Bible has been wrong the whole way. God is a woman, Eric. Just think: Who gives us life? Mother. Mother Nature. Our own mothers. And yet we venerate our fathers.”

So who at this point is the Messiah? My answer keeps changing. It’s me. It’s Camila. It’s our unborn child. We would have needed an ecumenical council to sort this all out. I show my housemates a manifesto I’ve written that lays out my thinking. It is a hybrid of delusions and babble.

As they read it, I’m pacing in the room. The group huddles, then they call my parents. Mom and Dad are already concerned by my dead cellphone and my strange call earlier in the week. Dad is dispatched to see what’s going on. When I notice that my flip cellphone is dead, I begin to wonder if I’m dead, too. Some delusional people, Dr. Z says, actually think they are dead, like in The Sixth Sense. That’s me. Now the walking dead, I know that I will live forever. A Holy Ghost.

Manic me sees symbols in everything: everything means something, and everything is a sign. Dad finds me outside the apartment building when he pulls up in his green Pontiac. I get into the car willingly. The sign is this: the first man I am to convert is my own father.

At this point, I have been awake for three nights, but I am not mentally tired at all. Physically, I’m falling apart. Wired and loquacious, I proceed to confront Dad, on the drive home, about three things: white men, forgiveness, and drugs.

On white men: Can’t he see that so many of the so-called heroes of history were white men, like him? Washington, FDR, Lincoln, Jerry Sloan—what did they all have in common? I have recently read Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I am grappling with its theories about why white Europeans ascended, why Pizarro sailed to conquer the Incas, and not the other way around. I am also ready to apply these ideas to my own family. In my manic mind, Dad colonized Mom. As the son of a Scandinavian Irish American white man and a Punjabi immigrant mother, I find myself deep in some Freudian clichés. I explain to my father that he is failing to grasp his own unconscious preferences for white culture, and how this lack of awareness embodies the worst of white men everywhere. In this way, it is my closest loved ones who become avatars of my manic firestorm of emotions.

On forgiveness: Why can’t he forgive his family for their unspoken grievances? On drugs: Why be so puritanical? Toggling between angry diatribes and sanctimonious lecturing, I channel all my being into leading Dad to a new truth. Trying to avoid any escalation, Dad just drives.

When Dad and I arrive at home, I strip down to my underwear and begin roving through the house. I sit in a chair upstairs and continue to teach Dad, asking him questions, issues that were previously subconscious now bursting forth, free-form, from the unconscious. He nods, not engaging, stone-faced. It is a remarkable performance.

My family is stalling.

My Ashi Masi, her husband, Uncle Yash, and their son Neil come over. All three are doctors. Ashi Masi had delivered me into this world. Now I am on the verge of slipping back out of it. The group of us pile into their car. I am guided to the middle of the back seat, surrounded on all sides by family. They spare me the ambulance and the struggle. And because I trust them on an innate level, to the hospital we go.

* * *

AS TEENAGERS, Paymon and I volunteered as candy stripers at Good Samaritan Hospital, where my mom was the head of the ultrasound department. We sat up front in our red-and-white-striped uniforms, which made us look like we were wearing tablecloths from Pizza Hut. We had two relatively simple jobs: answer the phone and greet visitors. We’d been tasked with one set of special instructions, however. When someone came in looking for someone in the North Pavilion, the psychiatric ward, we were instructed to say:

I don’t see anyone here by that name.

The anonymity of those patients had to be protected. Enterprising family members would sometimes ask where the mental ward was. We could point them in that direction, and then from there, somehow it got figured out. We were never sure how. “Up North” may as well have been the North Pole in terms of our understanding of how things worked.

He’s headed up North became our joke, inside and outside of the hospital, for anyone who was acting strangely.

One day someone walked in and said they were looking for Mrs. Ellen.

Paymon checked the computer. There she was. Elizabeth Ellen.

“Elizabeth Ellen?”

“Yes,” the young woman replied. I imagined she might have been Elizabeth’s daughter.

Paymon looked back at the screen. There was a zero before the phone number, which meant she was a North Pavilion patient.

“She’s not here,” he replied.

“What do you mean? You just gave me her first name.”

Paymon gulped. He was trapped. He looked over at me, but I wouldn’t make eye contact. I was focused ahead, giving nothing away.

At that point, Paymon had no choice. He sent the visitor up to the North Pavilion.

My first associations with mental illness came from this time volunteering at the hospital: mockery and secrecy.

* * *

THE CAR, filled with family, pulls up, and my parents bring me into the emergency room at Good Sam. We stand before a desk I had manned as an emergency room EMT greeter a couple years earlier. In a role reversal, now I’m the one getting checked in.

Once inside, I explain to the medical staff that my girlfriend, Camila, is the Messiah. My housemates drive down from school to meet me there, and bring my favorite food: Taco Bell. Brent asks me what kind of car I will drive as a prophet. I reply, “A Porsche convertible.”

Paymon, who has known me the longest of any of my friends, looks at me pointedly: “Andy! Camila is not the Messiah,” he says. “You know that, right?” Reason isn’t the most winning strategy when dealing with people experiencing mania. Anger, also, not so much.

