We were lucky enough to have Jane Chen speak at our mid-year kickoff recently. As the co-founder & CEO of Embrace Innovations, Chen’s journey of developing a ground-breaking infant incubator for approximately 1% the cost of traditional incubators was one riddled with obstacles and setbacks – and her deep resilience to persevere through each challenge is truly inspiring.
The company’s mission and approach to design thinking necessitated a profound vulnerability and authenticity, but what was truly motivating was Chen’s stories of the roller coaster that is being the CEO of a start-up. It soon becomes clear that Chen’s got what they call ‘grit.’ At every big dip in the journey, whether she initially felt like she could do it or not, she somehow manages to persevere.
Chen highlighted three lessons that can help us all develop and foster a deep strength and resilience during this still tumultuous time.
Lesson #1: Let Go of Attachments to Outcomes
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. So goes the translation of a line from Scottish poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse.’ If one thing has been and remains true through the pandemic, it’s the certainty of uncertainty. Chen’s story reminded us that uncertainty is a part of life.
Though stresses may be amplified right now, many of the challenges we face come from getting caught up in fear over what might happen in the future or over indexing on a specific outcome.
At one point in the life of Chen’s company, Philip’s Healthcare was poised to acquire it. This would allow them to not only continue operations but expand their life saving mission by multitudes. Then a week before they were to sign the paperwork she got a call…the deal was off. Chen was devastated and convinced her company was going under. Within a week, through an amazing turn of events, Marc Benioff of Salesforce offered to fund Chen’s life-saving technology, and the company lived on.
Immediately following this week of intense highs and lows, Chen decided to take up surfing and went on her first 10-day silent meditation. These two solitary practices highlighted the impermanence and constant change of everything—the waves, the wind, her thoughts, her feelings. It was a profound awakening. “I realized…how attached to this one outcome I had become for Embrace’s success, that even the thought of the company shutting down, threatened my own sense of identity. Through that, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life, which is that we are not defined by our external successes or failures,” she said.
Lesson #2: Feel All of Your Feelings
Close your eyes and picture a CEO. What do you see? It’s probably something similar to what Chen imagined a CEO should be: composed at all times. In fact, isn’t this what we all strive for at work? We want to be our most professional selves and exhibit a sense of stability and calmness. But, we’re all human beings and imperfect – and vulnerability in leadership is essential to leading with purpose.
Chen found this out after spending some time in India getting her company off the ground. The scenes she saw regularly at hospitals were heartbreaking and left her feeling sad, angry, and anxious. In the early days, she repressed those feelings, but “one day they just bubbled up to the surface, I started crying in a team meeting, and afterwards I was so mortified, I was so embarrassed. But my head of operations came to me later and he said something I’ll never forget. He said to me, “Thank you so much for being vulnerable, because when you’re vulnerable, it gives us permission to be vulnerable as well.””
Chen’s remedy to ensure she’s feeling all her feelings these days is mindfulness. “Mindfulness is just becoming fully aware of our thoughts and feelings, whatever arises for us, and then to accept them without judging, without labeling, without needing them to go away, just fully accepting and honoring how we feel…Every emotion is correlated with a physical sensation that’s neither good nor bad, it’s just is. And the research shows that an emotion lasts no longer than 90 seconds. So if we can just be with that emotion for 90 seconds, if we can surf the wave of the emotion as it crests and dissipates, then we allow ourselves to process that emotion.”
Lesson #3: Choose to See the World through the Lens of Beauty
We’re at a point in history where it’s easy to feel like things are not pretty. Pandemic, civil unrest, climate change, and a constant 24-hour news cycle, can easily lead one to see the world through the lens of doom and gloom. But we have a choice in how we process the world around us, and there is beauty to be found.
Chen has been through this before. “During my years in India, I could really feel myself becoming jaded. I was working in this very corrupt government system. I was surrounded by death and poverty on a daily basis. Then one day I woke up and I realized that for every horrible thing that I saw, I saw something equally beautiful. All the people who had come together to help us in this mission, doctors in these very poverty stricken areas, who would see patients all night, purely out of the kindness of their hearts. And the most beautiful thing I got to see was the love a parent has for their child. It is the purest and most selfless form of love in the world.” She points out that seeing the beauty doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. It simply means choosing to see the full picture, and leading with the beauty to improve our resilience and well being.
For those of you who practice meditation or mindfulness, the advice Chen shared may be second-nature. But that’s the beauty of it. These are three simple, powerful principles that anyone can practice to be more resilient and feel better. They can be applied to any circumstance, on a daily (hourly, minute-by-minute) basis. And if you’re not sure, you don’t have to take Chen’s word for it. Apply the scientific method; try it out and see if it works for you.