Welcome to the latest episode of the One Away Show featuring Jessica Carson!
Content Warning: The following article discusses topics that may be triggering for people experiencing mental or behavioral health struggles, including eating disorders. If you’re in crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. Both the national suicide prevention hotline and crisis text line are free, confidential, and available 24/7. For less acute challenges, consider online therapy during COVID-19.
Jessica Carson works at the intersection of technology and the human mind as the Director of Innovation at the American Psychological Association, as well as serving as the Expert in Residence at Georgetown University. Her formidable background ranges from neuroscience, psychology, and mindfulness to the VC and tech startup space.
Jessica Carson has overcome many challenging obstacles that life has thrown across her path, and hurdled them with grace and resilience. Now, she’s sharing her experience and learnings with like-minded entrepreneurs in her new book, Wired This Way: On Finding Mental, Emotional, Physical, and Spiritual Well-Being as a Creator.
Wise Words from Jessica Carson
Her book teaches readers how to engage in 3 core practices of self-study and self-care:
- Self-Understanding; understanding the way that you’re wired
- Self-Acceptance; the capacity to appreciate that your dark and your light are one in the same
- Sustainable Self-Care; entrepreneurs often engage in self-care practices without first having the ability to understand themselves or accept themselves.
Jessica has had the spirit of entrepreneurship burning bright deep within her since she set up imaginary businesses in her playroom as a kid. Growing up, Jessica felt compelled to adhere to overwhelming standards of perfection and conventional notions of what “success” looked like. It wasn’t until she expanded this definition that she felt truly fulfilled – and alive.
How Jessica Carson Finds Balance by Prioritizing Wellness Over What Looks “Right”
Straight out of college, she embarked on two high-pressure vocations in quick succession. After she began working in a lab at the NIH as a researcher, she found herself deeply unhappy, even though it looked so perfect from the outside.
Leaning too much into her logical nature had tangible impacts on her wellbeing, and she decided to shift her path into the tech world by joining the team at a startup.
The intense pressure, rigid structure of expectations and norms, and emphasis on left-brain attributes Jessica faced from every direction ultimately manifested somatically.
Her body started to communicate her limitations and needs by sending warning signs like panic attacks and an eating disorder.
“I didn’t realize, at the time, that any form of mental or emotional distress is related to the ways in which we are or are not nourishing ourselves.”
I thought this was a really interesting way of looking at these phenomena; almost like a mind-body dialogue. She went on to embrace the same emphasis on physical wellness that’s so very important to me.
There’s a perfect Latin phrase to encompass this ideal: “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano,” or “A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body.”
Recovering From Disorder on the Outside and Inside to Find Alignment Forward
Jessica’s journey to recovery inspired her to reevaluate her career options, re-center her focus on the creative aspects of her intellect, and ultimately make brave decisions and major changes that produced incredibly fulfilling outcomes that she’s still pushing further to this day.
Shifting her perspective from following the rules and living for external validation or acceptance also helped Jessica start finding more validation and purpose from within.
One of Jessica Carson’s biggest realizations on her creator’s journey was the value of sensitivity, a trait she had always felt was a mark of weakness or something to be ashamed of. In fact, sensitivity is a beautiful gift that has a high correlation with emotional intelligence.
“For much of my life, I thought the idea of being sensitive was just about the worst thing imaginable. To be sensitive, how will you ever do anything in life? That shift happened as I began to realize that my sensitivity is actually an incredible blessing. Now when feelings emerge in my body or sensations arise in my body, instead of freaking out and fighting with them or pushing them down or pretending they don’t happen or numbing them over, I’ve learned to let those sensitivities inform me of how I should be engaging with myself, how I should be engaging with others, how I should be engaging with my work.”
These traits are key ingredients to being both an effective entrepreneur and designing useful products;
“Each creator […is] a conduit for creation. The health and the integrity of a creation will always be reflected in the health and the integrity of its creator.”
Pivoting from research to tech to writing nd innovation has empowered her to explore the many dimensions of her passion, while gaining a better sense of both self-knowledge and self-regulation along the way.
