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Talking Mental Health in a Remote World | The Alt Key: A Where’s The Any Key? Bonus Episode

Above is a bonus episode of Where’s The Any Key? In this episode of The Alt Key, JumpCloud’s Chief Technology Officer, Greg Keller, and Co-Founder of the Foundry Group, Brad Feld, discuss the rapid changes many organizations have had to undergo in response to the global outbreak of COVID-19. Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have in response to this recording. You can find our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever podcasts are available.

Continue reading for a transcription of their conversation on establishing norms in a work from home (WFH) environment and how business leadership can better navigate through these difficult times. 

The Inspiration Behind FeldThoughts

Greg: Like thousands of people everyday I come to FeldThoughts to read your writings, ramblings, musings; essentially the things you care about. In the last two years it’s changed to be more of a direct expose on the state of people’s mental health.

It’s been very eye opening for someone in your position. Historically, people like you have had to be strong and not show weakness. So what inspired you to start this sequence on mental health?

Brad: It was probably two things that are in some ways complementary and oppositional. My writing is mostly composed of my thoughts. I’m trying to write on things that are important to me that I think may be helpful to others. 

Finding Something New

Brad: The first thing was that I felt bored with writing another “here’s what you should do with your business” piece. When I started blogging, there wasn’t a lot of existing content on how to build and scale your business. 

Over time, there was an enormous amount of content published on SaaS and business development. At some point I felt I was contributing more noise in the system.

Broaching Different Subjects

Brad: At the same time I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life, and I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. In my 20s I tried working through it with therapy and medication, but I was incredibly ashamed of it all; I took medication, I was depressed, I had OCD.

Greg: Was that a hidden fact?

Brad: It really was. The only people that really knew I was depressed — other than my psychiatrist — were my business partner and my girlfriend (now wife), Amy. 

My parents were not helpful in that timeframe. When I talked to them about it, I just left feeling more ashamed. All that I was going through was very internal and extraordinarily heavy. 

I’ve had multiple other depressive episodes, specifically around the World Trade Center attacks, which served as a tipping point. Fortunately, as I got older I grew to understand what was triggering the episodes and I learned to manage my OCD.

Then, I had a significant depressive episode in 2013. I had a terrible bike accident coupled with a series of events that completely wiped me out physiologically. And as it stood, my world was good. Business was good. My wife Amy was good.

In conjunction with that, I had a near death experience and I had a kidney stone removal. Yet, I continued to act like I was invincible; I ran a marathon in October after I had that near-fatal bike accident. My feelings corresponded with a couple high profile entrepreneurs committing suicide. A lot of people didn’t understand it, lamenting that their lives seemed so great.

As I was dealing with this depressive episode, I just started blogging about my life: how I was doing and what I was dealing with. And in response there was an outpouring of reaction from people, some negative, but a lot positive.

Understanding the Stigma

Brad: During this time I started talking with entrepreneurs and business leaders, and in many cases I was the first person they were ever open with about their depression. I realized how intensely deep this stigma was around mental health. We talked about authentic and vulnerable leadership and I just felt so much of the language of it was bullshit because there was such a stigma associated with any sort of mental health issue.

We see stigma surrounding health all through society. It wasn’t that long ago there was negative thought associated with those who have cancer; people avoided them. I was in college during the emergence of HIV and AIDS and there was enormous stigma and blatant homophobia. You can even see that playing out now around COVID-19. I think more of society is rallying behind this idea of unity, but we’re also still seeing things like “the China virus.”

My motivation around us as humans has been focused on trying to allow people to understand more about the importance of being authentic and comfortable with yourself. It’s about building understanding relationships around the stressors we’re under.

Greg: We’re all walking the razor’s edge. I’m nearing 50 and when I look back at strong examples of those in my past, like my father who worked institutionally at Chevron Oil for 40 years, you were a metronome. You never shirked any responsibilities and never showed any weakness. The reality is the pattern was much different. In those periods, my dad’s period, you had these long sin waves that represented the ebbs and flows of life; the seasons and business challenges were much the same. 

