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Dr. Sherry Walling, Founder of ZenFounder

Dr. Sherry Walling, Founder of ZenFounder

You got into design because you love the work. But now, as a design leader, your job is running a team, running projects, operating out of habit and responsibility. Responding to emails, scrolling screens, beholden to Slack and everyone else's needs. As the gap between how you spend your day and what's most important to you widens, you start to feel more and more burned out.

And for good reason. According to Dr. Sherry Walling, your reaction is perfectly understandable and reasonable. Founder of ZenFounder and author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together, Dr. Walling has tips to help you mitigate the effects of burnout. Tune in to find out how you can add more interest and meaning to your work, and how to get back to feeling that creative joy.


Show Notes

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Carl: Hey, everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. With us today we have a repeat guest, somebody I brought back because it helped me so much the last time. She's a clinical psychologist, author of the Entrepreneur's Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together, a book which I will say I have to read more than one once a year. She's the founder of Zen Founder, which is an organization that helps entrepreneurs with their mental health. It's Dr. Sherry Walling. How are you, Dr. Sherry walling?

Sherry: Hey, hey, hey. I'm so happy to chat with you today.

Carl: All right. I like we're going to rhyme because rhyming is an important way to start your day and make sure everything's okay.

Sherry: Way.

Carl: Yeah, that's in that now. You're going to be joining us at Design Leadership Days in Seattle this September because I refuse to let you get too far away from the community anymore, mainly because we're all on the verge of burnout. But how are you doing?

Sherry: I am doing well. It has been like a busy season. I travel especially a lot this spring, which I love, love doing, but also it's nice to be home for a season. I live in Minneapolis, so it's really the only season that I would want to be on. It's like lake lifetime where we all stay outside as long as possible because we have to be inside for like nine months of the year.

Carl: Well, you know, it's the same in Florida only it's because everything's caught fire outside. We have three months of... The three months where you probably can't go anywhere near outside, you're probably off somewhere else. Those are the three months where we're like, "Ah, this is amazing. It's so good."

Sherry: Yeah, that's when I'm like camping out in your garage, in your backyard. You got to watch out for me.

Carl: You're welcome to. Before we go any further, I just remembered something, you had shared a little bit about this last year I think in social media or somewhere, but you do digital detoxes.

Sherry: Yeah.

Carl: What is that?

Sherry: It is like a very intentional time away from the screens, the machines. I'm not anti screen at all. Like I use my phone and my laptop and my iPad and all the things like the rest of you all, but there's some really interesting research that talks about or is looking at ways that our screen use is actually sort of changing the function of our brains. As I started to dive into this research, I started to get a little like whoa. I want to have like more control over my neurons than that. Practicing a couple of times a year this really intentional time away from screens is a really, really lovely way to protect your neurological health, as well as just practice being in the world in a different way, a way where you're not constantly responding to this like buzzing thing in your pocket.

Carl: Just be careful that you don't miss out on the class action lawsuit because if you stay healthy while the rest of our brains are suddenly turning into mish-mash, I don't know what to tell you.

Sherry: Well, somebody's got to rule the robots.

Carl: That's true and it's going to be you, Sherry Walling. What is keeping you busy these days? I know Zen Founder is growing and I know you've got Zen Tribes. Is that a huge focus for you?

Sherry: You know, right now I am really focused on kind of two parts of my business. The first is I just really love doing consulting with founders. I spend a lot of time, well, with leaders. Probably a better way to say it. I spend a lot of time working one-on-one with individuals and then with like senior leadership teams or executive teams. I trained as a psychotherapist. I trained as a psychologist. The ability to do a deep dive into someone's psyche and help them really function well and enjoy their life is like my greatest treat. I kind of have the heart of a teacher. I think doing a lot of speaking and being on stage a couple times a month is a nice counter balance to that deep individual work to then be able to speak to a broader audience and share some ideas and information. Those are the two things that I'm pretty focused on like in this season of my business.

Carl: With the consultations that you do, when you go in with the leaders, do you find common themes, common challenges across? I think this was on your website or something that you said once that it's like 72% of all founders, and I would assume that kind of transfers over to leaders a little bit, struggle with their mental health.

Sherry: Or like worried about their own mental health. Yeah. Honestly, Carl, I feel like I do a lot of of telling people like, "You're not crazy. It's okay that you feel unsteady because the world around you is pretty unsteady. Let's talk about how what you're feeling and what's your thinking is a pretty reasonable reaction to the environment that you're in, and then we can think about how we might make it a little bit better." But I think founders, leaders in general, are just really under a ton of pressure. I talk a lot with people about how to have clear boundaries, how to take breaks, how to take care of themselves, how to sleep well, how to eat well, to move their bodies.

