One Year Later: On Robin Williams, Depression and Friendship


Just about a year ago, I wrote this short piece around the time of Robin Williams’ passing… For me, the words still ring true, and I refer back to them fairly often. The original post follows below. Hope you find it helpful. ~Dean

No matter how certain you are, you never really know what another person is going through. You never really know what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. You never really know what is going on in another person’s life.

Yesterday, the world learned that comedian and actor Robin Williams had taken his own life, and had been battling severe depression for years. And the inevitable questions followed… how could someone who made so many people happy, be so sad that he finally decided to take his own life? How could someone who seemingly had it all — money, fame, talent — be so despondent that he made the choice to kill himself?

Those are the obvious kinds of questions to ask, but they are the wrong ones to ask. Because no matter what another person’s life appears to be to you, we never really know what is going on. “Money, fame, and talent don’t buy happiness,” the cliche goes. But it is true. Just because someone’s life looks perfect to you doesn’t mean it feels perfect to them.

Depression is a scary thing. I’ve been there. Many people have, and deal with it every day. When you are clinically depressed, no matter how good your life might seem to others, it just doesn’t feel good to you. You can’t get there. You can’t sleep. You can’t stop thinking or worrying about this or that. You just can’t shake it, no matter what. And worst of all, most of the time you decide you can’t talk about it or share it with others, because they will never understand, or you assume that the more you talk about it, the worse you will feel. It is a lonely and scary place to be.

This is a business blog, so I’ll make the leap to something “business relevant.”

Far too many of us spend time criticizing and judging other people. Commenting on other people’s lives is far too common, in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the gym. Everywhere. But the lesson we learned yesterday from Robin Williams’ suicide was that we never, ever know what is really going on inside a person. So don’t assume. Don’t judge. Don’t criticize.

You want to be a good colleague, a good teammate and a good friend? Accept people for what they are, and don’t create negative energy around unnecessary criticism and judgment. I’m not saying it is OK to accept sub-standard performance in the workplace. I’m simply saying be human, be understanding, and always give people the benefit of the doubt. If they are being a jerk one day at work, or seem to be in a bad mood, or are quiet and detached, don’t assume the worst about them. Don’t take leaps of judgment and assume something negative. There may be something going on with them that you don’t know, and will never know.

Instead, give them a smile, reach out a hand, say “hello.” Do something kind. No matter what the response is, it is the right thing to do.

I’ll miss Robin Williams. We all will. He made me laugh so hard, that many times I had tears rolling down my face. And yet, the clown was crying on the inside.

A sad day, indeed. And a day for reflection on how we can be more present and supportive for the people in our lives, at work and at home.

Have a great day.

Photo by Shameek used under the following license.


One response to “One Year Later: On Robin Williams, Depression and Friendship”

  1. Jackie Strobel says:

    Thank you Dean for reposting this. Just prior to reading this, I was informed of a family member who is going through a difficult time of depression. I too have had periods of depression and it is awefull. Robin Williams taught us a very powerful lesson. Though he was crying on the inside, he was able to put on a smile. Though it was not genuine, he still was able to put it on. We should make the effort to do the same. In the workplace, it’s professional to keep common courtesies in check and I appreciate your point about being mindful that we will never understand what someone else may be going through. Compassion, kindness and gentleness are core traits to possess when working with others as well as when interacting with friends and family.

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.