The Mother of Stories- A tête-à-tête with Janaki Sabesh

We are all story books; mere living documentations of memories and experiences spiral bound by the pages of Time. Welcome to this chapter of LonePack Conversations. My name is Suhas, and today we have with us Mrs. Janaki Sabesh, a well-known actor, a mesmerizing theatre artist, and a charming storyteller.



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Suhas: Welcome ma’am, how are you doing?

Janaki: I’m doing very well Suhas, thank you so much for making me a part of your LonePack Conversations.

Suhas: Just to start off ma’am, I want to understand how you’re doing, particularly in these times.  So first of all, we’re super stoked to have you on with us here today. How have you been doing, how have you kept yourself busy in the times of this pandemic?

Janaki: So Suhas, I must confess it to, I think I’ve been more busy than ever before, and I think I should thank all the forces of the universe that have come together to make this possible. And why do I say that? I will explain because way back in —I mean, now it feels many, many months back— but it was just in March that I heard that children’s schools were going to shut down. You know, we were still not aware of the seriousness of this pandemic. And, you know, it has just started trickling in that schools are going to close early. And I said, all right, one day I said, why not I do something online? Because I had always shied away from going online because; and as an actor, as someone who seeks instant gratification, it’s very nice to be in the energy of an audience.

Janaki: You know, see the energy while you’re doing a story and feel the energy of the audience as they give you their love, their support, and their attention. So I teamed up with a small outfit called Little Trails, and I just asked them, should I go live? And they said this is a fantastic idea! And we put up a poster together at 10:30 in the morning and at 5:00 pm we will live on Instagram; and that was my starting point. And the way I um, what can I say, I was all overwhelmed with the kind of response that I got from people, not just children, but adults, mothers, fathers, who were suddenly, you know, sending me messages saying “ Please, please, please, can you continue doing this?” Because you know, we really didn’t know how to engage. And there were mothers who were still attending office. They said, “Are you going to continue doing this? Because then I can come half an hour early from the office”.

Janaki: I was like, Oh my God, I didn’t realize that here, I was, you know, trying to take my baby steps as it were to do something online. And since that day, it’s been really wonderful. It’s been a roller coaster ride because I have engaged not only with children but with a series of live performances on Instagram and where we would also follow it up with an activity from Little Trails, where Avanti is an artist. So she was able to connect the story. So if I did a story about a spider, she would do an activity about drawing a very funny spider. So we had all these children and we were engaging with children every day. So from there, we started doing workshops for children, which was, you know, those kinds of numbers, where about 700-800 people who are online from all over the world.

Suhas: Actually, that sounds very massive. It’s a massive scale.

Janaki: Yes, it is; and you know what we did Suhas, we also recorded the Instagram Live on our IGTV, that is on Little Trails’ IGTV. So all those who had missed watching it live went on the IGTV platform; and we were getting multiple views on IGTV as well. So it was, you know, I just, I don’t know, I don’t want to sound very philosophical here, but I’d like to share with all those who are listening that my icky guy, you know, my sense of my purpose of being every day is to put a smile out there; it’s to spread smiles. And I thought I was blessed because I was able to do that with my storytelling. And when children’s workshops happen, we create communities.

Janaki: We created a safe space where we even had chat shows with experts, everything on Instagram; and then slowly, I said, why do I need to do this only for children? I think I should include adults. Okay. So I started doing short stories for adults too. I also started a series that I normally curate face- to- face. I shifted it online, which is called Melody and Memory where you sing that particular song that’s always there, you know, playing in your mind, and then you tell me a short story about it.

Suhas: Yes. Essentially like connecting verses of music with a story!

Janaki: Absolutely. So if you have a story which is from an old-timer or a Hindi movie, but you will have a story connected, maybe that was the first time you heard your sister sing it, or an uncle singing it, you know, something like that. And you know, something, maybe he didn’t sing it well. So it could be a very funny memory. It could be a memory which has been inside you for a very long time. And I’ve had people coming to the show saying, Oh, I just want to listen in, but somebody else’s memory triggers off a memory in their youth for people to share. Then I started sharing stories for adults where I did mythology, I did a comedy, and another couple of weeks I’ll be doing something called taboo stories. So I think and then of course I kept learning by attending writing workshops, attending a workshop where I would just listen and gather a whole lot of knowledge about maybe certain aspects of storytelling, which I knew just little about. And I wanted to, you know, increase my knowledge then of course, courses, like on Udemy, on LinkedIn and also on Harappa Learning. So I’ve been doing a lot, you know what I think the moment your mind is active and is continuously busy, I think you just seem so happy; not to of course I have to mention that I’ve been also exercising. The gym has moved online. I don’t have any domestic help at home.

Suhas: Okay. So you’re busy doing work at home.

Janaki: Yes. But I have a very supportive family. So we all have, you know specific chores that we are very good.

Suhas: Okay so it’s very well divided and it’s not like a burden on one person.

Janaki: But at the same time, there’s no stress of saying “HEY you didn’t do this today”. It’s like today I have a podcast recording and if I had to do something else,  somebody else would pitch in. I mean, we have a family of four with my mother-in-law at 91 who provides me with all the entertainment, because she comes up with her wise-cracks and, you know, talking about corona and things like that. I think I’m keeping myself busy.

Suhas: And the best part is the fact that you know even though you are busy, you don’t sound stressed out, or that you feel you HAVE to do it. Then it sounds like you would actually enjoy doing all the things that you are very happy doing. So that’s really great.

