How a Rising Political Star’s PTSD Fueled His Addiction to Work

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)


JASON KANDER: People ask me all the time, like, “Do you wish you were mayor right now?” or, “Do you wish you had run or had won the U.S. Senate race?” or, “Do you wish you had run for president?” And I’m always like, “No.” And people think that it’s some sort of comment on whether I would have won or whether it would be fun to do those jobs. It’s just simply like this is the first time in over a decade that I’ve really enjoyed my life, and I wouldn’t make any changes.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

Work can be an addiction for many of us, a way to avoid issues we don’t want to deal with, people we don’t want to confront, or demons inside. And here’s the thing. It’s a socially acceptable addiction. Undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder led today’s guest, Jason Kander, to be the ultimate achiever and the ultimate people-pleaser, which made a lot of people in his political orbit happy. Jason’s drive led to a life filled with accolades many of us only dream of, a fast-track career in public office.

But eventually, he realized he had to slow down, to let go of his addiction, and to give up his self-medicating through work. And the truth is many of us will need, one day, to step away from our work for a time to deal with something going on in our emotional lives, whether because of depression, grief, or, in the case of today’s guest, PTSD, because sometimes it’s just too much to work on your trauma while still having to meet all those demands and bring home a paycheck.

Jason Kander has a stellar resume, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, a former army captain who served in Afghanistan and former Secretary of State in Missouri at a young age. He went on to become the democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate for Missouri in 2016, narrowly losing the election to the Republican incumbent. And then Jason founded an organization called Latin America Vote, a campaign dedicated to ending voter suppression. He ran for mayor of his hometown Kansas City but dropped out on October 2, 2018. And that’s when the challenge of tackling PTSD, in part through his work with the Veterans Community Project, began.

Jason, before we dive into the meat of what we’re going to talk about, tell us a little bit about your background. Did you always plan on having a career in the military and then public service?

JASON KANDER: No, I can’t say always but definitely from a young age. The military and public service were something that… It happened one day for me. I don’t know if I ever would have actually joined the military or not, but then 9/11 happened, and that just changed the equation for me. I was, I think, 20 or 21, and I just decided, “Well, my country’s going to war, and I’m of military age, so I’m going too.” It didn’t make any sense to me not to go. My grandfather went in World War II, and my great-grandfather in World War I, and, to me, that’s just what you did.

And so I signed up and joined, and then after I came home from Afghanistan, I had been thinking about running for office before that. But it really crystallized for me, the feeling of politics not being a game, but instead politics being something that has real world consequences, because the first time in my life that I was on the receiving end of really bad consequences from political decisions was being in Afghanistan and not having the equipment we needed and that kind of thing. And so, it changed me from just being a political science major who saw it as one side versus the other, to understanding that there were real-world consequences to this stuff.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Were you an achiever when you were in high school and college? Like were you always doing the best you could? I love to hear about it, because all the people I have on the show are remarkable. They’ve done amazing stuff, when it kicked in that they were always going to push themselves hard.

JASON KANDER: Yeah. I think there’s two levels for me. There was sometime right when I started college, I had decided… At that point, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted to go to a really good law school, which is interesting because now, I’m a recovering attorney, and it seems far in the rear view. But I had decided that I wanted to go to Georgetown Law School. And so, I worked really hard in college, and I got into Georgetown Law School. And then I worked really hard in the army.

Then the second phase of it, the second level was what I did in politics. I got elected to the State Legislature at 26 or 27 and became the first millennial ever elected statewide in the country at 31 when I was Secretary of State. But when I look back now, I see that the second level of gunning after it, ambition, was, not entirely but at least partially, driven by untreated, undiagnosed, post traumatic stress and an addiction to self-medicating through work, in a sense of shame and a need for redemption, and a feeling that, well, if I could achieve this or make this change, then that might cause that healing, which was not going to happen. It was an unrealistic goal, I’ve now learned. I guess on the bright side, it did put me in a position now where I’m fortunate to have a platform and that sort of thing

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m processing, like my heart is racing because I was just like, “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.” I’ve never heard anyone put so succinctly and powerfully how the drive to work can soothe something in some of us. How did you realize that this was part of PTSD? That probably sounds really weird to a lot of people.

