I’ll start by saying that there is a clear thesis to this post – everyone should read Jen Gotch’s book, “The Upside To Being Down.” But if you need some convincing, allow me. Ahem.
The last long one-on-one I had with Jen Gotch was way too many months ago, but the 4-hour conversation over margaritas was about how I had just laid off two employees (completely my own fault, they were GREAT – more on that all later – it’s a whole thing). I was very upset/ashamed/embarrassed and I needed to talk to someone who knew me well, and could relate and empathize but not judge and make me feel even stupider than I already felt. You see despite being the founder of the fashion brand Ban.do she’s not great at the “business” part of running a business (which she writes about in the book). We have always shared that lack of talent (yay) as we approach our businesses and lives similarly caring more about “what we do”, and “who we do it with” than “how much we make” (this isn’t a good thing, and I’ve since made a huge shift to give that role to others). I can’t wait to fully write about my “adventures in running a creative business” but that’s not the point of this post.
But the time I spent with Jen before that night was much happier (as my hangouts with her often are). We were swimming naked, not sober, at midnight in Venice. I came home shoe-less (Stolen! I would say, but likely I just forgot where I put them). She won’t be embarrassed about that story, but she might be embarrassed about this: Dear Jen, despite our only 5 years age difference (I think/who cares) and our seemingly equal friendship, you’ve always been a mentor to me and I look up to you A LOT. Again, it’s not like Jen was a business expert, she was me, five years in the future. She had 5 more years of running a business, five more years of mistakes/failings under her belt and I needed, and still need, all the lessons and advice from Jen Gotch. That’s the point – YOU ALL DO.
That’s why this book is so riveting to me. As I was reading I could relate it, obviously, but so could all of my friends regardless of their career path or mental health. This book is so compelling and entertaining in many ways even if you haven’t spent 12 years as her friend. I couldn’t put it down. It feels like you are hanging out with a hilarious, open, non-judgemental friend whether you know her or not – and I think we all could use more friends right now.
Here’s a quick back story. I met Jen weeks after I moved to LA in 2008, attempting to transplant my pseudo thriving prop styling career during the writer’s strike recession. She was a stylist, I was a stylist, so we met at her house for a drink and the chemistry flew fast. She was (and is) effortlessly herself, which makes anyone in her presence also themselves. This also happens to be an admitted talent of mine, so you might imagine that two people who can equally share vulnerabilities might bond quickly. We did.
She was barely days, maybe weeks, into starting Ban.do and couldn’t take on as many styling clients as usual. So she did the most generous thing someone could do (which I’ve tried to repeat myself) – she referred me for every job she couldn’t take herself, essentially giving away her work to help someone else thrive. I know her well enough to know that she has an ego (as do I), but our brand of ego is the same and unthreatened by contemporaries or “competitors,” and instead threatened more by personal attacks. But again, we are both bad at traditional “business” and I suppose you would put “giving away clients” on the “bad things to do when running a business” list. But not us!!
While I identify SO MUCH with the “creative business” journey in this book, it’s also clearly about something else that I don’t personally identify with, and yet could totally relate to – mental illness.
She told me early on in our friendship about her struggle with mental illness. I don’t remember her exact words but she implied that it was very, very, very bad, “Like sometimes I can’t get out of bed for a week and I’ve been on a million different medications to fix me.” I didn’t believe her. I didn’t think she was lying or exaggerating, it just seemed impossible. Her level of self-awareness is (and was) high, like 10/10. And back then, to a more ignorant me, that fact went against her case. Similar to how a narcissist wouldn’t ever call themselves a narcissist (true story), I thought no one this open, this aware, this FUNNY about their “mental illness” could actually be mentally ill. Whenever Brian hung out with her (he loves a Jen Gotch) he would say the same thing, “there is no way – she seems so healthy and funny.” But of course what we didn’t realize, and why she is so special, is that she wasn’t hiding it. She was just progressive enough to get ahead of it. Evolved enough to accept it and speak openly about it, which especially 10 years ago was alarmingly refreshing. I suppose that was confusing (and awakening) to others, myself included, back then.
When Brian and I were going through some darker times, Jen referred me to her therapist, Laurel (a huge “character” in the book). It’s the one and only time I’ve been to my own therapy session (except as a teenager, when forced by my parents to figure out why I was being rebellious – ha). I remember that therapy session vividly, with Laurel, I bawled the whole time and even though I knew I couldn’t afford to return. Laurel advised, “I think if you can only spend the money on therapy for one of you, it should maybe be him.” Six months later Brian started going to therapy (not with her, but still life-changing and he wrote about it here). And 6 years later I’m really wishing I had stuck with therapy, too, with Laurel. I need therapy, I do, but I’m pretty great at acting like I don’t.
While reading the book I felt both super connected to the story that I knew, and riveted about the parts of the story I didn’t know. I had hung out with Jen throughout this writing process and despite her frustration with writing a memoir, it propelled our conversations faster and farther. The “I’m Very Busy” chapter is filled with all the gross philosophies that many female “entrepreneurs,” like us, have co-opted (or not) from male culture, with generally bad results. I highlighted EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE of that chapter, despite already knowing I was personally doing better because of our past conversation on the topic. If you are a potential female “entrepreneur” please read this book.
I’ve recommended this book to many women, and we all relate and identify with different parts of it. I wasn’t raised like Jen, but also feel like what I used to think was parental failings actually led to my overall success (a lesson you don’t learn ’til you are middle-aged – if you are lucky to learn at all). I’ve never personally dealt with real mental illness of my own, just the occasional situational anxiety and yet could totally relate to that twenty-something Jen wrote about. My friends all relate to different aspects of the book, too – maybe it’s the relationship with her mom or her dad, maybe it’s the struggle for self-worth (which has also historically seemed unbelievable to me – she’s one of the most likable people on the planet, how could she not see that???), maybe you relate to being co-dependent, the endless search for love or not ready for “adulting.” Point is, this book is bigger than just being about mental illness or running a creative business, although those two plots woven together really do tell the most compelling personal story.
For me, most importantly, it’s about honesty, vulnerability, and transparency. Women are better at it now than they were 10 years ago, and decades ahead of men in this emotional field (in my personal opinion). But Jen Gotch has been a pioneer of imperfection since I met her. She’s been the voice of vulnerability before it was cool. Let’s keep going. She’s the head honcho of honesty and the top dog of transparency. If nothing else, I guarantee this book will inspire to tell your story, just as I am more inspired to share about mine, because at the end of the day it’s all we’ve got. Our stories are our only real valuable personal commodity. And if you can create a successful and joy-inducing business by making headbands out of your garage, being hilarious, and talking openly about your mental illness, then maybe we all have a chance. Maybe we all can use our failings to indeed create our own “success,” whatever that looks like to you.
So if you are interested (and I hope now YOU ARE) buy Jenn’s book, The Upside of Being Down. It’s a fast, funny, heartwarming, sad and hopeful read, told to you by a friend, about subjects that are usually not any of those things. **UPDATE – its now a NY TIMES Bestseller!!!!!!!! CONGRATS, Jen. May you finally get your “National Treasure’ Award, too.