Janaki: Absolutely. So I was doing this Sunday morning conversations on Instagram, which was a live show with people, you know, from all walks of life like musicians, you know, we had, Ashish Vidyarthi and everybody; but it stopped at last Sunday because I said, “I need to take a break”. I didn’t want it to become stressful like “Oh who am I going to interview next Sunday?” If that becomes a point of stress, then I think I will not enjoy it. So I think that is very important. But the first thing is to recognize that.

Suhas: Definitely. I think the fact that you also are aware of that and that you acknowledge that point at which it becomes too much for you, and you decided to give it a halt over there. I think that’s, that’s a wonderful point to note. So I’m going to start off with essentially the first question of the episode. So you have juggled multiple roles through your life across so many fields, be it as a marketer, a mother, an actor, an artist, a thespian or as a storyteller. So how have each of these roles influenced your perspective of mental health over these years?

Janaki: Okay. So now the different professions that you have, the different roles, each one of them be it marketing, mother, actor, artist, theatre, storyteller; they all have different audiences. So for example, when I was marketing, I was marketing a product or service. So what happens is that I am the face of the organization, and when I go and travel and I’m trying to convince my client why he should go in for a product or why he should go in for us service. The conviction with which I tell them you know, my story, my company’s story, the vision of my organization is that is what will make or break the deal, right; or make, or break the trust as you know. So for me, that audience was very different and see, there’s a lot of responsibility and there’s a lot of how do I say it, you needed to be on call 24/7! It didn’t matter; because of being in the cinema industry, I was in the media and entertainment industry, selling a product like digital cinema. And, you know, before that I was doing that, I was handling a set of studios. So I was selling the service now in the cinema industry. You don’t have, especially in India, something like non-working hours; it’s like when you have to, you need to be there.

Suhas: Got it. Got it. So when you have to chip in to do your work, regardless of when it is, you have to be up to it.

Janaki: Absolutely. So you know it was stressful because see, a film releases on Friday, there would be a lot of issues, tension, but you have to be available. And it did take a, you know, it was stressful at times, but you know, the whole thing was to not take it too personally and take it to your heart, but I can easily say now, now that I no longer in the organization and no longer in a corporate avatar. But when I was going through, I won’t lie to you Suhas, it was stressful. You know sometimes you just feel like, why are you even here? But then what really charges you up is when you complete and when you, when you are convinced at what, the decision that you’ve taken and the fact that you’ve not lied to your customer, you’ve told them what was possible.

Janaki: And the trust that you give back to them saying that I will take care of your issue. So with that game, a lot of power, you know? You become so amazed at the quality of convincing somebody because you’re truthful. And you also trust your organization, your colleagues; if there was an issue to have solved the issue. So that is one audience, but then when you go to say, a theatre production, that influence that I got from corporate is that to be very convinced about what you’re seeing. So that is what came out of my corporate avatar. But in theater, in acting I always wanted you know, how do I say, I was always scared; I never wanted the director to retake a scene because I had made a mistake.

Suhas: You wanted to do your role in whatever the part with the best of its perfection in the first take itself!

Janaki: Yeah. So, I understand that itself is a little bit of stress on yourself. Sometimes inadvertently it will go wrong for whatever reason; we can’t by-heart our lines. We know our lines and we will say it in our own way, but sometimes some directors are very fixed on what they want.  Because some directors say, “I’m giving you the gist of the scene. Now you say it”. Okay, of course you can’t use your own dialogues. There are dialogues written.

And so I had these, a team of assistant directors, always who used to help me out, they’ll all come and say “Ma’am ma’am, ipdi pannunga ma’am; if you do it this way, and I’m sure you can do it” you know? So sometimes the Tamizh will be a little hard, you know, it’s difficult, but somehow I managed. So from acting, I understood that, you know, you can’t stress yourself if, if there is a mistake. So be it, there’s always another take. It’s okay. It’s not the end of the world,

Suhas: But you know, on the flip side of that particular freedom and luxury isn’t particularly available in theatre because it’s a one-time run; you have to get it right.

Janaki: Exactly. So theater, again, this whole thing about, you know, becoming nervous. My mouth went dry and I was continuously having water. And it’s like, you know, you’re constantly thinking of the lines. At night you are not able to sleep because those lines keep coming back to you. But I think it comes with practice. The more you do so, you will find your own rhythm in your own dialogues, in the way you say those lines. Like for me, it is very visual. I really do plot points. You know the main important points; say I have a monologue and I have two pages of a monologue or three pages, I will know each paragraph that begins. I said, “Okay! I did A, then I went to B. Then I went to the next”, it is a sequence, right?  So that way I always remember, you know, the scripts, your audience, doesn’t for you to bounce back, even if you’ve made a mistake, it’s up to you. And that that comes with experience.

Suhas: Of course, I definitely, I understand that. So just to form a gist of what we’ve spoken so far. You know, you mentioned about how, you know, even though you’ve had the elements of difficulty in your corporate tenure and in your acting I think could I say that you the fact that you have had some amount of job satisfaction and the fact that you delivered, really helped you mitigate that levels of stress that you had for the period right?

