Can you name a millionaire tech mogul with bipolar disorder? Well, you can now. Today’s guest is Paul English, who is best known as the founder of travel website Kayak.
As more and more celebrities in the arts publicly share their bipolar disorder diagnoses many people in the business world still choose to conceal their illness due to stigma and discrimination.
Join us as Paul tells us his story of living with bipolar disorder, including some of the stigma he has faced in the workplace.
Paul English is the founder of Boston Venture Studio. Paul has previously co-founded and successfully sold six startups — Kayak, Lola, Moonbeam, GetHuman, Boston Light and Intermute.
Paul is also the founder of four nonprofits — Summits Education in Haiti, Embrace Boston, The Winter Walk for Homelessness, and the Bipolar Social Club.
Paul is the subject of Tracy Kidder’s book, “A Truck Full of Money.” You can hear an interview with Paul on “How I Built This” with Guy Raz, and you can see his video from TEDxBoston in 2022.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling in today we have Paul English. Paul is perhaps best known as the founder of the travel website Kayak. Currently, he spends his time as one of the nation’s leading philanthropists. And his latest project, The Bipolar Social Club, speaks to his life experience. Paul, welcome to the podcast.
Paul English: It’s great to be here. I’m really excited to speak with you.
Gabe Howard: So back in the 80’s, my television was inundated with all these commercials for the Hair Club for Men. Where at the end, the spokesperson would look dead into the camera and say, I’m not just the founder. I’m also a client.
Paul English: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Was your bipolar diagnosis what led you into mental health advocacy?
Paul English: It is. I was diagnosed at age 25 and really struggled quite a lot in my 20’s and even in my 30’s. Um, I’ve been open about being bipolar now for well over ten years. And since I’ve been successful in tech and kind of been known in the tech community, when people see articles and interviews with me that they find because of my tech background. But then when I talk about the bipolar, people have been reaching out to me for the last ten years saying, oh, it’s so nice to hear you talk openly about this. And many times, people have asked me like, would you mind talking to my kid, my who’s in college and struggling? And so, I have about half a dozen young men that I’ve been mentoring over the last few years, and one of them very tragically ended up killing himself last year in Kenya. And it really shocked me. And it was just very traumatic for me because I had a nice friendship with this young man and it made me realize that I do spend all this time doing nonprofit work. I’ve started three other nonprofits and spent significant time and money with them, but I never did anything personal. And so, when my friend Jake killed himself, it made me think I should do something relating to bipolar.
Gabe Howard: I want to say I’m so sorry for your friend. I know that that suicidality, it resonates through our community. Even though I didn’t know Jake, just as someone who lives with bipolar disorder, whenever anybody loses that battle, it’s a really big deal for people who. Well, who have experienced the same thoughts. So, I’m super sorry for that. And I and I hope you’re doing well and I hope his family is doing well.
Paul English: You know, his memory inspires me to work hard on this project. But not just him, but also other people that I’ve met over the years who have struggled with bipolar illness in the past or currently. Um, all my bipolar friends inspire me to try to do something to help here.
Gabe Howard: Now, Paul, I don’t want to guess your age, but I’m. I know that you’re older than 35.
Paul English: I’ll tell you my age, I’m proud of my age. I’m 59.
Gabe Howard: 59 years old. So, you said
Paul English: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: That you were diagnosed when you were 25,
Paul English: That’s right.
Gabe Howard: But it sounds like you were about 49 when you essentially went public with bipolar disorder. So
Paul English: That sounds right.
Gabe Howard: Yeah, there was a pretty big chunk in there where you did not disclose. What was the reason for that?
Paul English: Well, I always disclosed to a small number of friends and family, and I greatly encourage all of your listeners to do that because I have a brother who’s a therapist, my brother Tim, and he says there’s no healing in secrecy. If you keep something a secret, you’re very alone and you can’t. Usually, you can’t journey out of it without people helping you out. So, what I’ve told people, particularly younger people that are experiencing this for the first time, is find one family member, one friend and one colleague, either at school or at work. And if you can tell one person at each of those three parts of your life. Shame will lift. Those people will lean in to help you if you pick the right people. And it will be the beginning of your journey for healing and managing this illness.
