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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Morra Aarons-Mele: The Anxious Achiever

The worlds of business, entrepreneurship, and startups can be wicked in what they don’t say about how their culture can negatively impact the mental health of their participants. In The Anxious Achiever, a podcast with Harvard Business Review, Morra Aarons-Mele takes that gap to task, using each episode to deliver a different conversation that seeks to bring realities about mental health in the business world to light. In this week’s episode, Nick talks to Morra about why she started the show, how it’s part of her broader efforts to spotlight these issues, and how her own personal relationship with mental health informs her work.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Servant of Pod Morra Aarons-Mele: The Anxious Achiever

Tue, 1/19 12:40PM • 27:11

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

laughter, anxious, people, introvert, anxiety, social anxiety, feel, pandemic, world, person, feeling, book, achiever, podcast, depression, life, talk, hear, work, thought

SPEAKERS

Morra Aarons-Mele, Kevin Love, Gabrielle Union, Catherine Shu, Nick Quah

Morra Aarons-Mele 00:01

We mythologize work. We mythologize and fetishize success. But one of the things that Putnam talks about is the third place, and how "bowling alone" is the loss of that third place. It's the loss of that bowling league, where people used to come together outside of work, and outside of church, frankly.

Nick Quah 00:20

This is Morra Aarons-Mele. She's an entrepreneur, and she hosts The Anxious Achiever podcast. The Putnam she's talking about is Robert Putnam, perhaps best known for the book Bowling Alone. In the most reductive sense, the book is about building community, and how hard it is to do that in the modern world.

Morra Aarons-Mele 00:40

For me, my third place has been the internet. [Laughter] And it's been women's communities, and it's been bloggers, and now it's podcasting. Honestly, and I think that if you tend to be a sort of introspective, anxious, introverted, ruminating, solitary-ish person--like I am, and it sounds like maybe you are--but who has a great desire to do good and a large ambition, finding your home in the internet is transformative. And you can do good with that. I really believe it.

Nick Quah 01:13

From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: how Morra Aarons-Mele is bringing people together by breaking down mental health barriers.

Nick Quah 01:36

Morra, I want to start off by just telling you a couple of things about me. So I'm an extremely anxious person. And, being an older millennial, there's very little of my self-esteem that I think is separate from my professional success, which is why The Anxious Achiever really resonates with me. So thank you for making it.

Morra Aarons-Mele 01:55

Well, I want to thank you. I feel like every person, who is a person who is well-known and well-respected in their industry, who says things like you just said, is such a huge step forward. You know, that sounds cheesy, but it's so hard for me even to get successful people to go on the record to talk about their anxiety and their mental health. And so thank you--"A." [Laughter] And I have had clinical anxiety and depression--diagnosed--since I was 19. And I'm 44. And so, it's just been such a part of my life, sometimes really, really crippling, and sometimes sort of manageable, but it's my... I travel with anxiety every day like you, it sounds like, and I never heard anyone talk about it who wasn't a celebrity, or wasn't writing a memoir. It always seemed like something that the people that I worked with every day and respected wouldn't talk about. And yet I knew that that wasn't true, if you just look at the statistics of people who are on antidepressants in this country, you just do the math. And I wanted to start having those conversations. I was ready. I had nothing to lose, you know? I was sort of at a point in my life where I'm like, I'm a privileged, white, heterosexual person who's reached a certain age and has a certain level of means and security in her career; I'm gonna talk about this.

Nick Quah 03:34

Well, walk me through the biographical aspect of that. When in your life that you start wanting to talk about it, in your profession and publicly?

Morra Aarons-Mele 03:44

Only a few years ago. I really... I wrote a book about being an introvert, and I am an introvert. It's called Hiding in The Bathroom, because I have worked by myself in a way that a lot of creatives will resonate with, but in the corporate world was kind of weird. I left a pretty demanding corporate career in 2006, and started freelancing, and working for myself, and created a small business where I still mostly work from bed--even before the pandemic--or in my home office, I call myself a "hermit entrepreneur." And I always thought it was just because I was an introvert. You know, I didn't love being with people all day, or doing office politics. So I wrote a book about being a successful introvert. What I learned along the way was, I really have social anxiety. People who are happy introverts don't have near the level of angst that I do when they have to pick up a phone or go to a meeting, you know? They're like, "Well, this isn't my preferred way to spend the time, but I'm going to do it and then I'll go be by myself." And so I just always loved psychology--I actually have half a social work degree--I wanted to be a clinical therapist; I just couldn't figure out how to do it from a money perspective. So it was always my passion. And it was really through writing the book and realizing, "Hey, I don't think being an introvert is the whole piece of this." I think it's really about anxiety and social anxiety. And, again, going through the world as an anxious achiever.