Janaki: See, and I was always there for my team also; my team of 40-45, you know colleagues. I was always there and it’s, it’s very happy. I’m so happy when I get messages even to this day saying, “Yeah, you were the best”. And they don’t have to because I’m no longer in the system. Some of them are also no longer in the system, but it is very, very um, you know, it gives you a lot of happiness and, you know, there’s a smile on my face and I read that; because you didn’t do it for that. Somebody will write to you 20 years later that you were the best or you help. I kept them together. I motivated them, you know, there was always, there was nothing that we can solve together. So that was something and the same applies, you know, when you go into different fields and as a storyteller, remember that you know, your audience becomes a participative audience.

Suhas: Okay. So you sort of have, like a feedback loop in that, the way you proceed also depends on how the audience interacts with you.

Janaki: Yeah. If they don’t like my story, which I will know in the first seven minutes, I’ll have to do something very dramatic.

Suhas: To catch their attention, yes.

Janaki: So that you innovate on the go. So, so each one has its beautiful moments Suhas.

Suhas: Okay. I definitely understand that. So now ma’am, just to sort of narrow down for the rest of the podcast, generations differ by several parameters across so many different filters, like as an artist you’re working closely and interacted with younger artists as well right? Is there a difference in how youngsters view mental health now? Compared to a back in the days a few decades ago, when you were a teenager and you started off.

Janaki: Totally; because when I was growing up, I don’t think mental health was even discussed at home unless there was somebody, you know, distant cousin or somebody who was going through an issue. And it was always looked at as an issue. Today’s generation, my God! Everybody speaks about it. I think to be, you know I think to borrow from what my daughter says, she says, “Ma you have a very different take on all this because you’re constantly surrounded by youngsters”. I work with a very young team in terms of storytelling, in terms of theater, you know, with Crea Shakti, with whom I do a lot of theater, I’m surrounded by youngsters who don’t have an issue talking about, “I had a bad day” and then it’s not a full stop. I had a bad day dot, dot dot. So others will pitch in.

Janaki: “So what happened? Explain to me”; and it’s not immediately “Let’s go to the doctor”. NO its like “We will try; we will help you with our circle”. And then that’s where I think our safe space becomes paramount. I think the youngsters of today have found a  safe space. It could be their own friend circle, or maybe a bigger circle or people like you, you know, LonePack, where people are able to connect, and say that, “Hey, I’m going through this. Do you think you can help me? Or can you at least put me on to somebody?” Therapy and things like that, I mean, everybody discusses, everything threadbare now, which for somebody who’s just reading it, scrolling on Instagram or Facebook or any other forms of social media might say, “Oh my God, this one is feeling that I’ve been feeling the same, but I’ve, you know, restricted myself, I think I need to reach out”.

Suhas: Okay. So sometimes, you know, when you read about people’s stories on social media and you sort of relate to what they are feeling and you reflect upon those with yourself as well.

Janaki: Absolutely.

Suhas: Okay. Okay. I think there’s sort of a usual saying that hey there’s a generation gap here and there’s a stark difference here, maybe, you know, you’re one of the examples where again, because of your interactions and the way you’ve been engaging yourself, sort of tells us that your environment has played a major role in you know, sort of mending that gap, that supposed to be there for the generation.

Janaki: I’ll tell you one more thing. I have a 91 year old mother-in-law staying with us and she has never, you know, I think it’s also the family, the way you’ve been brought up in not just in my parent’s home, but with my mother-in-law’s as well. They don’t they don’t shy away from talking about these things; these are not taboo words. These are not taboo topics

Suhas: Understood, on the outset. Do you feel like that mental health is still a taboo now? Even though you’ve spoken a lot about it?

Janaki: No. No, I don’t think so. No, no. I’ll tell you what I think. I, I think the way it has been portrayed and the way people are sharing, you know, everybody has their own take on social media and all, but it’s how much you consume and for what purpose.

Suhas: That totally makes sense. So I think, you know, now that you’ve spoken a little bit about your own personal ideations about this a little bit on the professional side, right? Moving on, cinema, theater, and art have played a big role in influencing the perceptions and thoughts society has about various issues and various topics in it. So do you believe that these communities are doing justice to portray mental health issues on the screen or on stage? If yes, how is it? And if not, how do you think that needs to change?

Janaki: So I, I bring out two movies which have impacted me in the sense, and I think in fact, impacted society, one is of course is Taare Zameen Par which brought out dyslexia, and which was, I think the starting point for many parents. I have a friend who, you know, a friend’s friend who said that, “My God, now I can, you know, say to the open, it’s no longer a taboo. It’s no longer something that’s to shy away”. Sometimes you need to share. And for all, you know, it might just take you at, it was not just dyslexia. It was all parenting issues. It’s all about this, you know, being in the rat race, making sure that your child is forever coming first. This class and that class, you’re not, there are so many times I’ve told parents of very young ones. “Just let them be; allow them to stare into the walls because they need to dream. That’s when you know everything in, all the butterflies in their heads will set it down”n and then they’ll be energized and re-energized just because they have one hour or two hours of time. We don’t put them in class, not even storytelling, just make them, they should come and tell you that we need to go somewhere. So that was one. And secondly, a film which I really, really am very fond of is Dear Zindagi, which normalized therapy. Shah Rukh Khan says a very beautiful dialogue there, he says that “As a child we’ve never been allowed to express our emotions. If we are angry, we are said, no, no, no, you can’t be angry. No, no, no. Wipe your tears. And when, you want to express love? What then?”