JASON KANDER: Well, I realized it through therapy. For those who don’t know, in October 2018, after a 10-year, pretty successful political career, it appeared to everyone, including myself, that I was just really still at the beginning of-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let me brag for you for a sec because I wrote a little-

JASON KANDER: Sure.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: … paragraph that Politico, which is like the bible for politics nerds, called you the hottest star in democratic politics. You were super successful. You had a New York Times bestselling book. At some point, you’d launched a historic, successful voter registration organization. You were an incredible fundraiser. You were the guy.

JASON KANDER: Yeah, it was going well. Thanks. And I was running for mayor of Kansas City because I was going to run for president, actually. I was going to be one of the 30 or 40 people running as a Democrat for president in 2020 and was on a path to do that. Something was not right, and it hadn’t been right for years. It was just getting worse with me internally. And I decided that I was going to go home and run for mayor instead, and then I would go to the VA to get help. But at this point, I hadn’t even admitted to myself that it was post-traumatic stress. I just thought, “Something’s not right.” And-

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Actually, you wrote once, “I can’t have PTSD,” because you thought you didn’t earn it.

JASON KANDER: Yeah. I was a military intelligence officer, and I was outside the wire a fair amount, and I spent a lot of time in rooms that I didn’t know whether or not I’d get out of alive because my job was to get out there and meet with people and get information. But I hadn’t had that more traditional combat where there were bullets whizzing by my ear or anything like that. I was just out there exposed for long periods of time. And so, I had told myself that that didn’t count.

I’ve come to learn that no matter what folks’ experiences are, the vast majority of them tell themselves that it didn’t count and that it wasn’t enough. And that’s a marked characteristic of post-traumatic stress, particularly combat post-traumatic stress. Well, really, all post-traumatic stress. So, I was living through that, and then I decided that I’m going to go get help. I was in a mayoral race that I was probably going to win by a pretty healthy margin, but things were getting really bad for me personally. And so, I decided to drop out of the race for Kansas City mayor, basically just decided not to become the Kansas City mayor, and instead go to the VA and start weekly therapy. And that’s what I did.

Through that, to answer your earlier question, that’s really where I learned that I had been using my professional life as, I wouldn’t even say soothe, an avoidance strategy for what was going on with me personally. For 10 years, I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep because of violent nightmares. And I hadn’t had the ability, most of the time, to be present with family. I had become really emotionally numb. But I put a really good face forward, and not just for the world, like I wasn’t only deceiving people, but I was also deceiving myself.

And so, that had just gotten to a point where it was unsustainable, and I had suicidal ideation, and it got frightening. And so, I decided to do something about it, and I’m really glad I did. And now, my life is totally different. I mean, it’s really, really good. I do something different for a living now. I’m still very much involved in politics, but now, I’m the President of Veterans Community Project, which is a veterans nonprofit based out of Kansas City that’s going national now. And it’s very fulfilling.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s go back to work and accolades and plunging forward as an avoidance strategy. I mean, I think that a lot of us non-military people, we think of PTSD and think of movies. We think of veterans drinking too much, taking drugs. I mean, we really go to sides of PTSD that are less socially acceptable than becoming “the hottest star in democratic politics.” That’s a really tricky way to work out and avoid your depression because you probably get a lot of reward for it. You get so much external validation, versus if you become a drug addict.

JASON KANDER: Yeah. It’s different, and it’s the same. What I am careful to talk about, whenever I speak about this, is that because people who have experienced trauma, the inclination, and I know because it was the inclination for me, was to always rank and then talk down your own trauma, your own experience. So, what I don’t want is for people to listen to this and say, “Well, the way I deal with it is I eat too much, or I drink too much, or I gamble, or use drugs,” or whatever. And then say that this guy did this, so what’s wrong with me? The thing is they’re all equal. I mean, yeah, mine, like you said, maybe more socially acceptable, but that’s not like necessarily a choice I made. It’s just that’s the self-medication that was available to me. And it happened to be paired with the fact that I was already inclined toward public service.