Nick Quah 05:09

I remember hearing in one of the episodes that you also experience anxiety in the lead ups to conducting or giving interviews. I just want to also thank you for coming on the show. [Laughter] And I just want to say, I do have that.

Morra Aarons-Mele 05:23

You do?

Nick Quah 05:24

Yeah, it's not... It hasn't been debilitating for a couple of years now. But oftentimes in the half hour running up to one of these recordings, I always get this sort of pit feeling in my stomach, like I'm about to jump out of a plane.

Morra Aarons-Mele 05:37

Do you ever feel the urge to cancel?

Nick Quah 05:39

All the time. I mean, it's not just with interviews, it's just about everything else in my life. Like, even going to the grocery store sometimes, I'm like, "Ah, you know, can I cancel that this week?" Order it online or something.

Morra Aarons-Mele 05:51

Oh, my gosh. So this is interesting, because I actually had a journalist on my show, Catherine Shu, last week, and I was saying, "You're a journalist"--because she has this too--"Your whole job is to call people up and, like, ask them questions."

Nick Quah 06:05

Yeah, let's play a little bit of that.

Morra Aarons-Mele 06:06

How does it make you feel when you know that these powerful people that you’re talking about, or people who hope to be powerful, who are just starting out with startups, will only talk to you off the record about their anxiety and depression because they don’t want to be seen as weak? Does that hurt you as someone who has her own mental health challenges? How do you feel about that?

Catherine Shu 06:31

I think one of the things I was actually thinking about before talking to you is that I still get really anxious before interviews myself all the time. Even if it’s just going to be a 15-minute call and it’s a type of story that I’ve done hundreds of times before, literally, I still get really nervous. One of the things I always remember is that, especially for people who are a very early-stage startup, maybe somebody who’s just raised angel or seed, or even a series A, they’re probably more nervous about talking to me than I am to them.

Nick Quah 07:11

It seems like there are people who work in fields like journalism, or they do public speaking, even though they may have deep social anxiety, because for them, they figure like the gains outweigh the costs. They're doing this thing that they loved in spite of how it hurts them and that's what I get from your show a lot. But there's always this compromise being made.

Morra Aarons-Mele 07:31

Oh my gosh, Nick, I'm kind of having a moment, because I feel like you just hit upon something that I didn't really realize. But I think that's 100% true. And I think that's where the "achiever" piece comes in, and why I feel this work is important, because it doesn't mean that you don't do the thing, right? And I think that's what you're saying, and what you're doing in your work. You persist, right? [Laughter] When you have anxiety, but you are driven by your work, and your work is meaningful to you--or you have depression, or whatever challenge--you feel the horrible feelings, you want to cancel, you want to hide under your covers, but you don't. And you manage through it. And I think it's really important to hear those stories.

Nick Quah 08:22

In The Anxious Achiever Morra interviews big-name professionals about how mental health affects their work. She's talked to CEOs, politicians, professors, and even celebrities, like actress Gabrielle Union.

Gabrielle Union 08:33

For me, success has to look like being a real advocate and really being on the frontlines and figuring out a way of addressing my anxiety in the face of being a truth-teller.

Morra Aarons-Mele 08:43

Well, how do you? I mean, how do you besides… I mean, I imagine you work out a lot. But...

Gabrielle Union 08:48

Yeah, I work out a lot. But I also live with...

Morra Aarons-Mele 08:49

Where do you put all those feelings?

Gabrielle Union 08:51

With my therapist. With professional caregivers. And this is the privilege that I enjoy. I have the means to go to therapy more than once a week if necessary, that I can Skype my therapist, that I can… Not just my therapist. Any range of mental health care providers... And I understand that privilege even more in a time of widespread crisis where we need those people who have the ability and the privilege to speak out, to speak out. If you have the ability to address your anxiety… and for me, to address my PTSD… to address depression and still fight, we need you.

Nick Quah 09:43

Morra didn't think she'd end up making a podcast. She got her start in the early days of the internet, doing marketing and consulting for politicians. Soon, she became a political blogger and appeared on cable news as a pundit, but it didn't work out. She hated the spotlight, and she says her clinical depression helped torpedo that line of work. But what did stick around was her passion for creating community and using her voice for good. In 2011, she founded her company Women Online, an award-winning digital marketing and strategy firm. And that's still her day job.

