JieZhen Wu: Normalizing Burnout, Harvard Learnings & Embracing Identity - E170

· Women,Purpose,Singapore,Failure,Podcast Episodes English

When I think about courage and bravery, it's not the absence of fear, but it's that willingness to step into the unknown and to step into that uncertainty. I think being able to step away from this identity that I had held so close as a social entrepreneur, as a changemaker, and asking myself, where else can I make change in the world? - JieZhen Wu

Jiezhen is a connector, collaborator, and changemaker. She was most recently an Equity & Inclusion Fellow and part of the Mindful Leaders Collective at Harvard University - where she completed her Masters in Education with a focus on leadership, inclusion, and organizational transformation. Before Harvard, she worked in social innovation and social impact - leading The Hidden Good, a social enterprise and media platform in Asia, and facilitating global summits and spaces for wellbeing for changemakers and collaborators. She also serves on several national committees and nonprofit boards in Singapore, and is a global facilitator and changemaker for Ashoka’s ChangemakerXchange initiative, and holds a degree in Positive Psychology, is a certified yoga teacher (RYT200) and positive psychology and possibility coach while being a mother, wife and community advocate.

She currently coaches and consults with Linden Leadership and The Possibility Playbook for organizations and leaders looking to build more conscious, inclusive and impactful organizations.

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hey, JieZhen, so excited to have you on the show it’s awesome to have a social entrepreneur here who has not only really crushed it in Southeast Asia but also come to some process of letting go of that crushing it and so I'm excited to hear your journey.

JieZhen Wu: (00:45)
Oh yeah. Thanks so much Jeremy. Thanks for having me. Definitely happy to share more about this very colorful journey.

Jeremy Au: (00:54)
Yeah, quite some time since our time's hanging out together in Boston, Harvard. I think I’m just going to ask you, who are you?

JieZhen Wu: (01:01)
Think that's ever evolving question I've really been sitting with especially in the last year or so as I think about who I am and I think every day is honestly a new answer to that question.Who am I? I think I'm many things, most recently a mother and a parent, wife, sister, member of the community, Singaporean, there are so many identities that I think I carry and they're ever evolving, and I think they have taken different levels of importance through the different seasons of life. And so I think that question is such an important question to always ask ourselves and who am I to be as well?

Jeremy Au: (02:02)
Yeah, and one thing is that you were the leader of the Hidden Good, and that's how I first got to know you as someone who was really aggressively there and owning the role of being a social entrepreneur. So how did you first get into it?

JieZhen Wu: (02:17)
With The Hidden Good? After I graduated from university and college, I had this dream and that desire making a difference, making a positive difference in the world. So I started in education first and was really interested in early childhood. And I think that's something you're very familiar with, but really interested in early childhood because I felt they could close a lot of the gaps that were out there in terms of equity and, and access, and everything.
And being in the space that I was really drawn to the larger, more systemic changes that could happen as well. And all this time I was in the US and felt that there was a lot of stuff happening here in Asia, just keeping that finger on the pulse and being still engaged and involved in what was happening. What I was looking for, what would be that next thing for me in my career and those opportunities I think Singapore was on the cusp of turning 50 years young that year.
I was really interested in coming back to be part of that change. I could watch it happen from afar, but coming back and being part of that change and wanting to build a Singapore that my children to grow up in that I wanted to be a part of as well. So making that decision to move back. So that was what I came back to Singapore and the Hidden Good was a social movement at that time.
I had that opportunity to come in and build it and I remember being like, I don't really have much experience at building and growing an organization, but the board felt that it was a good fit. And I think in terms of like there was a very deep level of resonance in terms of what the Hidden Good was trying to do and the beliefs that they had of there's good out there in the world is just sometimes a bit hidden.
So it was almost like an accidental falling into this role of becoming the executive director and growing that organization for the next five years into what it is today. So I'm still on the board of the Hidden Good and it was amazing just being able to be in the social impact space and bringing together different partners, creating content that inspired people to see the good around them.
Because I think sometimes in the social impact space, we tend to focus on all the deficits and everything that's going wrong. And to me, the Hidden Good was so essential because we're focusing on what's going right and building on it. How do we build on what's working how do we connect people to the right partners and resources and possibilities?
So, huge learning curve definitely challenged me, but also helped me grow in ways that I never would have imagined and opened so many opportunities and so many doors to work with so many different organizations and partners in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Jeremy Au: (04:41)
What was that like having the identity of being a social entrepreneur, because I remember Ted X. What was it like?

