Social media and the Internet can be great about connecting folks across the miles — but they create significant distance between those that are sitting in the same room. Look around. We’re all on our devices all. the. time. It’s an incredible wedge.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’, I had the pleasure to interview Charlena Smith.
Charlena is an in-demand, international keynote speaker, best-selling author, and the founder of Optio, a matched and guided accountability platform that empowers individuals to live their best, most inspired lives. But life hasn’t always been so clear for Charlena. Before she knew how it felt to define and live out her own purpose, she tried to live out everyone else’s expectations of her. Trying to live every purpose but her own nearly killed her. She spent months in the hospital, several of them on full life support with a 0% chance of survival, and then a year in rehab: learning to walk and talk again, against all odds. While healing, Charlena was determined to create a solution to protect others from experiencing this kind of misdirection and burnout; while still holding space to create and pursue big dreams with an even greater probability of success. And Guided Accountability was born. Charlena grew up and lives in a multi-generational home in Baltimore, MD with her brilliant husband and their two incredibly mischievous, yet simultaneously adorable children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
What brought me to this SPECIFIC career is quite a journey, so I’ll show you the shortcut. In my early 20s I ‘had it all’ by nearly every definition. I went away to college. (No one ever ‘went away’ where I’m from. A few miles was considered ‘leaving town.’) I went on to earn four undergraduate and three graduate degrees, as well as a traditional MBA. I started pursuing my PhD full time at the University of Maryland while I was full time professor at one of the most respected universities on the East Coast. Plus, I was the proud COO of a rapidly expanding marketing agency. And did I mention that I was also a partner in marriage with my amazing hubby and mother to two fantastic kiddos under two?
All at the same time.
I’m here to tell you: that’s bananas.
And it almost killed me. I had a really horrific pregnancy and that, along with the stress of all the other positions in my life, landed me in the ICU for six months. I was read my final rights multiple times and given a 0% chance for survival. Obviously, since I’m sitting here in this interview, I didn’t die. Awesome, right? But a few months in the ICU and a ton of rehab to learn to speak, walk, and talk again has a huge impact on a person. I was determined that when I went back to ‘work,’ it would be far more fulfilling and purposeful. It would be life changing. And maybe I’d only do one job at a time. So I had to create the perfect one. Which is how an entrepreneur, a social movement, and Optio, were born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Actually, I think HOW Optio began is the most interesting. The pre-story to the pre-story, if you will. Here’s what happened. I started a non-profit marketing company, appropriately named ‘The Girl who Lived’. It didn’t take long before we were reforming the way local non-profits approached marketing. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I worked on strategy, implementation, media and other back-end functions within The Girl Who Lived. I was never on the front lines.
One day, I was having a typical, busy afternoon in my entrepreneur/mom life, and I stopped at Aldi to grab a few essentials. I was in a hurry because the window of time when both of my boys are in school was very short and I was already running behind. A checklist a mile long was running through my brain when a woman approached me. She spoke little to no English, was modestly dressed (though not nearly warm enough for the cold temperatures), and her demeanor was fraught with despair, but laced with hope. I recognized the energy. I could tell that asking for help was uncomfortable territory for her. But she was desperate. Her name was Maria.