Morra Aarons-Mele 10:20

I don't do my podcast all the time. It's seasonal. So I do it twice a year, which is nice. And I'm about to start writing another book, and so I have to figure out, do I go on leave with the company? Do I do what I did with my last book, wake up at 5am? I think all of us who are juggling... I hate the word "side hustle," but I guess that's what it is. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 10:39

I also have a complicated relationship with that term.

Morra Aarons-Mele 10:42

Oh my gosh, tell me!

Nick Quah 10:43

It's sort of part of this larger framework of discourse of... I'm just not into the hustle culture, because it's very male, it's very white, and it's also very commoditizing. Everything has to be a commodity in some way, and that always kind of rubs me the wrong way a little bit.

Morra Aarons-Mele 11:01

One of my weirdest claims to fame is in 2013, I coined the term "entrepreneurship porn."

Nick Quah 11:06

Oh, that was you! [Laughter]

Morra Aarons-Mele 11:07

That was me! [Laughter] I think that's exactly it. And it's you're performing. You're performing entrepreneurship, you're performing ambition, but that's not really the truth. Anyone who does it really knows that it sucks, and it's really hard, and it's not glamorous.

Nick Quah 11:24

Why do you think people are so intent on that performance of corporate life? I really don't get it. I think it's painful. And it feels super demeaning to hear people talk about how long they can go without sleep, because they're so committed to their work or whatever. Where do you think that mindset comes from?

Morra Aarons-Mele 11:40

I think it's very American. I really do. I'll never forget living in the UK for many years, and people being like, "I was at the pub all night, and then I went clubbing, and I don't do any work. And oh, but by the way, I aced..." You know. And I thought, gosh, this is so weird. Why aren't they bragging about how late they stayed up studying? I think it's a very interesting kind of American thing, that the early bird gets the worm, and it's amplified by social media. I wish I could go back in time sometimes and see what it was like to be a small business owner before Instagram. Before Fast Company magazine, before hustle culture. I don't know. I think that it's a bad habit we've all gotten ourselves into, and it's got to stop. And my only silver lining that I see in the pandemic is that it will force a reset on some of the hustle bull****. It has to.

Nick Quah 12:39

I not even sure if that happened. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns folks who were like, "Oh, this is the best time to write a novel," or whatever. I could barely get out of bed, let alone write a novel. [Laughter] I feel like there was that long discourse at the beginning.

Morra Aarons-Mele 12:54

I know, but I think that passed now that we're on month 84 of the pandemic. [Laughter] You know, it's weird--because you'll understand this as a small business owner, and as someone who basically is your own brand--if I don't create a little bit of FOMO in people, then they don't want to listen to me, or maybe they won't pay me to come speak, or they don't think I'm important. It's this inner dialogue, and I struggle with it. I have to look like I'm super cool, and out there, and amazing, even though I'm sitting in my suburban home office not talking to anyone all day, because I need to create the illusion. And I think that that's part of what we think entrepreneurship is, but, yeah, it's hard.

Nick Quah 13:35

So how did you figure out how to navigate that corporate professional world?

Morra Aarons-Mele 13:40

I think I just got older.

Nick Quah 13:41

Hmm. Tell me little bit about that.

Morra Aarons-Mele 13:43

Uh-huh.

Nick Quah 13:45

I'm asking this as a slightly younger person. I'm eagerly looking to get to, I suppose, your place in life, but, um... [Laughter] Help me figure that out. What did you figure out?

Morra Aarons-Mele 13:57

I think I figured out that it wasn't making me happy, it was making me way worse. And when you live with mental illness, you have to be a bit rigorous and serious about taking care of yourself. And, for me, I realized that I had to take care of myself. I have responsibility for small children, as well, and that's a real wake up call. But even without the kids, it was like, Morra, you can be this person that you always thought you should be, and you're just going to keep quitting those jobs, and you're going to keep crying in the bathroom, and you are going to be miserable. Or you can take a little bit of care about yourself, and do a little bit less, and see what happens. And the funny thing is, actually, it worked. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 14:49

I think part of where I still am is this apocalyptic notion of "if I do less, things will fall apart."

Morra Aarons-Mele 14:58

That's your anxiety.

Nick Quah 14:59

Yeah, and I remember hearing it from a bunch of different people, and it kept coming up in the interviews that you've had, and it feels like such a universal feeling. But at the risk of turning this into a Lifehacker article or something, what are your personal practices for slowing down?

