Learning To Cope With Clinical Depression Has Made Me A Better Manager

By Libby Maurer , August 11, 2017

I’m certain about three things in this world. One, Post-Its are the greatest invention. Two, it’s acceptable to drink rosé all year round. Three, I have clinical depression.

Depression has been the fight of my life, and a secret one at that. I’ve never known a time when I haven’t lived with this condition. I’ve gone to great lengths to hide it from just about everyone (with the exception of a few people who have literally picked me up off the ground.) That seemed like the only option in a world where depressed people are seen as dark, unkempt, weepy, lifeless figures, not as triumphant, inspiring, or visionary leaders. Years ago that led me to adopt the following narrative: I am not strong. I have depression. I am weak.

Fortunately, that’s not my mantra anymore, and I eventually learned to tell myself: Who cares if my brain has a hard time moving serotonin around? By learning to coexist with my condition rather than battle it, I’ve actually become a more effective manager. Here are a few reasons why.

I’m Great At Iterating Constantly

Treating depression is a puzzle–there’s a lot of trial and error involved. No two cases are the same. You learn not to give up but to experiment with lots of treatment options, therapies, and natural remedies. Some work, others don’t, and figuring out what does can be a really frustrating process.

But I’ve come to recognize that the aggravations of iterating aren’t unique to treating depression. Experimenting is vital to the process of creating a good user experience, which is what my job involves here at HubSpot. In fact, it’s vital to just about every job, in and outside the tech world. Designing a system in a way that the user understands–and finds engaging and delightful to experience–requires patient testing and iteration, and I’ve become very good at that.

There’s Power In Perception

When I was too young to understand my condition, I learned to be highly perceptive. I didn’t want anyone to worry about me, so I became hyperaware of my surroundings and learned how to read and interpret people and their body language. Essentially, I was developing emotional intelligence. Every day I’m grateful for my heightened sense of perception because I see patterns and make connections that others don’t. It’s served me especially well in building a high-functioning team–I’m able to identify dynamics that, left unchecked, can create a toxic environment, and then strategize the best way to address them.

I’ve Learned To Listen With Intent

When I was in treatment for depression in my 20s, I worked on listening to myself. I had to learn to shut out what I wanted to believe (that I didn’t have depression) and hear what was actually true (that I was suffering and needed help).

The ability to silence the noise and listen–really listen with intent–is a gift that keeps on giving as a manager. I am hyperfocused on listening to my team members, customers, and users to uncover the truth. I’ve come to learn that listening is a really underrated skill in management roles like mine, which sometimes disproportionately reward speaking and doing.

Laughing Matters (A Lot)

My condition has given me a treasured gift: a wicked sense of humor. To be clear, there is nothing funny about depression. But there was a point in my recovery when I learned how to laugh again–and it changed my life.

I’ve learned that the ability to laugh through pain can sometimes be more effective than any prescribed therapy. Similarly, when you’re managing a team, levity often creates the intimacy everyone needs to trust one another.

I Am Less Defensive Toward Criticism

When you’re fighting depression, optimism is not abundant. But there have been times where its relative scarcity has actually helped my work. When you’ve poured your heart into a product, you might feel overly confident it’ll work well for everyone and less willing to accept the likelihood of bugs and drawbacks. But my less than rosy outlook means that I don’t tend to think like this. For example, when a customer tells us that our interface is clunky or our design is not user-friendly, I don’t brush off those comments or react defensively. I accept their potential reality right from the get-go, and this way I can begin to dig deeper into the problem to find a solution.

Working in the field of human-centered design, I’ve learned that our collective humanity–our reactions to adversity, pain from personal experience, and our ability to push through discomfort–is what drives us to create beautiful user experiences. So shouldn’t we, as managers, lead our teams with personal experiences that inspire them to design for the human condition?

Depression and mental illness can be debilitating conditions if they aren’t properly treated, but they can also be potential sources of creativity and strength. I feel fortunate that the stigma of mental illness has started to erode in my lifetime. It gives me courage to step forward and encourage others to do the same. But the work isn’t done yet. As leaders and managers living with conditions traditionally viewed as “weak,” we need to continue telling our stories to lift up the people we lead. Let’s demonstrate that vulnerability leads to connection, connection drives empathy, and empathy drives innovation.

Libby Maurer leads UX research and design at HubSpot, influencing a culture of human-centered design by applying “people data” to product design.


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