Then those frequencies started to vacillate wildly in the late 80s and 90s and people were no longer able to take the constant onslaught. Left right, left right, left right. This feeling of turmoil was exasperated by the constant input of data; streams of information never giving the mind a nanosecond to rest. 

When you combine all those things together, think about what point leadership reaches: they have these old school mentalities and can’t show weakness. Couple that with this massive input of data and leadership are making real-time corrections on an hour-by-hour basis to save their company. It’s not a winnable situation without help, and people need to know where to get that.

Seek Out Help, Both Internal and External

Brad: The powerful starting places for finding help are found in the people you’re connected to: your family, your colleagues, and your friends. The mechanisms for reaching out have been polluted by this endless data and the charade of normalcy, negativeness, or positiveness. 

But nothing about our daily life is normal anymore. You don’t have to do any work to recognize there’s no real source of truth. Roughly half of the U.S. has a point of view about where the ultimate source of truth comes from — and the other half has an entirely different point of view. Combined with all the other shit that comes at us all the time — just in the context of macro news — our brains are unable to continuously consume it all. No matter how good you are at processing information, your brain just can’t do it on an endless loop. 

That’s why so much of what we do ends up being harmful to us. This constant onslaught negatively impacts how our brain processes information, which ultimately causes us to feel worse. Think about the number of you that are thinking about something you wanted to do two weeks ago, and you didn’t. You know that intellectually you can’t time travel back two weeks ago, but yet your brain still goes back and says, “Oh I wish I had.”

The same thing applies to your current wish. I wish I could do this. I wish I could do that. Think about the space in your brain that’s taking up. That’s clogging up your brain’s ability to process.

Greg: Here’s something that’s been forced in front of my eyes in the last two weeks. I have an Amy, and you have an Amy. My Amy is the most grounded, meditative woman who’s known for her ability to help others. 

My realization was I’ve been drawing from her energy to help me. I realized this: How can I give back to that one piece of stability? I cannot pull from her anymore. This is the moment where you sit back and realize this is about life and death. There’s potentially no tomorrow, and that’s what I’m taking away from all this. Think about it as COVID-forced dating, almost. 

Brad: In the background of all that one of the things you can immediately do in the context of your relationship with your partner is to take a deep breath and think hard about small behavior changes you could make that would be meaningfully impactful for your partner. This can also be helpful for you. Let me give you a couple of examples:

Think of Your Effect

Brad: Our dogs wake us up pretty early in the morning. I used to get up at 5 a.m., but now I sleep until I wake up. Amy generally can’t fall back asleep when she wakes up, so she gets up, feeds the dogs, and I wake up whenever. We both are good sleepers, but we have to get to bed relatively early to get a full night’s sleep. 

The last two nights I’ve been very wound up at the end of the day because of their intensity. I’ve not been very thoughtful about crawling into bed when she crawls into bed, so each night I’m interrupting her sleep 30 minutes to two hours after she goes to bed. 

This morning I realized that and apologized, and told her that independent of where my head’s at I’ll come to bed at the same time. I don’t have to get that last thing done. And just changing that behavior can have a significant impact. 

Take a Moment

Brad: Another example of something we’ve done for a very long time, as a couple, is we do something we call “Four Minutes in the Morning.” 

I wake up, go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, meditate for about 20 minutes (sometimes more sometimes less), come upstairs, make a cup of coffee, and then Amy and I sit on the couch together for four minutes. And those four minutes are usually spent just sitting. We might talk, maybe she’s got some thoughts, maybe we’re talking about our day ahead. Sometimes we just sit and hold hands. It serves as a grounding moment as the day begins. 

Introduce Normalcy

Brad: Another example that comes to mind focuses on one of the guys that works for us. He has two teenage kids, he and his family have all three meals together: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He carves the time out of every day, and after dinner they all play a game as a family. He consciously shifts into another mode for him and his family so they can be together.

If you live alone, you can do that mode shift anyway by videoing with friends and family. My dad turned 82 on St. Patrick’s Day and my family celebrated with a birthday party for him on Zoom.

