Realize that you are not alone. Almost 20 years after the launch of online social communities that rank members by how “Popular” they are, studies have shown that we’ve never felt more alone. In fact, we are living through a loneliness epidemic. Unfortunately the outbreak of COVID-19 has made things even worse. On Wisdo we’ve seen 10% identify “Loneliness” as their #1 concern. The truth of the matter is, however, that we are all in this together. “My dad,” one of our community members has written recently, “is fighting the virus in the hospital and is not well. Has anyone gone through this or is going through this?” 13 people chose to immediately respond with their experiences and support.
As part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Boaz Gaon, founder and CEO of Wisdo.
Boaz Gaon began his career as an investigative journalist more than 20 years ago. After his father succumbed to cancer, Boaz made it his mission to ensure that everyone has an emotional support network that could guide them through life’s challenges. Today, Wisdo has more than a million users and has helped its users through more than 25 million experiences.
Thank you so much for joining us Boaz! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Like many other mission driven entrepreneurs, the origins of my journey are deeply personal. After spending more than 15 years as an investigative reporter, my incredible dad was diagnosed with cancer. He was one of Israel’s most successful CEOs and the President of the Israel Cancer Association, so we deluded ourselves into thinking that our journey through cancer would be less lonely and frightening. It was not.
After eight years battling the disease, as my dad was finally succumbing, we talked about how crazy it was that in this age of technological inter-connectedness we still feel completely alone and isolated in life’s most consequential moments.
Looking into this more deeply, as investigative reporters often do, it became clear to me that part of the problem is that we’ve been conditioned to lean on communities which rank by how “popular” everyone is there, rather than helpful or relevant. That’s fine for the mundane parts of life, but it doesn’t cut it when you lose your job, become a parent, start a business, get your heart broken, or lose your dad.
In these moments, people need others around them that meet three criteria:
- They have been there
- They want to help
- They are available to be there for you now.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early on in Wisdo’s journey, we were invited to a breakfast with former Apple CEO, John Sculley. We were so “green” that we could have passed for grass. We sweated through a 45 minute pitch that was all about cancer and the wisdom that one earns as one goes through it, and how it’s lost to humanity when that journey ends.
John listened, took careful notes in his black notebook, sent us away for 20 minutes and then sat us down and imagined what Steve Jobs would have said about our approach. He talked about “zooming out” to see the bigger picture and that really, what we’re talking about is “organizing humanity’s wisdom” by finding a way to build a Wisdom Graph, supplementing the famous (and sometimes infamous) Social Graph.
We left that meeting with three conclusions:
- We’re not in Kansas anymore
- The best investors in the world are humble and thoughtful, rather than ego driven — and will expand your vision rather than ask you what the customer acquisition cost is.
- We had stumbled onto a problem 100x harder than what we had imagined and it wasn’t going to be easy.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Don’t do it unless it makes you cry, literally, that the problem you’re out to solve hasn’t been solved. It has to be bigger than you, bigger than your investors, at the core of what drives you as a human being.
Put differently, it has to be something that you’d want to fix even if you didn’t have money, didn’t have traction, and didn’t know anyone. It has to make you mad. At 3 am, when the chips are down — and they will be down — you will back to your why. In my case, it’s a promise I gave to my heroic dad. That promise will not be broken.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Identify your DNA and hire (and fire, if all else fails) according to it. There’s a premise out there that talent trumps DNA and that if someone’s a genius it isn’t the end of the world if they’re jerks. The better course of action is actually writing on paper five things that are essential to your company’s DNA. People who have these five things are the people who can build and run the company. Hiring against that DNA, talented as a person might be, will always be like putting a pebble in your sock. It’ll hurt. And when you’ll need to run, as most startups do — it will hurt more.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’d have to choose “Three Uses of the Knife” by David Mamet. Here’s the gist: characters (really everyone) must have a purpose. To lead a moral life, one in which we will be able to thrive, we need to act in a way that advances our purpose and defines us.
We are not our thoughts. We are not what others say about us. We are what we do, in the real world, to advance our purpose, which will inevitably pit us against forces greater than our own. It’s the only story worth telling, and the only life worth living.
I read Mamet’s book as I was making some serious decisions about how I want to live and what I’d like to live for. The parallels that he made between the stories we love to listen to, and the lives we love to admire — made those tough decisions much, much simpler.
Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Realize that you are not alone. Almost 20 years after the launch of online social communities that rank members by how “Popular” they are, studies have shown that we’ve never felt more alone. In fact, we are living through a loneliness epidemic. Unfortunately the outbreak of COVID-19 has made things even worse. On Wisdo we’ve seen 10% identify “Loneliness” as their #1 concern. The truth of the matter is, however, that we are all in this together. “My dad,” one of our community members has written recently, “is fighting the virus in the hospital and is not well. Has anyone gone through this or is going through this?” 13 people chose to immediately respond with their experiences and support.