Janaki: How can you express? You know what I mean? It was all of course in the context of Alia, but the protagonist. But I have seen that even. It’s still my go to a film whenever I am seeing, like, you know, I need to learn more about why people say certain things and you know it’s so judgmental. We can be so ruthless sometimes, you know, somebody said, we don’t realize what that person is saying, and we view it out of context. You know? So for me, I think I’m, I’m sure that I’m many others, like in Tamizh Aarohanam talks about Bipolar Disorder. So these are things that I hadn’t even heard of; like Bipolar Disorder, so it makes you want to research.

Suhas: Okay so you’re telling that there have been a few movies which have been very impactful in what they aim to do.

Janaki: But at the same time, there are clichés. Now at the moment, there is somebody who, who doesn’t speak the same way as you do or language, or he’s a little different. You can’t just say that he’s been put into a mental asylum. Yeah. This is unfortunately too huge, you know, poles apart

Suhas: Even though, even though it’s sort of exaggerated for the dramatics, it sort of puts out a wrong message at times.

Janaki: Yeah, exactly. I mean, you do it because you want to show, and it does like, you know,  in all advertisements where they have to depict this out. So it is stereotyping a lot of imagery and we need to get out of it. People need to do a lot of research. I would urge people who are into these kinds of topics to speak to people. And that’s when I know that even in theater, Kirukku Nagaram for which they did a lot of research with LonePack and I remember watching it and then it blew me away. And I was like, “My God”, is this how, as a society, we react to people with mental illness?

Suhas: I think I remember, I know the whole reaction to that play which was really good.

Janaki: Just to complete, that needs to be done to bring about something as strong as theatre or cinema, because we consume it! We are such great consumers of this art form that it could really be the way forward to bringing about a lot of key issues to light.

Suhas: Definitely because I totally agree with you; I’ve watched movies across so many languages and, you know, with the advent of various OTT platforms this has also been bridged. I indulge in a bit of theater myself, and I have a lot of friends in the theater circle. But I think I totally agree with you on what you said, about the stereotypes Haven’t noticed that day I think that [inaudible] doing good and Vicky says, and you know the mainstream audiences so with respect to the movies how do you think the scales are tipping impact on people with respect to mental health?

Janaki: But it started already. So now it shouldn’t be difficult for us because there’ve been already films made in this genre and it just showed us, we need to be very, the topic has to be very sensitively handled that’s all, sensitivity with a lot of research. It’s not just enough to make people cry buckets, you know, at the end of it, if people understand and say, Oh, and they want to say, Oh, okay, this is a different point of view. And I’ve been like, if I disliked a neighbour, I am seeing it only from my point of view, right? What if we suddenly change from her point of view, I might be missing something; and we never do that. Right? When we get into a fight, it’s always me against that person.

Suhas: Okay. So if I may, you know simplify, I think you’re talking about empathy and about how one should be mindful of how you are to people, why you think people might be reacting in a certain way. So empathy is very important as a characteristic for people to nurture.

Janaki: Absolutely.

Suhas: Okay. That sounds really great to hear that from you. So I think I’ll move on to one of our final questions. So, very recently a lot of talk has been happening with respect to mental health, especially in the world of cinema. So regardless of the language, cinema continues to be very fast-paced, dynamic, and being the public eye is also so difficult and not very easy. The paparazzi are always around; so could you shed some light on the relationships and emotions shared across artists that grow in the industry? How do they interact with each other? Are they always very stressed? It’s something that’s never seen to be public, the lives of people in these industries, how they are as people on the outside.

Janaki: If one sees my body of work, I’ve done about 30 films, I think since 1994, so 27 years 30 films, that’s all, I’ve been very choosy because that’s what I was, I was handling a corporate life also, you know? And so I think I’ve been very lucky and having said that I’ve been very, very shy from the media as such. People write about me, if there is a theater or something, or some collaboration or something like that. But I will tell you something that my mentor told me a long time back when I had, I think my first film had released or second film I think, Jeans. And he said “Janaki remember that even after all your films, you should still be able to sit in an auto and go home”.

Janaki: So subconsciously, I think that stayed with me and I’ve done exactly that because I can still take an auto, we’ll have a very nice conversation with the automan. I’ve seen it with some there, and then we have this conversation and he finally said, “Oh my God, Ghilli, Vijay-mother” and all that. So I enjoyed that because it gives you a kick. But at the same time, I, I do understand that this whole thing about [the paparazzi], you know, I remember one time when I was in Pondicherry a lot of people who said, “Hey, inga parunga Vijay amma” I was petrified and went and ran into a shop and hid myself because I didn’t know how to react because I don’t know. I can’t even explain that. But when I was in Sri Lanka many, many years ago, when my first film had released and a whole lot of school children came and recognized me, I was okay with it, maybe because it was the first thing.

Janaki: So even as we evolve and the ways we react to situations also change. But for my other colleagues and all I hardly meet them. It’s always on the set and on the set, I’m very happy with my book. So it’s only during the short end that we all during lunchtime are direct. And then we go back to you know, other rooms or wherever via setting, but I I make it a point to speak and, you know, I’m always in search of my learning, you know, now I, again, I don’t want to stress myself saying, “Oh I didn’t learn anything today.”  Not like that. It’s just nice to hear somebody else’s journey and you don’t orchestrate these conversations. It happens on the go!

Suhas: It’s not like you sit and talk about it, it’s just something that happens when you talk in the evening with friends, or just when you’re talking with anyone, you learn about new things and then you think about it and then you probably extract some type of learning.

Janaki: It’ll come; it’ll pop up one day when you’re doing something else.

