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Episode 424: Executive Loneliness: The 5 Pathways to Overcoming Isolation, Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Episode Summary

Throughout our conversation, Nick shares the touching story that changed his life: the moment he realized executive loneliness was a real threat, and how he transformed those challenging moments into fuel to power his purpose. Nick also discusses the importance of embracing vulnerability, using goal setting and leadership for optimal wellness and mental health, building safe spaces and connections for self-development and healing, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We welcome you. We’re honored to have you, and I am so looking forward to this guest who’s coming to us from halfway around the world, at least. Welcome, Nick Jonsson. 

Nick Jonsson: Thank you so much, Steve. It’s great to be here with you and your listeners. 

Steve Shallenberger: We’ve got a great show coming today. His journey epitomizes the triumph of the human spirit, from the depths of adversity to the pinnacles of success. His story is one of resilience, redemption, and relentless pursuit of holistic well-being. In 2023, he was recognized as a LinkedIn top voice, as well as achieving a top 2% ranking in his age group in the Ironman Triathlon. That’s no piece of cake, Nick. 

Nick Jonsson: Thank you, Steve. It comes after some hard work but also a lot of realizations in the life of what matters to us. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, that’s true. His influence spans far beyond accolades, rooted in his profound mission to empower individuals to transcend limitations and embrace lives of fulfillment. He has a great background; we’re going to talk about it. He’s had a big impact on the world. I’d like to jump right into this. Nick, please tell us about your background, including any turning points that have had a huge impact on your life and helped you get to where you are today.

Nick Jonsson: Steve, I was born in Sweden, and then, due to a motorcycle accident at age 20, I couldn’t continue to do my labor job. I was a construction painter back in Sweden. I didn’t really think about university; I didn’t think about studying. But that accident put me back into school. I moved down to Australia to study at university. That’s where I then educated myself in communication, PR, marketing, and advertising. Then I moved over to Southeast Asia, where I’ve lived and worked now for the last 20 years, working my way up the career ladder—account executive, account manager, account director, general manager, managing director in sales and business development, and so on. So, I had a successful career going for me. But as we’re going to explore today, something happened in my life that pretty much stopped all of that, and my life today is very different.

Steve Shallenberger: As you look back on your life, Nick, what are some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of—things that give you the most satisfaction?

Nick Jonsson: I love how you framed that, “the things I’m most proud of and satisfaction,” because I felt that I was doing well. I was getting the scholarships at school, topping the classes, getting the promotions, having the salary and the packages that I wanted, perhaps what looks on the outside as a perfect career. But that didn’t fulfill me. It was only when I pulled the plug on this corporate rat race, elbowing my way around colleagues, that I found myself, and I really had to take a deep look at myself. This was not something that came easily to me; I had to hit, actually, what many are discussing or explaining as rock bottom. I was basically falling into pieces, falling apart. From that, then, I’m most proud of this recovery journey. I’m six years now into re-patching my life, and I’m constantly trying to pass on this gift of recovery to others who are going through difficult times physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Steve Shallenberger: You’re a huge advocate for mental health, physical well-being, and emotional health. You had a friend who really impacted your life that—it sounds to me like—really caused you to think about a lot of things. Can you tell us a little about that?

Nick Jonsson: If we go back to 2018, that’s when I hit my lowest point. I was glad to get support; I was glad to get help from coaches and mentors. I went into a recovery program, and that really came through. I found the true purpose in my life, and I was living the best days of my life. But then, in 2019, something happened that indeed changed my life forever again, and that was the loss of a friend, someone who had a good career going for himself. In fact, he just came back from Mount Everest; he climbed up to the base camp there, which was one of his dreams. I remember following him on social media, and seeing how happy he was. He also shared pictures of him and his girlfriend, really showing and saying that he’s never been happier. So, myself and many others were really puzzled when he suddenly was gone. What was it then? I called up his brother, and I asked him what happened; he also didn’t know. But I asked him one more thing: May I talk about this? And he said, “Shout it out loud. Simon would have loved you to do that.” That then became my life mission because I said that if I can only stop one life from going all the way to suicide as long as I live, then that will be my mission. That is a journey I’m still on today. That day, I did a few things: I signed up as a volunteer and a fundraiser for a suicide prevention agency. I also made a YouTube and LinkedIn video that went viral. From there on, things have just moved in the right direction and I keep trying to be of service and support people.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. I love it, Nick. Nick is really focused. Like many of us, as we have setbacks and challenges, we have to figure out how to deal with it, how to grapple with it, and deal with overcoming isolation, stress, anxiety, and even depression. Things happen in life, and you have to fight through it. That has led to Nick writing one of his most important works called “The Executive Loneliness: The 5 Pathways to Overcome” these kind of things. So, do you mind telling us about that a little bit, Nick?