It’s about trying to introduce the semblance of normalcy. Think about how you would normally live your life, but in some ways overcorrect to make sure those things happen. It’s so easy for those things to fall away in a time like this.

Don’t Let Things Default

Brad: Not surprisingly, the normal gender dynamics are introducing themselves into this new mix. Even though men and women are now both at home as a couple, the home responsibilities are defaulting to the woman — even if both parents are working. 

It’s societal gender norms that aren’t super healthy. In my house, it would be very easy for me to never load or unload the dishwasher or washing machine. And there are a handful of things that Amy doesn’t want to do. 

Instead of allowing ourselves to default in our roles, we’re being explicit. And I say this because having the deliberate conversation as a couple instead of defaulting to normal patterns is very healthy in this moment. If Amy wants me to load the dishwasher because I haven’t paid attention to it, she’s comfortable saying something to me. Basically every other day I pay attention to things like that. I notice the tasks she’s doing by default and tell myself that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’ll take that burden from her. She doesn’t even have to know I did it.

Greg: My obsession — potentially my OCD — is that I have to pack the dishwasher and do the laundry. It can only be so organized. 

A New Work/Life Balance

Greg: Let’s turn our sights on how our corporate environment fits in this situation. We’re all going through this and learning new work patterns. Now, we’ve all worked at home from some capacity when we’ve needed to, but there’s something additional about this new environment. 

What could people be doing to preserve their work/life balance? What do you see companies doing right now that could be helpful, so to speak?

Brad: For my frame of reference, there’s two interlinked paths: a company path and a personal path. 

Company Norms

Brad: As a company, define your norms around family time. Be aware that people have their kids in their house, and that they’re having three meals a day with their family. Make sure the work norms are such that everybody knows the rules of engagement. That includes scheduling meetings; internal meetings shouldn’t find themselves being scheduled at times they normally wouldn’t. Be explicit as an organization and help people individually. And as individuals, hear and reinforce the norms that are important to you.

Personal Norms

Brad: One thing that’s really effective in the context of work is figuring out what your own boundaries are, and allowing there to be a cultural norm within your company for those boundaries. For example, if you normally commute 30 minutes to your office, you don’t generally check email until you get to your office. Block that time on your calendar as being out of office. Even though you wouldn’t normally schedule that early time as unavailable, block it. This way everybody knows when people are not available. 

Also, if you’re using Slack®, set yourself to away. Consciously acknowledge the way you’ve been working, and continue to do so if that’s your norm. Whatever the culture is, maintain those norms. Be consistent even though you’re no longer having to commute, drop off the kids at school, etc.

In an office environment you have a lot of unstructured time in between things like meetings, going to the bathroom, going on walks or for a bike ride, and going out to lunch with coworkers. Also, you typically have extended periods of work where you’re not interrupted, like trying to get stuff done wherein you have your headphones on. Figure out how to make sure you’re still preserving those activities in the context of work.

Next week I’m starting to build in some time in my calendar so I provide breaks for myself and I can reorient myself around my events. At Foundry, we did two things: 

  • Everyday, from 4:30-5 p.m. we have an open Zoom channel for all Foundry employees. Everybody can hop on that line; it’s not structured. We’re just hanging out — we even started telling knock knock jokes. It’s something we never used to do, but we added that in and it gives everybody a chance to feel really connected with each other in a way that’s useful. And whether you do that companywide or whether you do that with your team, it’s not work. It’s just a chance for people to emotionally connect virtually with each other. 
  • Also, each day from 5-6 p.m. we hold an open Zoom channel for all the CEOs in our portfolio. Again, it’s totally optional, and those who want to come are welcome. It’s been fascinating, we have a few people that just show up for a few minutes and say hello. 

Greg: It’s reminiscent of one of my favorite movies: WarGames. After the drill, the characters had to see if the world actually blew up. They’d hear all the voices cry, “Houston I’m okay!” “Seattle we’re okay!”

Brad: It creates this time and space connection without an agenda. We’re so agenda-driven and our brains are wired to operate that way. From a work perspective, JumpCloud is an interesting company because this is probably a positive for the business. In the context of the importance of the product and in distributed infrastructure. 