JieZhen Wu: (04:47)
I think it was while I loved the ability to bring people and bring groups and different stakeholders together to find those different possibilities, I also felt like it was a lot of responsibility, almost that distinction between social entrepreneur/entrepreneur, like, what's the difference? And I remember even that label of being a social entrepreneur, and it was odd to me, it was something that I had to kind of grapple with and make sense of myself and that identity because I think it almost has this responsibility.
Whatever you're doing needs to make a positive difference in the world, and it comes with a lot of expectations, both that I put on myself to really make the work that I do count, but also expectations that come with what people expect from you. Initial conversations and different partners or the different committees or boards that I sat on, I often represented that view of the sector, which I felt like I was carrying a lot of sense of responsibility and representing a sector and wanting it to be sustainable and to last as well.
Because I think, a lot of the times, we see a lot of social enterprises kind of come and go. A lot of nonprofits go like, how do we actually have work that last? And that makes that sustainable difference as well. It was an identity I came to love, but also felt some resistance to at the beginning.
To embrace that, I think I also had to put aside all of these expectations I had for myself and to see that I could do the work that I was doing and for people to make that decision about what it means for them.

Jeremy Au: (06:11)
The one thing I remember about the conversations we had is we need that dissonance between, I think, the external face of being a social entrepreneur, which is about the publicity about advocacy work and a focus of community support, but also on the grounded reality of the work, which is working with an organization with no funding with high goals and sometimes like hard partners.
So how did she feel about that dissonance or that dynamic?

JieZhen Wu: (06:38)
To me, social entrepreneurship is about doing good and doing well. So how can we do good for the world that also be sustainable? When I started at The Hidden Good, I had a lot of experience working with communities, but I had zero business experience running a company and organization. I think I had really helpful board members that sat me down was, OK, this is P&L.
This is how you think about cash flow. And there were so many things that I had to learn. Like there's all the fun external facing parts of being in the space that whether it's attending conferences and meeting different people or going for events and then there's also all the nitty gritty stuff that needs to happen behind the scenes for this work to happen.
Whether it's managing a team, kind of growing and the scaling the work, learning about all of those little things that keep it organization going. So I started in 2014, 2017-2018 that I started to feel a bit burnt out and basically created a job that I love. I'm doing work that I love, how can I feel burnt out?
And I think that is this almost this narrative in the social impact space as well, to continue giving and giving and the work is so important that a lot of people forget to replenish themselves. And I was definitely like one of those. I was like, Well, yeah, I'm doing what I love. How can I be tired?
Being able to really sit down and reconcile that for myself and learn how to fill my cup so I could fill others and be able to do that work and continue doing the work that I wanted to do.
Because I see so many good people in the social impact space push themselves so hard and then burnout and then who's going to continue doing the good work. So I think that is behind the scenes of being a social entrepreneur in the social impact space that doesn't get talked about enough that I really hope that we think about because we want good people to continue doing good work is often how do we think about that personal sustainability as well.

Jeremy Au: (08:15)
So got to ask, how did burnout show up for you? Because it takes different forms for different people.