And so, I don’t want to completely take credit away from myself. I did what I did because I care about my country, but I threw myself into it with an abandon that probably had more to do, or at least somewhat to do, with my own trauma. And so, I just always try and point out that, like, there’s no difference between the way I handled it and the way other people do, because mine was still very damaging to me.

I would stay up really late telling myself I was working, but it was really because I dreaded going to sleep because sleep was not fun for me. It was a violent hellscape of nightmares. And so, I would not get enough sleep. Then it all just spiraled. And then, as far as the socially acceptable part of it, like you said, that was part of it too, because it became… My drug became the metric of how many people were following me and how much of a chance did I have to make a change.

I remember, just like any other drug, it became less and less effective. In early 2018, I gave a major speech in New Hampshire. It was the largest annual fundraiser in the New Hampshire Democratic Party. I was the keynote speaker. The year before me, it was Joe Biden. And the year after me, it was Elizabeth Warren. It was very much my, “Okay, I’m going to run for president,” speech. And it was live on C-SPAN and Road to the White House, and my parents watched it from home, that whole thing. And it went really well.

The next day, I remember not feeling anything and thinking like, “Huh.” There was a time when this would have really carried me for several days, and it just didn’t. That was a bit of a turning point for me in realizing that something was really off internally, and I couldn’t deny it, that if I could have a professional, and frankly personal, experience, because my family was there with me … I had friends from Missouri, really close friends there with me. Personally and professionally, it should have been a very fulfilling experience, and it felt really empty within like 12 hours. And so, that was a little bit of a wake up for me that something was increasingly broken on the inside.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think, to your point, I would never… First of all, this show is a judgment-free zone. I think for a lot of people with PTSD, or trauma, or depression, or anxiety, we act out in many different ways. We may have a drug addiction, and we’re workaholics. We may be running marathons, even when we’re breaking down our body. So I think that, for many people, it’s not an either-or, They have many different ways of acting it out. I just think it’s really hard when the thing that’s harming you is the thing that you get so rewarded for.

JASON KANDER: Yeah. The thing is though that, in my case, what I now realize is politics wasn’t working in the way that I was. And working at anything in an avoidance capacity is what was harming me. I remember at one point, a few months into weekly therapy at the VA when I was starting to do a lot better, and one of the goals I had when I… I dropped out of public life for several months when I went into therapy. And it was not for any reason other than I wanted to focus exclusively on getting better and not be distracted by thinking about how to tell the story while I was living the story. I didn’t want it to distract me from treatment.

And so, a few months into it, I was doing much better, and one of the goals I had had initially was, when and if I got better, I wanted to reemerge, not in a wall-to-wall way like I had and be on every channel all the time, but in a way just to demonstrate for people that post-traumatic growth is possible and to try to set an example. My therapist knew that this was a goal. Five or six months into it, I was doing a lot better. And he was starting to encourage me to say yes to some of these media requests that I had had built up for a long time.

I remember saying to him, “I’m really nervous about doing that,” because the analogy I used is, “It’s like I came here to get sober, and your job is to get me back to my job as a beer taster.” I remember we went with that analogy for a couple of weeks. And then at one point, he said, “What if your analogy is right, except it turns out you weren’t an alcoholic? You just overdid it because of what you were struggling with. And now that you have addressed a lot of your issues, maybe it turns out you just liked beer, and you can have one or two and be fine.”

And so, the analogy means, maybe you can go back and do media, and maybe you can have a public life and not feel that you need it all the time. And so, I hadn’t thought of that, and I said, “Well, maybe that’s right.” The first interview I did, I did an interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh yeah, just Lester Holt. No big deal.

JASON KANDER: There had been a large reservoir of stuff built up and people going, “What happened with that guy?” Then I did CNN and a couple other things. Then I just paused to see how that felt. And I was able to pause and not think about it, and I was able to just go back to… By that point, I was doing some things I really enjoyed, like coaching my son’s little league team and stuff I’d never thought I was going to have a chance to do, and beginning to work at Veterans Community Project and lead their national expansion, and all sorts of public service stuff that wasn’t politics and was really scratching that itch for me and giving me work-life balance, and allowing me to continue to work on my mental health.