I insist that Camila is. The medical staff takes note that I am extremely dehydrated, perhaps have not had water in days, and certainly not food. They hook up an IV. I go in and out of bouts of crying uncontrollably, in anguish at the state of the world. Nick arrives to join my housemates, to survey the damage. My mom interrogates all of them: she thinks my state must be due to drugs, and wants to know what they know as my partners in substance use. Dr. Z will later tell me that she wasn’t entirely wrong to question the role of the drugs involved: for many, even a “chill” drug like marijuana can stimulate a manic episode.

“Paymon,” I exclaim proudly, chugging a bottle of water. “Look, I can drink as much water as I want, and I don’t need to pee!” My dad’s in the room, arms crossed: confused, upset, overwhelmed.

“Okay, Andy,” Dad says. “Okay. Okay.”

* * *

WHEN THEY ASK if I want to commit myself to the psych ward, I happily sign. I’m on a manic carpet ride. At times it feels like an adventure. I can still remember the calm, resolute walk of my sister in her long green coat as I am wheeled by a crew of healthcare professionals and security personnel to the North Pavilion. I am headed up North.

As I settle into my room in the mental ward, I see my parents in the doorway—the look of fear and concern on their faces. I’ve flipped to wanting to impress upon them the idea that drugs are not that bad for you, that they’re maybe even good for you—the irony being the role ecstasy and mushrooms might have played in altering the chemistry of my brain. My puritanical dad is the target of my incoherence.

Love or drugs, I remember saying to Dad, love or drugs. Over and over.

The first priority for an admitted manic patient is sleep. The hospital staff loads me up to knock me out. An antipsychotic plus sleep medication plus mood stabilizers. And that first night I sleep for sixteen hours—like Rip Van Winkle. That hibernation allows my brain to relax at last, my synapses to begin to be restored, my body to reset, catch up, and begin a multiday journey back to sanity.

My next memory of the North Pavilion is from the following day—filling out a questionnaire. It starts with job and compensation. I proudly write down $58,000: the starting salary of my upcoming job at Bain & Company, the consulting firm, which I am slated to begin in August 2000. But I also note in the margins how backward it is that the first question concerns my job and income. I am fixated on teaching the healthcare professionals that the capitalist cancer of our society begins with asking mentally unwell people how much money they make.

The first will be last, and the last will be first. Material things are an illusion. Conspicuous consumption is evil. Manic me saw inequality in the world as untenable.

The manic state is a real-time processing of the unconscious. It’s a rushing to the surface of everything gurgling beneath it. There is a jumble of truth, hyperbole, and nonsense alike in what I am thinking. But it adds up to profound realization, a new spirit of concern. The idea is that the world is profoundly unequal, and that it is time to grant the justice largely conferred to white men to all people, that after tens of thousands of years of being the subjugated gender, it is time for women to become the equals of men. The turn of the millennium, too, is involved—a marker of significance, urgency. It all condenses and crystallizes into a single concept:

God is a woman.

And then a second thought:

And she wants to have a child.

Male priests. Male gods. Men segregated from women by religion. The men who wrote all the books.


His story.

Women, who make humans, who give birth, who give life, Mother Earth, they were the sideshow.

Camila will give birth to our child, the Second Coming. My matriarchal upbringing, the oppression of my maternal grandmother as a child bride, the echoes of colonialism in the racial differences between my parents, my deification of my own mother, my admiration for and resentment of the purity—and pure whiteness—of my own father, and the biochemical halo of falling in love with a woman for the first time converge into a narcissistic and megalomaniacal delusion: I am to be the savior of men.

It is obvious to me that God is a woman. My life’s mission, once I get out, is to bring that message to the world, set the record straight, and, in so doing, save us all.

* * *

I LOVE MY fellow inpatients on the mental ward. They are, like me, from the other world, so there is no need to teach them anything: they already know, and they know me. We play ping-pong. We watch Jeopardy! together. I don’t have my contact lenses, but for a period of time, I am convinced that I can read the answers perfectly from afar. As I return to sanity, am fed more and more medication, my eyesight reverts to nearsighted, and I can no longer read the clues. The patients, all in their own worlds, are a happy bunch. The staff members are our guardian angels.

After a few days, a lot more medication, and a lot more sleep, I was beginning to come back. I was becoming the me everyone knew, again. It was a volcanic explosion on the way up; on the way down, it was a slow descent. The lava dried, and I moved toward base camp and reality.

About a week in, the doctors decided I was ready to go. At that point, I thought, Thank God. With my psychosis receding, being in a mental ward became less fun. I started to think, Get me the hell out.

I sat down for a discharge briefing with the psychiatrist, a woman from India. Coming from a family of Indian doctors, she cut a familiar figure. What she said was unfamiliar.

Her diagnosis: bipolar disorder type I, which is the most severe kind.

The words fell like a sledgehammer in slow motion. I was not yet sane enough to be in shock, or to cling to the belief that everything happened for a reason. In a separate discussion with the same doctor, my parents and sister sparred with her. Was the Accutane I’d been taking for severe acne to blame? Or the psychedelic mushrooms? The doctor said that if I didn’t have another episode for five years, that might mean it was a one-off psychotic event, that bipolar disorder was a differential diagnosis, whatever that means.

One-off. That term became a life raft our family clung to for years.

I was already entering the emerging depressive state that frequently follows mania. What goes up that high doesn’t just come down. It stays down.

