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Why finding success at work shouldn’t be joyless

Planet FWD founder Julia Collins thought she could find fulfillment outworking anyone. Lesson learned

By Zulqarnain HaiderPublished 4 months ago 6 min read

My biggest failure was working for many years almost completely without joy.

I was working for success, for money, for accolades, I was even working for a mission—but I had created this bifurcation in my mind where work was work and maybe after all the work was done, I could go and be happy somewhere. But of course, that wasn’t reality.

It became more pronounced to the point where I began to associate success with the energy of toiling. So much so that when I realized I wanted to change, I was actually afraid that without that grueling energy, I would be weaker, not as successful. As a Black woman, you’re often told you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far. That wound is real.

I work at the intersection in food and technology—there’s a lot of joy to be had there. When I think about what I’ve done at my jobs in the last 8 years, I’ve built a robot pizza company, I figured out how to make packaging from sugar cane fiber, I made climate-friendly snacks, I built software that helps tackle climate change, I even helped to revive a jazz club in Harlem and to launch an Afro-Asian Fusion restaurant. If I couldn’t be finding joy in my work, then who could?

But even as I was doing these amazing things, I was doing them with such a sense of tightness, and incredible stress. People would say, what’s your superpower? And I would say, “I can outwork anyone.” For so many years, I wore that like a badge of honor, working seven days a week, 16-hour days, not taking vacation. The reality is that this is a terrible superpower.

I was burned out. Physically, I was losing hair, had gained a lot of weight very quickly, I was having chronic cramping in my back, I had a twitch in my eye I couldn’t get rid of. I was also emotionally exhausted and frankly spiritually depleted.

I remember one day I was driving to work and I literally found myself in the right lane when I thought I was in the left . . . I was so exhausted I was swerving. During this intense period of my life, I had a close-knit group of girlfriends. They kept me on the group chat and continued inviting me to things even though I would never go. I get emotional now thinking about it—I missed every wedding, every baby shower, every birthday party, happy hour, vacation. I missed so many important moments in the lives of the people I love because I was caught in this cycle of losing myself to work.

There was something about the experience of becoming a parent for the first time in 2017 that connected me to myself again. The physical reality of being pregnant, of nursing a newborn, of going through that disruption in sleep, it simply wasn’t possible for me to work 16-hour days anymore.

I’d left Zume, a high-growth startup that I founded, in 2018, and it was a heartbreaking experience deciding to leave something that was so tied to my sense of purpose and identity. That disorientation also presented an opportunity to rethink who I was. I was no longer at Zume. All of the sudden I’m a parent. I was like, who am I?

Pregnancy had been a catalyst for wanting to be more intentional about my life, so I started working on myself. I began weight lifting, reconnecting to a spiritual practice through meditation and prayer, and also seeing a therapist. I couldn’t have started Planet FWD without doing that inner work. I didn’t want to be a leader of anyone else again unless I changed.

I’d begun working with my amazing teacher, Dena Crowder, and she gave me a new framework that helped me understand there was power in my joy—the joy I hadn’t let myself feel for so many years. So much so that I decided on joy as my new superpower, and my business imperative. I believe that if you choose a superpower, and you practice it, as long as you have some capacity for it, it can be your superpower. I decided that the success of my health and career depended on my capacity for joy.

Joy in my work doesn’t always look like having fun. We’re working on climate solutions. It’s a big, heavy topic to wake up every day and confront. We are all up in the detailed data, fully aware of the magnitude of the problem and how far behind we are. The only way that people can do this consistently is if they have joy as an antidote. We’re now a company of 26 people, and this will change as we grow, but I won’t budge on structuring joy into the workday. For instance, the company offsite where we spent days hiking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company and not talking about work. Or encouraging laughter during the work day, and celebrating our wins with a weekly “happy half hour” where we express gratitude, which is proven to trigger joy. Rest is also one of the ways that many people can access their joy, so I insist on closing our company from December 25 to January 1, and creating spaces for people to tap into joy outside of work.

For me personally, living in joy means starting my day with a meditation that involves breath work and centering myself. It also means being more present with my family. I stop working from 4:30 and 7:30 every day and spend that time with my boys and my partner, cooking, playing on the floor, giving baths, taking walks, and listening to funny stories from my four year old.

If you ever look up what makes a successful CEO, nobody says it’s joy, but I disagree. The thing that investors are looking for is an unfair advantage, which could be tech or data or market timing. Mine is my unique capacity for joy. It’s now core to my leadership style. It’s the thing that makes people want to come work with me, invest in me, be my customer.

We’re living in a time when we are rethinking all of the rules about what leaders look like, what they do, and how they show up. What if we decide we’re the generation of Black women, or immigrants, who are going to let go of that old way of living, who rewrite the code? What if we bless and thank our ancestors for working so hard and protecting us, but decide we’re not going to perpetuate this life of toiling?

In terms of my company, my strategy is paying off. I’m proud that we have low numbers of people needing time off for sickness. We have zero regrettable attrition since I founded the company in 2019.

Focusing on the business is table stakes. At Planet FWD, we are very rigorous. We focus on OKRs, we are an agile team, and we move fast. This is all table stakes. What about you as a leader is going to make someone come to work for you, stay working for you, and bring others to the company to work for you? Is it your passion, is it your joy, it is your flexibility? These are the things that make you inspirational. It’s not your OKRs.


About the Creator

Zulqarnain Haider

I write short stories and poetry. I hope you find yourself in between the spaces of my words.

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