Are you okay?

“How are you feeling?”

…are two questions that I’ve made a habit of asking everyone I talk to online these days — and I’m sure I’m not alone. But are we “really” okay, or are we simply saying that we are? That’s a much harder question to answer.

Even the most forward-looking leaders would not have thought that at the end of this year we’d find that caring for our people’s mental wellbeing would be such an important part of their job. This year, I lost many friends, partners, and even colleagues to COVID-19, but not in the physical sense. The sheer mental pressure, the lack of perspective for a “normal” future, the division of opinions on society with the underlying fear and uncertainty driving it — for many, it was simply too much. And yet, we’re only at the beginning.

As leaders, caring for our own mental health is of equal, and often neglected importance. Years ago, I read Ben Horowitz’s article, “What’s The Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology.” Almost a decade later, I still consider it to be one of the best posts I have read on leadership. 

We are the captains of our ship. We are the CEOs of our lives. – Toby Ruckert

Today’s world is much different than what it was back then. Except in that sense, it isn’t. All of us are (and always have been) the CEOs of our lives. From the time we come of age, we are the captains of our ships, and if we have people to look after, first officers of our respective tribes of friends, family members, community members, team members, and others.

What has changed this year?

All of us have been exposed to unprecedented levels of stress and mental uncertainty. The exceptions, of course, being those who have experienced war, poverty, and other dire conditions over which they have no control. While we are still in the thick of dealing with COVID-19, we are just at the beginning of dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

Seeing friends lose their jobs and livelihoods and/or even experiencing it yourself, hurts (at best). But waiting and betting our futures on the hope that vaccines will solve all of our problems (especially those that come with the mental stress the pandemic has created) is an illusion. While vaccines can help us to find our way back into [some] new forms of normality and predictability, they do nothing to repair the devastating mental health impacts in the decades to come, for generations of people.

We readily acknowledge that we are simultaneously in health, climate, and economic crises, but we are also sure to face a mental health crisis. Looking at the data on suicide rates in the last nine months (compared to the trend over the past five years) suggests that the mental health crisis is already here. This cascade of suffering and anguish is not to be taken lightly and it’s important for us to now prepare ourselves — mentally — for what is still yet to come.

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Mental stress, especially when prolonged over time, leaves scars. One of these is an ongoing fear of the unknown. If this crisis has shown us anything, then that few things are predictable. As we see the lives of ourselves and those closest to us turned upside down, and while we cannot control what is happening outside of or to us, we can control what is inside of us — and how we mentally react to it.

In many ways and at this precise moment in time, we have the unique (albeit unasked for) opportunity to learn how to grow beyond ourselves, manage our psychology, orchestrate our emotions, and ultimately, guide our state of mind, perhaps much better than ever before. 

The best cure for the body is a quiet mind. – Napoleon Bonaparte

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I have found meditation to be one of the most effective and fulfilling ways of cultivating such mindfulness and by that building up both mental as well as physical resiliency, but I’m sure there are other techniques you’ve come across that are worth sharing and exploring. 

What works for you given our current limitations of lockdowns and social distancing? 

I’d love to hear from you.

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