JieZhen Wu: (08:21)
Yeah, definitely. I felt a lot less excited about the work that I was doing. I felt that like I had to be everything for everyone. For me, that was a big lesson and learning to ask for support and admitting that I couldn't do it all and being able to look for mentors and really rethink the way I thought about leadership. I think that has been a huge thing.
And that brought me to what the space that I'm in now, doing a lot of leadership organizational consulting because I've seen what happens when leaders take on a lot and they don't know how to lean on their team, they don't know how to ask for support, and they don't know how to set themselves up for that personal sustainability as well.
Yeah, for me it was a lot of just feeling that I was a lot less excited. I was feeling tired all the time and it didn't really add up for me. I was like, This is…I'm doing work that I love in an organization that I love, like, how can I be feeling this way? So I realize that burnout doesn't just happen to people who don't like their jobs, but it can happen when you love your work as well.
So that was a very eye opening year for me. One of my board members was like, Why don't you just take like a mini sabbatical and learn how to do nothing? And that was huge for someone that's always on the go and always out in the world doing like 10,000 things. That was actually one of the hardest, but most eye opening moments for me, and something that I think is so essential in like a leadership practice is to create time for reflection in that space, just to be and realize that we are not only valuable to the world when we're doing things, it's really about rethinking the ways in which that we can contribute.

Jeremy Au: (09:47)
How did you talk about burnout with other people? Was it very private or was it something you talked about with other people? I've gone through burnout myself and it's exhausting. I like to believe I've gotten a little smarter at it over time or wiser, hopefully, but it feels like a very private battle that a lot of folks have. So I'm just kind of curious how that played out for you.

JieZhen Wu: (10:07)
Yeah, I talk about it pretty openly actually, because I think part of it in breaking this cycle is normalizing it and making it possible for people to realize that they're not alone in this and that it's OK to ask for support to get help. So I definitely talked about it in my organization, talked about it on social media.
More importantly, I think it was providing platforms for others to find that place of rest as well as while we build. I don't think it's an either or. It's always like, how do we create these practices that allow people to be doing the work they're doing sustainably? So, one of the things that I was doing and still and part of actually is Ashoka; created this thing called Changemaker Exchange and I still am one of their global facilitators right now.
We organize these summits and retreats for change makers, other social innovators across the world to come together. And a lot of it is focused on collaboration across regions and across different sectors. More importantly, it's also a space for these people that are in the social impact social innovation, social entrepreneurship space to realize that they need to find ways to nourish themselves so that they don't burnout and not to wait to that point.
I think there are different levels of burnout, too, and not to wait to the point that is like past the point of no return because I know friends that have physical ramifications of being super burntout and not being able to function and really grounding the whole space of well-being because sometimes it can be seen as yoga and meditation and that being it.
But it's really about how you bring wellbeing into the workplace, especially in social impact organizations, where you're so driven by the cause and by purpose, it's easy to kind of have burnout not be as obvious.

Jeremy Au: (11:45)
When you talk about burnout and obviously talk about normalizing it. It implies that there is a stigma around it and the fear of it. Why does that exist?

JieZhen Wu: (11:54)
I think it's almost hustling, burning the candle at both ends was part of showing that and doing the hard work, that work ethic, especially growing up in Singapore, in Asia, of working really hard and was something that was rewarded. I think hard work is important, but hard work at the expense of what? What is the cost of that hustle hero mentality?
Never sleeping, I think was a huge thing, especially in the startup space. Just kind of pushing those hours and all of that. While I think that having a good work ethic is so important, it's a good work ethic not in sacrificing your health, your wellbeing and especially mental health right now in this pandemic times that we're in as well is really coming up to the forefront, how do we wake up to work in a different way that produces great work, but not at the expense of everything else, of family, of life, of your health and well-being, both mentally and physically.

Jeremy Au: (12:51)
And what's interesting is that from there, you know, you started wrapping up your work and you went off to do a master's program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education so what was your motivation to do that?