Sherry: These things that, you know, like your mom told you in kindergarten a little bit, right? Like don't forget to floss twice a day, but those basic maintenance things become so important when people under are under a lot of pressure or when people really want to create amazing things.

Carl: It's twice a day? Damn it.

Sherry: That's what I heard.

Carl: I was doing twice a month. This explains everything. I do have an idea for you. You can take this and you can run with it, online course. Dr. Sherry Walling presents Shit's Crazy 101. You take it. It just starts off, "You know what? You're not crazy. Everything's insane. There you go."

Sherry: It's not you. It's them.

Carl: Right? It was a copy of that book. I'm okay. You've got a hell of a lot of work to do.

Sherry: Yes.

Carl: I love that book.

Sherry: Best title ever.

Carl: It was a real book you all. I know because my boss gave it to me. I was like, "Oh, ha, ha. This is funny."

Sherry: Oh, thanks.

Carl: When you start talking to people and you share with them that things are crazy, can they accept that? I know for myself I definitely... The voices can subside for a little while, but then when I'm on my own again, they seem to come back.

Sherry: I think we're such adaptive creatures that we adapt really quickly to the challenges that are put in front of us, especially as driven ambitious leader types. You know, someone says, "Jump through these three hoops and then do a fire dance and swim across the lake," and people are like, "Okay, got it. Put me in, coach." I think the equivalent is respond to all of these technological devices. Check all of these accounts and get back to everyone who emails you within two hours at most. That is like... I mean, you might as well like do the fire dance and swim across the lake. Like it becomes this sort of expectation about how we should live that is pretty unreasonable for most of us, especially those of us who are trying to do deeper level creative work.

Carl: The whole respond immediately feel like never let somebody feel like they don't know you're paying attention or that you're listening. This is way back in Blackberry days, but you know, people would talk about the phantom vibration from Blackberries where you would suddenly be like, "Oh," and then you would check it and nothing had happened.

Sherry: It wasn't there.

Carl: Exactly, right? It's like you might not even have it on you, but your leg for some reason has that same type of vibration. I think it's the same thing when I see people check their devices, when I do it. A good friend of mine, she had put this reply on that said, "Hey. In order to get more done every day, I'm only checking email once a day, so I apologize, but I will get back to you," and I replied back, "No worries." She replied back, "No, no, no. I didn't mean you." I'm like, "Damn it. I didn't mean to break your rule. I was just trying to say I understood," but it's the same thing. I actually have been... I live in airplane mode a lot, and then I try to reply within 24 hours.

Carl: If something comes in after 3:00, unless I think it's a good opportunity, I just let it slide until like 10:00 AM the next day. It's gotten to be pretty easy for me to do, and also it helps me prioritize those things that are going to be more beneficial for the community versus things that are going to be a time suck. If it's a legal thing or if it's something around financial stuff or whatever that's going to take a lot of time, but not bring a lot of value, most we slip two or three days.

Sherry: You know, I hope that's okay because that's the piece that I work at.

Carl: I think it's totally okay, right?

Sherry: I think that's some of what I encourage people to do is really think like what is okay for you, what is acceptable to you as a leader, and live that out. If you feel like, "Wow. I need to really block off three or four hours a day so that I can do some high quality deep work, whether I'm thinking strategically or I'm building something or I'm designing something," if that's what you need to do to thrive in your job, then do that and don't feel beholden to everyone else's power to put things on your to do list by emailing you or by getting in touch with you on Slack.

Carl: Or the shared calendar.

Sherry: Yeah.

Carl: Beware what you share. I tell people, you got to be gotta be careful, that shared calendar.

Sherry: It really is an interesting time we live in in the sense that there's just... It feels like there's very little privacy. Not even just the sort of Facebook aspect, but like the sense in which yeah, people have access to your calendar, can see where you're going, when you're going. But when you are going to sleep at night and you're looking at Twitter, in a way the whole world is now with you and your bedroom. It's just a very... Our space between public and private is very blurred. There are great things about that. I don't feel super, super critical of it, but I do feel like wow, we should like pay attention to that and make sure we're okay with it.

Carl: It's exhausting.

Sherry: Yeah.