Morra Aarons-Mele 15:20

I spend a lot of time by myself, even before the pandemic, because I work by myself at home. So I'm on calls and stuff, but I'm in my head a lot. And that can be bad, and it can be good. So if I'm in my head too much, I need a way to reframe, sometimes quickly. I'll call a friend or a colleague, I'll go for a walk. If I'm in a feeling bad about myself and underachieving funk, I'll write something nice or endorse someone on LinkedIn. I'll try to do something nice for someone else so I get out of my self pity. I think I've learned to try to manage my rumination time. And I don't know if that resonates with you, or anyone.

Nick Quah 16:00

Oh, that definitely does. Tell me a bit more.

Morra Aarons-Mele 16:02

It's really hard. If I wake up in the morning and I can tell, "Oh, man," I'm feeling bad, I'm feeling poor, I'm feeling broke, I'm feeling anxious, I get out of the house. I try to exercise, or I'll go to the grocery store, or the hardware store; anything to break the cycle. I think that it's really, really important to look inside your head, and if you're in a bad sort of spinny, stewing place, try to break it, because anxiety is not a reliable narrator. Right? Not a good place to be. And so that's really important. And I also know that I need a lot of alone time, but that a phone call can also change my day. That's the weird thing about social anxiety: you dread it, and you're scared, and you don't want to have that phone call, but once you're talking to someone you feel good, and you hang up the phone call and you feel better than you did before. And sort of remembering that, coaching myself and saying, "You want to cancel this call? But you love this work, this is important, you're going to feel really energized after--I know you don't want to record this podcast because you're feeling really down today. But you're gonna feel better afterwards." It's almost like going to the gym, right? You don't want to go but you're gonna feel better.

Nick Quah 17:19

Coming up: what Morra learned from an NBA star.

Nick Quah 17:38

So I mentioned this earlier, but so much of my self-esteem is tied to my career. And I'm curious, Morra, how do you build your self esteem at this point in your life?

Morra Aarons-Mele 17:49

Hmm. Gosh, that's a hard one, isn't it? I've sort of accepted that I'm a little bit neurotic, and anxious, and low self-esteem by nature. But I've also really gotten better at not listening to other people and having a much stronger internal compass. And it's the most wonderfully liberating thing in the world, honestly. And I feel free. And I do think some of it is getting older. But for me, it was really about--this is so corny--but doing the work that I love and accepting that I may never be famous, I may never have a number-one best-selling book, but that's okay. I'm still gonna keep doing it. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 18:37

Yeah.

Morra Aarons-Mele 18:38

But I think it's also it's also having a basic sort of--this is, again, corny--a moral code. [Laughter] This is what I stand for in life. Here is what being a good person means to me. And you know what? I'm ambitious. This is why I'm ambitious. It's about what I want to do and the mark I want to make on the world, not about... For me, I had to let go of years and years of my parents, and my coaching, and always being the person that I thought I was supposed to be, and just saying, "You know what? This is my code. This is my ethos. I'm okay."

Nick Quah 19:15

What has been your favorite conversation on the show so far?

Morra Aarons-Mele 19:18

Oh, God. They're all like my children. You know? [Laughter]

Nick Quah 19:23

You love all your children equally?

Morra Aarons-Mele 19:24

I love my show. I don't know if you feel this way, or if you talk to other podcast hosts who feel this way, but I love my show. It is something that I have created from its infancy--with a lot of help--but when I put a podcast into the world, it does truly feel like mine. And that's a very special feeling. So when people don't like it, it really hurts me. I don't know, I feel so personal about it. It's weird. I cannot say that I have a favorite guest. And I'm not just ducking the question. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 19:56

Well then let me reframe it then: what is the most surprising thing that you've learned from the show so far?

Morra Aarons-Mele 20:03

I think I've learned the prevalence of social anxiety.

Nick Quah 20:06

Even more so than before you started the show?

Morra Aarons-Mele 20:08

100%. How much people are truly battling their will to go into the arena of work and success every day. And I think that everyone needs to understand that. Whether you're 19 or you're 40 and you're walking into that room and you feel like you don't belong, I can't tell you how many people who are so impressive... I mean, I just talked to Kevin Love, from the NBA, the guy makes $31 million a year. He's a legend.

Nick Quah 20:37

He's been very public about his depression, yeah.

Morra Aarons-Mele 20:39

Yes! I mean, he is scared. He has social anxiety. I mean, this guy should be a king, right?