Top 5 Takeaways From Jessica Carson
1. Listen to the Messages Your Body Communicates
As entrepreneurs or people who work within a startup environment, we have a will to push ourselves beyond measure and to the ultimate extreme. When our body sends us signals, don’t ignore them. You are not invincible. Jessica’s story is a testament to this powerful fact.
2. Find the Balance of Dark and Light Within You, and Harness Its Power
One of the main points in Jessica’s new book is that all of us, especially entrepreneurs, have both powerful light and dark aspects of our personality. From kindness, altruism, and empathy to ruthless ambition and innovation at any cost, it’s up to us to decide how we use these powerful drives. In Jessica’s words, “Every part of yourself that you deem ugly, bad, wrong, inconvenient is actually the source of your creative magic. It’s what allows you to undergo this process of alchemy which is entrepreneurial work.”
3. Health is Everything
To lead a sustainable life, we need to constantly checkin with ourself. When healthy, we are creating the best opportunity to create healthy innovations, and healthy relationships.
4. Our Greatest Pain Leads to our Greatest Breakthroughs
Without Jessica’s experience and low point, and realizing it’s okay to get help, she wouldn’t be where she is on her journey to help others through the light and the dark as an author, speaker, and educator
5. Never Limit Yourself to Just Left or Right Brain Strengths
While most of us tend to lean in one direction or the other, one predominant side doesn’t mean a field in that vein is right for you or your career. In Jessica’s case, having always been praised for her intellectual nature and seeing how the masculine traits of pragmatism and logic seemed more valued, she started her career in a science-focused lab environment, then a fast-paced tech startup as a founding business leader. She quickly learned that letting go of her nourishing and creative side caused imbalance and unhappiness. Ultimately, she carved out a trajectory towards a role where she can excel in both senses.
Now, Jessica is sharing her findings of both her research and personal awakenings with other entrepreneurially minded people, both by publishing a book and building a movement to empower creators to prioritize their own wellbeing and truly thrive. She channels all of her skills, from public speaking to writing and teaching, to spread a powerful message about the amazing complexity of creators. Follow along on YouTube at the top, on Spotify, or on Apple Podcasts. A transcript is provided below for your convenience.
BRYAN WISH: Welcome to the One Away Show. So, Jessica Carson, you had a really interesting One Away moment. Can you tell us about it?
JESSICA CARSON: Yeah, definitely. So the realizations I came to are actually the central themes of the book I’m about to release. Wired This Way explores the unique and complex wiring of entrepreneurial spirits. It looks at the way that the light and the dark within entrepreneurs and creators is both a strength and a source of challenges like mental health issues, burnout, and stress related illnesses. This balance is also their greatest gift, without which they probably wouldn’t have self-selected into their creative work.
BRYAN WISH: You started out very logical and left brain, and then turned this journey more right-brained and meshed the two together to write the book and be on the career path you’re on today. Do you mind sharing your earliest childhood memories and how you grew up and formed into that very logical person?
JESSICA CARSON: The earliest versions of myself actually were that pure creator and was very comfortable in her creative assets. I was a rather introverted child. I was constantly playing by myself and loved creating businesses and experiences in my playroom and was a really productive little creator.
As I got a little older, I began to be celebrated for my intellect, for getting good grades, and for following the rules. Before I knew it, what started as a very connected and creative energy transformed into one that was really characterized by logic, practicality, and a more masculine way of navigating my world.
I settled on a career that I thought sounded really impressive given my love of learning. I decided I was going to be a neuroscience researcher. I worked at the National Institutes of Health scanning brains and running studies. While I savored the lofty intelligence that such a career implied, I was really quite unhappy.
I started experiencing a lot of very interesting physical and emotional symptoms until I really woke up to the fact that I was not doing the work I was supposed to be doing. I was leaning too much into my logical nature and really needed to invite that creativity back in. That was when I decided to join a startup.
BRYAN WISH: What did that feel like when you knew you were so off the path in the sense you weren’t doing what you were supposed to be doing?
JESSICA CARSON: Like many entrepreneurially minded individuals, I have a tendency to do everything to the extreme. That is a tendency that I have to very intentionally focus on not driving into quite as hard or quite as often as I used to.
