Jan 12, 2021
 in 
Entrepreneurship

The Trough Of Despair, Part 1: Acceptance

George Howard

There is, inevitably, the thrill of the new. A new day, a new year, a new love, a new idea. We’re probably hard-wired to be stimulated by the new; a biological and evolutionary imperative. New doesn’t mean change, of course. We seem largely averse to material change, and, rather, like our “newness” to be only a heuristic away from what we know. The new school year is not so much an entire revisioning of the prior year, but newness on the margin: a different grade...but with the same cohort, etc. Similarly, we embrace newness on the margin when we relocate: a new town, city, or even country is typically defined by either its gradient similarity or differences from where you’ve come. You find (well...I find) the local dive bar, the local guitar shop, the local restaurant and judge them all based upon how they conform or do not to those places I’ve left behind. Still, there is an undeniable optimism and possibility-fueled excitement about this “new.”

Entrepreneurs and artists know of this possibility-fueled excitement as acutely as anyone. I would argue that true artists and entrepreneurs not only know this dopamine-excited moment well but that they need it. Show me an artist or entrepreneur who is not creating and I will show you a depressed artist and entrepreneur. As both an artist and entrepreneur, I can’t know how those who are neither find their dopamine, but they do. Maybe in a healthier way. Certainly, many find the dopamine of the new in relationships or in travel, but, again, typically these are not so much truly new, but rather new on the margin: the “new” romantic partner who is only marginally different than the prior (Cf. “we have types”); the trip to a new place that is immediately compared and contrasted against prior trips.

Whatever the case, the quest for the thrill of the “new” is human. The challenge for artists and entrepreneurs is to understand the very predictable pattern that the chase of the new takes.

tl;dr:

The above image is the complete journey...in the best case scenario and with tremendous discipline. I created that image at one of the darkest times in my life: I was in a...I kid you not...Marriott Courtyard hotel in Kingston Jamaica, where I had been booked to give a talk and had accepted thinking that I could boondoggle my way into a few days drinking Red Stripe and eating jerk fish on a sandy beach after a brief, but pleasant talk on entrepreneurship for the International Development Bank. As I like to attribute to him without taking the time to check if it’s true or not: The Buddha laughs at plans. Suffice it to say, there were no Red Stripes or jerk fish or sandy beaches. There was instead an 18 hour stay in Jamaica (a place that is holy ground for me) that preceded a nightmarish 18 hour flight to LA (a place that is unholy ground for me) that included me being questioned by the FBI at the LAX arrival “lounge” at 3:30am preceding an investor pitch I had to make later that day....and those were the good parts of the trip.

In any case, I’ve found that moments of clarity can arise during moments of misery, and while the shakiness of the “lines” in the above image accurately capture the shakiness of my mental state at the time of creation (alas, while there was no Red Stripe, there was vodka) there’s truth within the palsy.

It’s too much to unpack in one article, and so I’ll take my time and lay it out over a series of pieces. Doing so will hopefully be helpful to you (I’ve found it to be the lecture/talk of mine that resonates most profoundly across audiences — students, CEOs, entrepreneurs, etc.), but it will certainly be therapeutic to me. It may be the most truthful thing I know.

For now, look at the insane scrawl above and think about the way you feel when a spark of newness emerges in your life; whether a new idea, a new song, a new romantic partner, a new place you are living, a new school/school year, etc.

Recognize this emotion for what it is: a sense of possibility that triggers dopamine:

“...growing evidence indicates that dopamine does contribute causally to incentive salience. Dopamine appears necessary for normal ‘wanting’, and dopamine activation can be sufficient to enhance cue-triggered incentive salience. (Berridge, K.C. The debate over dopamine’s role in reward: the case for incentive salience. Psychopharmacology 191,391–431 (2007).

Recognize also that dopamine is a drug:

“Drugs of abuse that promote dopamine signals short circuit and sensitize dynamic mesolimbic mechanisms that evolved to attribute incentive salience to rewards. Such drugs interact with incentive salience integrations of Pavlovian associative information with physiological state signals. That interaction sets the stage to cause compulsive ‘wanting’ in addiction, but also provides opportunities for experiments to disentangle ‘wanting’, ‘liking’, and learning hypotheses.” (ibid.)

The challenge then for artists and entrepreneurs is to calibrate the thrust of the new with the inevitability of the crash that axiomatically accompanies it. That is, understand — with every core of your artistic and entrepreneurial self — that there is not only an equal and opposite reaction with respect to the high you feel when you start a new venture or artistic project and the lows you experience along the way, but often the despair will — temporarily (and that’s the key) — outweigh the excitement:

  • X is your mental state.
  • H is happiness; it’s a positive number
  • D is despair; it’s the same number as H (yes, math nerds, I could have called them both H), but negative and doubled

So...if your happiness at the peak stages of idea creation is 10, it means that you sum 10 minus 20 (10 * 2) in order to arrive at a mental state (X) of negative 10. At the trough of despair, you are not only not as happy as you were before you started your journey, you are...well...miserable.

Again, this is inevitable.

Accept this inevitability and you will be on your way to peace in your work, your art, and your life. Fight against it and you will swing from one dopamine-induced thrust of excitement in which the peaks get lower and the valleys deeper, until....eventually....the bottom falls out altogether.

I climbed out of my trough in the Kingston Marriott in part by creating this thesis. I’m now using it to remind myself — during a particularly challenging stage of an entrepreneurial venture I’m involved in — that this is a pattern and that there is a way out that will invert the negative sign in the equation above to a positive, and in so doing, rocket past the peak. Spoiler alert: it relates to Purpose. Watch this space.


George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc, the world’s largest independent record label, and cofounder of TuneCore, the world’s largest independent digital music distributor. He is also the cofounder of Music Audience Exchange, which comprises a team of digital marketers, engineers, and music lovers, using technology to redefine the fundamental structure of brand-artist relationships.


Mr. Howard is a professor of music business/management at Berklee College of Music, and the founder of GHS, a strategic consulting firm that advises a wide range of clients on how to integrate technology with strategy in order to increase brand awareness and revenue through innovation, social media, digital platforms, and strategic partnerships. A partial list of clients includes: Intel, National Public Radio, CVS Pharmacy, Alticor/Amway, Brown University, Paste Magazine, SpokenLayer, SingFit, The Landmark School, BigchainDB, Wolfgang’s Vault, and the Townsend Group. Howard is a sought-after expert witness who has drafted reports for and testified in many high-profile cases. He also is a columnist for Forbes, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and many other publications.


George Howard

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc, the world’s largest independent record label, and cofounder of TuneCore, the world’s largest independent digital music distributor. He is also the cofounder of Music Audience Exchange, which comprises a team of digital marketers, engineers, and music lovers, using technology to redefine the fundamental structure of brand-artist relationships.