I told her, truthfully, that I didn’t have any cash on me, but offered her a blessing bag from our car. My boys and I make bags filled with essentials — nonperishable food, toiletries, water, etc. and I keep them in the car. That was not enough. There was a great sense of urgency about her. I did not know it then, but she had many other mouths to feed. I trusted my instincts and walked with her into the store. We grabbed a cart and went shopping together. She bought gallons of milk, her weight in chicken, pork, potatoes, diapers, formula, onions, toilet paper, and laundry detergent. I paid for her items at the checkout and bought some bags for her to carry everything in. After we bagged it up, I then asked her how she planned to get home. She planned to ride the bus. She was loaded down with about 30 pounds of raw chicken plus three gallons of milk, she probably weighs less than 90 pounds, and — I discovered later that day — she’d given birth two weeks prior. And she was going to get on Baltimore’s less-than-desirable public bus transit system? I don’t think so! I took a HUGE leap outside of my comfort zone, and I drove her home. This is where I met one of her children, who spoke a tiny bit more English. I discovered they were from Romania and were living with a family from Syria, whom I also had the pleasure of meeting. All refugees that had been through more than I’ll ever be able to imagine. The formula was for her 2-week old daughter. She was breastfeeding, but her daughter continued to lose weight and she was scared she wasn’t producing enough milk, and didn’t have the guidance of a steady pediatrician. Her husband, previously their strong provider, had become very sick during the trip and was now bed-bound. The chicken and potatoes were to feed them all. Her eldest son, 14, was looking for work to provide for his entire family, but was having a very hard time because he spoke little to no English. He continued to ask me what his ‘skill set’ was — because that’s what interviewers had been asking him. But he didn’t know what ‘skill set’ meant. Because he was FOURTEEN. He told me about his plans to be a doctor when he grew up. Be he had to shelve those dreams for tomorrow in order to figure out how to feed his family today.
They were also terrified to travel. Being separated was their number one fear. The three year old little girl wouldn’t even walk near the doors of their empty row home for fear someone would reach in and grab her to take her away. She stood firmly planted in the center of the room.
I spent as much time as I could with them that day. They were so beautiful in so many ways. And they invited me, my husband and our boys back for dinner. We went. We became friends. Our children became friends. That three year old little girl? She learned English — and she still helps my son speak to strangers. (English may be her second language but she runs circles around his speech delay.) In that ONE event,that single step outside my comfort zone, I gained a deeper understanding of so many things.
Our friendship continued and through Maria, I found the International Rescue Commission (IRC) where I began the framework for Guided Accountability. The foundation of Optio.
Initially my work with the IRC was through The Girl who Lived. I was tasked with setting up a system to acclimate Syrians into the U.S. culture as smoothly as possible. They needed to learn to navigate not only a new landscape and different language, but also different medical, transportation and school systems, just to name a few. We paired them with established women in the community nearby and created a communication framework to help them navigate the language and cultural barriers. This framework was like wizardry. Not only were the Syrians acclimating faster than ever, but their American counterparts flooded us with comments, testifying to their changed hearts and the ability to access empathy in a way they’d never dreamed possible. It was life-changing in the best way for both parties. We thought: “Wait. Is this a thing? If we pair other women and use this kind of framework: give them space, time and permission to be vulnerable along with the tools to discover their purpose and live it out — will we get the same results?” We decided to find out, so we started our beta test with other women around the world. That’s how Optio, and the Guided Accountability movement was born.
We compiled loads of research and catalogued an intense amount of data from our pairings. A top NASA engineer (who just so happens to be that amazing partner I mentioned earlier… Lucky me, right?! ) created a complex algorithm to pair people to their best Guided Accountability partners. Now, a Guided Accountability partner is not a best friend, but rather the person that is going to bring OUT the best in you. We’ve created deep, thoughtful trainings on how to be a Guided Accountability partner, plus a specific framework for women to discover their true purpose, develop goals in alignment with that purpose, and see it through in a 12-week program that results in a 97% increase in success rates.
I never could have imagined how ONE act outside my comfort zone could take me so far.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
One that comes to mind is back when we were first starting out with Optio, and Guided Accountability was a completely new concept. We were chatting with angel investors who may be interested in joining us on this journey. I was the CEO of a major company but had decided that it was really important for me to be able to work from home occasionally.
So I decided to meet with a Fortune 10 CEO seed investor over Skype from my home office.
My son was in preschool at the time and should have been out of the house. But we’re in Baltimore and occasionally there are weather related changes to the school’s schedule. On this particular day, Baltimore schools opened two hours later due to weather. Rather than reschedule, I attempted to ‘do it all.’ I fed the boys breakfast, let them burn off some morning energy in the newly fallen snow, and then pulled up an educational but fun video for them to watch while I jumped on my video conference call. I was momming SO HARD I could hardly stand myself.
