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.
When we go to work, we’re not just workers. We’re also partners, parents … we’re the same people we were at home. We might be struggling ourselves with anxiety. We may be in intensive therapy that demands a tough transition back into the workday, or we might have children who are dealing with a medical or a mental health issue, which wears on us and on our ability to perform effectively at work. We can’t separate these parts of ourselves, and the thing is we shouldn’t. Managing it all, the glorious mess of it all, makes us better leaders if we’re intentional about the mess we dwell in. Oh my gosh, things can get messy. For us anxious achievers who strive to reach perfection, we have to seriously readjust our expectations when we become working parents. But I really believe, and I really believe this, that we become better leaders by wading through the imperfect mess.
This is something my next guest understands well. Stew Friedman is a professor at the Wharton School of Business, and he’s coauthor of the book, “Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create A Richer Life.”
I’ll never forget you telling me about early in your career, in the eighties, when you first started talking about work and life. Now, it seems much more normal to talk about our lives outside of work, especially if we’re serious professionals. You’re far along in your career. Your children are adults. But back in the eighties, when you first began looking at issues of parenting and the workplace, did people think you were crazy? What did they think of you?
STEW FRIEDMAN: So, I started teaching at Wharton in 1984, and my research practice at the time was on leadership development and how companies develop and select their leadership talent. But then when my first child was born, it was after two miscarriages. So, we were classified as anxious parents because of our fragility with respect to, “Is this going to work? Is this child going to go to term?” We were pretty nervous about all that. But when he arrived, I was kind of stunned, and I have found since, of course, that many people are radically transformed in their thinking about themselves when they meet the child that they’ve had a part in creating.
Anyway, I was consumed with this question of, what am I now going to do to make the world a safe one for Gabriel to grow up in? It wasn’t normal to be talking about children and families at that time, especially for a man at the Wharton School.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.
STEW FRIEDMAN: So, I asked my classes the question, “What are you going to do as future business leaders to help to create a world in which the next generation can thrive?” One of my students said, “Well you’re the professor, you tell us.” When that question came back to me, it shifted my orientation to my own career. I started working on this as a question that I thought I could address and bring some useful knowledge to the business world, and to the world more generally, about how people could integrate the different parts of their lives in a way that works for all of them.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s put you on the spot. What is the answer to your question now in 2020? What is the number one takeaway? You’ve done this research for many years. You’ve probably counseled thousands of leaders, who are also parents.
STEW FRIEDMAN: Well, I think the most important thing is to look inside and to be as courageous as you can be in addressing the question of what you really care about. That’s the fundamental question. As it turns out, it’s the fundamental question that we have to ask people and ourselves in order to grow as leaders. What are your values? What do you stand for? What is your purpose in life? Fundamental. The basic question.
What I find having taught and coached tens of thousands of people on this question over the years is that most people don’t ask themselves that question often enough, and without some grasp of what is core to who you are and how you see yourself as a person in this world, it is really hard, if not impossible, to find a way to then make mindful, intentional choices about how you devote your resources and your attention.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: To me, that’s where the trifecta of parenting, leadership, and anxiety hits home for so many of us. The values question is unresolved between … is our attention mostly focused to our work or to our parenting? Maybe this isn’t possible, but it seems to me after reading your book and knowing your work, that if more parents could be centered on their values, they would experience a lot less conflict over that question of, “Am I a career-driven person first or a parent first?”
STEW FRIEDMAN: Mm-hmm.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because we’re all different, and there’s a lot of judgment from society, from our family, from ourselves, and it creates tremendous anxiety.
