In April 2020, five weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic forced us into homes, our leadership team at Pana made the difficult decision to downsize the company by over 30%.
As a corporate travel management platform, our revenues—which were previously growing over 100% year-on-year—were dependent on business travelers getting on planes. As the entire world effectively stopped moving for over two years, so to did our growth.
During my tenure as CEO, every Monday I would write a company-wide email to our team that includes big things happening at the company, an update on our key metrics, and any personal thoughts I feel are important to share. This is a practice I borrowed from Mathilde Collin, CEO at Front and one of my favorite contemporary entrepreneurs.
Below, I’m sharing the letter I wrote to the team in my Monday update the week after the layoffs. Someone close to me thought this letter might help others, so I’m sharing it in hopes that it either helps you navigate through a tough time or help others through their own tough times.
Hi Pana fam,
How are you doing? Have you taken a few minutes to pause and really ask yourself that?
If not, take now as an invitation to ask yourself that question, and see what comes up.
For many of you, the answer might come out a little different than you expected. For me, I expected my answer to be something along the lines of: "I'm pretty good! We’re working on some cool stuff and making the best of a really difficult situation."
But as I sat with that question a bit more, I realized the answer was actually:
"I'm having a really tough time, and I'm really sad."
The first several weeks of our coronavirus reaction were adrenaline-filled. We needed to figure out how to preserve cash, and then we needed a new north star to point to, and then we needed a plan for executing against this new north star. All of these were great reactions that helped move us and our business forward. But here we are, 5 weeks in, realizing that keeping ourselves busy isn't going to change how messed up our world is right now, and it's making us pretty weary.
I truly believe that we have an opportunity to do good work together for a better world. We'll see the fruits of that labor when (not if) people get back to making valuable face-to-face connections by getting on planes. And it will be fun, exhilarating, and challenging to work on.
But, that's not the whole picture.
No matter how much I rationalize that this work matters, that doesn't stop me from, every now and again, stopping and thinking: what the actual fuck are we doing right now? Selling ice to eskimos? Why does any of this matter!?
I can't help feeling this way sometimes.
Sometimes, the uncertainty about the future, the endless onslaught of shitty news headlines, and the unintelligible decisions made by our leaders make me so angry. Other times, missing personal connection, postponing my wedding in Italy, needing to lay off a portion of our world-class team, being unable to be in the office with all of you, and being unable to go visit my mom and give her a hug makes me feel so, unbelievably sad.
And, I thought, if I'm feeling this way, there's a chance that the rest of the team might be feeling similarly. So, I thought I'd use this week's email to share the tools I'm using to cope with the up and down roller coaster of the past five weeks.
Feel your feelings
First, I've made time to let myself feel the weight of everything.
Feelings are, literally, physical sensations (hint: you "feel" them!). They are inevitable. Feelings don't come from your rational mind, and no amount of mental gymnastics can prevent them from coming out—in one way or another. As David Kessler, author of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss says, "Fighting it doesn't help because your body is producing the feeling."
Sometimes we're afraid that if we let a feeling in, it will cascade into an unstoppable wave that we can't control. In practice, I've found the exact opposite to be true. I've found that the physical sensation caused by a feeling (anger, sadness, fear, joy, and creative energy) actually only lasts about 60–90 seconds. When I give that feeling the time, space, and respect to fully move through me, whether that's by letting myself cry, yell, or laugh, I notice how empowered I feel afterwards. I find acceptance at the other side of a true expression of a feeling
(There's a ton more on this subject in one of the books I gave all of you on your first day: The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.)
When I do the opposite—"numbing out" a feeling by focusing on my Asana task list, rationalizing it away, checking the news, or dismissing the feeling as non-important—it seems to keep coming back, recycling itself over and over as a cycle of drama playing out in my head.
In our exec meeting today, Kim shared that her stepson, Zach, was really struggling on Friday. After work, she took him outside and taught him the two rules of feeling your feelings: (1) you can't hurt yourself and (2) you can't hurt others; other than that, you can pretty much do anything. He chose to run down the sidewalk screaming at the top of his lungs. (He knew, however, that he wasn't allowed to cross the street alone, so for 10 blocks he'd run down the street screaming, wait patiently for Kim to catch up, cross the street, and then do it all again). 😆
Let's all be more like Zach.