Gabe Howard: You are one of the most successful people. In fact, I usually don’t like to speak in absolutes, but I can honestly say you’re probably the most successful person I have ever met, which means you’re the most successful person managing bipolar disorder I’ve ever met. Was your success a protective factor for reducing discrimination, reducing shame, reducing stigma, or did you get hit with it just as hard as the rest of us did?
Paul English: Well. I. When I first got hit with bipolar, I was working full time as a programmer and I didn’t really have any success yet, so I couldn’t lean on my success as a way to. You know, sort of work my way out of it. I was it was traumatic for me. The first diagnosis and the manic episodes and the depression that I had in my 20 seconds were very, very difficult. But when I started speaking about it slowly, every year I’d tell more and more people and probably actually at the beginning of Kayak in 2004, I was 40 years old, and that’s when I started telling more and more people like I think pretty much everyone I work with knew about it. Um, certainly as Kayak grew and got more and more successful and even the company I sold before Kayak gave me some confidence, people said, okay, so maybe he’s bipolar, but he’s also been able to achieve things. And so, I had that achievement track record that did help a little bit. But I also know that disclosing my illness has also hurt me. I had a reporter for Boston magazine shadowed me for a month and wrote a story about me, and I had been very open with him about everything. And it was a very wide-ranging interview where he talked about entrepreneurship, family, nonprofit work and mental health.
Paul English: And I had one of my venture capitalists, I’m not going to name had their marketing person call my marketing person and said, please don’t let Paul do interviews like that again, because I thought it made me look bad that I was that vulnerable and that open about my weaknesses. And it just made me think that maybe I don’t want to work with that venture capitalist again. Because, you know, one of my favorite words is neurodiversity. And when you read about neurodiversity, hopefully you learn to appreciate people who think differently from each other, that have been through different experiences, and even to celebrate those people. And the fact that some people in the business said, oh, Paul’s kind of crazy, um, you know, he’s too volatile, too unpredictable. We don’t want to work with him. That’s disappointing to me, but I’ve decided I think I can do more good by being open about it and trying to be a role model for people, particularly younger people who are just now starting to struggle with this, to say there is a path forward. And I’d rather do that to help with my own healing and help with the healing of others, even if it means I’m going to lose some business deals.
Gabe Howard: As I’m sitting here listening to your story, I think, wow, why would anybody look at you and decide, oh, I don’t want to work with you because of the amount of success that you’ve had. I mean, you had a reporter shadowing you for a month. I can’t get a reporter to shadow me for an hour, which shows the level of success that you’ve achieved. And yet, even with all of that, all they saw was that bipolar disorder was in the article and they thought that something bad could happen from that. How does that make you I hate to ask this this way, but how does that make you feel, Paul?
Paul English: Yeah, the reporter was he’s a great guy and I felt connected to him immediately and I just became very comfortable with talking with him. And he was interested in my bipolar illness and not from a. I don’t know. I thought his questions are very appropriate. He was just naturally curious. He wasn’t like digging or trying to make me sound bad. He was just curious about it. And so, I was open with him and when different things would come up over the course of the month relating to my mental illness, I would tell him about it. And I could say with hindsight after reading the article and your listeners could probably find if they just Google my name and Boston magazine. But in hindsight, you know what? I had done the interview differently, so he didn’t make me sound so crazy. I don’t know. I mean, I do have there is this thing like the luxury of the rich or the luxury of the successful that once you’ve hurt in a certain level of success, I can point to it and say, okay, I know that I’m volatile, but I also know that I can create companies because I’ve created and sold six software companies now. And you know, I do that because I’m on meds. I go to therapy. I’m open with my diagnosis, with my friends. I people at my work who know about my condition and they support me
Gabe Howard: Your recovery story does sound a lot like my own, where you paid attention to the medication, you paid attention to therapy, you built up a support team. You had regrets in your past, things that you needed to work forward and that you hoped. In the end, I believe your words were that people knew you, that you were a kind person and that you were trying. That hits. I think that really hits everyone living with and managing bipolar disorder. Let’s segue a little into talking about really specifics. What advice do you have for people who are managing bipolar disorder, who are struggling, who are not in recovery right now?