Suhas: Okay. Okay. That sounds really interesting and I’m glad, you know you’ve also evolved so much with respect to how people react in such situations. And it’s great to see that you’re comfortable taking the roads and sometimes, you know, who knows the fact that somebody spoke to you might even make their day they’d be happy and the same auto-wala would probably go and be like “Hey I spoke to Vijay amma” your buddies that would probably give them a really good sense of, you know, content for that particular day.

Janaki: Let me tell you a joke that happened. My daughter came in and the auto guy dropped her off. And he asked her “So neenga indha building la irkeengala?” [ So do you stay in this building?] ; And she said, “Yeah”. And she was giving him the change, and he saidUngalakku theriyuma? Indha building la dhaan Vijay oda amma, Ghilli”, [Do you know? In this building Vijay’s mother from Ghilli stays]. She came and said, “Ma you’re very famous.” I didn’t realize that it was very cute and you just felt nice about it like that, you know? So these things happen and you just take it in straight.

Suhas: I definitely, I think I totally understand how that feels. So this is sort of to slide into the final question wrap this up. We’ve spoken up so many things, both personal and professional, and I think one of the most pressing questions and topics in this field of mental health, professional help. So along with professional help, we require the support of friends and family when you’re going through a difficult time. So what you can, each of us individually should keep in mind when we’re interacting with somebody else?

Janaki: Okay. So I think the first thing which is something that I really, really want to even speak about and emphasize, even for myself, is to be kind to people. We have no clue what they are going through. We all wear masks and we are so amazing at wearing these masks; unless and until you know that person inside-out, you’ll see through. Even like when I’m speaking to my daughter and suppose she’s not here, she’s not in town. She hears. And she says, “Ma you, okay?” So it’s, it’s as simple as that, you know? And because she asked me if I’m okay, and because she’s my daughter, and it’s a very safe conversation that you can have with your daughter, because she’s not going to judge, you, up saying something that disturbed you, something that you will not happy, but you can’t always rely only on family members, because they are also going through their own journeys.

Janaki: So you need that one person, or you need one person, who’s your friend, or you need that safety network of friends or people, who are actually qualified to ask you some questions. It’s not like one of these “Joram iruka? Evlo irundhudhu?” [Do you have fever? How much is it?] It’s not that it’s like, do you want to talk sometimes just a simple line, some simple question, like this can completely change somebody’s life. Do you want to talk? And that person breaks down or says, yes, I want to talk. You’re not to pick up that call, to pick up the phone and talk to somebody, it takes a lot of what do I say? Lots of ups, something from inside that pushes you, which forces you to pick up because otherwise it’s easy. We can always say, no, no, I don’t want to call it today.

Janaki: You’re only delaying that call, but the more you delay that call, the more horrible you will be feeling. So I think A, be kind and don’t judge, they’re going through something and please, we can never say, “Oh, I understand what you’re going through”. You will never be able to understand that is what they’re going through. So I always, I have seen so many TED talks, you know, ‘The 10 ways of having a conversation’, all these are mindfulness, all these are going, because I tried to, I want to become a better version of myself. I keep striving because I don’t want to hurt people with statements. I’m very, very mindful of what I speak now, because earlier we’ve all made mistakes. We’re all human. Yes. And I think everyone has a story. Everyone has a backstory, as they say, you know, you like Steve Jobs says you can only connect the dots, you know, backwards, right? Yeah. So when you, when you, when you connect those dots, only you realize, Oh my God, if I had not said that that day, maybe I would have never come to this phone today, but then you’re not God, it’s okay.

Suhas: Sometimes when we make mistakes. It’s okay to acknowledge that you made it and then try to react on how to go about it before even realizing that you made one and react about it.

Janaki: Absolutely. And I think if you’re being mindful, it’s very easy for me to say it is, it is not easy. It comes with a lot of experience, practice, and maturity. You know, there is something in music and Hindi, they say the ‘tehra’, or ‘nidhanam.’ That is even when you’re telling a story, you can’t go *wadadadadada*. “Once Upon a time” [slowly], you need everyone to soak in your story. So if you want people to even listen to you, you need to first understand that it’s okay to share, but you need to create that safe space, that safe network that, that one person or two people—it could be in the family, it could be your best friend. It could be maybe an ex-colleague who’s, you know, turned out to be your best friend now. So these are things—in these strange times, the pandemic has taught me so much saying that, you can push your limits and, go there, get out of your comfort zone. But the day you are not feeling comfortable, just keep quiet.

Suhas: I think, you know, that’s very important to know that. I think this answer was, can I say that this answer really sums up how you are and your philosophy about things in life itself?

Janaki: Yes, because there are some days I do nothing and it is okay. I used to stress about not having done anything, but I don’t longer stress. It’s okay! It’s okay to feel bad for 24 hours. It’s okay to not feel good some days. But you have to snap out of it. And if you’re unable to snap out of it, go and go ask for some help. It’s okay to not be okay, and then ask somebody for help.

Suhas: I think that really sums up you know, the whole idea about mental health and the fact that conversations are important. I think I’ll be happy with the way this whole conversation in the last half hour has turned out to be really good. You know just to sort of loop in something you said at the beginning, you felt very shy and weren’t very sure on how to interact on the online space, but I’ve been following you for very long and let me tell you ma’am, you’re very enthusiastic to watch and it instills the energy back in us. I think that’s a wonderful thing to be doing.