I had heard the term “bipolar” used in hushed tones to describe others—it always seemed to refer to people who were constantly up and down. When we got back to my parents’ home, I couldn’t even look it up. It became a forbidden word. If I had bothered to learn more, I would have known that it’s a forever diagnosis. If I had, I would have known that five years isn’t the right timeline—that mania can return twenty years later, out of nowhere. If I had looked it up, I might have learned that there is no cure, that it’s like a bomb in the brain, one that might go off at any point and that, on the flip side, can lead to prolonged periods of depression and stunningly high rates of suicide.

Meanwhile, the simplicity of the diagnosis’s terminology, the suggestion of simply two states, manic and depressive, the notion that I was “disordered,” simply didn’t square with how I felt. I felt like someone who had been on a dream journey, someone who had seen the world more clearly—for all its inequalities—and who was now on a mission in the real world to do something about it.

A few days after my release, my Punjabi grandmother, our Badi Mummy, came to visit. I was blinking my eyes unnaturally, I don’t know why, while attempting to sleep in my high school bed. “So jaen mera beta,” she said as she rubbed my head, meaning “Go to sleep, my boy.” That primal feeling of being in my grandmother’s care, the acceptance, the love, the belonging, felt like a warm blanket for the soul as I descended, slept, and progressed on the road to recovery. I returned to a childlike state. With that recovery, with each passing day, the delusions of grandiosity diminished, and kernels of shame, of shock, emerged. I began to accept that what had been an ethereal dream for me had been a nightmare for everyone else. That nightmare was now becoming my reality, too.

I was twenty years old. I had bipolar disorder type I. For the rest of my life, disordered? This didn’t seem like something that could be happening to me. The possibility that this new, unknowable thing was a forever diagnosis? A future filled with wild upward swings; periodic hospitalizations; long, catatonic depressive phases; and maybe time in an institution? No sir. No thank you. Too much. Oh, and suicide rates? Okay, let me look that up: “Researchers estimate,” noted a National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) abstract, “that between 25% and 60% of individuals with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives and between 4% and 19% will complete suicide.”

I cracked in half. If somebody told you that this is what your future might look like, would you want to believe it? Would you be willing to? A few days after I got out of the hospital, my mom drove me, against my will, to see an outpatient psychiatrist for follow-up, a step recommended on my exit from the North Pavilion.

“Mom,” I protested, “there’s no need. I am not bipolar.” When we say someone “is bipolar” rather than “has bipolar disorder,” that’s like saying that someone “is cancer” rather than “has cancer.” The hardest part is that that’s what we hear when we are diagnosed. I am bipolar. Or when others whisper: He is bipolar. Which is why it’s easier to not say it at all, and deny the whole thing.

The doctor I visited took notes and listened calmly as I rejected dozens of years of accumulated psychiatric science. I lectured him on how devastating the name of the diagnosis is and informed him that it didn’t apply to me.

When I returned to the car, where my mom had been waiting patiently, I told her I wasn’t going back.

Whenever the word “bipolar” came up in my stream of consciousness, I put it back in the bottle. The shame became hidden, the memories of what had transpired frozen in amber. I didn’t talk with my family about what had happened. I tried to erase it from my mind. I tried to delete a part of myself. My only way to cope with the diagnosis was to categorically reject it.

Despite my efforts, flickers of things I had said and done were refiring and coming back to me. The Ghost had arrived.

I knew I had to get back to school to show everyone I was okay. I had missed a week of classes, and my goal was to pretend nothing had happened. Within ten days, stunningly, I was back at Northwestern—studying and socializing among a group of friends, many of whom knew that I had lost my mind, from my girlfriend to my fraternity brothers who had visited me in the hospital. I didn’t know what to say about it. I couldn’t possibly talk about it. So we did something simultaneously gothic and midwestern: we never did. It was like it never happened.

The medication I was prescribed was called Depakote. In the heavy dosage I took, 500 milligrams, it’s a big pink pill. For some months, I took it, on and off. It dulled me. It removed my joie de vivre, my creative spark. As I would learn, it’s common for the recently diagnosed to go off their meds. It’s not because we’re idiots. It’s because we’d rather roll the dice and be ourselves than be someone we don’t know. And it’s easier to do this if everyone is trying to pretend that what happened didn’t happen. It’s easier to do this if the diagnosis itself is being questioned or denied. The stigma around mental illness makes it logical to skip meds, too. If something is so shameful that it’s unspeakable, why take medication and internalize that shame?

The number of intersecting forces—conscious and subliminal, societal and cultural, biochemical and otherwise—conspiring to cause a patient to stop taking their medication is enormous.

If I’d had an ongoing relationship with a therapist or a psychiatrist, maybe it would have been a different conversation. Maybe we could have tinkered with different medications and dosages to find an equation that worked. But I didn’t. My mom took me to see someone, once. I gave him a speech about how I didn’t have bipolar disorder, and I refused to go back.

* * *

TWO YEARS AFTER graduation and two years into my tenure at Bain, the consulting firm, I brought up the episode with one of my college friends. He and I were sitting at Ghost Bar in Chicago. Was I unconsciously drawn there because of the name? With liquid courage, I revisited the episode. I knew he knew, because he’d been there at the hospital when I was admitted. It felt terrifying to finally broach the topic. My heart was exploding.

He did his best to engage, but the conversation stalled out. That in and of itself would have been awful, but not long after, he proactively said he didn’t want to discuss what we had talked about at Ghost Bar ever again. As if it were his burden to hear about more than it was mine to bear. As if he was more ashamed by the memory than I was by my reality. By banishing the subject as taboo, after I had finally found some sliver of fortitude to talk about it, he solidified my desire to not bring it up with anyone ever again. A small bid for help can be, privately, a gigantic effort, imperceptible to its recipient, and crushing to the bidder if rejected.

