With more leaders and athletes going public with their mental health stories, it’s an important reminder that mental health issues affect a broad spectrum of people, from all backgrounds.
At a recent conference hosted by Talkspace, world-champion swimmer Michael Phelps described feeling like an “animal in a zoo,” referring to his mental state while under the intense spotlight of performance. And he’s right: We tend to place celebrities, athletes, and those in the C-suite on an almost mythical level. But they are people, with real challenges, who are entitled to the same compassion we expect from our own support networks.
We recently sat down with Jason Saltzman, CEO and founder of co-working community Alley. Jason has used his platform as a successful entrepreneur to advocate for openness about mental health in the workplace, the technology sector, and beyond.
Below he shares his journey with general anxiety disorder, and how it’s made him a more compassionate person and leader.
Josh Wolff, Staff Writer for Talkspace: Thanks for sitting down with us.
As a founder and entrepreneur, you’re refreshingly open about your mental health, and your challenges with anxiety. To what degree is stigma around mental health affecting those who are in C-suite or executive positions?
Jason Saltzman, CEO and founder of Alley: I think it’s a huge issue. There’s a ton of stigma wrapped around it, and as a CEO or as a leader, its as if you have to put on this superman suit.
If you’re an investor looking at deals all day long, and you meet two people of equal execution, but find out that one of them has some type of mental ailment, like general anxiety disorder, you’re going to choose the person who doesn’t have any issues, who won’t cause “drama”(unless you have a very empathetic investor, but let’s be frank, it’s a dog-eat-dog capitalistic world we live in).
I think that’s what really pushes talking about anxiety down into a deep place of fear. Where there’s no way of knowing that you’re not alone, that other leaders are battling the same issues.
TS: So, even with your success as as a CEO and founder, and evidence of the huge community you’ve built, there’s still a risk of rejection because you’re open about your mental health?
Jason: Again, history has shown mental illness as a weakness. Yet it’s not a weakness, it’s a part of the human condition. That’s the problem we don’t talk about. Everybody has a form of it. The deeper you bury it, you’re not just doing an injustice to yourself, you’re doing injustice to those around you. That’s why I’m so motivated to speak openly about it. It’s not a weakness, it’s a human condition.
TS: You write extensively and publicly about your anxiety. Have you caught any flack for being so open about these challenges?
Jason: I got a lot of feedback. I didn’t really know how impactful [my first article about anxiety] would be. I really wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to get something to go viral.’ I really was just speaking my truth, and being open about it. What brought it on, actually, was a very positive experience.
“History has shown mental illness as a weakness. Yet it’s not a weakness, it’s a part of the human condition.”
One of my investors was opening up to me about their anxiety, and having a really honest conversation about it. Immediately I thought, ‘I’m going to talk about this stuff.’ So I wrote it, and the response that I got out of it was amazing. Marc Andreessen retweeted it, and it got thousands and thousands of views. I was flooded with emails.
It showed me just how real this issue is, and how many people feel the same way. But some of those messages I got were shock and awe: “What balls…,” and “You did this why?” And all I could think was, “What do you mean?”
This is human. This is real. We should talk about this shit.
TS: And you feel it’s made an impact, at least within the context of leadership in tech?
Jason: Any social change starts with a movement, right? Starts with an idea. I got encouraged by all those emails. It wasn’t the encouragement that I wrote something cool, it was the encouragement that I was actually helping people come out, too.
It’s another type of coming out: expressing your mind, yourself, in whatever role you’re in.
What feeds the stigma surrounding mental health is the silence. You can’t see it until it manifests into something potentially horrible. This is a systemic issue, and I don’t expect to solve it alone. I’m just saying, let’s fucking talk about it.
Learning to Live with Anxiety
TS: Do you remember the moment when you were able to pin the symptoms of your anxiety to anxiety itself as a diagnosis? Whether it was your own research or healthcare provider visits.
Jason: It was my dad, to be honest with you. My dad suffered from horrible anxiety issues his whole career, he actually had to retire early because of it. And I remember that.
So when it started to happen [to me], I would talk to my dad about it. He would give me the look, “You’re not going to die, alright?” Because I think the fear is, “Wow this is going to last forever.” In reality, however, it’s like being sick. You have a cold, it’s going to go away.
You’re going to have moments, and that’s life. When it happens, say hello to it. Be consciously aware that it’s there, and acknowledge it by saying, “Hello.”
It’s tips like that that have made me stronger, and made me more conscious around it. So, my dad was really the motivator in that whole thing.
TS: After you knew it was anxiety, how did you approach finding a solution?
Jason: Anxiety is like a TV commercial for a product that you never saw before, and all of a sudden, you’re seeing it everywhere. Then you think,, “Wow, I’m conscious of this.” And you’re confronted with both positive and negative emotions. It was always there, I’ve always had it, I just never labeled it.
So after I labeled it, I tried a lot of different things.
TS: Did you consider therapy?
Jason: I went to a therapist. I spoke to my dad. I tried taking certain medications. Now I do two things.
Every morning I meditate using Journey Meditation. From there, I focus my energy on my work, which I love. I kind of look at it like kung fu. I take the energy that anxiety generates, and channel it into a project
As an entrepreneur, that’s something I preach. If you’re going to get into something, an idea, a vision, commit with your heart. It’s one of the things that has worked for me to overcome my anxiety: putting love into my work. That’s not to say it’s going to work for everybody, we all have different levels of anxiety, but it’s certainly helped me.
TS: I’m curious about your first experience with therapy. What were some of the challenges you faced around the process of finding a therapist, and opening up to them?