One more note on this: one of the most nefarious and effective ways that people prevent themselves from feeling their feelings is by telling themselves that their emotions aren't valid because others are in a worse situation. ("Other people are sick, dying, or jobless, so I'm not allowed to be sad that I can't see my friends.") Brené Brown calls this phenomenon "comparative suffering", and she has a great podcast on this topic here. Put simply, your feelings are just as valid as anyone else's, and both empathy and pain aren't finite resources. You can hurt, and others (who you judge to be worse off than you) can too.
Focus on things you can control
I find myself getting most overwhelmed by the things I cannot control.
I don't know when we will have widespread testing in the US. I don't know when shelter-in-place orders are going to be lifted. I don't know when people are going to travel again. I don't know what dates I should reschedule my wedding to.
But there is still so much in my control. I can breathe. I can smile. I can cook. I can hug my dog and fiancée.
I can choose to use this time to build meaningful relationships with my partner, my family, my coworkers, and my customers. I can do good work with good people. I can build things to make the world a better place.
No, focusing on these things won't automatically make the world a better place. But, perhaps, locating yourself in the present and focusing on things in your control might shift your perspective on how to exist in the world.
Have compassion for yourself and others
This is, perhaps, the most important thing that we can do right now.
Feeling the burden of everything that's going on right now—whether it's happening to you or in your community or in your country—is hard. And it's bound to have an effect on you, your family, and your co-workers at one point or another, in one way or another, and it's impact is likely going to be unexpected, inopportune, and, frankly, quite inconvenient!
The best thing we can do when this happens is to respond with compassion. This can be our one little piece of healing we can put out into the world in a time when it feels so difficult to make a difference or have an impact.
What does compassion for others look like? I'd suggest it's:
- Accepting apologies (even poorly formed ones) with grace
- Showing specific and meaningful appreciation for someone else's great work
- Letting appreciation in instead of deflecting it
- Injecting levity and fun where possible
- Saying thank you, and meaning it
- Approving PTO or letting someone take a mental health day
- Starting your meetings, even external ones, with a well-meant "how are you?"
Equally important, however, is compassion for yourself.
My judgment of the team at Pana is that we're actually really good at showing compassion for each other, but really bad at showing it to ourselves.
You might not do your best work right now. You might make mistakes. You might blow things out of proportion. You might feel burnt out. You might get snippy, moody, and have non-ideal interactions.
The solution to all of this isn't to "push through" and put in the extra hours. The work is never going to end. There will always be more emails in your inbox. There will always be more lines of code to write. Going into overdrive is a short-term fix, but we're dealing with a long-term crisis. We need long-term, sustainable solutions.
Instead, make room for rest, recharge, and healing. Feel your feelings (see above!). Shut your laptop off. Clean up and re-negotiate broken commitments; the world isn't going to end if that thing is done next week instead of tonight.
I'd encourage you to consider taking time off if you think it would help right now. Sure, there's not many places you could go. But maybe take the time anyway to have a personal stay-cation. Do yoga. Take a bath. Read a book. Take a hike. NYTimes has some other great suggestions.
(Alternatively, if you're out of books and caught up on Netflix and this sounds like the LAST thing you want to do right now, that's totally okay too! Listen to your mind and body and take time to respond to what they want.)
So, what's the prize?
"Alright Devon, why the hell would I do all this hippie-dippy shit?"
Well, my skeptical fictional friend, three reasons:
First, it might make you feel better. Ultimately, that's what I want for you. I want you to feel happy, successful, and fulfilled. This is kind of the point, right?
Second, it will prepare you to be in it for the long-haul.
Yes, the COVID-19 crisis will end. The world survived the 1918 pandemic. Life returned back to normal, and it will again. But this will take time; months, if not years, for everything to fully return to the way life was. And some things will never be the same—some of which for the better.
I've said this before, and I'll say it again: this is a marathon, not a sprint.
But if you continue to run at 1,000 MPH, ignore your feelings, and fail to make time for yourself, I am extremely convinced you will burn out, crash, and quit (or worse: stay, and be miserable). I'd really hate that outcome for you.
Third, shifting your mindset might unlock the most powerful force of success: creativity.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (say that name 5 times fast…) named a state of working called flow state, which he described as:
“...being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”
If you've ever become so absorbed in an activity to experience flow state, you'll know how great it feels and how productive you can be. It's where our best inventions, breakthroughs, and accomplishments come from.
But fear and anxiety are poison to the flow state. It's impossible to harness your creative energy from a place of scarcity and a "to me" mindset.
If we are one of the lucky ones to have our jobs, our health, and our life—how about we try and use it to unlock such a powerful way of working? I think that would be pretty great.
That's all for this week. Namaste.