I lived by pretending that what had happened had never happened. I took each passing day of sanity as evidence that the events of early 2000 had been an aberration, a glitch in the matrix. No blue pill, no red pill, and no pink pills, either. The problem had probably been the mushrooms, or the ecstasy the previous summer, or both, mixed in with my state of romantic rapture. Or maybe it was that I hadn’t been sleeping, or had been drinking too much, or taking Accutane, or all five things combined. It couldn’t be what I had been medically diagnosed with.

I hid what had transpired from the real world because the real world had no desire to talk about it or process it. Everyone was happier if it seemed like the episode hadn’t happened. Including me.

My diagnosis became a ghost. Not visible to the living, but always there. Like a half-dead person, I was no longer fully seen, by myself or others.

I chose not to engage with the diagnosis, not because I didn’t want to, but because I just couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I was dancing on the knife’s edge, mistaking it for a springboard.


SOME DAYS I FELT THAT Brian Spaly was just like me, only better in every way.

Spaly was my new roommate on campus at Stanford Graduate School of Business, or simply “the GSB,” as insiders call it. A three-letter acronym to rival the school’s rival: HBS, or Harvard Business School. If business schools were houses at Hogwarts, HBS would be Slytherin, all cunning and ambition, and the GSB would be Gryffindor, all courage and compassion, and with a slightly self-righteous undercurrent of moral and entrepreneurial superiority. In other words: perfect for me.

Stanford was notoriously the hardest business school to get into, but the least competitive, and the most collaborative, once you were in. The grade nondisclosure policy, the focus on the touchy-feely side of leadership, and the unabashed embrace of all things entrepreneurial created an atmosphere of grandeur and possibility. The question wasn’t how you could beat your classmates and get the best job; it was which of your classmates was going to become your co-founder. This was the milieu I had been dreaming of.

Between the consulting job at Bain and Stanford, I spent two years as a private equity associate. The best way I can describe what that job entails is acting like you’re super important when you’re not. Your bosses buy and sell companies, mostly with other people’s money, and earn outsize returns by leveraging those investments with debt. As a junior number cruncher, I got to go along for the ride: board meetings in Connecticut, ski trips to Park City, closing parties with bankers in Vegas, and investor meetings in South Beach and New Orleans.

It was a prestigious and lucrative profession, a true Masters of the Universe club. It was also an advanced course in alpha male overcompensation, literally and figuratively. The partners in consulting were worth millions of dollars. The partners in private equity were worth tens of millions, and more. They treated me well. I learned a lot about owning companies, but not much about building them. Directionally, I was bad at the job. My entire second year was dedicated to buying a company that made bathrooms smell better. I wanted to be the person building something inspired from the beginning, not the one who buys it later. I didn’t want to be known just for covering up the smell of other people’s farts.

Spaly and I arrived at the GSB with virtually the same post-college experiences: we’d both spent time in consulting, at the same firm no less, then worked in private equity. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend, first meeting up in Austin the summer before the program. We were both from the Midwest: Spaly grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

We became fast friends and decided to room together at Schwab, the dorm where most first-year Stanford business school students lived. I admired Spaly. He was better at sports. He was funnier. He had more money. He was self-reliant, disciplined, and frugal. I was none of those things.

What I was most jealous of: while I was barely an athlete, he was an exceptional one. We’d both played soccer in high school—I’d been a JV grunt; he’d been a star. He’d played hockey, too, and had picked up squash as an undergrad at Princeton, then made the team. He was good, and he knew it. After he beat the son of one of our Stanford professors, Spaly sent the kid an email outlining all the ways his dispatched opponent could tighten up his game. He was an outstanding skier, floating over moguls and bombing down hills, always in control.

What defined our future, though, was this difference: he was fashionable and I was not. His style was tailored, colorful, even flamboyant. He’d wear a psychedelic pink bow tie and a seersucker suit one day, white jeans and a faded Lakers T-shirt the next. He knew where in San Francisco you could buy used $500 Italian leather shoes at 80 percent off, and how to pair them with a subtly pin-striped pair of wool pants. In sartorial matters, he was not a hockey player from Ann Arbor at all.

After I drove down from Stanford to run the San Diego marathon, I reported back to Spaly, an Ironman triathlete, with my time.

“Holy shit,” he replied, “that’s fast! Amazing. You worked for that.”

It was like reporting to a coach, and in many ways that’s what Spaly was. He was a workout freak and a nutritionist with an ironclad Trader Joe’s regimen. He would remind me to steer clear of what he called the five white devils: mayonnaise, sour cream, sugar, cocaine, and Dick Cheney. He even gave me pointers on how to clean the counter of our shared first-year kitchen, including the right way to use a sponge.

At the GSB, talking about startups is core to the culture. In Chicago, people thought my startup ideas were cute, but no one took my overtures to raise capital seriously. I built a business plan for a nationwide falafel-and-hummus chain and shopped it around to my mentors, people who could have afforded to write a check. Not one taker. Upon returning from a consulting engagement in El Salvador when I worked at Bain, I devised a scheme to import premium Guatemalan rum. Lots of cheerleaders, but no dollars.