I locked myself in my office and began my presentation. Suddenly I heard the scratching sound at the door, but I didn’t panic. Not only was the door locked, I had a kid proof door knob and a safety latch in place. The boys weren’t getting through that door… Until they did.
Suddenly, there he was. My 5-year-old had figured out how to enter what I thought was a secure room with the aid of his ridiculously crafty 7-year-old brother. And what was he doing? He was in the corner of the video screen MOONING the CEO. MOONING HER! I nearly died. To make matters worse, I jumped out of my seat to usher him back out the door, revealing that, although I was neatly dressed in a sports coat and scarf on top, I was wearing blue and pink polka dot pajama pants on the bottom!
Oh my heavens! AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!
This spectacle was followed by complete silence. But then… she laughed! She laughed so hard I thought she was going to hurt herself. But she said she was sold. She wasn’t entirely sure what I was pitching — but she wanted in on what I had. She also wanted to know how she could help and if there was space at our holiday dinner table.
I decided in that moment that that was what it was all about. I was still a CEO. I still had a family. Some people get it. Some people don’t. And that’s okay. This is my season. I’m a CEO and Mom. And if you can’t work with me with a 5-year-old mooning you from the corner, well… maybe we just shouldn’t be partners. Because that’s my life right now. And I couldn’t possibly love it any more.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Thank you so much for asking! I am just launching a special group coaching program that is combining the Optio experience with laser coaching called The Goal Keepers Guild. We’re going to help women identify their life purpose- both overarching purpose and their purpose in this particular season of life. We’ll hold space and help them create S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals that align with this purpose and see them through to the finish line. I’m so excited I could burst. So many women’s lives are going to be changed for the better, and as a result, their families and greater communities at large will be dramatically impacted. The change will be palpable. I truly believe that by growing the reach of the Guided Accountability framework, woman by woman, individual by individual, we are doing our part to move the world to a more peaceful state for all.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
I have more degrees than a thermometer. Psychology, Sociology, Communication, Crisis Management, Peace and Conflict Resolution. But that’s not what makes me an authority on the Loneliness Epidemic. Serving as a crisis counselor and Professor at a major University was my first bridge to the Loneliness Epidemic. Initially I thought it might be generational, but I was wrong. Coaching people of all ages who are experiencing the epidemic first hand make me far more of an authority than any of those degrees ever could. Technology can be so amazing for bringing people together across many miles. But it has also served as a wedge between us and those closest to us.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
It goes back to our primal need for survival. I talk a lot about fear. How our fear response goes back to the days when we needed to have a fight or flight response to survive. Saber Tooth Tiger standing right in front of you? Your body needs you to act without having an internal debate about it.
Connecting to others is in the same stream as this biological need. It ties back to the idea that to be part of a group is adaptive to survival. Groups protect one another. Groups stay alive. As for three specific reasons?
- Loneliness results in lower cortisol rates which can seriously impair cognitive performance.
- Loneliness can significantly compromise the immune system.
- Loneliness increases your risk for all sorts of vascular problems like inflammation and heart disease.
- Loneliness is a flare our body sends out as a warning that there’s danger ahead. That something isn’t ‘right’. Much like being thirsty, hungry, or having a fever.
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
I think one of our greatest problems regarding loneliness as a society is our reluctance to acknowledge it.
When we greet someone: in the street, in our school, checking out at the food store — we expect a certain response. When we say “Hey there, How ya doin?” we don’t expect them to respond: ‘I’m lonely’ or I’m isolated.’ I think that’s where the problem begins. We are not comfortable, nor do we give space for emotionally loaded statements to be put out into the universe. But how do we undo that? These responses and expectations are so ingrained in us. How do we become comfortable with that which is uncomfortable? As humans, we lean towards comfort. As we move forward and interact on a daily basis, I think it’s important to search for a balance. Asking questions and being ready to hear uncomfortable answers. Leaving space for uncomfortable responses to come to the surface. By not doing this we start to feel that, if we do feel lonely, we are the odd ones. The black sheep. But we aren’t. We’re a herd of black sheep — we’re just not sharing.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Social media and the Internet can be great about connecting folks across the miles — but they create significant distance between those that are sitting in the same room. Look around. We’re all on our devices all. the. time. It’s an incredible wedge.