When I was working in the lab and even before that, when I was in college, and was incredibly focused on my studies to the detriment of everything else, I started developing a lot of really interesting physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.
In college, that manifested as an eating disorder. I didn’t realize, at the time, that any form of mental or emotional distress is related to the ways in which we are or are not nourishing ourselves.
For me, the eating disorder was very much a manifestation of this path of control. This path of sameness. This path of logic and masculinity; sort of this archetypal masculinity and rigidity. As I navigated through that, I went from college and into the lab. Even though it was an amazing job, I was quite unhappy in all senses; physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I was quite disassociated. That manifested in a lot of different ways.
BRYAN WISH: You had this experience, took an extreme, and didn’t realize who you were and the things you were gifted at were taken to another level where you’re ultimately harming yourself. It sounds like there was this wakeup call and you realize you’re not happy.
JESSICA CARSON: The tipping point was I’ve come to learn I have an incredibly sweet, sensitive, and intuitive body that is always the first to remind me when I’m off course. Even though, for a while, I had ignored or avoided the issues I was having around eating, my body knew that it needed to get a little bit more aggressive to step in and get my attention. One day in the laboratory when I was receiving an assignment that was going to require me to stay on for another year, in that moment I felt like I was about to die. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know where my body stopped and started. Lo and behold, I was having a panic attack in the middle of the lab and there was nothing objectively stressful in that moment but it was my body shaking me and awakening me to the fact that I really needed to move on and shift the way I was using my energy.
BRYAN WISH: It sounds like you took those moments and experiences in such a positive way. You have this glow about you. You applied these experiences in a way that allowed you to be your full self. Can you share what the transition was like to a less rigid side or a side that was more creative and freer spirited to let you be wholesome in your full self?
JESSICA CARSON: It didn’t all get better after that. There was another sort of big test that I would have to face. Basically, after that incident happened in the laboratory, I left and joined a startup. It was this perfect alignment of factors, support, and opportunities that came in at that exact moment that drew me into this incredible position at an early stage startup as a founding employees. I had truly one of the most expansive experiences of my life. I was so fulfilled. I was so happy. I was healthy. I was really being blown back up with air again. I was really coming alive. I was this lifelong introvert and always a very sensitive little soul, I was all of a sudden thrust in this very hyper social environment in which there were always flashy pictures being taken and always fancy bars and restaurants being dined at. It started to play some interesting games with my ego. While I really enjoyed the experience and wouldn’t change it for anything, towards the end of it, I really started struggling with my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. I decided to take an offer to work at a VC firm because my ego liked the way that sounded. At the time, I was about 24 years old. Of course, I wanted to be a director at a venture firm, especially being a female in an all-male space.
What was interesting about working for the venture firm – and I should say that my colleagues were nothing but supportive and kind, but I really believed that I had to once again, step into this logical, masculine, practical, aggressive, competitive place for me to succeed amidst the sort of hypermasculine norms that is the venture capital space.
Once again, I really started struggling. This time my body got extra, extra, extra creative. One day, completely out of the blue, for some reason I can’t pinpoint, I started noticing my hair was falling out quickly. This threw me into a state of distress and confusion. I went to doctor after doctor and healer after healer to try to understand what was happening and the hair was sort of the most superficial manifestation of what was going on. But really, my whole body was completely out of whack.
What’s also quite interesting about the hair is that symbolically, hair is representative of femininity and creativity and really magic and power if you look at the symbolic representations of hair in literature, philosophy, and psychology. This was really the big wakeup call. This was like, “You keep driving yourself off these ditches in an effort to be who you think you need to be or do what you think you need to do in order to be successful and it’s not working. As I was starting to experience this distress, I also, because of my role in venture capital, was seeing that many of the entrepreneurs around me were also experiencing stress. They were suffering with their mental health. They were suffering from burnout. They were suffering from stress related illness, from psychosomatic illness, and were affected by all of these other emotional and spiritual afflictions.