But I wasn’t constantly thinking about what the next high was going to be, what speech I was going to give, or what media appearance I was going to do. And that was a big deal for me because it’s when I realized that I had addressed a lot of these underlying issues, and it turns out I can go back and do this stuff that I’m good at and that I enjoy and not feel that I need it all the time.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, I think it’s super great, because, I mean, at the same time, you can’t stop working. You have to keep working. You have clearly an inner, intrinsic motivation to do this work. And so, to take that away from you would probably be really damaging too.

JASON KANDER: Yeah. Also, I have a skillset. I have a skillset, and I have a platform now. I do enjoy being able to bring my skill set and my platform together for things that I care about. For a long time, it became, if I can continue to achieve, and if I can continue to work toward what I thought was redemption, then maybe one day I’ll feel better. And that was an illusion. But now, I do have this platform. People know who I am, and I have this large social media following, and I have the opportunity to go on television and that kind of thing.

So, it’s really gratifying to use that to help end veteran homelessness or to make contributions to the conversation politically that are about nothing other than something I think should be said or something I think should be done, with no thought at all toward, “Well, how does this affect my trajectory?” because I’m largely healed of the need to prove myself in order to heal myself.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I think that’s called authentic leadership, you know?

JASON KANDER: Yeah. Maybe, and I thought I was doing that before, but I think before I was only half-doing it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was it a specific type of therapy to treat trauma, or just talk therapy-

JASON KANDER: Yeah. I did two kinds. I did something called cognitive processing therapy, which is… I don’t know what the clinical way of describing it is, but for me, it was talk therapy combined with learning a lot about post-traumatic stress and how the symptoms play out. So, for instance, for me, when we would do CPT, my therapist would… I would talk about what I was feeling, and then he would literally go to the whiteboard, and he would put symptoms on the board, like what PTS is.

Then he would draw lines to the stuff I was describing. What it did is, it was like going to school about… And my great uncle once told me, he referred to therapy as getting a Master’s in yourself. To me, that’s what CPT was. It allowed me to understand that the things I was going through had an explanation and tied to PTS. And so, that was really helpful to me because when I would start to feel things, I now had context for why that was happening.

Then the second part was prolonged exposure therapy. And prolonged exposure therapy was basically two things. One, it was, I would sit with my therapist, and we would record on my phone audio sessions of me telling the stories of more traumatic and frightening times in Afghanistan. And each time, he would ask me questions throughout it as if he’d never heard it. And then in between the weekly sessions, I would have to listen to those recordings. I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. I would have to close my eyes, lie down, and listen to myself tell the story.

What that would do is, it would unlock other parts of the story that I had blocked out or purposefully unremembered or whatever – details. Then the next week, I would go in and do it again. And we did that until I would get bored with a particular story. I’d say, “I’m bored of this.” And I remember the first time, he said, “Well, good, because that’s the goal. The goal here is for you to get to the point where it no longer raises your adrenaline or makes you feel a fight-or-flight instinct, but to get bored of it.” And then we would move on to another story and deal with that.

So, that was the first part of it. And then the second part was something called the in-vivo therapy, which is part of prolonged exposure therapy, which really just means “in life.”  And it was going out and doing things that I had avoided. So, going to a restaurant and sitting with my back to the door for 45 minutes and not turning around, or going on a walk in my neighborhood without turning around or looking behind me, all of these different things that had been very difficult for me because of hypervigilance, which is a symptom of the type of post-traumatic stress I had, or have I guess.

And so, that worked really well too, because it’s just, you get used to it. You can become accustomed to it. I had avoided that stuff for so long. Another interesting aspect of that was, for years, and I’d even written in my book that I thought this was a way to solve it, because it was before I ever got any therapy, I would avoid watching movies about war or particularly anything about kidnapping, because that was in my job, the big thing to be worried about over there. And I thought that that would help me avoid bad dreams. But counter-intuitively, I was causing myself a real problem. I was causing more bad dreams because the way my therapist described it was, “You know, your brain is pretty determined to deal with these intrusive thoughts and memories, and you have your guard up all day long. You can do things to avoid thinking about it, but when you go to sleep, you don’t have your guard up. And so, it all rushes in, and your brain deals with it then.”