STEW FRIEDMAN: It’s essential to identify what you care about in your life and then to be clear about the world you’re trying to create. What’s the vision of what you’re trying to make happen in the world? And to talk to the people around you, who you care about and who care about you, about what it is that you care about and what they expect of you. When people do that with people at work, their spouses or partners, their extended family, their friends, the people that they choose as important to them –what I call stakeholders in your future … When you say, “You’re an important person to me. Here’s why you’re important to me, and I want to strengthen our connection and talk about how we can be supportive of each other and what we need from each other,” then other people have lower, and somewhat different, expectations for them than they had thought. What we carry around in our own heads about what we think other people expect of us is usually wrong.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can we talk about the tendency to over-deliver and try to be perfect? This is something that you touch on in your book and your work. It really rang true with me, and for anxious people … I had Dr. Alice Boyes on the show last season, and she talked about the tendency of anxious people to over-deliver, almost chronically, right? Because of fear of failure, because of fear of not matching up. As managers, you can over-manage, you can work too hard, you cannot let your people breathe, you can lead too hard, and you can, I believe, parent too hard actually.
STEW FRIEDMAN: Oh, absolutely.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right? So, I’m curious what your point of view is on perfectionism, which is not only a problem for many of us and a symptom of our anxiety, but it’s also sort of a societal pressure. I mean, those of us who get to a certain place in our career, who parent in a certain way, we didn’t get there by accident. We may have a tendency to push too hard. If it’s not perfect, why do it? If my kids aren’t perfect, why do it? So, talk a little bit about your philosophy on stripping back away from the tendency to be perfect and over-deliver as a parent and as a leader.
STEW FRIEDMAN: I think it’s one of those things that if it’s a part of how you’ve been operating your whole life, then you’re never really going to change it. But you can mitigate against its destructive tendencies, and it’s possible to do that. In my experience, the best way to try to reduce the destructive qualities of perfectionism, which has benefits, of course … You put in extra effort, you strive to do well, and naturally that’s going to help you to a point. It can result in diminishing returns. What I have found is that the more realistic you are about what you can deliver and, most importantly, what other people really expect of you, not what you think they expect-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you might have to ask them, which is uncomfortable.
STEW FRIEDMAN: Well, you have to. You must.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: No!
STEW FRIEDMAN: No, but there’s a way to do it, Morra, that is not so scary.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay.
STEW FRIEDMAN: Okay. I’m going to lay some wisdom on you now, you ready? No, this one I know.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m nervous, but okay.
STEW FRIEDMAN: Of course you’re nervous. Everyone is. You’re probably anxious because you think that what’s going to happen is that you’re going to hear people tell you what a failure you are and how you’re just not cutting it. That you’re not doing enough or that you’re not doing the right things well enough – that’s what most people fear. So, how do you do it? You think about the people who matter to you, and then you ask yourself, “Why does this person matter to me?” That’s best done after you’ve done some serious thinking about your vision, the world you’re trying to create. A good way to do that, really simple, anyone can do this, is imagine a day, 15 years from now, what do you do in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, with whom, and why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s the intent?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So obviously, Stew, we don’t parent in a vacuum, just like we don’t work in a vacuum. Challenges in your relationships can impact your mental health, which can impact your leadership, your presence, your mental presence at work. It saps your will to lead if there’s a lot of stress and strain in your relationships that you bring in your head. There’s such an added layer for a lot of people out there who might have a child with a physical or mental disability, or an added sort of condition, that creates strain. It might make you very anxious. I know that you’ve had that experience, and I’d love to hear what it was like for you. I know you’re not in the thick of that maybe now, but when you were in the thick of parenting, working, trying to build your reputation, how did you keep it all together and in perspective?
STEW FRIEDMAN: Well, I have three children. They’re 32, 29, and 26. Two boys and a girl. When our middle child was 13, he had a psychotic break and was thereafter diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder. A lot of anxiety. That was a turning point in my life. Our household just exploded. I was completely disrupted in my work and in virtually every aspect of my life, because we didn’t know how to cope.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right.