I became really curious about what it is about people who are prone to extremes. That it’s both their gift as well as their burden to bear. What I began to realize is that the parts of myself that were making me unhealthy came from the same source as my gift. For example, my achievement orientation was causing me to burnout and exhaust myself or my passion was causing me to become obsessive. Or my conscientiousness was causing me to become rigid and hyper-perfectionistic. Or the fact I really had this desire to self-actualize was sending me into a crisis of meaning.
All of these really interesting facets of my personality that were really the reasons for my success were also the reasons for my failure because I was doing them to an extreme. I left venture capital and I started working for the American Psychological Association. On the side, I started spending my time researching the psychology of entrepreneurs and creators.
I really wanted to understand both for my own well-being but also so that I could transmute my own struggles into something that could benefit and help others, what this means to be gifted with powerful but often combustive wiring, and how that is your gift, but it’s also what you need to learn to regulate. With great power, comes great responsibility. Anybody who self selects into an entrepreneurial profession or career is going to be wired for the extremes or else they really wouldn’t self-select into that career to begin with. They’d get weeded out very quickly.
It’s not a matter of fixing yourself or curing yourself because if I was to get rid of these parts of myself that lead me to sort of self-combust, I wouldn’t have written a book. I wouldn’t be standing up on stages. I wouldn’t be doing five jobs right now. At the same time, I need to always be mindful and to regulate the way that power can get away from me.
BRYAN WISH: What would you say is the most different about your life when it was in utter chaos, very rigid, very self-attaining that led you down a path where your body showed you this isn’t the best place for you to go down? When you merged over to working at the APA and doing the speaking and facilitating, what’s different? How are you self-regulating? What feels different? What are you doing different in your life that you weren’t doing when you were going through all the pain points?
JESSICA CARSON: There’s a list we need to go through. There were a few things that catalyzed the process and then there was a lot that was done to maintain the process. I have a yoga practice and a meditation practice. I obviously love writing. These were all things that helped me really get into my body as a creator. For me, was something that was very scary because I’m wired very sensitively and my body very much reacts to my environment in very powerful ways. This is a characteristic of creators who are intuitive and creators who are very tapped in. There is this sort of systemic sensitivity.
For much of my life, I thought the idea of being sensitive was just about the worst thing imaginable. To be sensitive, how will you ever do anything in life? That shift happened as I began to realize that my sensitivity is actually an incredible blessing. Now when feelings emerge in my body or sensations arise in my body, instead of freaking out and fighting with them or pushing them down or pretending they don’t happen or numbing them over, I’ve learned to let those sensitivities inform me of how I should be engaging with myself, how I should be engaging with others, how I should be engaging with my work.
What’s interesting about entrepreneurs is one of the 10 dimensions of entrepreneurial spirits that I outline in the book is intuition. Entrepreneurs have been found, in research studies, to be significantly more intuitive than non-entrepreneurs. This is measured by psycho-physiological sensitivity. The current entrepreneurial ecosystem is designed in a way to be anything but conducive with the sensitivity of creators. We have these rowdy, noisy coworking spaces. We have these networking events with a billion people. We have these great connect incubators and accelerators. We have these high stakes venture capital. It’s really designed in a way – if it wasn’t so tragic, it would almost be funny how opposite the ecosystem is to serve the individuals who are creating within it.
What I realized is that I really had to tune back into myself and create my own inner compass of how I wanted to create, how I wanted to show up as a creator – to really first attend to the vessel through which creation takes place, which is myself. Each creator can be themselves in the same way. They are a conduit for creation. The health and the integrity of a creation will always be reflected in the health and the integrity of its creator.
There’s this very clear connection between how tapped in and tuned in an entrepreneur is and how much their creations will actually benefit and serve the collective. What we’re seeing now in this culture of blind eye to sustainability and greed and corruption and founders behaving badly, you can really trace all of these things back to the source which is the individual creator.
To be an entrepreneur is an incredible responsibility that is not to be taken lightly. I believe in a similar way that we would have just given anatomy text to a young person, call them a doctor, and give them a scalpel, nor should we thrust a startup manual in the hands of a young person and tell them to be an entrepreneur.