Angel investors are the people who will invest in your company at the very beginning—before there is any traction. A typical check might be anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 for a modest stake in the enterprise, generally maxing out at 1 or 2 percent of the company. Typically, angel investors back a founding team and an idea. At the time, I couldn’t find any angels in Chicago. It was an old-school business town: commodities, industrials, airplanes, and cheeseburgers. I headed to California not just to find money for new ventures but to brush up against people who wanted to make the future.

At Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the atmosphere from 2005 to 2007 was exactly as advertised. The sense among my new classmates was that anything was possible. Google, launched by two Stanford engineering students, had gone public in 2004, was mapping the globe, and had just acquired a fledgling mobile operating system called Android. In downtown Palo Alto, right across El Camino Real from campus, a company known as Facebook had recently incorporated, after its founder dropped out of Harvard. Skype was enabling people from all over the world to talk face-to-face. Jobs was working on the iPhone. YouTube was acquired by Google for more than $1 billion, just one year after launch. In class, we debated whether the acquisition was justified. It seemed like a ridiculous price at the time, though several classmates argued with prescience that it was a brilliant move.

We were swimming in the bathwater of Silicon Valley at the peak of its powers: the rise of social media and the launch of smartphones. When Mark Zuckerberg came to visit one of our classes, fresh out of college, the oxygen got sucked out of the room and replaced with awe.

With such startups-turned-juggernauts serving as ever-present inspiration, students came up with ideas constantly and tested them out on each other. Here, without jobs, and with all the time in the world to dream, this Silicon Valley mindset was taken to the next level. If Sigma Chi at Northwestern was an airport for my entry into privilege, Stanford business school was a space station.

* * *

OVER WINTER BREAK that first year at the GSB, I took a trip with Spaly and Bryan Wolff to Bogotá, Colombia. Spaly and Wolff were two of a kind: two dusty blonds with blue eyes. If Spaly was the charismatic and brash front man, a little more like Top Gun’s Maverick, then Wolff was the wingman and color commentator, a little more Goose.

It was in Bogotá that I first took stock of Spaly’s love of men’s fashion. While in Colombia we received an email invite to a friend’s wedding in Lima, where we’d soon be traveling. We didn’t have anything to wear, so a local classmate of ours took us to his family tailor. Inside the atelier, Spaly lit up. He used terminology I’d never heard of, picking a Super 140s Italian wool and a contrasting pale blue silk for the liner, asking for heavier construction in the shoulder. It was the best suit I’d ever worn, and with an improbably mundane but pleasing feature: pants that actually fit.

Bogotá is hilly. As we wound down a quiet road from the tailor’s shop, I felt energized and impressed by a talent of Spaly’s I’d never fully appreciated: he really knew his stuff when it came to the make of men’s clothing. I should have known. From the moment we’d arrived at school, Spaly had been talking only about one entrepreneurial idea:


He believed that most men’s pants didn’t fit. During our first year, he launched an independent research project to see if it was just his hunch or a widely shared view. He devised a survey and sent it to our classmates. What he found was that guys didn’t like the way their pants fit, they didn’t like shopping for pants, and so whenever they could, they resorted to the default: jeans.

I never took Spaly’s business idea seriously. It seemed a hobby, a passing interest, something fun to talk about. In my narrative, I was the one who was going to do something entrepreneurial, and his pants thing was just a curious little idea, a toy project. What I didn’t know at the time was that a lot of great companies start out as toys.

* * *

WHILE SPALY WAS talking pants, I was fixated, that first year at Stanford, on the concept of cultural arbitrage, the business equivalent of bridging different cultures. This was a natural idea for a windu with a developing travel addiction. How do you take something one group of people love, fanatically, and bring it to a broader audience? In addition to importing Guatemalan rum and rolling out a national falafel chain, I developed a third obsession: commercializing a market in the United States for South African biltong.

A remarkable form of cured meat, biltong is to beef jerky what filet mignon is to ground round. It’s raw beef, originally cured by sunlight, infused with salt, pepper, oil, and coriander. During the spring term of our first year at Stanford, I recruited a team of five classmates to evaluate the opportunity to make biltong in the United States. I couldn’t believe that carnivorous Americans hadn’t already stumbled upon it.

The biltong team sat down for the final presentation with our professor, Joel Peterson, who was overseeing the project. Joel was beloved among the students. He’d been a CEO of a large real estate concern, he’d invested hundreds of millions of dollars during his career, and he had served on dozens of boards. Joel was unusual in that he was an experienced investor in companies up and down the life cycle, from backing startups with venture capital, to scaling later-stage enterprises with private equity, to governing and growing public companies.

Although his students showed up in flip-flops, Joel wore a navy suit and silk tie to class. He had a Wheaties box in his office that read, Feedback: Breakfast of Champions, a gift from students, in acknowledgment of a previous teaching award. A Mormon from Michigan and a Detroit Tigers fan, Joel had a Socratic style in class that often manifested in role-playing management scenarios. He pushed us to treat difficult conversations with care, but to never shy away from the heart of the matter. He would pepper in a wealth of insights from his time in the trenches, along with more than a little life wisdom gained as a father of seven and a grandfather of twenty, his stories always infused with self-deprecation and humility.

We sat down in a conference room adjacent to Joel’s modest office for the presentation. We laid out the case for how Americans, who by and large love red meat, might gravitate toward a much-better-tasting version of it in dried form.