Nick Jonsson: Yeah, it’d be my pleasure to share about that. Fast forward, after I started to make those social media posts, it wasn’t too long before TV was calling, radio was calling, newspapers, all the journalists, actually, in fact, from all around the world, including us talking today, contacted me: “We want to hear about this. Share with us what is going on.” I shared the stories. After about a year, then a publisher contacted me and he said, “Nick, we need you to write a book on this.” It was not also something that was on my mind at the time, but I thought, “Well, if that’s what the universe served me, then so shall it be.” So, I spent about two years—and this was during the pandemic—interviewing senior executives, entrepreneurs, and business owners, basically about isolation in the workplace, to really take a deep dive to identify the feelings they had inside. This book, then, is about all these findings and the stories here. There are quite a lot of remarkable findings, including that about 30% of the executives and business owners I interviewed for the book acknowledge that they have feelings of isolation and can feel lonely from time to time in the workplace. This is spot on with global numbers, like statistics saying 30% to 33%. So that’s where we sit. That’s a really, really high number of people who actually suffer from executive loneliness.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, things happen. I can tell you that my wife of 46 years passed away three years ago from early-onset Alzheimer’s; she passed away at 66. Sometimes we’re cruising along in life, and all of a sudden, we’re in a place we never dreamed we might be. That threw me into a tailspin. I keep trying to do the right things and have one foot in front of the other, but never did I dream when we were young and growing up and engaged, looking into each other’s eyes, that one day, she wouldn’t know who I was. You have to work through those things. I’m sure you’ve discovered that as you’re going through your research. What can we do to get ahead of the curve on that? I’ve got a couple of questions. Can you discuss, Nick, your efforts, first of all, to bring the conversation of mental health into the workplace? But it’s just not there; it’s in life generally. So, how do you bring that up? Because things like I just described can happen, and you’ve got to move forward. And then, what do you do about it? So, maybe a couple of questions there.

Nick Jonsson: First of all, Steve, I’m really sorry for your loss and sorry about your wife. Indeed, sadly, that is life. It’s the roller coaster of life, and it hits us when we least expect it. I will say that I live a life now very different from six years ago, and should something hit me—and it does because that’s life—then hopefully, I’m more prepared than last time. Because if we link it back to the conversation here, then if you have feelings of isolation, if you feel already that you’re isolated in your workplace, then you probably haven’t been proactive about your approach to doing what I’m doing these days. I’m a big believer in having safe spaces; we need a professional network and a personal network where we’ve been completely honest, vulnerable, open, and proactive about this in the good times so that we are ready for the bad times. If I mention then about the personal safe spaces, I now belong to a recovery group, one of the 12-step programs, because I had some alcohol issues, and I was honest about that. I owned up to it. So, should it happen again—and, touch wood, I’ve not had a drink for six years—if this happens again, I now belong to a network of people I can call. I know people who would support me in that space. So, that’s on that side. But then, I also belong to a men’s group now, where every week for one hour, we discuss, and we are open, we are vulnerable, we discuss what are the pain points, and we have a different theme every week. This week, it’s shame and guilt, and we will all share on that. 

Nick Jonsson: By doing that, we’re building a stronger bond, we’re practicing our vulnerability muscle. And if someone is there, we look out for each other. So, when things go wrong in my life, then I have this ongoing weekly call. I will go into the call, and I will share about it. I will not sit inside my office or home to isolate on it and go into self-pity and dwell. So, that’s what’s important I do now on the personal side. On the work side, I just want to say that for many of us, it’s difficult to be completely transparent, open, and vulnerable. I don’t recommend everyone to go in and blast your news to everyone in the office, but you can choose your safe people in your office, perhaps your HR, perhaps if you feel comfortable with a boss, or one or two colleagues at your level who can go and have these conversations and build up some trust with them. But, apart from this professionally, I believe we all should have mentors, coaches, and belong to mastermind groups, peer groups, associations, and clubs, and there you build your pockets of safe spaces with the people who you can trust. So, when something happens, you’re completely surrounded by people who will be there for you.

