“CEO Of $2 Billion Startup Fired After Experimenting With LSD At Work” blared an April Forbes.com headline, turning heads of anxious tech bros from Silicon Valley to Seattle.
The CEO in question was Justin Zhu, who claimed he was let go from Iterable, the San Francisco-based digital marketing startup he co-founded, after the company’s board learned he had taken a dose of LSD prior to a meeting with a group of prominent investors. Zhu admits the meeting went … not so great. He says that as he spoke the numbers on the screen began to swell and shrink, rendering them incomprehensible, while his body “felt as if it were melting away.” Which, as any guide to public speaking will tell you, is less than optimal during a presentation.
Later reports revealed that issues other than Zhu's LSD incident may have played a larger role in the board's decision. Still, Zhu’s misstep can provide the rest of us with a “teachable moment,” says Paul Austin, author of “Microdosing Psychedelics: A Practical Guide to Upgrade Your Life” and the founder of two companies that provide microdosing coaching services. Austin points to the CEO’s behavior as an example of some common mistakes to avoid if you’re thinking about indulging in microdosing, the increasingly popular practice of ingesting low doses of psychotropic agents like LSD or psilocybin in an effort to promote creativity and focus while reducing stress.
Failing the Acid Test
Zhu did a great deal wrong, Austin says, but his two biggest mistakes were probably one, ingesting too much of the drug (an appropriate microdose should never lead to hallucinations of the kind Zhu experienced) and, two, neglecting to hold preliminary microdosing “practice runs” at home or in some other secure, comfortable environment. Contrary to stunts one might see performed on TV, Austin says the introduction to microdosing is a “do try this at home” activity.
“In particular for people who are microdosing for the first time, set aside the day and treat it like a high dose,” Austin says. “A huge part of this is calibration. Five micrograms is the classic microdose [of LSD]. And then go up to 10 micrograms and, if you want to experiment a little bit, try 15 or 20. But wait until you have a sense of calibration before you start going into a board meeting.”
Austin comes by his psychedelics expertise via a circuitous route, which found him first experimenting with LSD as a teenager in the woods of western Michigan, then tripping the light fantastic around the globe for a few years, with spells teaching English in Turkey and launching an online company in Thailand. Then, while in Budapest in 2015, Austin heard about microdosing on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast and was inspired to return to the United States to leverage his love of teaching to “do something meaningful and helpful for a lot of people.” This inspiration led Austin to found Third Wave, which offers one-on-one peak-performance coaching around psychedelics, and Synthesis, a legal psilocybin retreat outside of Amsterdam.
“I always sensed there was something distinctly wrong with the way we interact with our environment,” Austin says. “Covid is just an amplification of the existential crisis we face, the mental health crisis, the ecological crisis, the food crisis. There are a lot of crises, but I thought, ‘How can psychedelics help us cultivate a better relationship with ourselves to take better care of the Earth, better care of our community, etc.? On a personal level I also sensed that microdosing could help with social anxiety, to stabilize the mood and help with flow and creativity.”
Better Living Through Chemistry
There’s no question that psychedelics are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, albeit one that’s more science-based than the “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude of the 1960s. Psychedelic research is showing results the New York Times’ Ezra Klein describes as approaching the “too-good-to-be-believed category” to treat severe depression, PTSD and drug addiction.
Austin says being able to point to hard scientific evidence about psychedelics’ effectiveness is particularly powerful with skeptics or anyone else still steeped in the Reefer Madness-style propaganda about recreational drugs that Americans have been subjected to for over 50 years.
“The data speaks for itself,” he says, “so now when I’m addressing, let’s say, psychedelically naive folks, I simply refer to the medical use and say, ‘Look, this is going to become a cutting-edge medical tool in the next five-to-seven years.’ My mom is a social worker at a small hospital in west Michigan and she’s been receiving emails about having to go to workshops to learn about MDMA psychotherapy, so I feel like that points to the mainstream integration that’s happening.”
Austin also points out that many of these “discoveries” about psychedelics’ utility are actually “rediscoveries,” since the inclination to pursue altered states of consciousness exists in nearly all cultures, predates recorded history and appears to be as much of an innately human trait as the use of tools, the decoration of artifacts and the urge to loudly “moo” when spotting a herd of grazing cows.
The problem in our culture is that we have narrowly focused on what Austin terms “drugs of the industrial era,” like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, whereas psychedelics are much more aligned with the present-day needs of the modern information age.
“Pharmaceuticals aren’t working, just like high levels of caffeine aren’t working for folks,” he says. “Unlike traditional stimulants like caffeine, modafinil or ADHD medications, psychedelics allow for more flow, playfulness, divergent thinking and creativity, and that’s a huge leverage point, especially for people in leadership positions.”
Austin admits that while he does receive coaching inquiries from hyper-driven hedge fund manager-types looking to gain any possible edge on the competition, more frequently the people who come to him for microdosing guidance are likely to be interested in cryptocurrency, live in off-grid, solar-powered homes and find themselves motivated by a sense of purpose rather than money. They’re the “pioneers of a post-materialist West,” he says—people who have embraced the concept of what some have begun calling “existential wealth.”
This Is Some Serious Sh*t
Citing the ill-advised, improvisational path Justin Zhu chose as a cautionary tale, Austin says he takes new clients through a detailed onboarding protocol, after first making clear to them that psychedelics are powerful, transformative tools that, perhaps contrary to the term “microdosing,” should not to be taken lightly.
“Psychedelics can be profoundly impactful,” he says, “and can leave you in uncertain situations, in your work and profession, but also in relationships where you may come to realize, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be with this person.’ They create a space between the known and the unknown, and through our coaching we make sure you feel supported in that process.”
So, yes, research suggests that microdosing might help you gain greater creative insights, become more open to new ideas and develop more visionary plans, but that will be of little comfort if, like Zhu, you wind up losing your job as a result. Which is why Austin suggests that those new to microdosing, in addition to starting small and at home, err on the side of discretion.
“If you work for a publicly traded company with public stakeholders, it’s much more risky,” he says. “We saw that when Elon Musk smoked a blunt on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Many of my clients work for themselves or run their own privately-owned companies, so they have a bit more wiggle room, but generally speaking, if you’re trying out microdosing, be cautious about who you’re talking about it with.”
Then he adds, “Just don’t do anything overly stupid—that’s a good rule of thumb in general.”