Aside from my mom, Joel is the best listener I know. He’d stare at me with lucid blue eyes and a calm nod, inviting me to go on. Meanwhile, he never broke my gaze, never interrupted. When he did speak, it was almost always to ask a thoughtful question, never sharply posed but always incisive, or to offer a prompt that would drive the conversation further. His typical construction was this:

“Well, I’m the last guy who’d know anything about this, so take this for what little it’s worth.” Then he’d drop a perspicacious insight no one else had ever raised. After meeting Joel, I realized that the most self-confident leaders are not the ones who need to talk, but the ones who ask the best questions.

As we sat down that day to present the plan, the team was excited. We’d been slogging for the entire term, and our audience with Joel was the moment we’d been working toward.

Somewhere in mid-conversation he offered one of his pointed questions:

“Andy, is this a company or a product?”

Turning the question over in my head, I wondered what the difference was. I don’t remember what I said. A little bit of the oxygen left the room.

As we talked through the risks to the business, we explained that biltong was a cured meat, not cooked in a traditional way, and that it currently hadn’t reached the U.S. market because, since it was an uncooked meat sold in ready-to-consume form, it might not be legal.

Joel made a joke: “It’s illegal. Well. That could be a minor challenge.”

Everyone laughed. Such an experience might have put me in a funk. But my Ghost was nowhere to be found. While I was in Northern California, I was running forty miles some weeks. I got a lot of sunshine. Grandiose dreaming was encouraged. No depression, no mania. I had never felt more distant from the diagnosis.

* * *

ANDY RACHLEFF WAS another Stanford legend. Whereas Joel’s experience was across stages, Andy’s was in Series A investing: the first meaningful round of venture capital a company takes, usually after friends and family and angel investors have come in, but before there is much proof of concept. The firm he had co-founded, Benchmark Capital, quickly became one of the three biggest names in Silicon Valley at the time, along with Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins.

What made Andy remarkable was that he, at the apex of his career in venture capital, had left it behind to share his learnings with all of us at the GSB. His insider knowledge of how great technology companies got funded, and the art and science of backing the best entrepreneurs, made his classes as popular as Joel’s. Andy coined the term “product-market fit,” the moment in startup iteration when you know you have something that the people want. When I heard about Andy during my first year, knowing that I couldn’t take his class until the second year, I pestered him for a call to get his advice on my concept of taking my cultural arbitrage ideas and turning them into a venture capital firm. The thought was that while any one of the ideas might fail, by investing in an entire range of like-minded startups, I could earn a return for investors.

Like Joel, Andy had an uncanny way of leaving silence for his conversational partner to step into—and sometimes, as in my case, stumble all over.

After I hurriedly described the idea to him, the first full sentence he ever spoke to me was this:

“It’s a terrible idea.”

I’d never experienced a relative stranger being so brutally honest with me at first blush. He had no qualms about offering an unequivocal opinion the first time we spoke. Whereas Joel would lay out his assessment artfully, Andy would just drop his opinion right on you. His candor left me speechless. It was a paradox: while so much of Silicon Valley culture involved being supportive of other people’s ideas, Andy’s form of support was telling the truth, especially when it hurt.

Andy’s rationale was that a venture capital firm focused on consumer products and retail, with businesses that relied on brick-and-mortar stores, couldn’t work. “The size of your wins isn’t big enough to cover all your ones and zeros,” he explained. It was my introduction to venture capital math. Andy, as a technology investor, knew something I didn’t yet: information technology, software, and the developing internet made possible asymmetric returns that you couldn’t access in businesses where you had physical inventory and real estate.

* * *

AS I WORKED through my entrepreneurial ideas, I landed a summer internship at a venture capital firm in Seattle called Maveron, which focused on consumer investments. At the end of the summer, I was lucky to receive an offer. Over lunch on Lake Washington, I shared the news with a mentor and a departing partner at the firm.

“You’re not taking that offer,” he told me.

“What are you talking about? I’ve been working toward this for years.”

What he said next is one of those things you never forget, a spur-of-the-moment zap of advice that ended up altering the trajectory of my life.

“You’re not a venture capitalist, Andy,” he said. “You’re an entrepreneur.”

As someone who had never started a company, wasn’t particularly focused on money, and couldn’t figure out how to sell hummus, rum, or biltong, I didn’t know where his confidence came from. He had been both a VC and an entrepreneur in his own right, though, so I tucked away his advice.

I didn’t take the job.

Before I returned to Stanford, something unusual started happening in Seattle. After a full night’s sleep, I would rise from bed, eat breakfast, and get ready for the day. Before leaving, though, the orange futon in the corner of my sublet would whisper to me to lie down again for just a moment. Fully clothed, I would comply. Just a quick nap? I would sleep the entire day. An unrecognizable feeling appeared: I didn’t care about anything. I lacked the energy to do anything. Returning for my second year at Stanford pulled me out of this slump, and I put it out of my head that it even happened. Since it hadn’t happened, there was no reason to give it a name.


IN OUR SECOND YEAR AT Stanford, Spaly and I were housemates with three others on El Camino Real in Atherton. The house was decorated like a movie set for Scarface. Crystal vases, glass tables, white sofas—the only thing missing was cocaine on the kitchen table. Spring break was approaching, and Spaly faced a dilemma.

“What should I do?” he asked me.

