We are connected. People around the world are living one collective experience which helps all of us realize that we are in this together. We are all responsible for each other’s health, we are all responsible for taking care of the environment, we are all responsible for the spread of truthful information. If there’s one thing most of us are learning in quarantine, it’s that we are social beings who need each other. Let’s not forget that when all this is over.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Aronson.
Melanie is the founder of Panion, an app that helps coworkers, students, and members of organizations stay socially connected. Melanie has a BA in anthropology from Columbia University and a MFA in social documentary filmmaking from the School of Visual Arts. Before founding Panion, Melanie worked as a photojournalist, film director and cinematographer in NYC and Sweden.
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’ve always been a social person but also very particular about who I socialize with. I want to feel stimulated and challenged and love meeting people who add something new to my life, otherwise I prefer to hang out alone. Having grown up outside of Boston and having spent a large part of my life in NYC, I always preferred surrounding myself with diverse people who shared common values. After graduate school, I received a Fulbright grant to move to Sweden at the height of the migration influx into Europe in 2014. I was interested in exploring how people from such vastly different societies could socially integrate into Swedish society, the most secular and individualistic society in the world, that was also ranked by expats as the number 1 hardest country to make new friends in.
I myself struggled to build my social circle again in Sweden. While other people I met tried using dating apps to make new friends, I wanted to find a safe online space to meet people regardless of their gender, age or sexual orientation and a way to find people nearby who shared my interests.
So I started to build a prototype for a tool I felt would help other people feel more connected in Sweden. In spite of the challenges that come with being a solo female tech founder who doesn’t code, my prototype finally gave birth to Panion, a social meeting place for like-minded people with common interests.
Our app has taken off in both the App Store and Google Play and people worldwide are sharing stories of the new connections they are making through our platform. It’s really quite a rewarding experience.
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 never could’ve imagined I’d become so busy that at times, it was actually paralayzing. Becoming a founder and CEO of a tech startup and getting things off the ground on my own, meant I had to essentially learn how to become the head of marketing, the product owner, the lead designer, the head of operations, etc. and everything in between. At some point you realize that you need to find a method for prioritization or you’ll slowly drown in the overwhelming number of the things that all feel equally urgent. I started reading the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, which gave me the tools I needed to identify what and who I should be spending my time on, and how to essentially ignore everything else. I also learned how to prioritize execution. For me this guidebook has been essential, no pun intended, for me to learn how to move things forward in my company while also maintaining a healthy work/life balance and my sanity.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Creativity is exploding and it’s truly spectacular. Whether it’s a guy on a roof somewhere leading a community workout or a neighbor sewing masks for their friends, people are finding creative ways to fill their time and improve each other’s lives. In the startup world the crisis has instigated one big hack-a-thon, challenging all of us with companies to innovate, pivot, and find our relevance, which our team has found extremely motivating.
- People are supporting strangers more than ever. People are reaching out to offer help in ways that have never existed before. We are all connecting with technology to get closer to the people we love. We’ve noticed an uptick of people in our app using group chat to check in on each other to offer help to those in need. It’s really been beautiful to watch.
- The rules for remote work are changing. Suddenly everyone has to try to be productive from home and to find a routine that is potentially sustainable for the long term. While that can seem challenging, it also means more opportunities to be close to your family, your pets, your partners, your kitchens and your bodies. We foresee this crisis changing the landscape of remote work altogether. Companies will realize that long commutes can be replaced with work from home alternatives and that remote work will become more of a ‘thing’. In anticipation we have created a tool to help large companies make sure their remote workers are still staying social, feeling included and mentally well, while away from the office. We’ve essentially created a virtual watercooler, so that those informal interactions won’t be lost while everyone is working remotely.
- Family and friends come first. When we are faced with a major public health crisis we gain perspective on what really matters, the health of the people closest in our lives. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to remember this, nor for us to step back from our work to prioritize the important people in our lives. Right now, it’s seen as completely acceptable to care for someone with COVID-19 and put your job responsibilities second. I hope that this pandemic will permanently alter the way bosses and coworkers see the priorities in people’s lives so that we can all be a bit more understanding and promote a healthy work/life balance and stay true to what is important to us on a personal level.
- We are connected. People around the world are living one collective experience which helps all of us realize that we are in this together. We are all responsible for each other’s health, we are all responsible for taking care of the environment, we are all responsible for the spread of truthful information. If there’s one thing most of us are learning in quarantine, it’s that we are social beings who need each other. Let’s not forget that when all this is over.
