Navigating an existential crisis in tech: tips from a Silicon Valley executive coach

The emergence of the darker side of A.I. the downturned economy, mass layoffs, and most recently the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank have made the past few weeks especially tumultuous for those working in the tech sector. For over a decade, my work as an executive coach in Silicon Valley has given me visibility into the sorts of quandaries tech leaders face while building products that transform the world in unpredictable ways. Many are facing a new sort of existential stress, as they work to find a way to reconcile how their professional contributions could pose a serious threat to the future of humanity. 

The current mood across the tech ecosystem has shifted away from a once devil-may-care attitude, notably among millennials raised on a diet of ‘move fast and break things’. The Bay Area, known for its youth-forward social climate is widely considered the country’s pulse of progress and tech innovation. My coaching work throughout the tech boom era entailed helping tech workers prepare for eventual burnout, since most were happy to immerse themselves in work with little to no separation of their social lives, only stopping to refuel their mission-driven ideologies with annual trips to Burning Man

The whiplash of recent events in 2023 following the erosive damage caused by the pandemic has led to a jarring new kind of existential stress among the tech crowd. The encroachment of A.I. tools rendering careers obsolete at breakneck speed, the sterilization of creative industries, and evidence that A.I. operates with racially biased, sexist and morally unethical practices has many people deeply fearing what the future holds. 

What exactly is ‘existential stress’ and how does someone manage an existential crisis?

Existential stress occurs as a result of inner conflicting feelings that lead someone to question the meaning and purpose of their life. When we face personally important questions that aren’t easily resolved, we can end up feeling stuck and unsure of how to move forward. This leads to feeling deeply uneasy when we no longer feel rooted in the values and principles that once led our purpose and direction in life. Existential stress may be experienced as a crisis when once effective strategies for managing stress are no longer sufficient and our overall functioning wanes.

If you or someone you know is feeling this way and wondering what to do, here are key signs that you may be experiencing an existential crisis:

Chronic worry. You may be experiencing recurring worries and unsettling fears that you are no longer able to get past, and distract you repeatedly in your daily life.

Loss of motivation. You may be easily overwhelmed or lose direction doing tasks you once completed with effort, and feel a loss of desire or drive that once fueled your work ethic. You may feel disconnected to the purpose of meaningful tasks, which may leave you feeling like ‘you’ll never catch up.’ 

Low energy. You’ve fallen out of your normal sleep, exercise, and diet routines that historically sustained you, leading to an erosion of your baseline energy. 

Loss of social appetite. You may have less interest in spending time with others you once enjoyed connecting with, due to low energy and mood. With diminished social interactions, we are less apt to consider alternative perspectives and benefit from the restorative nature of social connection

Loss of control. You may feel a lack of control over the future and feel like you can no longer prevent bad things from happening. This can lead to feelings of helplessness, as though your efforts are pointless and/or meaningless.

Anxiety or depression. While it’s normal to experience a range of emotional highs and lows throughout one’s life, you may find yourself struggling with mood symptoms that have reached clinical levels.
Substance abuse and/or self-sabotaging behaviors. You may find yourself relying on substances to avoid thinking or feeling, or falling into habits that are personally harmful as a temporary distraction from feeling lost. 

Seek professional help first. It can be difficult to know where to start when stress levels rise, making it difficult to add anything new to your life. Make time to check in with your primary care physician, share with them any changes you are experiencing in your physical and mental health, as well as any history of diagnoses, and take their advice if they recommend seeing a mental health professional. Adopting the appropriate level of support is the most important step in moving forward successfully, and may require an interdisciplinary approach.

Initiate changing your current patternNewton’s first law of motion states that “every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.” The tendency to resist change can put us in a state of inertia. The less physically active we are, the harder it is to move, leading to a cycle of diminishing energy. Adopt healthy sleep and diet habits as a priority, because it can determine your mental health in the same way many other variables do.

Reach out to others. Seeking support from friends and family is crucial when facing existential stress. While it may help to spend time alone to process your feelings, it’s important to not remain isolated for too long. Try seeking out new social opportunities, listen to how others are managing similar stressors. Connecting with others can normalize our experiences and help reduce feelings of isolation.

Practice self-expression. Pent up emotions can rob us of vital energy and focus. Find ways to process and express what you’re going through. Seek out opportunities that allow you to be creative, connect with your inner experience, and process it through writing, artwork, or any simple, routine task that soothes you.

Practice gratitude. When we experience ongoing stress, everything begins to blur together and falls under a negative light. Build the habit of noticing what you normally ignore, and have learned to take for granted. Look outside of your bubble, beyond your station in life as a reminder of how much you can appreciate about your current existence.

Focus on what you can control. Feeling a newfound loss of control is a core part of existential stress. Focus on what you can control to ground yourself in reality.  Remind yourself there will always be elements of life you can’t control, let alone predict. Fixating on those things reduces our ability to pay attention to the parts of our life we can influence with forethought and effort.

Practice mindfulness and meditation. Developing a restorative mindfulness practice like meditation can open a gateway to much needed relaxation. Giving yourself this mental ‘downtime’ works to restore mental agility and improves your ability to respond to stressors. 