At the end of the day, being an entrepreneur doesn’t only require intellectual intelligence. It requires this emotional intelligence to constantly be able to tune back into what you were here to do, how you can best serve, and the impact that your creation will have on those around you. Entrepreneurs and creators must be just as readily armed with the tools to take care of themselves as there are tools to build their businesses.
BRYAN WISH: What I really resonated with is what you just said about the health of the creator. You almost said it like the heath of the creator is directly linked to the heath of the creation. If the creator is healthy in the process of creating the product, the product itself is going to be healthier in a sense to be able to benefit more people. You have to be healthy and understand how to regulate yourself before you can go give something to what you’re building. That’s really powerful.
JESSICA CARSON: When we’re able to really be in our bodies, as creators, we have this ability to constantly – in the same way we like to iterate our products or iterate our strategies, iterate our interaction between ourselves and our work so that we’re really tapped in and tuned into what we’re creating. I really can’t think of an example of a creator who has a high degree of self-awareness and is able to engage in practices of self-study and then creates harmful products. That doesn’t exist.
If it wasn’t so tragic, it would actually be funny. It’s all of these examples in the media lately of whether it’s WeWork or Way or Tesla or the Fire Festival guy or Elizabeth Holmes or any of these creators who, perhaps if they had been given the tools to self-regulate prior to starting their companies, not only would things have worked out a little bit better for them, but it would have worked out better for all of their stakeholders as well.
At the end of the day, the health or unhealth of a creator not only affects them, it affects the ecosystem around them. It affects the people who have invested in them. It affects the board members who have to deal with the fallout of the mess that they’ve made. It affects the employees and the co-founders around them. It really has social and economic implications that go far beyond the individual.
BRYAN WISH: It’s fascinating how your path of rigidity and a lot of applied process and ways to achieve and led you to the eating disorder, but how that was almost a catalyst for you for self-regulation and self-study. That has ultimately led to your book. It’s neat how you’ve kind of taken every experience and grown from it. I think a lot of people hit those bumps and it really sends them down a frenzy and they never get back on track. You used all these experiences in a very self-constructive and positive way once you worked through them.
JESSICA CARSON: None of us can teach what we haven’t experienced ourselves. We can’t take someone somewhere that we haven’t been. I also believe one of the most powerful tools of creation is the ability to transmute something that is bad or ugly or harmful or scary into something that is helpful and something that can heal.
This is my personal belief, but I believe that the struggles that we have, the challenges that we have, and the roadblocks that we face are the clearest signals and indicators of the path that we’re supposed to move towards. In other words, the fact that I have struggled with my extremes and I have struggled with all of these different aspects of self-regulation. Instead of viewing that as my burden to bear, I view that as a clear indication of the work that I should now be doing.
BRYAN WISH: Why did you write the book? What are your hopes and dreams on this path and journey you’re going down that’s a result of your experiences?
JESSICA CARSON: We all teach best what we most need to learn. If you look at any author of any kind of self help or self-development book, they’re ultimately inspired to write it because of something that they’ve experienced themselves or else they wouldn’t be able to have the empathy and the embodied awareness of why being on the other side of it is so amazing and so important. I wrote it in part as a way to sort of process my own experience because this book didn’t start as a book.
This book started as a series of blog posts in which I was trying to vent and understand my own experience. Then there were enough people around me that were saying, “I think you have something here.” To be honest, the idea of writing a book terrified the heck out of me. I was so scared. I made a mistake that I would urge other aspiring authors not to make.
The mistake was that as soon as I decided in my mind that I wanted to write a book, I posted it on social media. I said, “I’m going to write a book and it’s going to be about this and it’s going to be so great.” That was a few years ago. What happened is every time I see someone, they’re like, “How’s the book?”
Everyone around me thinks it’s taken a decade to write this book when in reality, the book actually only took a few months to write, but it took a lot longer to go through the research and really understand the message that I wanted to share and how I wanted everything to be organized and conveyed. I recommend, if anyone wants to write a book, get at least half way done before you announce you’re going to write it.
After I announced it, I was struck by this overwhelming fear that I was pregnant with an idea that I was never going to be able to give birth to. It felt like I was going to be pregnant forever. I was like, “What if it never comes? What if I can’t write it? What if it gets stuck? What if it just doesn’t work?”
