Whenever Andy Dunn interviews a potential new hire, he asks the same question: What is something you once passionately believed that you no longer believe? If someone can’t think of an answer, Dunn says he doesn’t want to hire them. Why? Because he needs people who can admit when they’re wrong. In conversation with Round, Dunn shares why he loves changing his mind and how this ability has guided his journey from pre-med dropout to Stanford Business School student to Bonobos founder and now, mental health advocate and author. Here are four key takeaways.
Andy Dunn grew up in a family of healthcare professionals, so when choosing a career, medicine seemed like a natural choice. For a long time, he says, going to medical school was his North Star. However, after completing the required pre-med coursework in college and taking the MCAT, Dunn had an important realization: he didn’t want to be a doctor as badly as his friends did. So he decided to change course. For the next three years, he worked as a consultant, followed by two years in private equity before landing at Stanford Business School. Summing up this early experience, he now says, “If you know someone who is better than you at something and more passionate about it, don’t do that thing. That’s not the highest and best use of you.”
While at Stanford, Dunn spent two years spinning through different ideas — all of which he says were bad. He tried to import Guatemalan rum but lost that bid to Diageo. His project to bring South African cured beef jerky to the United States, it turns out, was illegal. (“Because even though the jerky is delicious, it’s technically uncooked meat.”) After an ill-fated attempt to franchise a falafel and hummus chain — without the owner’s permission — Dunn had to admit his ideas weren’t working. At the same time, he realized that his classmate’s idea to create better-fitting men’s pants, an idea he initially deemed ‘cute and maybe a little dumb,’ was actually brilliant, so he decided to get involved. That pants-making scheme became Bonobos, a company eventually acquired for $300 million. High achieving people have all learned this hard lesson, says Dunn, in life as in business, you have to learn to iterate, to try things and to embrace failure when something’s not working.
Dunn believes that leaders should create environments where people can share dissenting opinions. At work, he takes inspiration from John Stuart Mills, the 19th-century English economist and philosopher, who’s wisdom he paraphrases as: No man should be silenced because if he holds the right idea and humanity the wrong idea, then error can be exchanged for truth. From his marriage, Dunn’s also learned that allowing space for dissent is important in a relationship too. If you make up your mind about something before talking to your partner, then you’re ignoring their input — you’re not trying to have a conversation; you’re trying to convince them. While these concepts might sound simple, Dunn admits that it’s taken him years of therapy and coaching to accept that a countervailing idea isn’t a threat; it’s an opportunity.
At 20, Dunn was diagnosed with bipolar I. For nearly 16 years, he ignored his diagnosis until a second major manic episode during his tenure at Bonobos landed him in Bellevue with a felony and misdemeanor assault charge. Thanks to excellent therapy, psychiatric medication, and amazing support from his family and friends, Dunn recovered. His condition is now well managed, and he recently published a book about his entwined mental health/entrepreneurial journey called Burn Rate: Launching a Start-Up and Losing My Mind. Drawing from his experience with bipolar disorder, Dunn emphasized the importance of sleep. Because people with bipolar I tend to sleep very little when approaching a hypomanic state or upwards of 16 hours when entering a depressive episode, he aims for six to eight hours a night and carefully tracks his sleep analytics. In addition to sleep and medication, Dunn considers therapy the essential third component of managing mental health: “We all have a lot of feelings and we need to get those feelings out of our bodies, so having an objective third party who you can share your emotions with is critical.”
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