The question “why?” has been reverberating through my head.
This past week, many of us experienced a stunned sadness. The suicides of two celebrities, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, left us wondering what happened. What did we miss?
Bourdain and Spade had achieved significant success. They were at the top of their fields. They were engaged in work that they were passionate about.
They had fame. They had fortune.
They had somehow figured out their unique talents and were fully expressing them to create positive impact for so many.
They had family and friends who loved them and fans who adored them.
The place they reached is the place many of us aspire to. For many of us, isn’t the dream to find our passion? To connect with our talents? To live our passions out loud? To impact others positively? To love and be loved? To find work that is not just a paycheck but fills us? Isn’t this what self-actualization is about? I imagine nirvana lives just on the other side of self-actualization. Does it?
At the height of what seemed on the outside were enviable lives well lived, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to end it all.
I am not a mental health expert. I can’t even begin to fathom what was going through their minds when they made the decision to leave. But, here are some questions that are going through my mind this week. I urge us to reflect on these questions as we go about pursuing our dream careers:
Most of us assume that we will be happy when (fill in the blank). The fill in the blank can be the next achievement, the corner office, the success of the side gig, the perfect partner. What if we will not be happy “when”?
I imagine both Bourdain and Spade experienced some sense of emptiness or despair. As we go about pursuing dreams important to us, what are the just-beneath-the-surface moments of emptiness we feel? What is the emptiness we avoid? What do we seek on the outside to fill that emptiness?
Suicide rates have increased by 25% in the last 20 years. Almost always, loved ones are surprised. Who are the people that we can reach out to help us when we feel despair? Who are the people in our lives we can reach out to, to be of help? What are the signs we need to be aware of?
There is still too much shame around mental health issues. How do we as a society and as individuals stop hiding behind masks of perfect Facebook-worthy lives? How do we acknowledge our humanity to others in a vulnerable way? How do we create the space for others to share what’s not perfect in their lives?
What is the cost to us of creating a public persona that is all about the positive? Success. Fun. Fame. Adventure. How painful and lonely must be the discord between the real experience of emptiness and the image of fullness that we feel we must display to the world.
What if our assumptions about the pursuit of the dream that will ultimately make us happy and successful are wrong? What if there is a dark underbelly of the human experience in each of us that we’re missing as we seek self-actualization? What would it be like to claim that dark underbelly? To accept that we are each flawed and that may never change? To accept that there is less within our control than we would like to accept?
Would our dreams be different if they emerged from an acknowledgment of our imperfections and most painful emotions?
I imagine that each one of us will have different answers to these questions. I leave you with a quote from Bourdain in celebration of being curious: “That without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, moribund.”
What are the questions you have as you process the passing of Bourdain and Spade? I welcome your thoughts and reflections.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.