And so, one of the things I did for in-vivo therapy is I actually watched a bunch of war movies, that I had not watched when they came out over the last 10 years, that I was actually really interested in but had never watched because I thought they’d be bad for me. And that sort of thing actually really helps, and I very seldom get the nightmares anymore.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, you don’t get triggered when you watch a show or a movie that is a realistic depiction of your worst fear?

JASON KANDER: It is triggering, but there’s two big differences now. One, I know how to process that. And two, I understand that I need to process that. Not long ago, I remember we were coming back from vacation, and we were on a plane, and I watched this movie 12 Strong, which is about the war in Afghanistan. Anyway, so I watched it, and I remember afterwards… You know when you watch a movie on a plane, you feel like you’re in a tunnel? You really get into it.

When the plane landed, for about 30 minutes, I told my wife, I was like, “I’m pretty amped up. And so, I’m going to be distracted.” So for about a half hour, I was, and then I was able to roll through that. And then, that night, I didn’t have any bad dreams about it at all, so that on the one side, yeah, it amps you up. But what it also does is allow you to process this stuff that your brain wants to process anyway. And so, that was stuff that never would have occurred to me before I went to therapy.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That is some effective therapy, man. I mean, that’s amazing, I have to tell you.

JASON KANDER: Yeah. You know what? I remember, one of the things about post-traumatic stress is that it convinces you that you didn’t earn it and that it never existed. And so, that’s how I felt going into it. And then I went through therapy, and I started to get better. Then a couple of months after that, I remember going back and seeing my therapist and saying, “Is it possible that I really had post-traumatic stress when I got better?” I hear from thousands of people all the time who are experiencing this or other mental health issues, saying things like, “I’ve tried this, and I’ve tried this, and it’s not working.” And I went back to him, and I said, “Hey, I feel really inadequate about the fact that I got better. Maybe there was nothing wrong with me.”

He said, “No, look, you’re supposed to get better. And he showed me this study that they had done. My therapist at the VA is an incredible guy and has been really important to me. And he showed me the study that had been done at the Kansas City VA where I go, and he said, “Look, the vast majority of people who commit to this program, they do get better. You’re supposed to. It’s an injury. And it’s like any other injury. You can heal, or you can at least recover, get better, and manage it. And so, that is one of the things about it. It was effective therapy.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But you did your homework too, it sounds like, like-

JASON KANDER: That’s the big thing. You have to commit.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You did the physical therapy that goes along with the healing for the injury.

JASON KANDER: Exactly. Look, not every kind of therapy is going to work, and it may not work for you. So you may have to try something else. But what I always tell people is, if you are committed to getting better, and you just keep trying things and throw yourself 100% into everything you do, you’re going to get better. I was just really fortunate that, the VA, they’re very experienced at this. And there was never anything that I said to my therapist where he was like, “Whoa, really?” It was like everybody who sat in that chair was having a pretty similar experience. And so, that’s really fortunate for me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Take me back to the night or day or week when you decided not to run for mayor. I mean, you describe it now, like, “Well, I just decided to run and focus on my health and go to therapy.” I don’t believe you when you say it so lightly like that.

JASON KANDER: Oh yeah. It’s to say it that way now.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m sure it was a wrenching, grief-filled, anger-making decision. What did it feel like?

JASON KANDER: Yeah, it sucked. In some ways, it was gradual, but in most ways, it was all at once. It was gradual in the sense that it had been several months of me feeling just not right and getting increasingly worse and admitting to my wife that I was having suicidal thoughts and telling my campaign manager or a few close campaign staff that I had been depressed. But it came to a head where I had been… My mayoral race, I got out after 99 days, and 98 of them were really bad for me, personally. I mean, they were great for the campaign.

First day, we sold $25,000 worth of t-shirts. I mean, it was going well. That was the other thing. It was a nine-person field, and we outraised the other eight people by a factor of three, and all of them combined. I mean, we were crushing it. So, it should have been great.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Are you that good a compartmentalizer that you can be depressed and then go be charming at an event? I mean, that is amazing, because I have chronic depression, and when I’m depressed, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t smile. Sometimes I can’t talk.