Suhas: Just before I close off, I’d like to bring something that you’ve spoken about right. You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of a safe space, a non-judgmental safe space where people can talk; that can be your friends or family or anybody else who you know you’re comfortable sharing your feelings with. We at LonePack have also understood the importance of this, and keeping this in mind, we’ve designed an online virtual space where people can do the same thing. It’s called LonePack Buddy, and the whole essence of LonePack Buddy is to provide a non-judgmental safe space, which is also anonymous, where people can talk to other volunteers from our end. People who volunteer with us are also trained with us in a course where they know how to talk to people actively and invest themselves emotionally and ensure that they can help people on a temporary basis. Of course, this is not a replacement for therapy. Just like you said, it’s good to have someone to have someone to talk to and you know, some days with the conversation you learn a lot about yourself when you talk to somebody, especially when someone is there to listen to you. So I think that’s the whole essence of LonePack Buddy. We just wanted to let you know so that you or somebody else who probably would want to talk can use this facility.

Janaki: I think it’s a wonderful initiative because I think like in the corporate world, when you say buddy, it’s like when somebody joins the company and you know, that person needs somebody to help get started. He needs help to understand the company better, the processes better. So I think a buddy like this, a LonePack buddy will be so good for people to understand because I, they will be non-judgmental, you know, and that is what I think we need in these times, especially in these times. Thank you for even launching that, and I think that’s a wonderful initiative and I know LonePack is doing some amazing work and I know you’re doing it very quietly. And I know that I think we need to inform a whole lot of people, especially in these times when people just need the need to just pick up the call and talk. It’ll be, I don’t know, we can’t put ourselves in their shoes.

Suhas: Definitely, I agree. This has been a very heartening conversation to have with you. Thank you so much for firstly agreeing to do this by taking time off your day and engaging with us. We hope that we can share a lot from you and collaborate further and I wish you an amazing day ahead and thank you so much for this.

Janaki: Thank you so much Suhas, and thank you LonePack, continue to do whatever you’re doing. And I will always be there and whatever way I can contribute for LonePack.

Suhas: Alright, thank you so much. I’d also leave a message to all the listeners that we’ve had listening to this wonderful conversation. Thank you and have a good day.

Janaki: Thank you!

LonePack Conversations – Ryan Bonnici & Bring Change to Mind

Workplace wellness is a phrase we’ve been hearing lately. While it’s common to see a lot of millennials falling prey to anxiety, trauma, tiredness, and exhaustion, the question is how well corporates and organizational leaders are heeding to this issue.


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Aishwarya: Welcome to Lonepack conversations. I’m Aishwarya, your host, and with me, I have Ryan Bonnici, a renowned leader in today’s marketing world. Hi Ryan, it’s great to have you in our session today. 

Ryan: Hey! It is nice to be here, thank you for having me!

Aishwarya: So, Ryan, you’re the Chief Marketing Officer at G2, one of the world’s leading review and app-listing platforms. You also serve on the Board of Directors for the mental-health non-profit, ‘Bring Change to Mind.’ How’s it to manage both nonprofit and revenue-based leadership roles at the same time?

Ryan: You know, it’s an interesting challenge, but it makes it really fun because I feel like a lot of the work I do at G2—which obviously is very revenue-focused is luckily in an area I really love. I’m super passionate about technology and software, and I love that role, and it pays me which is great. And then on the flip side, the work I do with ‘Bring Change to Mind’— well it doesn’t pay me in the same sense, but it’s a rounded area that is really important to me, and so yes, nice to kind of give back in a way that’s not revenue actually. So yeah, it’s quite fun but it definitely sometimes is a challenge of time for me to prioritize between the two.

Aishwarya: Oh yeah. I think the ‘giving-back-to-the-community’ part is extremely heart-warming and I can understand because I come from the same marketing background and I also ended up working in a non-profit as well. So I think, I sort of find a personal connection with you and I absolutely agree with the point that you mentioned right now. 

So, you are a CMO under 30! Congratulations on this, and I’m sure this is not an easy journey. How’s it to handle the pressures of your role, and have those pressures ever taken a toll on your mental health?

Ryan: Thanks, I appreciate it. Yeah, it’s definitely unusual—when I was really little, at the age of 10, for some reason knew I wanted to be a CMO, and I really wanted to be a CMO at the age of 30, so clearly I’ve been a bit of an unusual kid but it was very cool to finally reach that goal. I think I got there a couple months after my 29th birthday. I think I was not even necessarily trying, I think I kind of forgot about the ‘30 age’ component. Because I didn’t really care about getting there by 30 once I got older, but when it actually happened, it kind of reminded me! Anyway, thank you for that! In terms of how to handle the pressures of the role, the thing that helps me the most is a few, but I have a really amazing team at G2 that I built so when I joined the business, I had maybe five people on the team, and now kind of a year-and-a-half, and our marketing team is around 60-70 folks. It’s been a really crazy year so that was a lot of fun but it was also pretty stressful, and I definitely in the last two years have needed to do a lot of things that helped manage the pressure. For example, I get a sports massage once a week which is not fun but painful; If I get really scared I get acupuncture every week; I go to the kyro, and doing a lot of self-care activities, and seeing a therapist regularly—weekly or twice a week to help me work on my mind—keep working on my body and keep both of them as healthy as possible.

Aishwarya: Totally! To start off, I think you wanted to be a CMO right at the age of 10. I’ve read this short story where you were fancied by the emails that your father used to get and you really wanted to be a CMO right then. 