JieZhen Wu: (13:05)
While I loved the work I was doing at The Hidden Good and I thought I could continue doing this for a while. I also felt part of me that was a change that was kind of bubbling and something I felt like I was drawn to looking at a larger context and feeling like I needed that time and space to explore this more deeply. So, feeling that there's something more that I should be doing but I couldn't put my finger on it just yet. So this opportunity to go to Harvard and the program that I did at the Graduate School of Education, I mean, I still love it. I was very interdisciplinary. So, while I was based at the Graduate School of Education, I was taking classes at the business school at the Kennedy School of Public Policy at MIT, all on the topic I was really interested in which is how do we create more conscious, inclusive organizations and leaders?
How do we set organize Asians up to thrive? And that was something that kind of came up from the work that I was doing at The Hidden Good and working with so many different types of organizations. Why do some organizations do better than others and why do some outlast others? And how do we think about that and leadership and inclusion and impact in a larger, more systemic way?
So, these are questions I was sitting with for a while. I knew I probably wanted to go to grad school and do my master's at some point, but I kept pushing it back. But after five years at The Hidden Good, it felt like the right time. So I stepped down as executive director but I’m still on the board and I still support the team where I can.
But it was hard because it was something that, as I mentioned earlier, those identities, the roles that I had, it was so intertwined with my identity, that role that I had had become me. And it was time to step away, even if it took courage, I think, for me to let go of that, to take that step into something that I knew was calling out to me to do.
Yeah, I mean, Harvard was great. I think it really opened my eyes in terms of how we think about these issues. I think a lot of the time when we think about a lot of the issues and the world, we look at it in boxes. But this program that I was doing for my master's was really looking at how we want to solve inequality, how do we look at it from the education space, from the business space, from the policy space, so that we're looking at it in a more integrated way because the world is complex and systems are complex.
And we can look at it just from one perspective. So really, how do we think strategically about collaboration, about partnerships, about cross-sectoral change as well? So really think about impact as well and how we approach it in a more effective manner and thinking about how we leverage resources out there to make change more lasting and sustainable and impactful as well.

Jeremy Au: (15:34)
So one thing we discovered was we went to Harvard to learn very different things so I went to the Harvard Business School. People like to say it’s the West Point of capitalism. And then you went to Harvard Graduate School of Education, which is probably not the West Point for capitalism. So what would you say that you chose to learn over there?

JieZhen Wu: (15:52)
So I was an equity and inclusion fellow at Harvard as well, based at the Ed School, but actually ended up hosting a panel at the business school which was really interesting. And I think a lot of these institutions are evolving and changing as well. One of my favorite classes that I actually took at the business school was called Leading Difference. It was the first time they offered it, really looking at how we can create more inclusive organizations and workspaces.
So I think the conversations are shifting. But what I appreciated was the different perspectives of the different kind of groups that each school attracted, because I think it really deepened my understanding of why people do what they do and what drives them, which I think ultimately at the end of the day is how we shift things. How do we meet different people where they are?
How do we meet businesses where they are to move them to become more conscious organizations. How do we think of policy and humanize it? So, it's not just theory. You can definitely feel a different culture in each school, but I think that was what I loved most about the programs that I was able to kind of connect with different people and understand the motivations for why people do certain things, so that I could really think about how we think about working with leaders and organizations in the future.

Jeremy Au: (16:57)
What would you say that you learned or enjoyed the most? Why Harvard?

JieZhen Wu: (17:00)
I think I loved learning, and I think I've always loved learning, but I think it was learning together with people that were so different from myself. And I mean, that's why I chose to like also do my master's back in Boston, where I did my undergrad in such a diverse setting of people that were just coming from so many different spaces in so many different sectors and industries and really making sense of that for myself because I think it's in that diversity or perspective that I really get to learn and rethink the ways in which I thought about issues or topics that I thought were very familiar to me, but just gave me new insight on the ways I thought about leadership and organizations and education and change. So I think for me it was, as clichéd as it is, the people that I got to meet there, because it wasn't just the people but it was the people in the context of the learning and having that be overlaid was definitely something I'm just so glad and grateful for that opportunity to do.

Jeremy Au: (17:55)
Were there any tough times or times when you got challenge about what you thought of your preconceived identities or notions that got challenged while you were there?