JASON KANDER: I was pretty practiced at it, but also, I didn’t know I was depressed. I lived with this for 10 years without understanding what it was, 11 years actually. And so, as a result, I got to a point where I just thought, “This is who I am, and this is…” Because I forgot what I had been like before I went to Afghanistan. And also, most of the people I was spending all of my time with were people who only knew me post-deployment. So other than my wife and my parents, who I was not getting to see very much, everybody I was around were friends who I had made in politics. And to them, it was like, “Well, Jason doesn’t like to have people sit behind him in a meeting. That’s how Jason is.” To them, that wasn’t a symptom. That was all they’d ever known with me.

And so, that was my context for all of it. And it had been so long that my wife had forgotten how I used to be. And also, she was experiencing secondary post-traumatic stress living with me. So, it was all a big mix of this stuff. And yeah, I could do that, but it wasn’t like I was putting on a face. It was more like, for me, that’s the only place where I was getting any sense of feeling alive. So, I was very charming because that’s when I was having a good time. The thing was, throughout the mayoral campaign, that was getting less and less the case. I mean, it was getting harder and harder for me. And I was not enjoying any of it, even though it was going well.

I love my hometown. I’m a fifth generation Kansas Citian. And I was on a path to go into the office of mayor with a huge landslide, and a serious mandate, and an ability to do big things. And all of that, I knew, actually, that that should have been a great feeling, and it just wasn’t. And so, that was starting to help me understand. Then I had a night where I was really feeling down, and I was really feeling like pronounced suicidal ideation.

And so, I called the veterans’ crisis line and talked to a lady there. Up until this point, what I’d always been telling myself was it wasn’t post-traumatic stress, and it wasn’t related to me having served, and all of these lies I was telling myself. But the big wake-up call for me was, while I was talking to that woman, it became really clear from the sound of her voice, that I was not an exception, that I did not sound any different than anybody else she had talked to during that shift. When that dawned upon me, that was a big revelation.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What did she say? I mean, how did she communicate that, that she knew that-

JASON KANDER: Oh, just very calmly. I guess maybe my expectation was that it was going to be… I called almost reluctantly and apologetically, like I felt odd about it. Because I was telling myself like, “Well, I’m calling this thing, but this is probably not what I need.” But it was just clear from talking to her, my responses to the questions, the way she responded to them, the way she was proceeding with it, like I was exactly the person who was supposed to call this line. And it’s hard for me to say what she said. It was just more, there was clearly nothing in her tone that said that I was any different than anybody else.

That was a big wake-up call for me. And I’d say within 24 hours, I decided that this was important enough that… And I was just scared. I have a wife and a son, and I just decided that I was going to get serious about… The thing I had to think about was whether or not to try and pursue treatment while running for mayor. And I ultimately just decided that the fact that I had been too scared to talk about this publicly before because of politics meant that I wouldn’t be able to fully commit to it if I was in politics while doing it or in public life while doing it.

I didn’t feel like I could fully commit myself to the mayoral campaign at that time in the way I would’ve wanted to, even though I knew I probably could have stopped campaigning and had a pretty good chance to win a few months later. I still was like, “That’s not how I do things.” It was a hard decision. The way my wife put it was … I didn’t know at that time that I was trading in being mayor for getting healthy, because I didn’t know that I could get healthy. I just knew I was trading in the one thing that was going really well for me. But I’m really glad I did.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow. That phone call, that woman changed your life.

JASON KANDER: Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Maybe saved your life.

JASON KANDER: 100%. Yeah. People ask me all the time, like, “Do you wish you were mayor right now?” Or, “Do you wish you had run or had won the US Senate race?” or, “Do you wish you had run for president?” And I’m always like, “No.” And people think that it’s some sort of comment on whether I would have won or whether it would be fun to do those jobs. It’s just simply that this is the first time in over a decade that I’ve really enjoyed my life. And I wouldn’t make any changes because I’m enjoying this quite a lot.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m so glad. My last question for you-

JASON KANDER: Thanks.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, that’s awesome. Everyone should say that. My last question is, you mentioned that your team before your treatment just knew you as the guy who… Like you couldn’t have anyone sit behind you. How do you run, manage, and lead differently now that you know who you are and what you need to thrive?