Ryan: Yes! My dad’s a business owner and I used to see him always on his phone getting emails, and I used to tell myself, “Oh my gosh that’s so cool. I can’t wait to have a phone and get mails and tell me I’m important and people need me.”

Aishwarya: I think that’s the best part as a child—seeing your father and getting inspired. Nice to know, Ryan. I love the way you brought the point about seeing therapists as a form of self-care and as a form of maintaining the body-and-mind balance. I really liked that point because most of the people today think going to a therapist is a sort of extra work and still many people think of it as a taboo. So I think this coming from you, from your experience, is a very good point that you stated. So, what are some ways you shattered the stigma around mental health within your organisation?

Ryan: I think shattering stigma is what ‘Bring Change to Mind’ is all about. When we did the research, we saw that there’s a lot of great services out there for people to become aware of their mental health and their mental health challenges and proactively seeing therapists.

We see great results. My wife actually is a clinical psychologist. We met in Psychology class, back in university, and what we understood in the world is that the problem wasn’t helping folks once they raise their hands because most people don’t ask for help. 80% of people who have a mental health condition don’t actually seek help and those who do seek help on an average do 10 years after when they are diagnosed with the symptoms and problems. 10 years is the average time that takes for someone to get help, and we researched and realised that the reason why people weren’t getting help was because there was this stigma around mental health. 

I don’t necessarily sit every day and think about how I’m going to shatter the stigma around mental health—but I guess I try to be really vulnerable and authentic and talk to people about my own challenges. And, I think by me doing that, I’ve noticed other people have come to me and shared with me their challenges, and have said to me that they are talking about that has helped get therapy. I think the best way to drive change in that space is ultimately is to just be open and tell people the truth about what you’re going through, good and bad. I think that helps them to start to realise that it is a safe space.

Aishwarya: So, coincidentally LonePack’s motive is also to shatter the stigma around mental health. And, that was a very valid statement that you said—people have to be vulnerable about the emotions that they go through. And I think impact needn’t always be a greater thing, it can be a small act of kindness that can actually go a long way. So, as you said get the impact done with a self-motive and get that out to people so more people get influenced by you and try to do the same thing, and I think impact spreads in that way. 

Ryan: Absolutely! 

Aishwarya: In a recent article, you spoke about how being bullied had a part in your success today. Could you elaborate more on that?

Ryan: Absolutely. Growing up as I mentioned earlier, I was odd and a bit different and shy. I was also an only-child, and I wasn’t guided on knowing how to make friends. I was still a pretty nice kid, but I don’t know how I was really an easy target for bullies. That was tough and that shook me in a certain way, some of them which were good—but I’ve been able to work on the trauma from that, and at the same time it’s hard for me to say that I wouldn’t want to have that not happen to me, because I really like the person I am today, and I don’t know what kind of person I would be, had I not have that happen to me. I had to work on myself. I do not regret any of that stuff, but I definitely regret not getting therapy earlier. 

Aishwarya: Yeah, I think recounting and getting back to childhood, and relating it to the present-day views is very important—and, it is good that all of us need to start doing that. 

You’re featured as one of the Most Authentic CMOs by Drift, another giant in the SaaS industry. How do you think ‘authenticity’ can help C-suite leaders contribute to the mental health of their team members, and on the whole, the entire workforce?

Ryan: Authenticity can help C-suite leaders contribute to the mental health of their team members, because I think it’s so different from standard and the traditional leadership kind-of model and the leadership role that most managers take. I think it’s important to kind of think about management and leadership as two very-different things, and even if you are a manager you might not be able to lead in, so yeah and I think by the old-school way of management really was keeping control—not sharing everything with the team, keeping people in the dark, only telling them the minimum they need to know. If I think of a recent example for me was I had to let two people go on my team this week because they had really bad attitudes and you know we had given a lot of feedback on developing on these things, and they just didn’t, and I’m just simplifying obviously because I don’t want to get into the details.  

Aishwarya: I understand.   

Ryan: I was really proud when we had to tell this to the team—the bigger team—and when they asked questions, we were able to be really authentic with them about what we expect from them and why they shouldn’t be afraid about their own jobs, and I got 70 pieces of feedback and small notes saying that by being so authentic about the situation and telling around place that it does suck, it isn’t a fun experience for the folks to let go but also for us as a team we will grow stronger from it, etc. I think by opening up and by being authentic, it means that you get that back from your employees, and so now they are being more authentic with you which means as a leader you can do your job because you know where the problems or opportunities or difficulties faster because people are coming to you more quickly. So, that’s how it has impacted me.

Aishwarya: I think from your words I can sense that a ‘great’ team actually needs more transparency because it’s not just called a great team because they do great work or they do something really big. I think it’s more about how they treat the fellow people and what kind of attitude they have with the fellow people. And yeah, to identify the limitations, and to identify the strengths and addressing the issues good or bad—I think that forms the strength of the team and that actually grows to an organisation level as well the top management or the C-suite. 

You wrote in your recent article for Harvard Business Review on how as a boss you encourage your employees to consider outside job offers. That’s interesting. Does it have anything to do with the mental health concept? Or, was it something else that drove you to pick this thought. 