Redefine your life’s purpose. Our existential concerns are often born out of feeling a loss of direction, leading to fears that we’re no longer on the right path. Take time to revisit your values, and if necessary develop new strategies for decision-making. It’s a good reminder we never stop changing, so our habits may need updating if we are to remain focused on what’s most important to us.

Smart solutions when productivity stalls- perspective is everything

You know that feeling when you’re stalled by something that needs to get done?  Even the most efficient people face roadblocks in their productivity from time to time.  This is especially frustrating for people who are used to completing challenging tasks with relative ease.  I recently met with an accomplished young gaming engineer for executive coaching to support his exploration of new work opportunities in Silicon Valley.  He revealed that he’d struggled for hours to complete a cover letter email, and this left him feeling baffled and weary about the whole process of interviewing for new employment.  We used the session to get to the root of what was creating this stall in productivity, and generated smart solutions based on his personal strengths.  Strategy and perspective makes all the difference.

Working with the Bay Area’s talented tech community has taught me this- the smartest people take it the hardest when their performance and results don’t meet their expectations!  Many have grown accustomed to things coming easily to them and have quickly advanced in their chosen career trajectory.  Early giftedness in STEM can sometimes lead to people develop an identity centered around being ‘brainy and capable’.  It may come as a shock when something as simple as creating a cover letter sidelines them and deflates their sense of efficacy.

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Why does this happen?  Over time, our strengths get reinforced as our primary means of solving problems because they get us from point A to point B quickly and easily.  Since these same strengths are also tied to our sense of identity and self worth, we become less willing to set them aside and use other methods of ‘solving’.  Tasks that force us to operate outside of our comfort zone trigger feelings of frustration because we aren’t as effective as we’re used to feeling, which stalls our productivity.  A guy who’s honed skills as a talented engineer, fluent in the most sought after programming languages will probably not be as adroit at English writing composition and will likely need to give himself more leeway in completing a thoughtfully composed cover letter.

Apply a smart solutions formula when your productivity stalls:
1. Conscious self-awareness.  Identify the evidence in your life (historically and currently) of how and when you have leveraged your personal strengths to achieve good outcomes.  How did your strengths allow you to perform optimally?  Result outcomes might be found in academic, career advancement, kinesthetic/athletic, social/interpersonal, emotional, musical, aesthetic, experiential, operational or other realms of functionality.

“I can recognize times in my life when my skills and abilities have allowed me to make progress, overcome obstacles, and reach important goals that have led me to where I am now.”

2. Balanced self-acceptance.  Scientific advancements in human cognition and intelligence reveal that all people possess strengths and weaknesses relative to their overall functioning.  To expect to function only by means of our strengths is unrealistic.  Sometimes we must be willing to step back from our most comfortable mode of operating and acknowledge certain tasks don’t call for our ideal skill set.

“This task calls for specific skills that I don’t practice as often (e.g. writing English composition).  I can’t rely on my core strengths to complete it.  I must be willing to feel uncomfortable if I’m to make progress.  So what?  That’s true for everyone sometimes.  If I let this slower pace of progress demoralize me it could stop me from getting from point A to point B.  Any pace will do, as long as I’m trying to move forward.”

3. Realistic expectations.  Plan to break down larger goals into chunks that are achievable and utilize breaks to regain energy.  Attempting to complete a difficult task in one fell swoop doesn’t lead to efficiency, it’s a set up for failure.  When you’re using your brain to work in less familiar ways, expect to take breaks before your mental energy begins to stall so your overall motivation remains strong.  This way you avoid feeling demoralized and progress remains steady.

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4. Shift perspective.  Pay attention to how you’re evaluating yourself- when we only measure our progress based on ‘results’ rather than ‘performance effort’ we can end up feeling ineffective or lose our sense of purpose.  Another coaching client of mine works in a highly specialized area of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI).  While there has been genuine advances and exciting new applications here in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world, the field remains experimental, and it still requires time-consuming, exploratory research.  Even the most brilliant minds working together face a sense of disappointment when big breakthroughs don’t happen, especially with constant media hype  fueling the AI frenzy.  If you are working on the cutting edge of new scientific discovery, it may be difficult to quantify progress and demonstrate measurable value compared to an ever-changing larger community.  While it’s natural to want to make comparisons, track and measure your contributions by ‘showing your work’ rather than evaluating yourself on outcome results alone.  By documenting your steps in the scientific process, generating strategic hypotheses, testing them critically through observations and experiments you are creating a useful path of ‘knowledge’ as you arrive at Type 1 or Type 2 errors, etc.  Find value in documenting how you’ve made progress to better direct your future paths of discovery.

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5. Prepare to use trial and error.  If one particular process of completing a task isn’t coming together, try a different plan of action.  Step away from a task and let your brain absorb the learning and develop new insights.  Go back with fresh eyes in regular intervals and adjust accordingly, and practice applying new insights.  According to the latest neuroscience,  researchers have discovered that moments of creativity take place when the mind is at rest rather than directly working on something.  Since creative approaches are so crucial to success, be sure to give yourself space from your work efforts.

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Bringing it all together:  Discover optimal productivity methods based on your personal strengths and challenges.  Practice applying a perspective that takes into account all the moving parts and your abilities before comparing your pace to others.  Remember that everyone hits roadblocks from time to time; taking this mindful approach and using smart solutions will help you overcome them as efficiently as possible.