Every year, I take some time to go completely offline. As I write this, I’m just getting back from this year’s time to unplug, where I spent a couple weeks with my wife and two girls in the Caribbean.
I know I’m not alone in this, but it always seems to take about a week to get my mind and body adjusted to vacation, and then the following week is when I actually feel like I’m on vacation.
And that’s exactly what happened this time around.
During the first week, my brain wouldn’t stop worrying. I kept coming back to a long list of challenges facing the GAN team, all of which need my attention. I kept thinking and thinking and thinking about it, assuming that—if I thought my way through it all—I would find some magic answer, all while sitting on the beach with my family.
Rather than realize how futile all of my obsessing really was, I spent the first part of our time away trying to cognitively fight my way into solutions. I came across a few answers and ideas, but most questions simply couldn’t be answered while sitting on a literal island.
And, of course, it was all happening in my brain while watching my girls swim in the pool, or while hanging out with my wife on our patio late at night, or while driving somewhere with the family. Meaning they weren’t getting all of me; they were experiencing my mental and emotional “leftovers” after I’d finish thinking through all of the “important” things going on at GAN. Basically, I wasn’t fully present for a lot of our much-needed time away.
Like many people, I try to read a lot while I’m away on vacation. This year, I picked up one of Brené Brown’s more recent books first, Braving the Wilderness. It’s all about cultivating a sense of belonging within yourself, knowing that validation from others won’t always happen when we stand up for the things we truly believe in. As with so much of her other work, she speaks to how we can stand alone well and with confidence.
Toward the end of the book, though, she takes an unexpected turn that I love. She talks about joy. More specifically, how joy and courage go together. Here’s what she said:
“The foundation of courage is vulnerability—the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It takes courage to open ourselves up to joy. In fact, as I’ve written in other books, I believe joy is probably the most vulnerable emotion we experience. We’re afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel it, we’ll get blindsided by disaster or disappointment. That’s why in moments of real joy, many of us dress-rehearse tragedy. We see our child leave for the prom, and all we can think is ‘car crash.’ We get excited about an upcoming vacation, and we start thinking ‘hurricane.’ We try to beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining the worst or by feeling nothing in hopes that the ‘other shoe won’t drop.'” [Emphasis mine.]
It takes courage to open ourselves up to joy.
Said another way, joy is vulnerable. Very, very vulnerable. And to Brené’s point, it’s probably the most vulnerable emotion in our entire suite of emotions.
When I read it, the basis for all of my worrying became clear. By obsessing over everything, I feel like I’m actually protecting myself, my business, my family, and all of the things that are precious to me.
But in reality, that worry is actually taking me away from what should be most important at that moment: A sense of joy.
I immediately shared this takeaway with my wife and we used to it transform our time together, talking through how we practically do this in our own minds and with each other. As we sat with it, it didn’t take long to realize how much we tend to focus on the thing that could go wrong instead of what’s good right in front of us.
But later on in the week, I thought about this lesson related to work. And I actually felt really proud of GAN and how we think about this. One of our core values is “Celebration.” We describe it as “Popping a cork when people reach greater heights. After all, getting stuff done doesn’t mean you have to be boring.”
Celebration and joy are part of our culture.
And for the first time, I realized how unique this is for companies.
In the past, while working at previous organizations, I remember moments of celebration. But, looking back, those celebrations felt very different than what I experience with GAN. Back then, something big would happen—we’d close a big deal or roll out a big product that had taken the team forever to release—and then we’d celebrate. But a couple things felt “off” about our celebrations:
- They felt flat and forced, like we had to come together. After all, it’s what you do when something big happens.
- And, inevitably, 30 minutes into celebrating, someone would note that we had better get back to work so that we could deliver on what we’d just rolled out. In other words, we could only reasonably expect to celebrate big wins for a breath, and then it was back at it.
People didn’t want to celebrate. They just wanted to work. They wanted to get back to the thing that gave us reason to celebrate because we couldn’t lose focus.
Why? Because a competitor might gain an advantage over us. Or we might miss out on important lessons because we were too busy “having fun.”
So there wasn’t ever space for real joy. Too much joy is too vulnerable.
So, as I’m coming back to work, I’m beginning to think about all of the things that were on my mind as I started the first week of vacation. The real stresses. The struggles in front of us.
But I’m going in with a shift in mindset. We’re going to keep doing what we’ve always done—stopping and celebrating—but we’re going to do it with renewed emphasis.
As a team, we need to take time to celebrate the great things that have happened with one another, all the big (and small) things we’ve accomplished.
We need to go out for drinks.
We need to have an impromptu celebration over something silly.
Or something substantial.
We need to be happy and proud of the stuff we’re rolling out.
Because that stuff brings us joy. Sure, it takes our eyes off “the prize” for a brief moment. But I don’t believe in “the prize” anyway. We will always have something to work toward, a next “big thing” to focus on. But the real “prize” is here, now. It’s the time we get to spend together, working on things we care about. That work can, at times, feel isolating—like we’re on our own island, and like no one really understands what we’re doing in the world. In those moments, our shared celebrations and time of actually connecting together, as a team, are what will actually pull us through to the other side.
They will allow us to feel a very vulnerable sense of collective joy.
After all, practicing vulnerability and joy with each other might be what will end up helping not just our team, but all of our companies, our communities, and the wider culture, find solutions to all that challenges us during this time when there are so very many questions to contend with.
It’s not ignoring the very real “monsters” we must face but remembering to acknowledge the (equally as real) good we have accomplished together, right here and now.