STEW FRIEDMAN: Mind you, my wife’s a clinical psychologist, and I had training in that. I worked for a couple of years with schizophrenics on a chronic schizophrenic ward of a private hospital in New England.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
STEW FRIEDMAN: So, I knew a lot about this, more than most people, and yet we were just terribly disturbed. Our other children were radically affected, particularly our youngest. She was 10 and just emerging into adolescence. We had to devote so much of our attention and resources to trying to figure out how to deal with a child who was in deep, deep need. Therapeutic, medical, interventions, schools, et cetera. His life’s trajectory. I mean, the awful and the terrible tragic aspect of this illness is that his older brother and younger sister both had Ivy League educations. They’re smart, wonderful people doing good work in education, both of them. But he was way smarter and had talent as a musician, as an athlete. That just got crushed by this disabling illness.
How did it affect me in my career? My wife and I, our family, we had a great support system. We had developed, over a long period of time, a set of close-knit connections with other families raising children together and family who were helping us along the way. We relied on them for emotional support, all kinds of support.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s funny, I think one of the things for my experience, and my son is not that severe, but parenting a special needs child has a way of not leaving you throughout your work day. Because they’re at school usually during your work day, and an issue can always emerge in the middle of the work day, and I’m not a good compartmentalizer. I’m curious if you were able … if you learned skills to disintegrate?
STEW FRIEDMAN: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I know you’re big on work-life integration but to disintegrate work and life in order to keep your focus at work?
STEW FRIEDMAN: Well, so integration doesn’t mean blending or merging. It means intelligently managing the boundaries between the different parts of life. Sometimes, that means merging, and sometimes, it means segmenting and keeping them separate. Okay, so how do you keep them separate? The only way to be able to do that psychologically, to be able to focus, is to know that you’ve done what you can to ensure that your child’s well-being is being addressed in the best way you possibly can and to stay connected in the spaces in between, throughout the day, where you can and must be available.
Now, in my work and life, I’ve had a lot of flexibility, so it’s easier for me to do that. I also had a partner who was able to devote her prime years to caring for our family. Right? So my wife, who’s also now my business partner, we have a small business. She’s also my research partner, my lawyer, accountant, and everything else. We’re partners in everything. We were partners in this, and that was really important. She was able to take what she had learned as a clinical psychologist and try to use her skills and knowledge and contacts to help us cope. So that helped a ton for me, because I trusted her with everything. I could devote my attention elsewhere.
That being said, I have seen how his life has unfolded and what progress he has made in learning to understand himself, and accept himself, and still give expression to his incredible generosity. He’s acutely sensitive, and he is also just remarkably generous and thoughtful, and really funny. He makes me very proud. To see how he has been able to deal with such a tragic illness that most people don’t understand, which is a terrible thing … There’s a lot of stigma associated, of course, as you know, with mental illness. That’s been a very difficult part of this journey for all of us.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean looking back, are there ways that having this experience has made you a stronger leader?
STEW FRIEDMAN: No doubt. There’s so many ways, but the one that is most prominent in my thinking is to accept people for who they are and to love them as they are. To realize that my role as his father is to help him to grow into the person that he can be and that I have to try to devote all my attention to that. When it’s me and him, or when I’m thinking about him and making decisions that affect him – not what I want for him, but what he wants for him – that’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, and I struggle with it still.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You just heard from Wharton Professor Stew Friedman, who studied parenting and also has the gift of hindsight. When your children are still small and you’re in the thick of caring for a child with special needs, it can be a whole different story. If you, like me and like our next guest, have spent your life always trying to be best, you expect, of course, that your parenting will fall in line. You’ve made a detailed plan for everything to be exactly right, and you believe that this means everything will also go right with your kids. In fact, they’ll be perfect, just like you were. You can spot my irony, right? Our guest today is Sehreen Noor Ali, co-founder at Visible Health. She and I share something in common, the fact that our carefully considered strategies to be high-achieving, working moms got derailed by life and by children who demand a high level of care. For Sehreen, the shock came when her second baby started missing developmental milestones, those checkpoints every pediatrician reviews with you at regular office visits. A family member had noticed something and spoken up, and like me, Sehreen didn’t want to hear it because she had a plan.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: The most prominent feeling that comes back to me a lot is we were waiting for a call from the specialist who had done a diagnostic exam, and I had completely believed that the results were going to be normal, or maybe one slight, small thing. I got the call, and she was telling me the news, and I was in so much shock that I walked into the lobby of a random office building and sat on the floor and cried when she told me the news. I was devastated. I didn’t understand what she was telling me, because I hadn’t expected it. I had constructed the worst-case scenario in my head, and this was a scenario that was so far-fetched, and that still sticks with me. I realized that I can get really myopic about how I understand the world, and I need someone to tell me. It happened again actually this December with the same set of family who have saved me in a lot of ways with this, and they recognized something in my older daughter that I didn’t recognize.