Ryan: So, I think where this came from for me in this concept wasn’t tied in with mental health, really, I was kind of examining my own career and I am often asked by my PAs and my employees the questions on career and growing and it reflects on the past decade of marketing, and how I have gotten to where I have got. And I think to be part of it for me was always being happy to chat with people if they talked to me about a role that is interesting or the company that is doing interesting things. And, I probably only reply and set up a call maybe with 5% of the people that actually reach out to me. Lot of them are maybe not the right roles or their companies aren’t the right fit for what I’d be interested in. I am always interested in learning about the roles out there and what my value or worth is. Being involved in those conversations just reactively helped me work on myself. Companies said they will pay me a certain amount to do this job at their companies—I didn’t want to work there. I love where I am working right now. Maybe, I have to speak to my boss that I am not at the right market pay right. Again, that allows me to have a simple and professional discussion like, “Hey! I like staying here but I’m getting offers that are 20% more than what I am currently on and I don’t want to leave but I am considering these offers at the moment just because of the fact that the extra 20% will be really helpful for me and my family situation.” Maybe I’ll have to do it, I haven’t done many times maybe once or twice in my career and my bosses have always been able to come back to me and offer me more responsibility and compensation. My message here is that you shouldn’t just go and try to, you know, blackmail your boss. In reality, you must do this only when you’re well aware of your path and are actually willing to leave, because it could go wrong and your boss might not want you on the team. So, you should never have that conversation unless you are going to leave if there isn’t a change at work. But it is also important to have that conversation. In my experience, my employees will come to me and chat with me when they are interviewing with a company and it is weird to say that I don’t find that weird at all. If they are on my team, I would love to coach them in terms of how they get their next job because they are going to leave  being a total advocate for our company, me and their career. They might be referred by well-known people in Chicago, looking for jobs. It is not a bad thing, you don’t want the same people on you team, the same CMO forever and mix things up. I am realistic with my team about either being here forever nor do I expect them to pretend that they are. 

Aishwarya: Yes, true, it’s a perfect analysis. Corporates work on this format. Most of the employees today want to work with more valued, proactive, empathetic and realistic leader so that they can be confident discussing issues, about their future growth opportunities that they get from outside; And, the way you mentioned that the people who are addressing this should be confident and have solid thoughts before talking about this to their bosses—I think on both sides having certain amount of realistic attitude, transparency and candidness really helps. It is wonderful to know that you’ve been a leader who does that. 

What’s your view on employees taking days off for mental health, popularly known as the “mental health day?

Ryan: I think it’s great. More employees must do this and employers must openly talk about this as well as an options for folks to take. I genuinely think that the only way to make people realistically take these things seriously is for leadership teams to actually do that themselves and show that it’s an ‘OKAY’ thing to do. I have had days that I’ve cancelled on all my meetings in the morning just because I haven’t been in the right frame of mind for that day. I have told my employees that I’m taking a “mental health day” and that has encouraged them to know that they can do the same. 

Aishwarya: Certainly. I think that the leaders set the right example, and the people who are hearing this right now, know that it’s okay to take a day off for mental issues; for their mental health. 

How important is mental health from a workspace angle and what are some simple steps that a team can take to ensure emotional wellness? 

Ryan: I don’t think your mental health at workplace is different from that of your home. Everything is connected—how you’re sleeping, how stressed you’re, and how you’re at work with all these things. I think some really simple things folks can do is get better at identifying when they have a low mental health score. For example, they wake up and have the lowest score for their mental health for a certain day so instead of having lots of coffee and sugary drinks, sit with your emotions and try to work out on what is making you feel down. I turn off most notifications from my apps on my phone—it doesn’t buzz unless someone is calling or sending me an SMS. My screen also is completely muted so the only way I see a notification is when I go into the app itself. That was a really conscious thing I needed to, I was getting overwhelmed and anxious that day my phone was just ringing every second. Putting about a few intentional change in notifications was one big way to help. Finally, identifying if your work is a safe space, looking at how you can have conversations like that with your boss and your employees around mental health. That doesn’t mean the boss has to ask, “how is your mental health today,” although asking questions might help employees open up but they answer in work-related terms. Instead of asking questions like “How are you doing?” for which most employees answer, I ask “How are you doing outside of work?” or “How are you doing as a person?” That is showing my employee that this one-on-one, this conversation and relationship, is a safe space for them to open up. 

Aishwarya: Yes, great. I see three things that you’ve mentioned—dealing with your emotions, muting your notifications, retrospection and having a proper conversation with your boss or anyone you feel like talking at workplace. I think coming to the closure, I have one last question that is the most debatable and important one that most corporates need to look into.

As a top-tier management leader, do you think every company should invest more on providing mental wellness support in the form of therapy sessions, relaxation benefits and so on?

Ryan: Absolutely, I really think that for any company to be successful, it’s because of their employees. So, you need to hire the best employees, run the best training for them to become better and keep learning. You need to support them in their journey and just as you’d allow someone get extra training in their job area to make them better. I don’t think there is any difference in terms of training around how we function in our health. Businesses today are very comfortable today in giving gym compensations for employees by having internal gyms. More companies now are creating really amazing cultures and motivating employers are doing the same with mental health too. Yes, I’m a big fan and I’m excited that more and more businesses and some of the world’s best leaders are realising that it’s not just about the work, it’s about the person that gets the work done too. 

Aishwarya: Yes, certainly. 

Thank you, Ryan, I think it was a great opportunity for me to speak to you about how mental health is perceived in the corporate front, especially coming from a C-suite leader, and what your honest experiences are being a CMO of a world-renowned company. We are immensely pleased and we extend our hearty congratulations to you on behalf of Lonepack for all the amazing work that you are doing. Thank you once again!

Ryan: Thank you for having me, really had a lot of fun.