Andrew Dowling of Stitch: “Stay physically active”

Stay physically active. Find a few hobbies that you enjoy doing but keep you alert both mentally and physically. Bonus is trying new hobbies that you never thought you would have before. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a language before, now’s your time. As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should […]

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Stay physically active. Find a few hobbies that you enjoy doing but keep you alert both mentally and physically. Bonus is trying new hobbies that you never thought you would have before. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a language before, now’s your time.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Should Do to Optimize Your Wellness After Retirement”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Dowling, Founder and CEO of Stitch. Andrew is an internationally-recognized social entrepreneur who has built his career on developing tech-based products for seniors and building businesses that have a social impact. He created Stitch, a purpose-led social network for adults over 50. The network was created to combat the loneliness epidemic and promote overall wellness and happiness for aging adults. The platform works to improve users’ social interactions through activities and group events (group yoga, museum trips, happy hours, etc), and even find the perfect companion if they’re interested in dating.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I was born in Sydney, Australia, but spent my formative years growing up in a very small community on the edge of the Australian desert. Back then the rest of the world seemed very far away, something I could only dream of one day getting an opportunity to visit. That might go some way to explaining why I became so eager to explore other cultures as an adult. I ended up living and working all over the world, including the US, India, China and Europe. For me it highlighted not how different we all are, but how much we have in common; particularly when it comes to the importance of human connection.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I feel I’ve had such a long and varied career that it’s hard to pick the absolute “most” interesting story (or maybe it’s just that my memory doesn’t stretch that far back!). It could be the time in my first business that we had two weeks’ cash left in the bank and were starting to get ready to close down the business when we learned we had been awarded a government grant which completely saved us. Or when I was put in a holding cell by US immigration officials when traveling to Chicago and accused of being a criminal, because I had the same name as a wanted felon in upstate New York. Or the time I was evacuated from Burundi because civil war broke out. They all felt interesting at the time!

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I think the mistake that brings the biggest smile to my face now was the fact that when I first quit my job and started out on my entrepreneurial journey, I promised my wife it would only be a year of hard sacrifice before our lives would be back to normal. We’re now 10 years in and life is nowhere near normal.

But neither of us would change it for anything.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My wife Kirsty Albert has been a supporter of pretty much everything I’ve done over the last few decades, and she’s always the first person I think of when I think of the people who have helped me the most. What’s very cool is that she was able to see how rewarding building a social enterprise was for me, and ended up going on to become a social impact investor herself: she is now one of the principals in one of Australia’s leading impact investment funds. So I like to think I’ve supported her a little bit along the way too.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Maintain your social connections. Exercise. Be vulnerable. Read for relaxation. Cut down on the alcohol. Sleep.

Most of all, remember to be kind to yourself. No matter whether your startup becomes a raging global success or never makes it out of your front room, you’re doing something amazing.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Every leader needs to find their own style, but I think two things are universal if you want to create a fantastic work culture.

First, be authentic. Don’t pretend to be someone else. Bring your real self to the role, every day. No matter what your leadership style is, stay true to who you are and your team will respond in kind.

Second, care about your people. I mean really, truly care. As long as you do that, you’ll figure out how to create a fantastic culture.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health. From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?

One thing I’m always trying to bring attention to, and have spoken on countless times in the past, is the loneliness epidemic and how it dramatically impacts our retiree generation. I’ve seen high levels of loneliness in even the most social of retiree communities.

What I want to stress is that loneliness is directly correlated with our long-term health and longevity, and loneliness can reduce one’s health. In fact, research shows that loneliness and weak social connections have a higher impact on our life expectancy than lack of exercise, smoking, medications, and obesity. It can shorten lives by 15 years, roughly the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So when you pair that with the growing number of people reporting feeling lonely or isolated (roughly 1 in 5 Americans), it makes a lot of sense that researchers are calling loneliness the epidemic of the 21st century.

Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize their wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Stay physically active. Find a few hobbies that you enjoy doing but keep you alert both mentally and physically. Bonus is trying new hobbies that you never thought you would have before. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a language before, now’s your time.
  2. Consciously open yourself to new connections. Research tells us that forming new social connections brings far more cognitive health benefits than socializing with family or old friends. Don’t be scared to make the first move and initiate a conversation. Take yourself outside your comfort zone to meet someone new.
  3. Help others. Giving back to your community has proven benefits on our mental wellness and can help us feel a sense of purpose after leaving the workforce. Stitch members connect for community service activities or initiatives often, including sourcing items to donate to the less fortunate, collecting disaster relief funds, and pre-pandemic, gathering together for charity walks.
  4. Exercise your brain. Improving our brain health and cognitive function isn’t rocket science — it’s as easy as engaging in fun games, alone or with others. Our members gather virtually to play games together that flex their brain power and tap into their memory functions in a social setting, which creates a fun way to connect with others and exercise the brain.

In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?

  1. Be prepared for the fact that while stopping working is something most of us look forward to, it can have a number of downsides, particularly when it comes to sense of purpose and social interaction, that you will need to ensure you find other ways to maintain.
  2. Some people find retirement tremendously enriching but some people can find it quite lonely and isolating, particularly if they live alone. If that’s you, remember how many communities exist to help bring retirees together, and don’t be afraid to reach out.
  3. Don’t think about retirement as the beginning of the end. It can be the beginning of some of the best years of your life.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

One of the most influential books I’ve read on my journey was “The war for kindness” by Stanford Professor Jamil Zaki. Everything we do at Stitch is designed to generate positive outcomes & help members of the community care about each other. Jamil’s book is astonishing as it reveals the negative impact that today’s technology has had on levels of empathy worldwide. We’ve used a lot of this research in how to design Stitch as an antidote to what you see happening on social media and the Internet in general. We’re working to help increase empathy and build bridges between people who have never met before.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m probably meant to say loneliness and isolation here, given that’s the cause I’ve already picked to make an impact on through Stitch & WipeOutLoneliness. Loneliness and isolation impacts the lives of millions of people around the world, and has a greater impact on health than obesity, poor diet, alcohol, or lack of exercise.

But no matter how big the impact of loneliness & isolation on society is, it pales into insignificance when compared to the impact of climate change and the ongoing environmental degradation of this planet we live on. Climate change won’t just affect a percentage of the population, it will impact every single person on the planet.

The challenge with climate change is how politicized the issue has become. That’s a particular challenge given you’re asking people to change their behavior to have a positive impact on people they’ll never even meet. That’s why I firmly believe that part of the key to change — of any change, whether it’s climate change, loneliness, or something else — is addressing the empathy gap. It’s only when people care about doing something to make a positive change in the lives of others that we begin to see change.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“It’s not how many times you fail that counts, it’s how many times you get back up again.”

This quote is a pretty good summary of most entrepreneurial journeys. Variations of the quote have been attributed to people from Confucious to Nelson Mandela, but the essential message is the same: as long as you don’t give up, failure is simply an opportunity to learn.

In my case I could point to every single “failure” along our journey to date — early startup ideas that didn’t work out, awards we didn’t win, product ideas that bombed — and draw a straight line to what we learned from them and how we used that knowledge to figure out something better.

The key is to see every single failure as an opportunity to learn. And to make sure you get back up again.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Please tell Bill Gates I’m free for lunch whenever he’d like to discuss solutions to help address loneliness and isolation worldwide. I’d even settle for coffee if he’s short on time.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, Stitch on Twitter, and like our page on Facebook.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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