Steve Shallenberger: What have you found, Nick, is the best way to create that safe space, those pockets of people?

Nick Jonsson: It’s indeed about being proactive, reaching out, and linking them to your hobbies. I’m a cyclist, a runner, and a swimmer. So, I belong to swim academies, and I have cycling clubs and running clubs. There, I find my friends, and we meet off the training; we have conversations, we build our friendship, and I start to be vulnerable. I take the leadership here by opening up a little bit more first, and then naturally asking, “How are you doing?” And when you’re being vulnerable first, it’s quite human for the other person to start to open up. But if you’re just sitting back and you don’t open up, then the other person naturally won’t either.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a big takeaway already from our discussion today: don’t isolate yourself. When you have these challenges or setbacks that maybe you didn’t even see coming, maybe reach out. Is that what you’re saying, Nick? Don’t get isolated; get out there. There are other people who share this and can empathize. Is that what you’re saying?

Nick Jonsson: Absolutely. Even more so, be proactive to build these connections in the good times, have them as recurring, and have them in your calendar with some people with whom you have your weekly coffee or monthly gathering and when you discuss everything in life. Sometimes, you might just discuss and share some tips about exercise, sleep, or nutrition because there’s nothing serious going on. But when the next month comes around, you have your catch-up, then there are some real issues there, then naturally, you will talk about it. But if an emergency is happening, you have then your safe spaces, you have your trust, pick up the phone, and call indeed, don’t isolate.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. When those times come, you have a place to go and there’s an anchor of security, it seems like, right?

Nick Jonsson: Exactly. 

Steve Shallenberger: Nick, what have you found that you can do, your personal experience anyhow of how to use leadership, self-discipline, goal-setting in a way that it contributes to achieving optimal wellness and mental health? What’s your experience on that?

Nick Jonsson: I’m a big fan and lover of goal setting. I’ve been following Brian Tracy for many years, including having hosted him over in Vietnam a couple of years ago and having him talking about goals to my team and my clients. Therefore, I’ve been setting goals for both my personal life and my professional life. I believe we have to start with ourselves. It’s about self-leadership and looking after ourselves so we show up at our best. I still set goals today, and I work with coaches on that. I have sports, fitness, and athlete coaches who help me set my goals, and then I sign up for a race one year in the future. I set a target and goals to achieve something, and that keeps me focused during the year. If I just look after myself in that way because health is wealth, so that’s what it’s all about, getting that right first.

Steve Shallenberger: I just want to mention that this call is taking place from Singapore. So, he’s a long way away, but these principles are universal that you’re talking about. As part of my early research, Nick, I interviewed over 175 CEOs around the world. Initially, I did 150, but it expanded well beyond that. What I was looking for is what set apart high-performing individuals and high-performing teams from everybody else. What we discovered is none of these leaders were perfect, but we saw over and over 12 things that they did that created the excellence. That’s what we put in our book, “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders.” The things that you’re talking about are among the 12, and the things you’re doing are what create the excellence. So, I’m so grateful that you talked about that: having a vision, having a sense of what you’re capable of doing that’s meaningful; what’s your plan to get there, your goal setting. Those are two of the 12 principles. I love the fact you’re talking about them and describing the impact. What’s the impact been on you of setting goals?

Nick Jonsson: Well, it means that I’m achieving what my purpose is, what really are the values, and what’s important to me. But it’s very important that the goals align with your purpose because sometimes, perhaps, we get goals on our desks that are not our goals; perhaps it’s company goals or the society’s, parent’s, or others who put these obligations on us. It’s very important that we separate that from the goals that are really linked to who we are as a person. Those are the goals we should strive to hit because I didn’t always do that, and I was too selfish when I was at university. In the early years of my career, it was all about me; I was elbowing my colleagues, wanting promotions, and impressing the bosses was more important than the well-being of my colleagues. But that led me to isolation, that led me to my downfall, and that led me to my crash. So, these days, I know better. It’s about being a good human being and being of service and being there for others. So, having that mindset, I really feel that I’m aligning the goals better. Therefore, when I achieve them, it’s much more meaningful because then it’s not my goal achieved; it’s impacting more people. It’s like you don’t want to score a goal in an empty stadium.