Carl: I was having a conversation... I was having a conversation the other day with Stephen Gates, and Stephen is this great designer, design leader, works at InVision, has done just all this amazing stuff. He made this comment. He said, "We have to be really careful with social media, that we're not comparing our insides with everyone's outsides because nobody is sharing what's really going on on social media, and yet we're comparing it to what's really going on with us."

Sherry: Yeah. I feel like there's an analogy to be made that's like social media is to relationship what pornography is to sex. It's sort of ish. It's in the same like realm kind of, but it's really different when you have it three dimensionally.

Carl: From a distance through binoculars, you might confuse the two for each other, but no, I know what you mean though. It's a great analogy. I'm glad you made it.

Sherry: I'm going to get censored from the podcast.

Carl: Hell, no, you're not. I need ratings, lady. But no, but I think that's it, right? It's like watching football versus playing football. It's like anything where you can sort of get a little bit of excitement where it's just really be in the moment.

Sherry: Well, it's all for the highlight reel, right? It's totally... It's fictional when we see someone's social media. Nobody looks that good all the time. Nobody walks around with their duck face and their perfect makeup. Not even Yoko.

Carl: Not even me. It's like my youngest daughter Alyssa told me. She's 16 now and she said, "We are the generation of angles and filters."

Sherry: Yeah.

Carl: She's like, "Nobody that I know isn't attractive on Instagram, but you met some of my friends." Yeah. Also, I don't know if it's possible to blush on a podcast, but I'm like totally red faced ever here now. Thank you because I really needed this today.

Sherry: You know what? That's what psychologists are good at. We just get in there and mess with things.

Carl: Ohm man. Well, so when you think about burnout and obviously, you know, a lot of people will talk about tactics, right? Like exercise, journaling, proper amount of sleep, meditation. Beyond that for burnout, how do people keep themselves focused and healthy? I know it's a million dollar question. We'll solve it and everybody goes home rich, but do you have ways that you help people just kind of stay on track as they go?

Sherry: Yeah, I feel like there's sort of two parts of this conversation. One is how do we prevent burnout from happening in the first place. That's a lot of the maintenance stuff that you're alluding to, like sleeping, eating, just keeping yourself as a human, well-honed and well-protected is really important in terms of preventing burnout from happening. When someone's in burnout, the story's a little bit different. Those things are helpful, but not sufficient. Not to get too like vague and existential here, but one of the primary drivers of burnout is a gap between how you spend your time and what's most important to you. That's why a lot of really successful folks live in a burnout space because as your company grows, as you get more and more successfully, you end up being in all kinds of roles that sort of took you away from the thing that you loved in the first place.

Sherry: For example, if you're a designer and you have this creative mind and you love to make things and see the world in an interesting way, and suddenly you're leading a team, and then you're a CEO, and then you're... Whatever sort of journey you go on gets you farther and farther away from the thing that you loved in the first place. That's kind of a recipe for burnout. What we try to do is talk with folks about, in some ways, their origin story. How did you get here? What was important to you? Why did you make the choices you've made? What does bring you joy? What gets you going? What are the battles that you really want to fight, and how do we get more of those things in your day?

Sherry: That's a little bit... It sounds a little neater in this conversation than it is when I'm actually talking with someone, but we don't do well as humans when we are operating out of automaticity and responsibility. We do much better as humans when we are operating out of joy and passion and interest and meaning.

Carl: This makes so much sense and obviously I've experienced it. I think most people in any level of of humankind have experienced it. But when we talk about designers and design leaders, this is the maker versus manager conversation.

Sherry: Yes.

Carl: This is where they feel like they're doing a bad job if they do the thing they love. That's it, right? I mean, sometimes it... We don't want a bunch of people quitting their jobs, but it may get to a point at sometimes where it's like, okay, well, then you need to evolve to a different existence if you get to this point where your job is truly to just manage people doing the thing you love.

Sherry: Sometimes there are ways to reconceptualize management as a creative endeavor, right? You're making a team. You're crafting a company. The group in itself is your product. I think there are ways to make it really interesting and stimulating to a creative person. If they can get there, that's great. There are also other ways to just maintain some level of creativity in your life, whether that's even on the side as a hobby or retaining one or two pieces of the design process that are important enough to you that you can outsource other things or pay someone else to do other administrative things for you.

Carl: That makes so much sense. I'm remembering the Whitehall studies I think it was called out of the UK where they had all of these government workers who had the exact same healthcare and they had the exact same records on them, but they were at different levels of their careers. Are you familiar with this?