I realized, for example, in this specific example, that my older daughter was becoming a perfectionist in the way that I’m a perfectionist, and that is a whole other level of anxiety. We’ve been able to course correct, and I’m really proud of us because we sat and were like, “Okay, this is what’s happening.” And because I’m in therapy twice a week, I also recognized that it was me. I saw how she felt the need to be perfect for everyone, the way that I feel the need to be perfect for everyone. Motherhood doesn’t come with a playbook. That would be super nice, but we’re all doing our best. No one can accuse us of not doing our best. Yet when we realize we did something that has impacted our kids, we can’t let it go.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Of course, Sehreen eventually learned to let go and learned to find a new path for her career and her family. She found, as I have, just how big a gift our special needs children have given us.
So tell us a little bit, you have a company now. What was your life like before you became an entrepreneur?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Well immediately before starting the company, I had left my career to take care of my daughter. We had found out about a year and a half ago that she had an underlying medical condition, but when I left, I was actually working at a large education company and leading a team, business development. and new ventures, and I had a career as an executive in education technology. Before that, I was a diplomat and a civil servant with the Department of State. So, very different things.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was it intentional that you left to take care of your daughter? This was your second child, right?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: This is my second child.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: It was intentional in that I realized I couldn’t get her what she needed unless I had more time and bandwidth. I could only be accountable to myself at that point and her. Being accountable to a team’s metrics or a boss wasn’t going to let me do what I needed to do for her.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So you did end up being, I guess, a version of a stay-at-home mom.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: But it was incredibly stressful. Why, and what happened? Can you talk a little bit about your daughter, and what that looked like, what that schedule looked like? And what did that new era look like when you were with her?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Yeah, it’s weird because my mind doesn’t let me remember everything. I think it’s a form of coping. But it required me to get up somehow, get one child out the door, and think about what I was going to talk to the insurance companies about. Really, in investigative terms, how am I going to figure out what my daughter needs? Because I realized that no one was steering the ship. Then I was like, “Oh my God, I’m steering the ship.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. You keep waiting for the grown-ups to come in, don’t you?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: I know! And they don’t show up. It’s astounding. Then you look at yourself, and I was like, “I guess I am the grown-up.” When you’re dealing with a child with medical issues, what you don’t know is that the doctor that you’re sitting with for 15 minutes, they’re not necessarily steering your case outside of the face-to-face time that you have with them. That’s 100% on the caregiver.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do you think that when you sort of… Before you started your company, which we’ll talk about in a minute, you were sort of in limbo and not working. Did you grieve your career, or were you just too busy to think about that?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: I was cranky about my career because I didn’t sit with the grief. That’s what I find, my default emotion when I should be grieving is actually just continuous annoyance. So, I was continuously annoyed that this was my situation.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Like resentful that you were stuck with this?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Yes, yes. I was not pleasant to be around. I felt like this was forced on me, but in reality, it was a choice I made. That has been an important lesson in this process. I wanted to know at the end of my days that I have done the most I can do for my kids. There’s literally nothing more important to me in life than that. So, I had the option to make the choice, and I had the privilege to exercise the choice that I wanted. It’s taken me awhile to get out of the resentment, and there’s a part of me that’s still resentful, but at least it’s more on the other side now.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What was the moment where you thought, “I’m going to found a startup?” Was there a moment?