Steve Shallenberger: What are some tips that you might give on how to set some good goals?

Nick Jonsson: Yeah, I think the principle is first. The first step is to really think about your purpose and values. If that’s not clear, then perhaps work with a coach who can help you take a deep dive inside yourself and identify your values. When you have that, then going back to Brian Tracy, I think he has some excellent tips and books on how to do goal setting. It’s just simple formulas and how to set them. I’m a big believer in SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. It’s simple. Then just keep them on a sheet and keep updating them. In fact, I have them on a Google Sheet. I review them a few times a week and adjust them, and look at them because then they stay on top of your mind, and they are your breakthrough goals.

Steve Shallenberger: Brian’s a wonderful person. He’s an inspirational person. He’s had a big impact in the world, and I love him. And what I realized, these 12 principles, we didn’t discover them; they were already there. We’re just finding ways to talk about them, and the result is absolutely predictable every time. If you do this, you’re going to end up in a better place. You have a vision, values, and goals. By having those tied to something that’s emotional and meaningful to you, there’s a predictable outcome. I love the fact you’re talking about that. Thank you, Nick. So, can you discuss the importance of resilience and the strategies you recommend for reducing stress, building resilience, and then bouncing back from failure and rejection?

Nick Jonsson: I love the conversation about resilience because I know it’s also a bit of a trendy topic; it’s out there. But I would like to simplify it a little bit because it very much comes back to what we discussed before. Being resilient to me means being healthy and having your place in order for yourself. It’s about self-leadership first and really being stress-tolerant and, for example, being in good shape that your rest pulse and everything else is lower, so you can handle more pressure and more stress. More importantly, I would like to include a word here, vulnerability and resilience, because if you, as a leader, know your weaknesses, know where you’re falling short, and you’re transparent and open about this with your team members, then you allow them to plug in and fill in your gaps. That’s the kind of leader that I believe we need to be today because there are so many changes; the world is moving so fast. Especially if we are leaders, a little bit older, then we need to rely on the younger generation. We need to be open and honest that we don’t have all the answers and that they know the technology better than us. So, let them help us, let us embrace them and support us, rather than trying to be closed and trying to have all the answers ourselves.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, you’ve accomplished a lot of things, Nick, and you have an inspirational book. I love the topic and the types of things that you’re talking about. You’ve also run an Ironman Triathlon. Tell us about discipline. What is the best way to discipline yourself? How do you maintain that discipline to achieve something like that? For some people, it’s just losing 10 pounds. I know, for me, I’ve got to have discipline. How do you do it? How do you maintain that discipline?

Nick Jonsson: With discipline, we can come back to the goal. Once you set your clear goals that inspire you, that’s your roadmap, and then it’s about looking ahead and making some commitment. That means if your goal is an Ironman and if an Ironman is one year out, then you’ve got to work backward: develop an action plan with the right people, set a realistic goal one year in the future, sign up, pay upfront for that race, and then have your coach do an action plan. You prepay that coach if you have the ability for the whole year, and then you stick it in the calendar one year in advance, and that’s how I do it now. In fact, my calendar is blocked for the rest of my life and for eternity. My training slot is my time every day when I have my time and my training time. Someone will have to argue pretty hard with me for me to give up that time. It could be time for swimming, cycling, running, meditation, yoga, prayer, or something like that. I have a few hours of self-care every day. I try to block three hours. We have 24 hours a day, so can we spend three hours to work on ourselves? Well, that’s a question for everyone to answer. But I will say as an entrepreneur now and a business owner, when I’m in front of my desk, then I’m the manager, I’m the administrator, I’m running the business, I’m working in the business. When I’m exercising, walking, yoga, trekking, or cycling, then the CEO, I have a strategic mindset, and I’m really the business leader working on my business. So, if you do something you love, if I’m out for a run or cycling, I’m still working, but at a higher level.

Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful. It impacts everything. Do you share your goals, Nick?

Nick Jonsson: I do. I have my breakthrough goals. 

Steve Shallenberger: Who do you share them with?

Nick Jonsson: I actually share them with my coach, mentor, and a couple of close friends.

Steve Shallenberger: Good. Well, this is one of the things we’ve talked about in “Becoming Your Best” as you work on this is that you share your goals with three to four people. I was just wondering how you do it. It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Nick Jonsson: It does. it holds you accountable. I also put up purpose statements for myself. I have a life purpose statement for myself, which reads, “Empowering people to live beyond their wildest dreams with vulnerability and holistic happiness.”

Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful. That’s great. There’s another thing I discovered. I’m just wondering if you’ve experienced the same thing. As I’ve shared my annual goals, year after year, with a selected group of mentors or close friends or family even, what I discovered is, yes, accountability because I’m not going to be flaky when I do my goals, but second, I found that it creates a very special bond with that person that I hadn’t necessarily expected. It’s a lifelong bond. Have you noticed that?

Nick Jonsson: Certainly. Sharing your goals is quite personal and private; you’re being vulnerable and opening up. In fact, one of my colleagues asked me, “I know you’re talking about goal setting. Would you mind sharing your goals with me?” I said, “It’s my pleasure to do so.” He said, “You really inspired me to write my goals, and I’m now helping others also to write their goals, for coaching, and so on.” So, indeed, it’s a positive bond. You feel like you share this with someone, and as soon as you say it, the discipline kicks in. You better be accountable and get up there and do some good things.

Steve Shallenberger: I’m just thinking, in this discussion, plus, you’re finding somebody in your safe place that if you have a challenge, there is somebody to talk with. 

Nick Jonsson: Absolutely. You’re building those safe spaces, which we discussed.

Steve Shallenberger: This has been so fun. Well, Nick, I can’t believe we’re at the end of our interview today. But I don’t want to leave it at this. You have so much experience. I love the wonderful perspective you have and the things that you’re teaching others. What are some final tips that you might recommend to our listeners that might be of the greatest help to them to find happiness, wellness, sustainable productivity, and success?

Nick Jonsson: I would like to share. My final message is to take ownership of your side of the street in your life and the things you say and do. We live in a world that is so fast; it’s easy to send a message and an email, and maybe we say something that we don’t mean because we are rushed. You have a chance every day at the end of the day to slow down and think through your day. Did you say something or send a message that wasn’t quite right? Then you can, at the end of the day, make an amend, perhaps say, “That didn’t come out quite right. Sorry, I was rushing through my day. I didn’t mean that. Do you have time for a call tomorrow?” So just try to close every day by being neutral, make sure that you haven’t done anything or said something that wasn’t quite you because then you’re going to have a bad sleep and maybe wake up in the middle of the night feeling bad about something you said or did. So, that is my final tip for today. Keep making amends, apologize, and don’t accuse other people, but take ownership of your side, and then you will feel much better.

Steve Shallenberger: Wow! What a visit we’ve had today. I’m so grateful for the things that you shared, Nick.

Nick Jonsson: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure, Steve.

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. How can people find out about what you’re doing?

Nick Jonsson: Well, they can find me on LinkedIn. It’s Nick Jonsson and Singapore. They can go to Amazon to look up the book, “Executive Loneliness.” It’s also there on Audible as well. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful. I’m so excited to get it. I’m going to order both because what I’ve found is I can really blow through the books by Audible, but then go back and study the parts I want to when I have the physical copy. So, that’s a way to motor through things. Well, we wish you all the best, Nick.

Nick Jonsson: Thank you, Steve. All the best to you and your listeners as well.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, It’s been a delight today. We want to thank you, our listeners, for joining us. I assure you, I’ve got to tell you, the very fact that you’re listening to this podcast means you’re working on becoming your best, and you realize and believe your best is yet to be. So, that’s an inspiration. Thanks so much. This is Steve Shallenberger signing off, wishing you a great day. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Nick Jonsson

Co-founder of EGN Peer Network

Mental Health Advocate, Executive and Life Coach, Best-Selling Author

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