JASON KANDER: One is I don’t walk around with an enormous sense of debt to everyone around me. I don’t walk around in this like knee-deep guilt about myself. Because I had just spent 11 years feeling as though I didn’t do anywhere near enough when I was in Afghanistan and when I was in the army, and therefore I was constantly trying to redeem myself. So, anybody who ever asked for anything, from a selfie to a 45-minute mentoring call, to fly across the country to do an event for somebody, I mean, I said yes to absolutely everything for years because, one, I was afraid to slow down.

And two, I just felt like I owed everyone. And now, I take command to my own schedule, and I’m really diligent about my work-life balance. I mean, I’ve gotten not just into much better mental health but also into great physical health. Including the time that I was in the army, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in my whole life. I work out five or six days a week, really hard. And I prioritize it because, for me, it’s really good for my mental health.

And so, that’s one of the ways my leadership style has changed. It’s that I now recognize in a real way that I have to take care of myself as well. I say “no” to a lot of things. I mean, it’s funny. I spent a year as a CNN commentator, and even after that, I was going on CNN or MSNBC all the time. That’s before I made my announcement and stepped back. And now, I get plenty of requests to do cable TV and that kind of stuff. But when I do it, it’s for one of two reasons. It’s either to advance Veterans Community Project, or it’s because I’m in New York City, and I’m there on work, and I can’t be with my family anyway, so I may as well go by MSNBC or CNN.

I frequently will say “no” to the evening shows because I’m like, “Well, it’s during dinnertime, and I’m not going to go down to a studio in downtown Kansas City and do a remote during dinnertime. And that’s just not a choice I ever would have made. And as far as where I work, the best part is I’m the President of Veterans Community Project. And all of our co-founders and pretty much all of our C-suite level leadership are combat veterans with post-traumatic stress. So, I think we all lead in very different ways, and we’re always checking on each other.

Not to mention, we run an organization where a whole lot of our clientele, so to speak, suffer from the same things that we do. They just have not had the resources we’ve had. So, I have a real work-life balance and say “no” to a lot of stuff. And the biggest thing is I don’t feel like I owe everybody everything all the time. I remember not long ago, my dad said to me during… It was a little while back that somebody was campaigning for something, somebody I had supported. And my dad asked me, “So, are you going to go out and do any events for them?” And I said, “No, I don’t think I am.”

And he said, and this was not him suggesting this to be the case. This was just him knowing me over the years. He said, “You don’t feel like you owe it to him or anything?” And I remember thinking about it for a second and going, “You know, dad, I’m pretty sure I don’t know anybody anything, except I owe my friends and my family love and friendship.” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s right.” It was a big deal for me to say that out loud. So I do that stuff, but I just do it because I’m like, “I care about this, and I want to go do it.” And never because I feel like I owe anyone or anything.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh man, that’s beautiful. Well, Jason Kander, thank you so much for your time.

JASON KANDER: Thank you. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed it.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: This is the final episode of season two of the show. I’ll see you soon for season three. I’ve gotten some great ideas for future shows from listeners recently. So, please keep them coming. You can find me on Twitter or Instagram @morraam or send me a message on LinkedIn. You can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com, but do send me your feedback and ideas.

I want to give special thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe, and the team at HBR, Colin Howarth, Anne Saini, Adam Buchholz, Maureen Hoch, Amy Gallo, Adi Ignatius, and the editorial team who worked with me on my big idea on anxiety in leadership. I really urge you to check it out, especially Gretchen Gavett, Kelsey Gripenstraw, and Ania Wieckowski. Thanks to my advertisers who keep us going. And I’m so grateful to our guests who bring their truths to the show. Hosting The Anxious Achiever is a source of joy and fulfillment in my life, and I thank you for listening and supporting. See you next season. From HBR Presents, I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever.



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