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: The moment came when I saw the opportunity to join a startup generator program called Antler. The premise of the program was that they helped you meet a co-founder, and they would help build out a startup idea that you had. So, you didn’t need to have something fully baked. I’m like, “I’ve been through so much in the past two years,” and my dad had passed away right before my younger one was born, and I felt so beaten by life that I wasn’t going to beat myself up again by a job that wasn’t exciting, and I wasn’t going to do that to someone else who was my employer. So, it was low risk for me to do this startup program.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It doesn’t sound low risk.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: You know why? It was low risk because I wasn’t making money. I mean that financial reality, we had already been living with and had planned for. So, for me to take two months off to see if this idea I had had merit actually seemed like a better position to be in. I think when I talked about it with my husband, he was like, “You seem so excited about this that I want you to do it, because you have been saying to me that you’re lost and you’ve been lost for a while.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, how was Visible Health born? Did you come into this accelerator with a proper business plan and path to market, and all that stuff?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: No, the only thing I came into this accelerator with was the ability to be okay if I was wrong. I came in so raw, such a raw version of myself that it didn’t really bother me if people didn’t like me. It didn’t really bother me if people had an issue with the fact that I was opinionated because again, it was so primal at that point. I was so beaten that I was like, “Let’s test this out.”
I think the anxiety that I had going into the accelerator was that I hadn’t really been in a work culture for a long time, and I wasn’t prepared to do all the networking. I’m seeing that many people … It was sort of like a scene out of a… Like a fish out of water. Like, “What am I doing? Why are there so many people around me? Why do I have to talk to so many people? I just want to go home, and sit on Facebook.” But part of me had anticipated that, and so I gave myself permission not to do it, and that was critical. So people would go for drinks at five, and I’d be like, “Okay, I’m going home.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Maybe you were more authentic also in your pitching of the business and your development of it.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Yeah. We had to introduce ourselves to each other the first week. I had incidentally told a woman right before I went up that I was going to talk about being a parent. She laughed, and she’s like, “That’s so funny, because I purposely did not bring up the fact that I’m a parent.” And I said, “Okay, let’s AB test it and see how this room reacts.” Because this room was not a room full of parents by any means. It was a room mostly full of younger men. For the first time in my life, I stood up there and said, “I’ve never said this before, but I’m a special needs parent. I’m not sure what this means, but I do know that there is a market of parents here that could be consumers to solutions that make their life easier and help their children optimize their health, and I will die on a sword.” I felt very powerful in that moment. My life froze for those five minutes because I didn’t realize just how deeply I felt about it, and I still feel so deeply about it. The best thing that came out of that moment was my co-founder.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why is running a startup not killing you? Are you sleeping? Are you living? What about it makes it sustainable for you?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: It is my healing. It is so hard to see your child and other children not get the medical treatment that could help them for a lack … in this case, information inefficiencies. It almost broke me inside. When we were doing customer discovery for the startup, we would talk to parents. I talked to a friend whose child was probably going to pass away. I talked to another friend whose child was diagnosed with autism only to find out four years later that had they gotten a genetic test, they would have found out it was a regressive form of autism. The helplessness of these stories and of not being able to do anything is probably going to catapult us for the rest of our days in this startup. Because I think, as humans, if you see something that can be corrected and if you can figure out how to be helpful, you have to do it. It’s not harder honestly than staying home and figuring out my daughter’s care. I still don’t sleep. I didn’t sleep then, and I don’t sleep now.