Paul English: The first thing I would say, I actually have a blog post up on my website about this. My website is just my name. It’s PaulEnglish.com. And if you click on the articles link, you’ll see I talk about my own bipolar illness and I have advice to people. The first thing is just you’re not alone. The worst thing about mental illness is feeling like a freak show, like you’re broken and you’ll never heal again. And it can be very scary to be in a manic episode or in a depressive episode where on the floor of your bedroom for days and you can’t leave. It’s, you know, I mean, your listeners who have bipolar illness, mental illness will know what that’s like. But if you have, again, one family member. One colleague, one friend who know about the condition, they can help you. And I’ve tried to be that friend. Friends of mine who struggle with bipolar illness or other mental illness. I had a friend with some pretty serious depression and he didn’t leave his bedroom for days. And his wife knew that I was close to him and I tried to get him out of the house just to go for a walk with me every day. And some days I had to go up into his bedroom and say, I’m not leaving to get out of bed so we can go for a walk together. And I got him back into therapy. I got him, you know, talking to doctors again about tweaking his meds. And slowly, you know, day after day of, like, going for a walk and talking. Somehow, he found a path out and he’s helped me in my dark days. I’ve helped him in his dark days. I think having that someone in your corner is really, really important. I think it’s more important than therapy. It’s more important than what books you read. Um, it’s having someone you can talk to.
Gabe Howard: Sometimes that can be easier said than done. And I want to let our listeners know who are struggling to find that support groups, online support groups are all extraordinarily valuable and a great place to meet like-minded people who you can share with. I. I recognize that it’s not a place to necessarily meet friends. I don’t want to create that idea in people’s heads, but it’s definitely a place to gain confidence and learn some skills and potentially make friends. Now, Paul, you’ve started the Bipolar Social Club and in in its name and in my, my head, I’ve got this idea of like this swinging 20s bar, right? There’s like a secret knock to get in. And it it’s a really cool name and it really generates a pretty happy feeling in me. But what exactly is the Bipolar Social Club and how is it going to work?
Paul English: Yeah, I love your interpretation of the name because that’s kind of my that was my intent. I wasn’t thinking necessarily speakeasy, but I was thinking that. It. So I have this thing where, like, gay friends of mine tell me that some of them, they have gaydar and they can tell when they meet a gay person. I feel like I have bipolar radar. If I’m in a room and I meet someone who’s bipolar, I look at them like that person has it like they have the spark. There’s something about them that’s different than most people. And so, I love when I meet bipolar people. And although we each will have some trauma in our past, we can also celebrate, you know, that the fact that we’re different from other people and celebrate some of the positive aspects of it, I mean, mania, full mania is very scary. But sometimes if you’re just like hypomanic or along the path, you sometimes can be volatile and make some bad decisions. But there’s also part of it that is kind of fun where you’re really creative and prolific. And so, the idea of the Bipolar Social Club, it is where people can get together either online or in person and tell stories and help each other navigate. And I’m actually trying to find one or more celebrities who’ve been open about being bipolar to partner with me and really co-found this thing, because it’d be amazing if we could get Selena Gomez or someone else who’s been open to help promote the brand.
Gabe Howard: We’re back with the founder of Kayak, Paul English, discussing his life with bipolar disorder. More and more, we are seeing prominent people live openly with bipolar disorder and talk about it publicly. But a lot of those people are in the arts. They’re in Hollywood. We don’t see a lot of business people talking about living with any mental illness, especially one as serious as bipolar disorder. But in the business world, on Wall Street, we know that just by statistics, there’s a certain number of people clearly who are managing serious and persistent mental illness, who have mental health issues, who live with bipolar disorder. But if you look at the Forbes 100, nobody on that list is copping to living with bipolar disorder, save for maybe you. Paul, I have to ask, what made you decide that it was okay to be this open?