JieZhen Wu: (18:09)
I mean, that's a really good question. I think in terms of challenging, I think all the time. I think I took a class in like corporate responsibility and there were the whole question about like, should we be supporting these organizations that are not doing positive things out in the world, basically alienate or do you try to work with people that you think are creating negative impact in the world?
Do you kind of like go the complete 180 and just avoid them completely and just work with activists and people in the social work space and education? Or do you try to bridge those gaps? And I think different people have very different perspectives on that. Even the whole divestment thing that was happening at Harvard, like if they divest, do they have a say anymore?
Is it more important to have a say in the way these large corporations are making decisions or is it better to just put your money in things that you actually care about and believe in? And I think a lot of these are ethical kind of conversations, right? Like what are your values what do you believe in? So I think ultimately that it made me reflect a lot, too, on like what type of work is important to me to be doing with my time and my life and even now in working with organizations, some people only work with certain types of organizations and not others.
It made me really question like, do I need to be discerning that for myself? Or is it more important for me, is it more of a priority for me to be a bridge and to be able to close those gaps and to meet different people where they are and kind of find possibilities there rather than writing it off completely.

Jeremy Au: (19:38)
What a journey. I totally agree with you, it's a lot of ethical dilemmas, especially on divestment. But I think it’s also a very American approach. I think we're definitely going to see that, I think, globalized further, and I think different topics like that will continue to percolate through Southeast Asia as well. So, starting to wrap things up here. Could you tell us a time that you have been brave?

JieZhen Wu: (20:00)
Yeah, when I think about courage and bravery, it's not the absence of fear, as I'm sure you've heard, but it's that willingness to step into the unknown and to step into that uncertainty. I think being able to step away from this identity that I had held so close as a social entrepreneur, as a change maker, and asking myself, where else can I make change in the world?
So, you know, now in the work that I'm doing with Linden Leadership and consulting for organizations and companies and thinking about this, that required, I think, me to have that shift in identity and thinking about how can I make change and where can I be most effective. But I think for me, as I think of a specific instance that required that courage was right when I was in the middle of labour. Our doula actually had us go on a walk.
So, I was walking with my husband out on the street outside our house. I think we were about 15 hours into labour at that point in time. I think there was this sense of me holding back in terms of stepping into this new identity, a new role as a mother, that courage almost in letting go of who I was and this life that I've had especially when we could travel, be able to travel all over Asia and working with all these partners and stuff and this life that I had and being able to let go of it to step into this new version of who I was as a mother, as consultant, as a change maker, all these new things that would lay on the horizon. And I just remember looking at that and our doula said to me like, you can let go now. It's time to welcome your baby into this world. And then that moment, there was something that just shifted and that fear kind of subsided and that courage and being able to say, I don't know what the future holds, but I believe that we'll find a new sense of purpose and for me and for my family and for myself.
And having that courage to embrace this new version of myself in this new season was definitely something that I will remember for the rest of my life, that leadership practice that allows us to keep growing and evolving and not stagnating, being brave enough to step out of our comfort zone, but also knowing when to come back to rest and recharge has been a big part of this journey.

Jeremy Au: (21:59)
Thank you so much, JieZhen, for sharing. So, I’ll love to wrap things up here by paraphrasing the three big themes I got from this conversation.
The first, of course, thank you so much for sharing about your social entrepreneurship journey. What it was like for you to be…what was it you were writing in the past? Hashtag Girlboss, in that sense. Also, juggling identities as a public face as well as the reality of building a business in terms of doing well as well as doing good. And also I think the burn out that came at some point of time and how they showed up for you and because you discussed how it showed up for you and why you want to normalize it and why there's some stigma around it.
The second thing, of course, thank you so much for sharing about Harvard - why you went there, why you chose to learn there and what you got out of it. I think that's important moment for so many different folks.
And lastly, I really love what you shared about this and not just at the end of your brave journey as a mother and as a leader, but also throughout this entire podcast, you really shared about why bees embrace identities as they change from season to season. And I think that was a beautiful journey that you shared throughout. And congratulations on the kid. And I definitely agree with the fact that becoming a parent is a new chapter in life to be embraced.

JieZhen Wu: (23:16)
It's definitely one of my greatest teachers, a huge, steep learning curve, but it definitely has had me grow in ways that I never knew.

Jeremy Au: (23:25)
Thank you so much, JieZhen, for coming on the show.

JieZhen Wu: (23:27)
Yeah. Thanks for having me.