We were upstairs in his lofted bedroom. It looked like an attic with a gray carpet. He sat at a small desk set flush against the wall. I was standing near the doorway when he refined the question:

“Should I go to the wedding, or should I drive down to L.A. and buy fabric and start making pants?”

Friends of ours were getting married in Brazil. Dozens of our classmates were going. Spaly was feeling the momentum on his pants project. His research from the independent study exploration he’d undertaken the previous year had produced two clear takeaways. First, while the denim world had evolved—fabric with stretch, multiple fits—the world of men’s chinos and wool pants had seen no such innovation. Second, our male classmates had confirmed that they didn’t like the traditional way of shopping for pants: going to stores and trying them on. Guided by this feedback, and his own intuition, Spaly felt ready to start making prototypes.

I hadn’t yet grasped how serious he was about his idea.

“You have to go to Brazil.”

* * *

AFTER SPRING BREAK, Spaly and I got together to talk. I was just back from Nairobi. A prior commitment to join some classmates on a service trip to East Africa had kept me from the wedding in Brazil.

“How was the wedding?” I was excited to hear the stories.

“I didn’t go to Brazil. I went to L.A. and bought fabric.”

What? I was the one who wanted to be the startup guy. He was the one doing it.

In his room were several huge rolls of fabric. They were soft pinwale corduroy, fine to the hand and with a bit of stretch, in a few colors, including a velvety chocolate and an incandescent turquoise blue. For each, Spaly had bought contrasting fabric to line the inside of the pants and create the signature peek-through, or “wink,” of the back pockets. He’d purchased the fabrics with his personal savings, paired them with the contrasting linings, and before long would be importing buttons and zippers from Italy.

Spaly also found what might have been one of the last remaining clothing manufacturers in San Francisco. The company had a little cut-and-sew shop on Townsend Street, a couple blocks from the Giants’ baseball stadium. “Cut and sew,” I would learn, is jargon for the core activities in an apparel factory: reams of fabric are cut, then sewn together into garments. There were two partners in the little factory: Hong Ning, a female Chinese immigrant, and Seymour Jaron, an older Jewish man from Brooklyn.

“I don’t know, Brian,” I can hear Seymour saying in his thick Brooklyn accent, drawing out the vowels in the middle of the name. “Pants, that’s a tough business.”

Spaly paid them in cash, up front. We would sit down with Hong Ning and Seymour at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Spaly always picked up the tab. Years later, before Seymour’s passing, I returned to the factory to find the walls plastered end-to-end with press clippings on the rise of Bonobos.

The factory had dozens of sewing machines. Only four were up and running—and that enabled the garment workers to make a few dozen pairs of pants a week. Every cut ticket had four samples taped to it: the main fabric, the contrasting liner fabric, the contrasting thread, and a carefully considered button. Spaly began selling the pants. He’d carry them around in appropriately floral-patterned red Trader Joe’s grocery bags and sell them to our friends for around $100.

The main collection of inventory, maybe a hundred pairs or so, was stacked in his attic room. Spaly also kept a stash of mobile inventory, in a few different sizes and styles, in the trunk of his car. Guys would try on pants behind parked cars or trees, and with a little bit of word-of-mouth momentum, Spaly went from selling a couple pairs a week to a few pairs a day. It was energizing to watch the sales trickle in. I had a front row seat to seeing Bonobos go live.

But I wanted to play.

* * *

ONE DAY AS we sat in class, Spaly passed me a note on a yellow Post-it pad; it contained a list of names. Everyone had been calling the pants Spaly Pants, and it was time to give the brand a name. One possible candidate caught my eye, but it was a word I didn’t recognize:


Like everyone does, I mispronounced it at first. It’d be a while before I got it right: buh-NOH-boze.

“What are bonobos?” I asked Spaly.

“They’re peace-loving monkeys that like to have sex,” he replied. It turns out they’re apes. I should have rolled my eyes. Instead, I bought in. I wanted to be a bonobo, too.

As the venture picked up steam, I started helping out: taking pictures of Spaly as our pants model, selling product, working on a rudimentary version of the website, writing copy, joining Spaly on trips to San Francisco to put in orders and pick up inventory. We scheduled a pants party at our house one day, and during the run-up, we hustled to build our inventory to maybe two hundred pairs. We sold more than $10,000 worth of pants that day.

What we were learning wasn’t just that people loved the fit of the pants. They also loved being freed from the hassle of buying them the traditional way: in stores. While at Bain, I’d spent a year in Dodgeville, Wisconsin—working as a consultant on the acquisition of Lands’ End by Sears. It indoctrinated me in the advantages of a direct-to-consumer catalog retailer. At the time, Lands’ End was rated one of the top companies in America for its service. I did some research. So was L.L. Bean. It occurred to me that this was not widely understood but intuitive upon examination: they both delivered better service as apparel brands precisely because they were catalog retailers rather than store-driven. It’s hard to deliver good service in stores. The catalog folks could “out-service” the competition with their rapid response call and email centers, and they could “out-assort” their competition, too. The assortment advantage came from being able to offer more options: more colors, more sizes, and more fits. They could do this because they were aggregating demand at the national level, rather than limiting the assortment to the local demand of a brick-and-mortar store.