For quite a while, I was freaking out about the idea that I felt like I had been gifted this incredible idea, this incredible responsibility to share this idea, but I didn’t really know exactly how I wanted to share it. What I learned is that writing a book is very much like having a child. It’s going to come on its own timeline. It’s going to wake you up in the middle of the night begging for attention. It has its own personality and moods. Some days it’s going to be easy and fun to play with and some days it’s going to be stubborn and awful.
I learned that the book has its own times of days that it likes to play. It has its own moments that it likes to eat. It has its own places that it likes to be massaged into submission. At the end of the day, what I learned, is that the book really teaches you and that the second that you think that you don’t know anymore is when the book will start writing itself. Having that controlling aspect to my personality, the first few “go’s” in writing the book, I really tried to control the process. I would read what I wrote and I was like, “This isn’t it.” The second you kind of surrender, you find that you start typing words and ideas that you didn’t even know you knew. The book will really start teaching you how it wants to be written. In a way, it’s like the book has its own little spirit.
BRYAN WISH: From everything you learned and wrote about, how did you self-regulate yourself in the writing process to be the healthiest creator to make the best product possible?
JESSICA CARSON: I really came to honor the cycles that the book had. I came to appreciate that if there are days that I sit down and nothing is coming out, there’s a reason nothing is coming out. This was my process and it might not be everyone’s process. What I actually found was that in those moments that I felt stuck or tired or I just wasn’t really channeling it properly, I would go off and do a different creative exercise. I took up water coloring and found that I really like it. Even though I’m awful at it, I found the process of using my creative energy in a way that wasn’t necessary for me to good at it, I just did it because I liked it, was actually a way for me to get back into that uninhibited flow state.
I also used meditation a lot to tune back in with the message of the book. If I found myself stuck, I would take a break. I would go into my meditation practice. Somehow I would always come out knowing exactly what I needed to do, what I needed to write, what I needed to share.
For anybody who has these issues with control around the way they use their creative energy, I encourage them to take up some kind of hobby or practice in which they can unleash their creative energy in a perfectly imperfect way. Maybe you crochet, maybe you paint, maybe you dance, maybe you sing.
Engaging in that act and doing it in a way that you’re allowing yourself to do it imperfectly, I found really unblocked the blocked thing. I also did things like improv. I took a few months of improv classes, comedy improv classes, and really started testing how uninhibited I was able to make myself.
BRYAN WISH: If someone reads the book, what are some of the things you want them to walk away with?
JESSICA CARSON: For any creator who has every felt like they are too much, too little, too confusing, too extreme, too complicated – anyone who’s ever been accused by a friend, partner, coworker, “You’re too complicated,” this is who that book is for.
Basically, what readers will take away from it is a beautiful, beautiful amount and capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion. What it does is it takes you through essentially 10 archetypes that exist within every entrepreneurial spirit. It showcases the light and the dark aspects of that archetype and really underscores why the light and the dark are one in the same. You would not be doing your work if it weren’t for your complications and your nuances and the polarizing parts of yourself.
Every part of yourself that you deem ugly, bad, wrong, inconvenient is actually the source of your creative magic. It’s what allows you to undergo this process of alchemy which is entrepreneurial work.
By the end of this book, readers will be able to engage in practices of self-study that includes:
1) Self-understanding; understanding the way that you’re wired
2) Self-acceptance; the capacity to appreciate that your dark and your light are one in the same
3) Sustainable self-care; because entrepreneurs often engage in self-care practices without first having the ability to understand themselves or accept themselves.
As a result, self-care doesn’t get them very care. Self-care really needs to come after one has the ability to understand and appreciate themselves lest the self-care become yet another source of burnout. Like me and the eating disorder or the phases I went through doing yoga too much, it was self-care that I was eating heathier and exercising, but because I didn’t have the capacity for self-understanding and self-acceptance, the self-care was not only unhelpful but harmful.
By the end of the book, readers will have a user’s guide to their beautiful, spectacular complex and colorful wiring and will be able to create with mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.