- Witnessing the A-role of someone’s life on social media can cause comparisonitis. We begin to compare our REAL life to their REEL life. We begin to feel different. Less than. And when we put ourselves in separate categories it creates a feeling of loneliness.
- Constant distractions and misguided priorities. People have a hard time finding time for connecting with each other because their lives are so filled to the brim with commitments and tasks that don’t always align with what matters, and often that means the people in their lives get placed on the back burner for when the chaos settles down. And… spoiler alert: life never settles down.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
- When you ask someone how they’re doing ask it genuinely and be in a place to receive their response. Even if it’s uncomfortable. You don’t need to solve their problems — but you need to be willing to hear them.
- Ageism magnifies the loneliness epidemic. Check in with the elderly folks in your family and your community. Don’t let them go ignored.
- Engage in your local community centers. They’re wonderful places — but they don’t serve their purpose if you’re not using them.
- Check in on your friends and loved ones. Even the ones that don’t seem to need anything. Often the ones that need you the most don’t appear to need you at all. Life’s funny like that. So continue to reach out and stay in touch. Create a safe space for them to share their reality.
- Join a community that intentionally dives deep, like The Goal Keepers Guild: women who have intentionally aligned themselves to strive toward a goal while sharing all the real life obstacles along the way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Guided Accountability. The process of discovering your purpose and designing your own blueprint in response to guidance and a safe space provided by an accountability partner.
It seems so simple. And it IS. Yet, it isn’t. It’s like going to the gym. Yes — you know it’s good for you and it’s the right thing to do. But sometimes showing up again and again is hard! Simple in concept — more challenging in the execution. That’s where the framework behind the movement comes in.
Let’s go back to some grade school math and science. Are you with me?
Like the mathematical term vector, Guided Accountability can be represented by an arrow, composed of both direction and magnitude (And yes, Despicable Me Fans — I totally stole that. No shame in my Mom’ing game). The accountable party holds the magnitude, the guide provides direction, or space for an intentional direction to be explored.
Now think back to science lab. Develop a hypothesis for the trajectory of your life. A hypothesis is used to define the relationship between two variables. Remember, a variable is any item, factor, or condition that can be controlled or changed. Can you change the passing of time? Einstein’s Relativity aside, no. (If you are reading this interview, you are probably not on a spaceship traveling near the speed of light.) For our purposes, time is constant. But how you choose to spend that time is up to you. Our quality of life is the variable. When are you going to decide that your life is a variable worth investing in?
The crazy thing is this: Guiding isn’t difficult, but we’ve been trained for years to avoid it. So you may be a little rusty, and frankly you’re probably a little uncomfortable having a conversation that looks like those that occur in the Guided Accountability space. They sometimes require space for silence (deeper thought), uncomfortable questions, and mirroring what you see — not just what you think the other person wants to hear.
Guided Accountability partners carve out time and space to intentionally define the blueprints of our lives.
If you’re starting to wonder why you can’t just carve this space out for yourself, I’d encourage you to consider that the true value of a guide is to serve as a mirror to the guided, pointing out blind spots you may not be aware of and strengths that may have gone under appreciated.
The Guided Accountability framework walks you through every step of the way. We have, literally, outlined the exact conversations you need to have for all 12 weeks of your Guided Accountability commitment. And 12 weeks is not an arbitrary or random time commitment. It’s based on a significant amount of science, data and research. As humans, when we truly push ourselves, we can get the MOST return on our investments within a 12-week cycle. Optio has structured the time and space to allow you and your partner to get the absolute most out of your time together. This pairing is about CONNECTION. And you have what it takes — inside you right now, in this very moment — to be an amazing Guided Accountability partner.
We are 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 with 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 🙂
Since we’re talking about loneliness I would have to say Glennon Doyle. Her writing hit home for me at a critical point in my parenting journey. I felt incredibly alone — and her gift for writing and ability to speak straight to my heart got me through it and inspired me to do the same for others.
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Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!