- Identify what makes you less or more anxious and conversely, what gets you through the day. While we are similar to others in many ways, we’re all unique. Most of us are anxious right now, but for some that anxiety manifests itself in sleeplessness and for others, in depressive symptoms. Familiarizing ourselves with our own narrative is often the first step toward less strange and alone; it opens us up to what we might do to start working towards emotional resilience. “I’ve been having problems with sleeping lately,” wrote one of our community members just this week. “I think that has to do with this pandemic triggering my anxiety.” “Hey,” someone responded. “I’m going through the exact same thing right now.” Specific tips were quick to follow.
- Build meaningful relationships. Harvard spent 80 years looking at what makes people happier — is it exercise? Nutrition? Bedtime stories? What builds us up toward wellness and happiness? The conclusive result of that seminal “Happiness Study,” was it’s all about meaningful relationships. You can master the art of meditation over a lifetime — but if you’re surrounded by people who are more invested in what you can’t do, who you are not, or what you are lacking, life will end up feeling less satisfying and complete. “She was the first person I’ve spoken to when joining,” wrote one of our community members about one of her “Helpers.” “We have only just started chatting but she has given me a lot of attention and told me she plans to support me for a good while — which is music to my ears as I could really do with an understanding friend. I’m looking forward to our next chat and feeling a little more secure knowing I have someone to chat to next time I have an intense worry.” In other words, invest in people that care about you — and do the same for them.
- Help others. Numerous studies have shown that being there for others is one of the most therapeutic and grounding things we can do for our own wellbeing, especially in times of stress and worry. A while ago, we had a community member looking for support and wisdom around PTSD. In time he became a Helper, and then a Guide which is when he told us his story: he was a firefighter in New York on September 11th. He lost friends and his calling, due to PTSD. Helping others showed him a path towards regaining the confidence he once had, about being able to help, and save others. In a thank you letter sent to our team, he ended with “Thank you for rescuing a rescuer.” Yes, there were tears.
- Reach out to what has helped others. There’s power in solutions identified and sought after by people like you. That’s another part of not feeling alone: finding hope in the solidarity of finding new friends, finding a purpose, or exercising regularly. Don’t go for generic recommendations. Go for solutions that have worked for people like you. They will significantly increase the probability that you will find something that will work well for you too, while avoiding disappointment.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Identify your strengths. What’s your superpower?
Helping others is a powerful thing and can often become one of the most effective and long-lasting ways to rise above anxiety, and move towards being more mindful and balanced. At the same time, trying to help someone only to find that you are not the best person to offer that type of help can be disappointing and depleting. We are all similar, but we are all granularly unique, an ongoing narrative with unique highs, lows, and in-betweens. Start by identifying what life has taught you and armed you with. Chances are that it will help you make the most of really helping.
- Advice is great, but it has to start with support.
Wisdom is not just experience-based knowledge. It has to include empathy. Our most beloved and successful Helpers are wonderful folks who start by communicating how deeply they care about the person they’re chatting with, because they’ve been there. So don’t just start lecturing about what to do, even if it feels super helpful: it might not be that at all unless the person you’re helping feels embraced, accepted and liked.
- Commit to more than one conversation.
Being there for someone isn’t a single conversation. You might feel really impressive after bestowing a piece of sage advice, but it’s that “hey, just wanted to know that you’re ok” message that you will send a day or a week after that will make the person feel genuinely supported. On Wisdo, almost half of folks who receive that type of message go back to the app to thank their Helpers, right then and there, for being in their thoughts. And just like that, a meaningful human connection is made.
- Having communicated that you care, offer specifics.
Anxiety is a chronic condition that hates anything that can help people feel in the moment, which is why we arm our Helpers with insights about what has helped other people on Wisdo that week. For example, according to our Covid-19 Trend Tracker, 9% of people on Wisdo in the past week have found “Distancing myself from negative thoughts” to be especially helpful. As you’re helping, ask the person you are supporting if they would like to practice this specific strategy and if so, offer specific ideas about how to do that. If not, move towards another exercise or goal. The more specific you are, the higher the chance that the person you’re helping will feel that you are really making an effort.
- Practice Self Care.
Helping others, especially when done repeatedly, can take a toll even if you don’t feel it is. Take the time to take care of yourself even as you are helping others. If you can’t protect yourself and keep your own emotional health front of mind, you will not be the resource your community needs in the long term.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
I’d say first and foremost, people who’ve “been there” too, can be helpful and are available quickly and repeatedly. Loneliness and anxiety after all, are closely related.
Secondly, resources and techniques that have been successfully practiced by people who’ve been in your shoes. With all due respect to the abundance of knowledge out there, it’s relevant wisdom you’re looking for.
Thirdly, I’d reach out to outcome-focused mental wellness experts who’d first ask what you’d specifically like to accomplish and work towards — and then help you get there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
On Wisdo, people are invited to add this to their profile: “The Best Advice I was Ever Given.” One of my favorites, by Lead Helper Jane T, echoes what my dad told me on his deathbed: “Just keep trying. And never give up.”
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Wisdo is my movement. It’s my vision that it will come to support the whole world so no one ever feels alone again.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Download Wisdo! I go live every Wednesday in our Wisdo Ambassadors group to share what we’ve learned this week and how we can all get better at helping people. Failing that, follow our Twitter account @WeAreWisdo where we share insights and updates about our mission to make this world a little wiser and more compassionate. I think it’s time, right?