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Margaret Laws: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious”

Reach out to someone who might need some support or a boost. It’s amazing what a small message — even an “I’m thinking of you” text — can mean to someone. And an act of kindness to a stranger can be just as special. As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and […]

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Reach out to someone who might need some support or a boost. It’s amazing what a small message — even an “I’m thinking of you” text — can mean to someone. And an act of kindness to a stranger can be just as special.


As a 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 Margaret Laws.

Margaret has distinguished herself as a catalytic leader in health care, forging cross-sector partnerships that drive positive social impact. At Hopelab, Margaret leads a multidisciplinary team with expertise in healthcare, academic research, and design to create science-based technologies to improve the health and well-being of teens and young adults. She is passionate about bringing together government, nonprofit and private-sector stakeholders interested in advancing the role technology can play in supporting and improving health outcomes, with a particular focus on improving care for underserved populations.

Prior to Hopelab, Margaret spent 17 years at the California HealthCare Foundation as Director of Public Financing and Policy and Director of the Innovations for the Underserved program. She also founded the CHCF Health Innovation Fund, a mission-focused funding fund supporting companies that improve access to and lower costs of health care.


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’m currently CEO of Hopelab, a social innovation lab focused on improving the health and wellbeing of teens and young adults. In this role, I am working across sectors — nonprofit, for-profit and government — and constantly forming partnerships and coalitions. Early on in my career I learned that I really loved and was good at this sort of “bridging,” at helping people connect and collaborate with organizations and people they would not naturally come in contact with.

At Hopelab, these skills and this passion for bridging are crucial. Our staff comes from the worlds of science, design and technology, and our “magic” is in bringing these very different worldviews and skill sets together. Our projects also often involve government, nonprofit and for-profit players, and we need to bring different strengths from each sector to bear if we’re going to be successful.

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

I started my career a long time ago, so I’m not sure I can offer just one most interesting story! If I was to go way back, I’d say it was when I was just out of college and working as a caseworker with homeless families. I was humbled by what there was for me to learn each day about resilience from my clients who were making their way through incredible adversity. The lessons of that year have stayed with me throughout my career, reminding me about how important it is to stay curious and learn from the many teachers — formal and informal — that surround me.

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

Be really clear about the parts of the work that drain you and the parts that nurture you and fill you up. Make time and space for the people who inspire you and the activities where you are in “flow.” If you’re not already doing so, find a connection between the work you do (or the skills you have) and opportunities to help others.

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

Be intentional about making time for activities for people to really get to know one another and connect at work. Bring some playfulness in to get people laughing together and break down barriers. Create opportunities for people to thank and acknowledge one another. At Hopelab we have a “peer accolades” program where staff can recognize others for exceptional work that aligns with our values. I look forward to these each week, and they’re particularly powerful now that we’re working remotely and people are supporting one another and collaborating in new and evolving ways.

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?

Recently it was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. His insight that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice” has offered a powerful frame for working with vulnerable and underserved populations. In this moment, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, his messages about the measure of us as a society being how we treat the poor and disfavored among us feels especially potent and worthy of reflection.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. 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.

Breathe — it’s the simplest way to calm our bodies and minds, and it’s available to all of us, no apps or props necessary. I’ve been amazed by the benefit that just three deep breaths (and the opportunity for a brief moment of reflection, particularly if I’m feeling agitated) can have on what I feel, say and do.

Practice gratitude — I actually do a “five-minute journal” each morning where I note three things I’m grateful for. It’s a reminder that no matter how challenging a moment or day may seem, we are literally surrounded by people and things (for me it’s often as simple as my first sip of coffee in the morning) that can offer us comfort and a bit of stability when we’re feeling off kilter.

Set intentions — and write down three things that would make the day great. It’s amazing how many days I feel a small sense of fulfillment and control when I find myself doing something prompted by an intention I set in the morning. Intentions are powerful.

Practice self-compassion — treat yourself as you would treat a friend. This simple exercise of favoring the voice of the friend over the voice of the “inner critic” can be transformational.

Reach out to someone who might need some support or a boost. It’s amazing what a small message — even an “I’m thinking of you” text — can mean to someone. And an act of kindness to a stranger can be just as special. Research shows that doing good for others can improve your mental and physical health.

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?

One of the key anchors of our work at Hopelab is the cultivation of resilience. We use a framework for resilience that has three elements — purpose, connection, and control — and we try to help people develop the skills and practices that can help them get through adversity and move forward in positive ways.

When we talk purpose, connection, and control, here’s what we mean:

  • Purpose: A sense of purpose arises when we have a far-reaching steady goal or something personally meaningful and self-transcending — something bigger than ourselves that we feel connected and committed to.
  • Connection: Meaningful social connections, supportive relationships and a feeling of belonging are hugely important to our well-being, and these connections give us the foundation we need to persevere through difficult times and live happier (and longer) lives.
  • Control: When we use the term control, we aren’t referring to controlling others, rather we’re talking about self-efficacy and empowerment. Control in this sense means that we feel a sense that what we do matters, and have confidence that we can do the things we set out to do.

If we’re able to help those we care about boost resilience and exercise purpose, connection and control, both we and those we help benefit psychologically and physiologically.

Using the principles of PCC to help others manage adversity and develop resilience in times of uncertainty:

Help them connect with their sense of purpose: Is it work, their role as a parent or grandparent, their faith? When we re “on purpose” we’re much more effective at managing challenges and taking on positive habit changes.

Help them connect to opportunities to help others: “acts of kindness” have powerful health benefits for the giver as well as the receiver.

Ask how they’re doing, and really listen: help them feel a sense of connection and belonging by being present and demonstrating empathy during your conversations.

Reach out just to check in: help people feel that they belong — to remember that they matter and are part of a broader community.

Help them identify and set goals: even small ones help establish a sense of empowerment and control.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Try a meditation app: there are hundreds available, and many are free.

Greater Good Science Center and Psyberguide both offer great resource libraries of information, apps, tools and classes that can help you manage anxiety, and they indicate those that are science/evidence based.

Seek out awe: get out in nature, listen to music, or engage in an activity that inspires a feeling of wonder or inspiration in you.

Reach out for support to family and friends or via a resource like Crisis Text Line or Senior Friendship Line.

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

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Albert Einstein

I’m an enthusiast and have always loved trying and learning new things. I’ve always got a million irons in the fire and am insatiably curious. What I discovered early on is that I can do a lot of different things pretty well, but I’m never going to be the most accomplished specialist or expert in any area. Recognizing that, I’ve created and managed my professional path to draw on these strengths. Finding a career path where I can be “in flow” and be successful and feel rewarded for doing what I do best — at least most of the time — has been a great gift.

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 inspired by the work of Hopelab adviser Sonja Lyubomirsky connecting prosocial acts with happiness and better health outcomes…

The (very plausible, possible) movement I’d suggest is doing acts of kindness for others. Even small acts can benefit the physical and mental wellbeing of both giver and receiver. The moment we’re in is presenting opportunities for all of us to help support others, and in doing so, help ourselves emerge stronger and more resilient.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

I’m @margaretlaws on Twitter and I’m on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/margaret-laws-111162/

You can also visit Hopelab at hopelab.org or see our latest projects by following @hopelab across social media.

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

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