Jason: Because you’re looking for someone that you can talk to at the deepest of levels, to whom you can open up your soul, that alone gives you anxiety.
That’s why I haven’t found a good therapist to this day, to be totally honest with you. I’ve never used [Talkspace], and maybe that’s the answer.
TS: Talkspace helps bridge that gap by using a really smart therapist-matching algorithm. This helps ensure you find the right therapist from the start, on both clinical and personal levels. Also, there are bonuses like introductory video messages from your therapist, to get to know them on a real level.
It’s a bit like dating apps, I suppose. You want to find your “person.”
Jason: You said it. It’s like finding an apartment, but it’s so much more important. And it’s almost like embedded procrastination. Now I’m like, “Oh my God, this is so important, I need to do it right.”
I actually had a funny experience. I went on Zocdoc, and I looked at pictures of these doctors and tried to judge who I would open up to. There was this 60-year-old hippie woman that was wearing beads, and I was like, “That’s my lady.” I want the lady that’s spiritual.
I show up to her office, and she’s not. She has an assistant that opened the door that was about 25 years old, right out of college. And I thought, “All right, let me give it a try.”
“If you’re going to get into something, an idea, a vision, commit with your heart. It’s one of the things that has worked for me to overcome my anxiety: putting love into my work.”
I sat down, and she was like, “Uh huh, uh huh, yes, yep, yep.” It was nothing. It was literally talking to an answering machine. And I wasn’t getting deep, you know? So that was my initial experience.
TS: I can empathize. With my first brick-and-mortar therapy experience, I wanted instant results without opening up. I almost quit after the first session. Then it clicked that they can’t help me if I don’t let them gather some basic info first. And to be honest about it.
I’ve since switched to a Talkspace therapist, who I love and can talk with anywhere. In the spirit of being our true selves here, I’ll simply say “It’s dope.”
Let’s stick with tech for a second. What’s your opinion on using technology like text therapy to provide a solution for your mental health, or a way to work through your anxiety?
Jason: Obviously, having better access to technology that makes the process easier and more accessible is a monster benefit.
It’s part of why we’re evolving. This tech exists because it’s going to increase awareness around [mental health] and accessibility. What used to be kind of a privilege, becomes much more accessible to the average human. So I think that technology is so important in the mental health space.
And I wish that I had used [Talkspace] and had a success story ready. But I’m going to try it.
Compassion as a Leader
TS: How has your experience with anxiety helped you become a more compassionate leader, both at Alley and in your mentorship in the tech sector.
Jason: I realize now, more than any other time in my life, that success is gauged by many different things. I may not be a billionaire, but I’m successful, regardless.”
For me, I’m successful for working on something that I feel is making real positive social change. I believe that I’m doing that. And I have a team around me, and some of the largest companies in the world doing business with us, that feel that we’re doing that. So that, to me, is success.
It’s given me a platform to talk about things that I care about. Matter of fact, my anxiety goes away when I start talking about it. It’s very therapeutic for me on its own to be talking about these things. It feeds my soul.
TS: Are you finding people receptive to that discussion, even if they can’t empathize with your challenges?
Jason: I think people want to be around that [openness]. I’ve noticed that my team wants to be around me more. My team wants to talk to me more on a deeper level. Business isn’t done through pen and paper and a simple computer. Business is done with your heart.
And if I’m going to be open, I’m going to pave the way for openness, and my team is going to work with their hearts too.
Mental Health in our Working Lives
TS: What initiatives and measures have you put in place at Alley to ensure the mental health of your employees is considered, or valued in the larger community of your workspaces?
Jason: Our one on one meetings are 80% mindset, 20% execution. So withmindset, you’re talking about how you’re feeling. Is the pressure a good pressure? Is it a bad pressure? Do you need some time off? That opens up the whole conversation in the right way.
The other thing is the Journey Meditation that I told you about. They come into Alley once a week and we do a meditation class. It’s open to all of our employees and our members in New York, currently, but we’re scaling it to every Alley location. It’s really taking off.
“Business isn’t done through pen and paper and a simple computer. Business is done with your heart”
TS: Very cool. To close, what advice do you have for those who have an entrepreneurial spirit, but feel like their mental health struggles will nosedive their passions or projects?
Jason: Obviously this is extremely subjective, everybody has got something they struggle through, and everybody experiences emotion differently. Problems are faced, and what’s most important is to not only work through it, but to find the beauty in it. It’s not going to go away, right? So find the beauty in it.
You know you’re fucking beautiful, you just need to dig deep. Like I told you before, I like to reap that negative energy that comes out of anxiety, and refocus it on something I love, something I’m passionate about. Something I feel that’s going to be positive for everyone.
That’s what I do, and that’s the advice that I share. I think it’s an extremely effective approach to change your mental health into a positive thing when you’re building a business, or when you’re going to be in a leadership position.
But be open about it. Don’t hide it.
TS: I’d imagine a big part of entrepreneurial success also relates to the network you’ve built, and how they support you?
Jason: You need to surround yourself with positive people. If you surround yourself with positive people, they’re going to accept you for who you are, and you’re going to be able to thrive in that environment. You’re going to be able to talk about your feelings, and your emotions, and it’s going to be great.
If you surround yourself with shitty people, shitty things are going to happen, and you’re not going to be able to pop up and shine like you should.
TS: As a CEO and successful entrepreneur, your words carry weight. Thanks for your candor and your continued advocacy in the mental health space, Jason.
Jason: I appreciate the opportunity to share my story with others.
I’m going to look at [Talkspace], because it’s definitely something that’s missing from my life. I do want to see someone, that would help. I just haven’t found the right person yet.