Kevin Love 20:48

As athletes, and as an athlete, we’re looked at as superheroes. I know that from growing up and having these superstars in my eyes, like Charles Barkley, or a Shaquille O’Neal, or even before that with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan. I’m looking like… these guys are indestructible. Nothing can hurt them. Growing up as a young man, I thought to expose that it was just going to put me in a light where people are going to look at me as weak; not only my teammates or my counterparts, but as I got older, it was general managers, and ownership, and things that were going to really affect my livelihood, let alone the general public. So for me, it was something that before I press send on my first article with the Players Tribune, I was really, I guess scared would be the right word, and uneasy, and had a lot of anxiety, but it was, it just came a point in time and the perfect storm for me in that year that I just didn’t want to live in the shadows anymore.

Morra Aarons-Mele 21:46

I actually really like to talk to really successful white men on the show, because I feel like that's--ironically--although I don't think we need to hear from straight white men in other arenas, I feel like in the area of mental health, because they still hold so much power, it's good to hear from them. And so, yeah, when I hear someone who seems like they should have so much power basically express that they feel powerless, which is what social anxiety kind of is, it blows my mind every time.

Nick Quah 22:12

So you're a mother of three children. When you think about the working world that they're going to grow up into, how do you... Do you talk to them about this kind of thing? Or do you try to set their expectations a certain way, or think about the world that they're going to enter in a couple years?

Morra Aarons-Mele 22:31

I worry a lot about my kids. I see how their connectivity is so totally engaging, and so instant. My tween has just gone into the world of group texting, and...

Nick Quah 22:48

Oh, man. Big move.

Morra Aarons-Mele 22:49

Big move. He feels the need to be on that text. It is his social capital, right? And I just worry about that. I can't quite relate to it. I think that these are kids who... It's funny. They all want to start their own YouTube channel, and the overprotective mother in me is like, "No, you're too young!" But they're like, "Mom, you're all over the internet." Like, "What's up mom? You have a podcast, you're on Twitter, you're on Instagram, you're always sharing photos of me. What's up with that? You're a hypocrite!" [Laughter] And they're right! And so I realized that they sort of have to become brands of their own in life. And it's very weird. It's very weird to have parents, both my husband and I, sort of earn our living online, and to be raising children in this age, and have such conflicting feelings about it all is confusing. Yeah.

Nick Quah 23:43

Do you have a dream guest? Somebody that you really, really want to talk to that you haven't been able to book yet?

Morra Aarons-Mele 23:48

Well, okay, so, if you really want my dream guest, it's Oprah. [Laughter] I mean, let's think big here. Because one of the things that I love about Oprah, she's very open about the fact that she's an introvert, and that she really gears up for her work. And it doesn't come naturally to her, but that the skills... And she's super anxious, and she has developed and channeled those skills into her incredible empathy, right? Her social radar. Her power. And I want every person who's anxious and feels like they don't have power to think of themselves as like, a could-be Oprah. You know? [Laughter] Like, "If I could just manage this and channel this, oh my gosh, I could be Oprah!" [Laughter] It just gets me so excited.

Nick Quah 24:43

That's a really good answer. I didn't know that she considered herself an introvert, that...

Morra Aarons-Mele 24:49

Oh, yeah!

Nick Quah 24:49

I feel like there's a lot of people who I would be surprised consider themselves an introvert for sure.

Morra Aarons-Mele 24:53

Yes, yes. And in fact, I have a whole list of celebrities. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 24:58

Who's the most surprising introvert to you?

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:01

Well, I think the most interesting thing is the amount of comedians who are really introverted and really, really socially anxious.

Nick Quah 25:11

You had John Moe on the show recently, and...

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:13

I did!

Nick Quah 25:14

That's his entire sort of like...

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:16

Shtick.

Nick Quah 25:16

Yeah.

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:17

Yeah, because of course, I mean, the truth is, anybody can go out there and wow the room. It's not about whether you're an introvert, or whether you're anxious, or even whether, frankly, you're depressed.

Nick Quah 25:27

Yeah.

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:27

It's about skill and practice. It's a leadership skill.

Nick Quah 25:31

Man, I'm just marveling at the extent to which the pathway to enlightenment, it's always you kinda have to like bushwhack through the corny... [Laughter] My entire sort of cynical millennial brain is contracting against that, but it's but that's absolutely... That sounds really valuable.

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:47

You just have to hang out with Gen Xers, Nick. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 25:51

I thought your entire generation was about being cool. [Laughter]

Morra Aarons-Mele 25:55

Are you joking? We gave up being cool in 1999. [Laughter] But, you know.

Nick Quah 25:59

Oh, man. Well, Morra, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Morra Aarons-Mele 26:04

Thank you. It's an honor.

Nick Quah 26:21

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Albert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.