Sherry: Mm-mm (negative).

Carl: They basically were able to study people's physical health and to some degree mental health based on their role and their level. They found that people at people at the very top of the chain were generally healthy. They had more free time. They had more money. They had all these things. People at the bottom were kind of generally healthy. They had a lot of energy. They were up for it. They were going for it. People in the middle we're kind of waffling and weren't sure, but the one thing they found among the healthiest people was when they were talked to about what they did, they never started with work. When you're saying you find this almost other way, this other outlet, if somebody said, "Well, yeah, I coach my son's baseball team," and they identify with themselves that way, then that helps break the I am only what I do for money.

Sherry: Yeah. That merging of your human identity with your job is problematic from a mental health perspective. Especially if you're a creative, but now your job is running a team, running projects, you can still identify as a creative and do that kind of creative work in other parts of your life. That can still be a core part of your identity. Your identity doesn't become like I'm a people manager. I think so many of us put so much of our... There's such a sort of mesh between our selfhood and the thing that people pay us to do. But of course, that's only one small piece of who we are as humans.

Carl: I know you're not going to tell me, but I know that your talk for Design Leadership Days mentions a secret weapon.

Sherry: Don't you want people to come to the conference?

Carl: I do. I do. I'm going to hit mute, but I am curious. Oh, I'm just so torn right now. Okay. Don't share the secret weapon, but do share a little bit more especially if you create a company... I used to have people introduce me all the time when I ran my digital shop and they basically say, "This is Carl. He started or he owns," and it was never anything else about me. I don't know that other people who work places... If somebody was a designer that worked with me, they probably got introduced as she's a designer, right?

Sherry: Right. Not necessarily the company name.

Carl: Yeah. Is there something to that where... Because I remember when when nGen went away, I mourned it. I mean, it felt like a part of me was gone.

Sherry: That's not incorrect. I mean, I think there's even like these set of studies that looks at functional MRIs of, in this case, entrepreneur's brains. I think there's probably some overlap with leaders, but when they look at images of their company, their brain looks almost identical to what happens when they look at images of their children. It's this sort of-

Carl: Oh my goodness.

Sherry: ..deeply connected reaction. It's highly emotional. It's highly affect laden, like very loving and connected, and then it suppresses the capacity for critical assessment. You don't even perceive the company as separate from you. You look at it as if it's an appendage. It's arm. It's connected to you. Super interesting. When you talk about the loss of a company or even if it's a great outcome, even if it's a great sale and you made your windfall of dollars, you're still losing something that is very much part of you. It gets super complicated on a human level to be able to grieve that well.

Carl: What happens on the flip side when we look at design leadership which caught fire with design thinking, all this, a lot of people don't stay in one job for more than a couple of years if even. If on the founder side you start to associate it at that level of caring, what happens when you're constantly jumping from one thing to another?

Sherry: I mean, there's some nice things about that in that you...

Carl: I've seen the cars they drive and I will agree with you.

Sherry: Well, you also get to choose. You're a little bit more agile in terms of like, oh, I'm not feeling this right now. It's not like an arm that you have to saw off. You can just move and change jobs. There's some real like mental health benefits to feeling like, oh man, I'm not stuck.

Carl: Exactly.

Sherry: I'm flexible. I can shift. I think that can be really, really great for creativity too. But of course, the downside is then forming new connections at every job that you're in and sort of going through the onboarding process and then getting used to process and becoming part of a team. All of that certainly takes time and each shift can be stressful, especially if you know you're doing it a lot.

Carl: Yeah. What's next for you? You traveling? You got another stage to get up on?

Sherry: I am home for the summer. I'm doing actually a lot of stuff in Minneapolis this summer, which is really fabulous. One thing I'm doing that I'm super excited about, this has nothing to do with work, but this is the other part of my identity, is I do a lot of like circus aerial stuff, so aerial hammock and aerial yoga.

Carl: Oh wow.

Sherry: I'm doing a couple of aerial retreats this summer where I go away for three days and like hang out by a lake and play in a tree in a hammock. That's how I'm going to win at life this summer.

Carl: Sherry, thank you so much for being on the show today. I have got new things to google because I don't think I can compete with you in the aerial hammock competition, but I definitely want to learn more about you it.

Sherry: I'll see you in Seattle.

Carl: That's right.

Sherry: We'll have a little hammock off.

Carl: We will do it. Thanks everybody for listening, and we'll talk to you next week. All the best.

Sherry: Thanks, Carl.

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