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?
- Check-in. I have a daily morning meeting with my employees and we always start by checking in on a personal level. I want to know how they are doing so I can best support them. Of course it’s the same with my family.
- Be available. Friends, neighbors and employees don’t always need me when I have the chance to check in. So I make it clear that I’m available and willing to listen in case they do need me another time. While I am busy and my time is valuable, I will create space for the people in my life who truly need it.
- Listen. Anxious people don’t need lots of advice. They need to be heard. When I’m talking to someone with anxiety, I allow them to lead the conversation, and try to help them reframe their perspective.
- Offer a reality check. Sometimes we need a reminder that our emotions aren’t permanent and that things will change. Sometimes our minds are so caught up in our own thoughts that we need an outside voice to interrupt them. Some of my friends and I are truly open with each other, discussing how we feel and where our minds are going and try to help each other remember the positives.
- Empathize. People are not on their best behavior right now and it’s understandable. While you shouldn’t endure verbal or emotional abuse, cut people some slack if they become snappy or grumpy. Living with uncertainty can manifest itself in so many ways, and we need to give people a pass sometimes and consider the circumstances.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
These might not all be resources but they are some tips that I’ve found to help my own anxiety:
Insert small routines into your day
For those with spontaneous tendencies, creating routines can feel like a chore. However, by nature, we are creatures of habit and we actually need stability to survive. While being stuck at home might feel like too much stability, adding small repetitive tasks into your day can keep you from falling into the endless depths of your couch.
Exercise a little bit every day
I am the queen of signing up for gym memberships then becoming too lazy to go. I then discovered that building new habits is more sustainable if I approach them more realistically and with less pressure on myself. Look at your own inclinations and shape your habits around what you know about yourself. While I normally watch Boho Beautiful and Yoga with Adriene on Youtube, I recently discovered an app called Down Dog that is offering a free yoga subscription during the crisis until May 1st.
Create rules around your screen time
Out of necessity, I’ve made my bedroom an electronics-free zone and it’s worked wonders for my sleep. I’ve tried to stick to the rule of only interacting with one screen at a time (no texting while watching TV) to further break my addiction to my screens. I consciously make an effort to have down time from my devices where they are completely out of sight for prolonged periods of time. When you let your brain sit with itself or focus on something more manual, you become more intuitively aware of how your screens are affecting your mental health. Take some distance and re-calibrate in order to find the right balance for your own mind. Most smart phones now have usage monitoring built into them and I highly suggest using this feature to regulate the amount of time you use on apps that you know make you feel especially anxious.
Avoid your own traps
Everyone has their own mental triggers for what makes them have a bad day or feel anxiety. Getting to know yours can help you face them head on or avoid circumstances that might set you off. For example, I know that more than one day in the house without any human contact sends me spiraling downward. So even before COVID-19, if I were home on a weekend or during a holiday, I made sure to take walks and check in with my loved ones. I build it into my schedule because I know it’s a necessity. Get to know the little extras you need to build into your schedule. This is easier said than done and I ended up signing up for Better Help, to find an online therapist to help me manage any anxieties I’m having during this time. I also use Insight Timer to listen to guided meditations that help me shift my perspective and become more aware of my mental health challenges.
Science shows that imposed positivity actually makes you feel happier. Reframing thoughts with new perspectives can train your brain to be more positive and in turn can make you feel happier even during stressful or uncertain circumstances. Instead of imagining all the “what if’s” try counting the “I’m lucky for’s” instead. I for one, feel grateful that my entire team at Panion is healthy, and that we are supporting each other every morning by checking in virtually.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
This quote has always resonated with me:
“Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
I think naturally I’ve always taken the unbeaten path, from wearing two different colored socks for the majority of my childhood, to reassembling a mouse skeleton into a 3-dimensional standing figure when asked to glue some bones to a piece of cardboard in science class. Seeing this quote as a teenager made me realize this way of life should be celebrated and embraced, not something I should feel ashamed of.
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’d be doing what I’m doing now, trying to prevent loneliness and feelings of isolation by building a platform for people to connect in meaningful ways, a space where people can feel included, valued and understood.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
I am on Twitter as @melaniearonson and Facebook and Instagram as @eyeingtheworld. My company Panion offers a steady flow of advice and insight into how to fill the world with more meaningful connections and the power of togetherness and you can follow us on Instagram at @panion.app Twitter @panionapp and Facebook @getpanion.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!