A couple of years back, I had a rough year. My mom had a medical emergency while traveling in a different country. There was enormous stress in having her treated there, waiting weeks for her to get stable, flying back and forth to help support her care, then eventually having her air-lifted back home only to have her embark on months of challenging in-patient rehab. And that was the beginning. Just a few weeks after she was discharged from the rehab hospital, my dad was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. We went right back into emergency mode, back to the hospital, back to 18 hour days. He died just a few months later.
At the time, I had been running Jonar with my father. Our little business was having explosive growth but was also drawing huge amounts of my time and energy. I was trying to keep that going while handling family medical crises, and I was facing having to do it alone given that my partner/father was dying. I was the only one of my siblings living in the same city as my parents when all of this went down so while my brothers tried to help, I got a hefty helping of the responsibility. This included the physical and emotional care of my mother who had suddenly lost her life partner after 50 years and was herself in precarious health.
My father and I had unwisely split some of the administrative and legal responsibilities of the company so with him dying so quickly I was running from accountants to lawyers, to bankers to notaries all while trying to disentangle his personal and corporate paperwork throughout his last few weeks in the hospital.
My wife and I have two wonderful children, but it's not like I could ask them to just stop needing their father for the year while I dealt with the series of cataclysms. I also had fiftyish employees who I had committed to support and they had needs. Lots and lots of needs.
During this year of hell, I was fairly certain that the universe had firmly fixed its rectum directly above my head. And the universe had taken a laxative. In other words, the shit just kept on coming.
Family and friends kept saying I should take a break... That I should get some exercise... Sleep more... Eat more... Find a hobby... But until a time machine was invented, none of that was going to happen. I had a lot of people relying on me and I wasn’t going to let them down. So I worked from hospital rooms. Took calls with investors while waiting for a parent in an MRI machine. I remember designing sales tax interfaces while simultaneously learning about palliative care options and remotely discussing sixth-grade math with my son.
I am not really the type of person to share my personal travails with the whole world. Yeah, I had a rough year, but there are people out there who have had it way worse so I don’t really feel entitled to whining. But I did learn some things through this experience and I thought they were worth sharing.
This past year, the universe decided to spread the contents of its bowels around. It's like the four horsemen of the apocalypse decided to have a party and invite their friends, the seven deadly sins. As a result, pretty much all of us have had normal life upended like someone flipping the table our board game was on.
What does one do about this extreme upheaval? Heavy drinking, catatonic binge-watching Netflix, and sleeping can only take you so far. I am by no means a self-help guru, but I do feel that my rough year yielded some tools that might be of use to others.
A lot of this starts with some great work done by Shawn Achor and his colleagues on the topic of positive psychology. The thing that really struck me about it is the biological research that indicates that our brains operate more efficiently when certain chemical compositions are observed in our neurochemistry. I’m simplifying but in summary, when the chemicals associated with stress, like cortisol, are high for longer durations our brains perform relatively poorly. High levels of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, which are associated with being “happy” cause us to make faster, better decisions with a much lower error rate. It also helps us be more resilient in the face of change and fight off anxiety and depression. There is a huge amount of literature on this.
I am no expert on any of this. I am not qualified to advise anyone or deliver effective therapy. But I did employ some of the techniques and they seemed to help:
Mix it up
Doing activities that create that better mix of chemicals in your brain, even if those activities have nothing to do with the things you need to get done seems to work. For me, it was making it a habit to walk at a brisk pace for 30 minutes a day. Getting a dog helped a lot. Even though I nodded along when I was advised that exercise would help my stress level, I never really bought into it. I don’t think that exercise is really the point. I think that whatever will get you that right neurochemical mix, that’s what you should do. If it's reading, baking cookies, or doing power poses, then do that.
Habits are powerful
There are a lot of things I wish I did or that I want to do. I don’t do them all. I think I am not alone in that. When I really need to get something done that is hard to motivate myself to do, I schedule it and then I make the schedule recurring. The momentum of doing something every week or every day can carry you forward even when you think you can’t take another step. And when you choose small things that will make you better, not all at once, but if repeated every day, they do just that: they make you better. They shouldn’t be huge things that are hard to sustain. They should be small achievable things. I try to walk for half an hour every day. I try to do or say at least one kind thing to someone each day. I try to be grateful for something every day. I don’t always succeed with all three every day, but I succeed more often than I fail, and over time they accumulate.
It is really easy to focus on how bad things are (like blinking easy). Accurate or not, focusing on how the whole world is unfair and out to get you does not seem to make things any better. I speak from experience on this. Trying to recognize the truth that while you may be having a hard time, there are others who likely would think your life is paradise can give you perspective. It doesn’t mean that your challenges aren’t real or difficult, just that you pretty much always have something to be grateful for. My mother is really sad about the fact that just when she was recovering from her illness, my father got sick and passed away. She was not able to care for him as he had for her and she often feels that it is cosmically unfair that they did not have any time together at the end. I suggested recently that she should try being grateful that his sickness did not manifest until after she was getting better as it would have been far worse for all of us, her included, if it had happened simultaneously. He would not have had his last major act be that he cared for his wife before he died. She was surprised by what I said and I hope that the suggestion helps her feel grateful. Time will tell.
As I write about the things that helped me get through some adversity in the hope that it can help others get through tough times, it may seem odd that I haven’t mentioned the support of others. I don’t want to imply that support systems are not important. They are. I don’t think I would have even survived without my wife. My friends helped me keep (some of) my sanity. The Jonar team helped me carry a burden that would have otherwise broken me. I am eternally grateful. But I don’t think anyone can take responsibility for your life but you. Others can help. It has to start with you.
I have been asked by that same amazing team to add to my habits and start writing regularly. Most of that will cover topics that I am far more qualified to pontificate about, but I wanted to start with something a little more personal. Throughout my career I have been told that “it's just business, don’t take it personally.” I never understood that. My work is a big part of my life, and I tend to take my life personally. Hopefully you do too.