Paul English: Yeah, I hope that changes. Um.
Gabe Howard: It is unusual for someone like you to come out, and that had to be a very, very difficult decision. Or maybe it wasn’t. Is there was there a moment that you’re just like, you know what? To hell with it. I’m just telling everybody.
Paul English: Yeah, the time when I really went public. I started telling more and more people at the beginning of Kayak, like I told everyone at the company. Um, I sent an email to the company one day. There’s a mental health awareness day or something. And I said One of the things I love about this company is we’re so supportive of each other that I feel comfortable telling you guys that I have suffered from bipolar illness and depression and anxiety and panic attacks, and I want this to be a safe place that if you want someone to talk to, I’m here for you because this affects a lot of families. And I got the nicest emails back from the team. And again, I feel like I have this saying that people follow confidence, but they’re loyal to vulnerability. And if you’re vulnerable, people will lean in. They’re going to want to help you. So that’s when I started talking about it. And then in 2016, there’s a very famous author named Tracy Kidder. He’s Pulitzer Prize winning author. And he approached me to ask if he could do a book about me. Initially, I said no because even though I’m somewhat of a public figure in tech or in the nonprofit world, I’m a little bit introverted and I have a shy side. And I just thought, like having a book about me just sounds terrible. But I spent a couple of months with Tracy trying to convince him to write about a couple of my friends, and eventually he kind of wore me down and once he wore me down, I said, Fine, I’ll do the book.
Paul English: It was a three-year project and he lived with me half time for a year. He slept in a spare bedroom in my house, went to all my meetings. He’s a very charming and disarming man and brilliant. And then I decided, what the heck, I’m just going to go open at that point. Kayak had gone public. We sold the company for $2 billion and I said, I have nothing to lose. I’m just going to tell them everything. And so, we spent three years and I told him everything, and I had no idea what he was writing about because we covered so much material in three years. When I finally read the book, I’ve only read it once really quickly. He gave it to me in the end and said, you have 24 hours to make any serious corrections to it. If I made mistakes and it was a little bit uncomfortable reading about myself, but I liked reading about the stories about my father and my mentor. Um. But that’s when I first went, like really open. And then when that book published, not really because of me, but because of the author, Tracy Kidder. He himself is so famous and sell so many books that we he went on a speaking tour and I joined him for whatever dates I could. And then that kind of opened the floodgates. And there was a lot of interest from media about just the curiosity of a tech exec who’s going to be this vulnerable on tape.
Gabe Howard: It’s a very curious thing and it’s very unusual. I think that maybe in the last ten years you’ve gotten used to it. But I can tell you, as a man who lives with bipolar disorder, there’s not a lot of Paul English’s out there. There’s celebrities and there are notable people. But a tech mogul, right? Just somebody in the business world that’s it’s unusual to be that open and that vulnerable. But it’s important and it’s extraordinarily helpful because, hey, you know, I just need to learn to program, invent a website, sell it for $2 billion. Right. I’m right there. I’m so close. I’m three steps away. But in all seriousness, it is super important because the message that many people with bipolar disorder get is, hey, look, just try to be stable, get something to keep you busy. Maybe you can work part time. The message that a lot of us get is, is not that we can be anything that we want. It’s limit your expectations and try not to bother anybody. So, I like your message because it’s a powerful message. I do recognize I don’t want anybody to think that I’m suffering from grandiosity or mania. I do recognize that I am not three steps away from being a billionaire.
Paul English: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Paul, symptoms of bipolar disorder get talked about all the time. We love talking about mania. We love talking about depression. Obviously, suicidality is something that really needs to be discussed more. But one of the topics in bipolar disorder that’s sort of not discussed. It’s almost ignored is anger. Bipolar anger is something that just doesn’t get a lot of press, a lot of discussion. It doesn’t it really just doesn’t get a lot of anything. But I, I understand that, you know, something about bipolar anger.