It was a subtle point, but with massive implications for the power of building a brand centered on fit. An internet-based company could be like a catalog retailer, but more dynamic, and—with the power of technology—more personalized. Given our early reputation for good fit and bold styles, we thought we could do something that hadn’t, to our knowledge, been done before: build the brand digitally from the ground up. The momentum of Zappos, a hot e-commerce company selling shoes, inspired us. They were also out-assorting people, offering sizes that were hard to find, and being recognized for great customer service and fast response times. Tony Hsieh had proved that you could sell soft goods from existing brands online, if you offered a great customer experience. Why couldn’t the same be true for a new brand?

The better things went at the company, now officially called Bonobos, the more involved I got. At some point as we approached graduation, something funny happened. Spaly and I body-swapped. I had introduced him to the private equity fund I’d worked for before Stanford. They made him an offer and he accepted the job. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why he wasn’t willing to go all in on his new venture. Was it fear of failure? A sense of duty to the offer he’d signed? Or a free option to see what I could do and then rejoin the company if it was “working”? In any case, it opened up a window for me. He became who I might have been, and I became who he might have been.

We struck a deal: I would become the co-founder and CEO of the company, and Spaly would stick with the private equity gig, while working nights and weekends for Bonobos on the side. We agreed that if we gathered enough momentum, and were able to raise more money, he’d rejoin the company full-time when we could afford him.

Why was he willing to entrust his idea to me? He had conceived of the whole thing. He had identified the opportunity through careful research. He had built the initial supply chain. He had designed the pants. He had put $50,000 of his savings to work buying inventory. All I had done to date was be a sounding board, a pants photographer, and a part-time blogger.

Spaly, I think, saw me as having the hustle, grit, and cunning to take his kernel of an enterprise and turn it into a company. My belief in the developing idea was perhaps reciprocally contagious. Beyond that, from our time together as classmates, he’d seen me galvanize others, including by starting a TED Talk–style series at Stanford called Talk 07, in which a classmate would share a deeply personal story each week. (I never took the proverbial stage. Deep down I knew I had a good story to tell, but I was far from ready to tell it. The Ghost went unmentioned.)

Spaly didn’t know that I had bipolar disorder. None of my classmates did. My diagnosis wasn’t even a thought I could hold in my own mind for more than a few seconds without experiencing a sinking feeling. The concept would perform evasive maneuvers, and then vanish, like a fast-darting octopus, back into the algae.

* * *

SPALY AND I were on a run. He made a comment that should have served as a bit of a warning.

“My only problem with you running this company is you’re just not that fashionable.” It was cutting and true.

My willingness to run the new enterprise day to day put me in the driver’s seat, causing the power dynamics of the decision-making to shift. Spaly, the originator of the concept and the inventor of the product, slid to the passenger side. Laced into that was the dynamic of risk-taking: Spaly, who’d put up the initial money to start the company, was now going the safer route. With a truckload of school debt and nothing in the bank, I cashed in a 401(k) to fund a few months of living expenses and took the plunge. Initially, we cut a fifty-fifty deal. At a taqueria on Woodside Road, I offered a counterproposal: if he didn’t return to the company full-time, the equity split would flip from fifty-fifty to two-thirds me, one-third him. Our startup lawyers would soon make it official.

With our deal struck, and the inventory bills piling up, it was time to raise some money.

* * *

THERE ARE TWO kinds of professors at the GSB: the academics, who do research and teach, and the practitioners, high-achieving people from the world of business who lead coursework from their experiences. The latter type, in select cases, will invest in a graduating student’s startup. It is rare but not unheard of.

Joel Peterson was one of the practitioners. He was an early riser, I met him at his office at the break of dawn. I took him through a simple ten-page pitch deck on how we were going to turn Spaly’s pants into an internet movement. As the presentation unfolded, Joel was virtually silent. While one track of my mind was sharing the idea with him, a second track was running in parallel—imagining all the reasons he’d think this was an awful concept. I dreaded missing the mark with him again.

He asked how much money we were raising.

“Three hundred thousand dollars,” I replied. “Enough to fund inventory, the website, marketing expenses, and a couple of employees for the first year.”

“And how much of the company are you looking to sell?”

“Ten percent.”

“Okay,” said Joel, “that implies roughly a three-million-dollar valuation. At two million, I’d be inclined to take the whole thing—but at three, I’m in for one hundred thousand.”

Joel said something about this being reminiscent of his first meeting with the founder of JetBlue, and how we were going to go into a stagnant industry and shake things up with a more customer-centric approach. I’ll never forget that moment—where I was sitting, the steadiness of his gaze, the gleam of belief. He was the same age as my dad, staring out from a strikingly similar set of blue eyes. Professionally he’d play the same role: a father figure whose respect I coveted, and whose disappointment, I’d find, could be a dagger. Years later, he’d tell me that my readiness to walk away from the biltong idea was the reason he had invested in the pants concept: I’d shown myself willing to listen, to change my mind, and to come up with something new. It occurred to me then that the best way to build influence with someone is to accept their influence to begin with.

Early the next week, I drove to Andy Rachleff’s office at his old VC firm. Andy was no longer an active partner at the firm, but he did take meetings there. I drove down on the hallowed grounds of Sand Hill Road. At the end of our conversation, he also offered to invest $100,000. My mind was blown. Andy didn’t like consumer investments, let alone ones with inventory or retail dynamics. I’d known that ever since he’d swatted down my cultural arbitrage venture capital idea. With Bonobos, though, he bought into the story that we’d do things differently by building the brand on the internet. He liked the distribution model. And I think he liked us