Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional (the basic Buddhist precept). You don’t have control over the hard things that come along, but you do have control over how you respond to them. The more drama and resistance you bring, the more suffering you will experience. I’ve found it very, very difficult to evolve and change my reactions to things that worry and trigger me, but as I’ve continued to try, my ability to alter my reactions has grown.
Asa part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Bilik. Jen is the owner and founder of Knock Knock. Drawing from her background in book editing, writing, graphic design, and various arts and crafts, Jen was initially a reluctant businessperson but, after Knock Knock’s 2002 launch, quickly became a passionate entrepreneur. In January 2018, Knock Knock joined with sister brand Emily McDowell & Friends to form the Who’s There Group, which Jen serves as CEO.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jen! What is your “backstory”?
I emerged from college with a degree in English literature and wanted to put my wordsmith skills to work in publishing. My first job was at Rizzoli Publications, creators of beautiful coffee table books, at the advent of desktop publishing in the mid-1990s. When I learned you could design things on computers (imagine!), I quickly ran away with the computer software (Quark) and began to play on my own. The desire to write and design at the same time — and showcase substantive yet funny editorial content in non-book formats — led me to create Knock Knock in 2002. We were pioneers in bringing the humor of real-life truths to greeting cards and paper products like pads, stickies, and decks, an arena which, in following years, exploded with similar sensibilities. I’m now CEO of the Who’s There Group, which, in 2018, combined Knock Knock and Emily McDowell & Friends under one awesome umbrella.
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?
I lived most of my life from the neck up — i.e., my body was merely a vessel for carrying around my brain. I’ve learned I’m not alone in this. We all tend to over-emphasize what comes more easily and brings us praise. If it’s smarts rather than, say, looks or athletic capabilities, goodbye body!
Along with failing to derive strength and well-being from my body over the years, I also neglected my spirit. Again, I think this is something that’s not uncommon in brainy non-religious folks — my upbringing in Berkeley instilled in me a reflexive distaste for organized religion and New Age-y beliefs, which left few entry points to nurture my spirit. A lot of my wellness journey has thus involved integrating an overdeveloped mind with sadly neglected body and spirit.
In 2016, I completed a master’s degree in spiritual psychology (I refer to it as “self-help with grades”), a program that integrated the spirit into more traditional psychological modalities. It was an opportunity for me to graze at the smorgasbord of spiritual self-expression and choose what worked best for me, which turns out to a blend of Buddhism and belief in consciousness as a universal force. Yes, I’m kind of a “spiritual but not religious” Jew-Bu cliché. Because I’m an A-plus-with-comments brainy overachiever, actually studying spirituality was the right entry point for me.
Now my self-care involves a regular and diverse fitness regimen including, over the last year and a half, a deep immersion into the rigor of Iyengar Yoga, which harnesses mind, body, and spirit in a way that I was ready for (basically, patient enough for) only in middle age.
Eating healthfully and intuitively after years of battling a disordered relationship with food has been another game changer.
For me, the experience of entrepreneurship was inordinately stressful, and I coped with food, television, and other forms of numbing. I gained 80 pounds and isolated myself socially during the early years 100-hour workweeks, which also meant I didn’t marry or have a family as I’d so desired. Other entrepreneurs I knew, or who joined me on panels, didn’t seem, from the outside, to have these issues. I’m not someone who was doing “pretty well” with wellbeing before I finally polished it with tweaks. Starting from around the age of 40 (and I turned 50 on July 21, 2019), I had to learn the basics in order to save my mental and physical health.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, I certainly didn’t understand the foundational importance of maintaining my own wellness in order to better run my business and lead people, but I also truly didn’t see how it was possible to do so in a schedule of 100-hour weeks and constant acid-veined stress (hello, cortisol!).
The biggest early business mistake I made was working with, and accepting as a mentor, a manufacturing broker who ended up stealing over a million dollars from us — but that mistake wasn’t just misplaced trust. It was failing to use basic business instruments such as contracts, visibility into original invoices, competitive bidding, diversity of sourcing, etc., that can make business so much more orderly than personal relationships.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
Knock Knock’s motto is “We put the fun in functional.”® People tell us that our products and their sensibility put smiles on their faces, help them communicate with others, and bring pleasure to the mundane. Humor and truth are huge contributors to health and wellness, as is connection with others via communal laughing and shared sensibilities.
Our sister brand Emily McDowell & Friends, gets the same feedback — that we say what others didn’t know they were already thinking in a way that helps them feel understood, and gotten, which, through our products, is something they can then share with others.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have an uncle who’s been a huge mentor to me, especially given that I didn’t have my parents to support me (my mother died when I was twenty-one, and my father wasn’t able to provide life or business support). Recently the business has been encountering a level and kind of difficulty we’ve never experienced before, and I’ve experienced an unwelcome return to early-entrepreneurial-level stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. My uncle always helps me to break situations down in their true brass tacks and view them without a distorting emotional lens. He can speak both from business experience as well as from his knowledge of me since birth. He helps me understand, in a given moment that there are a finite number of outcomes, and in all of them, I and everybody I assume responsibility for will ultimately be fine. To manage my anxiety, it’s important to define those outcomes and understand that all will be well regardless of which one unfurls. This — along with countless other such support along the way — helps me to return to a foundation of strength rather than fear. Decisions and actions have their own self-fulfilling feedback loops. Fear begets what we are most afraid of, but strength allows us to handle come what may.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It seems to me we are at a peak moment in self-centeredness, distraction, fear, and lack of accountability. People have their heads in their phones and lack compassion for others, seeming to believe life is a zero-sum game. I believe that the most foundational wellness movement would be one that encouraged people to look up and out, to see others as themselves, to live in the present moment and pay attention. Were we to feel more understood and gentle with ourselves and others, I believe more superficial forms of wellness would come far more easily.
What are your “3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Take care of your body and spirit no matter what else is going on, a time investment that will return to you many-fold.
- Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional (the basic Buddhist precept). You don’t have control over the hard things that come along, but you do have control over how you respond to them. The more drama and resistance you bring, the more suffering you will experience. I’ve found it very, very difficult to evolve and change my reactions to dynamics that worry and trigger me, but as I’ve continued to try, my ability to alter my reactions has grown.
- Everything difficult for you in the workplace, as a manager and leader and worker, will reflect everything difficult for you in life. Therefore, working on yourself will be one of the biggest parts of your entrepreneurial progress. Self-awareness and self-accountability (and not taking things personally, one of the hardest for me) are everything.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Actually, a key part of wellness for me right now has been taking a break from social media. I find that not only is it a distraction and waste of time (that I crave, by the way), but it also makes me feel badly about myself on many, many levels. So, please follow our two brands, Knock Knock and Emily McDowell & Friends.
Thank you for these fantastic insights!