I have no sense of what that means for the future of JumpCloud®, but it’s a very different situation than, let’s say, a restaurant. Can you imagine Yum! Brands or an airline right now? They’re part of a distressed world. People involved in those businesses need that sense of normalcy and know they aren’t going to get it. Within your company you can create that culture for each other, and that will start to bleed over into other places in a positive way.

An Entrepreneurial Perspective

Greg: JumpCloud, or companies like JumpCloud, are in this interesting moment in time where they’re clearly seeing the concept of need versus want. From an entrepreneurial perspective, these moments and what the market is currently doing are exposing processes and components that aren’t required in this moment. They’re nice to have peripherally speaking, but JumpCloud is seeing a pattern of people saying, “Hmm. We kind of need this to enable things.”

It’s going to really provide a lens to validate a business hypothesis. When a young entrepreneur wants to go and build something, whether it be a feature or a product, he or she needs to ask: Am I building a categorical shift that addresses a need to have? This is what’s going to inspire a lot of entrepreneurial thought after we get out of this. 

I want to get a sense of what you, as an industry leader, want to offer to the entrepreneurs pushing hard on their businesses that are in the same position of struggle you’d once found yourself in in the past? 

Brad: Understand that we live on this planet to accomplish a finite number of things over a finite period of time. Our current work is one of those many things. For many, it might be the only thing, but it doesn’t have to be. 

As an entrepreneur, you may be working on your first business or you might be working on your eighth business. If you’re working on your eighth business you probably have experience with some businesses succeeding and some businesses failing. If this is the first entrepreneurial company you’re working for, know that this is normal. There’s nothing unique in succeeding or failing as a business. 

Right now the dynamics are intensified and accelerated, and the decisions you make as a leader matter a lot because of the rapidly changing environment around you. However, the dynamics of success or failure are no different. 

The same thought applies to mortality. At 54, for better or worse I have to accept the fact that I’ve probably already lived more of my life than I’ve got left to live. We should all be worried about COVID-19, about our health, about the health and safety of our loved ones. But this is a finite experience that we have and the actions that we take right now are the ones that are going to influence what’s actually happening right now. 

Whether your company fails or succeeds, who knows. Focusing on that and putting all your emotional energy into those worries just feeds a negative cycle. It’s hard not to do. When confronted with fear, we’re wired to have a fight or flight response. And there are ways to combat that response, the simplest being to close your eyes and breathe. You don’t even have to do it for more than a minute a couple of times a day. 

Take a Breath. Stop For a Moment. 

Brad: You probably have plenty of thoughts running through your head. Whatever those thoughts are, just have them. Part of the journey is just realizing they’re thoughts. It’s just a narrative you’re creating in your head. 

Imagine you’re sitting on a bench on the side of a busy highway. You’re just on a bench, and cars are going by. Sometimes there’s a bunch of cars, sometimes there’s gaps between cars, sometimes there’s only one car. Some cars are going fast, and some are going slow. Some of those cars are green, some are blue, some are black, and some are white. Some are fancy, some are junkers. You’re just watching the cars. Watching them go by. 

What you’re not doing is trying to run out in front of traffic and stop the cars. Your thoughts are going to happen and you’re not going to make them go away. You don’t have to take action on them, you don’t have to change them, you don’t have to remember them, and you don’t have to make sure to write them down. When you have the same thought 20 times, instead of feeling like you have to get rid of it, deconstruct it. Why am I having this thought? 

Harness this idea that you’re observing your thoughts rather than being in the middle of a highway trying to grab them, dodge them, or toss them off the road. Even just slowing down a couple times of day and letting yourself have that deep breath, changes the tenor of your thought process. It allows you to have some clarity that you might not otherwise have. 

Questions?

Feel free to contact us with any questions you may have. We at JumpCloud would like to help in any way we can. As always, be healthy and stay safe.

Want to catch another episode? Check out our first episode of Where’s The Any Key? where Ryan Bacon and Noah Rosen talk about JumpCloud’s switch to remote work in just three days.

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