Paul English: Yeah. I am someone who had a lot of anger. As a teenager, I would flare up and get angry very easily. And one time I discovered this Vietnamese Buddhist named Thich Nhat Hanh, and he wrote a book about anger, which I read, and I was lucky to see him speak once when he came to Boston. And he really transformed me how I think about it. There’s a Buddhist saying which is being angry at someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die. And the story here is that anger hurts yourself. Now, let’s say you’re driving your car down the road and someone cuts you off. If you had a hammer and the seat next to you when someone cut you off, you wouldn’t hit yourself in the head with a hammer. Because what’s the point of that? Well, being angry at that person, like swearing at them, screaming at them, they’re still in front of you in traffic. You’ve done nothing but hurt yourself. So why do that? And I don’t mean to oversimplify it, but there’s a degree to which anger is a choice. And you can basically accept people for what they do and for their transgressions. When someone harms me, I will think, you know, if I had their chemistry in their background and the day they had, I would do the same thing they did.
Paul English: And so, if you realize that you can have compassion for people, even compassion for people who harm you. You can accept it. I mean, hopefully you don’t let them continue to harm you. If you’re in an abusive relationship, you should leave that relationship, for example. But walking around being angry at the world, you need to learn how to get rid of it. I also I’m a big fan of the Serenity Prayer, which goes, God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. This also relates to a Buddhist technique or Buddhist philosophy of radical acceptance. The Buddhists believe that suffering happens when you don’t accept reality. When something happens and you’re you feel harmed by it, you reject it. You don’t want it to be true. That’s when you suffer. But if something happens and you just accept it. Um. There’s no suffering anymore. So, the Serenity prayer has been really important to me in terms of realizing some things you can change and you should change. Some things you can’t change. You should accept them because not accepting them as suffering.
Gabe Howard: One of the things I think about when I think of anger is anger is an emotion and everybody has it, bipolar disorder or not. And then I have this concept that that I call and again, this is this is not scientific, but I just call it bipolar anger. And here’s basically how I define bipolar anger. It’s when the anger that you had a choice about sticks around for so long, it becomes a rumination and ruminations with bipolar disorder are well understood. It’s when you get you get stuck on something, you just you can’t let it go. And if you don’t let go of that anger before it becomes a rumination, then you can’t let go of that anger. And it really does destroy us from the inside. I agree with everything that you said. I know a lot of people who are angry at a lot of things, and I think you just can’t control that. You really need to let it go. My father is still angry about people who cut him off in traffic 35 years ago. I understand he’s a truck driver, but dude, let it go. Let it go. They don’t even make that car that cut you off anymore. But if my father lived with bipolar disorder and he didn’t let go of that anger and reached that rumination stage, then the person with bipolar disorder, they start making decisions based on it. They start believing that it’s true. They take those feelings and interpret them as facts. And all of these are dangers. They’re dangers that put us in harm’s way. So, if you can control that anger before it becomes a rumination, before it becomes a symptom, I think there’s just so much wisdom in it because it doesn’t end up anyplace good, at least from my personal experience.
Paul English: I completely agree with that. I mean, one of my favorite phrases is let it go. My girlfriend is so sick of me saying that to her, but she’ll get upset about something that happens at work or in other parts of her life. And I’m like, if you can’t control it, you need to just accept it because resistance is where the suffering comes from.
Gabe Howard: I love it when you agree with me. Paul. Paul,
Paul English: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: Where can folks find you online? Where can folks find the Bipolar Social Club? Give us all the details.
Paul English: So, you can. I have a very simple website. Um, that’s just my name. It’s PaulEnglish.com. there’s an articles link there. There’s different interviews and articles there. My Twitter handle is @EnglishPaulM. Like @EnglishPaulM. M for Michael. And the Bipolar Social Club is simply BipolarSocialClub.org. So, people can find me via any of those three methods.
Gabe Howard: And I encourage everyone to check that out. Thank you so much, Paul, for being here.
Paul English: Yeah, it’s been really great speaking with you. Thank you.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Paul, and a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which is on Amazon. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag just by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and can you do me a favor? Recommend the podcast to your friends, your family member, your colleagues. Share it on social media. Hell, send somebody a text message. Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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