If anything, because I get to form my own schedule, I don’t have to tell anyone except Alex that, “Hey listen, I’ve got to take my daughter to the doctor.” Or I have to tell our investors, “My daughter had surgery earlier this month. I’m going to be offline.” What are they going to say? They’re not going to say no.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: There’s something about… I think parenting makes you incredibly vulnerable and incredibly strong. I always think that those are the two best leadership qualities that a person can have. I may be in the minority, but the silly thing is that, for me, as a leader with a small L, I’m not running a country, but I run a company, and a lot of days I will get a call from school. My son is in elementary school, and he acts out, and school’s really hard for him. So I’ll get a call from school, “Something bad happened. He’s out of control. He said something. He hit someone,” I don’t know.
I will be plunged into anxiety, fear, anger, and some grief. Like, why? Especially around academic stuff. “You’re so smart. Why can’t you just do this simple math thing? You’re going to fail.” Then I spin out. I’ll spin out 20 years from now. But it has also forced me to be incredibly resilient and to be more comfortable with uncertainty and lack of control, which is something that I desperately needed because all my life I’ve just been trying to control outcomes and make them better, and just be hypervigilant, and try… When he was little, I could. I could totally supervise every single early intervention and every therapy and make sure he got everything. His schedule was so full, and now I can do that, but it doesn’t sometimes seem to make a damn bit of difference.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Mm-hmm.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And I have to accept that.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Yeah, it’s hard though. It is so hard to accept a different vision for your child than the one that you had before. It scares me so much that even talking about it makes my stomach turn. One of the things that our speech therapist tells us is… She sort of gently coaches me to say like, “You can’t measure her against anyone else. You can’t.” It’s amazing how ingrained that was in me to do that. We’re in a city-
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I bet you were perfect, weren’t you?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: I mean totally. Aren’t we all? Isn’t that why we do everything we do? It’s hard. I’m still working on it, and if I’m going to be totally honest, I am buffered by the fact that my daughter is going to make a full recovery. That’s not lost on me.
There’s these things that sit in your head, and one is when I got the phone call from the specialist that something was wrong. I think about this past December, when we’re in the process of… There’s all these milestones in terms of the transition for intervention, and so we’re ready for our next milestone where it transfers government departments. I got the report back. It read way worse than I thought, and I didn’t understand. I called my husband, and we were working fairly in similar places in the city, and I’m like sobbing. I’m like, “I just can’t handle this right now. This is too hard for me.”
So, we ended up meeting up, and he gives me a lot of emotional relief in those moments, but that still sticks with me because I don’t… So, I’m not a smoker, but there are three moments in my life where I’ve wanted to smoke, and that was one of them, for no rational reason except that I was really stressed out. So I told my husband, “I need to go find a pack of cigarettes.” I didn’t even know where to go. Literally, I had no idea where to go and buy a pack of cigarettes. But I was that overwhelmed and stressed, and a cigarette seemed like the next logical thing I should have.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I was smiling, also thinking like, the beautiful thing is that when your kids do incredible things, and they surprise you with their incredibleness, it’s that much more. That’s the upside of accepting uncertainty, you know?
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: But it lets you see a lot of beauty, right? I think I see a lot more beauty in life now. There’s no guarantee that any child is going to live the life that a parent has for them. Right? Things change on a dime. Now, I look at my children, and I delight in them in a way that is the best thing that has ever happened to me in life. It doesn’t have to do with the fact of my younger one’s trajectory and my optimism about that. I felt this way in even the worst moments of not knowing. There’s a lot of stuff, quite honestly, that we don’t know. But it brings you back to things that are simple and joyous in that acceptance.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, thank you so much Sehreen. I wish you so much luck.
SEHREEN NOOR ALI: Thank you.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer Mary Dooe, to the team at HBR, and to our guests for sharing their experiences and truth. Thanks to our advertisers and to you, the listeners. I’m so grateful for your feedback. You can always email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @morraam. If you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe, and leave a review. From HBR presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.