MarketWell voices: Kara Hardin and Evan Shuster of The Practice Lab on escaping our high-performance culture
This month, we spoke with partners in business and life Kara Hardin and Evan Shuster of The Practice Lab, a venture that seeks to support organizations, teams and individuals in integrating mental health into their organization, work and strategy as fundamental competency to success and achievement.
How has the high performance/‘what is next’ mentality shown up in the past two years in particular and how is it affecting people’s mental health? We are curious to learn both your personal and professional perspectives here, given your own experiences and as partners to each other.
Kara: Well, you’ve asked me something I have lots of thoughts about, perhaps get a cup of coffee or tea and settle in as I share a small novella…
In myself and others, especially over the last (almost) two years, I see a repeating theme of reprioritization that starts with questioning who we are, what matters to us, and how we relate to ourselves and others. It gets existential quite quickly: What’s the point? What makes life good or time well spent? What do I want, right now and long term? That brave questioning often feels less curious and “hmmm, this is interesting to think about”, and more like insecurity. Not having answers feels like frustration and judgement, responsibility, guilt, shame. Navigating the asking and the reaction to asking requires a strange combination of strength, hope, fragility, weariness, exhaustion and relentless drive.
That experience—of profound questioning next to a sense that we are doing something wrong—is exacerbated by high-performance cultures and the systems that promote a “what’s next” context/mentality. Take a group of people who are already incredibly hard on themselves, and then add metrics of evaluation (which to high achievers mark personal value and worth in the world), scarcity of opportunities and resources, and the threat of irrelevance. What you get is an explosion of attrition, ghosting, absenteeism and physical and mental illness. The experience is further complicated by the experience of advantages/disadvantages tied to social, economic, race, age and other parts of our identities, which do not evenly or justly distribute in our society—far from it.
Evan: As partners, when COVID hit, we had just had our daughter in January of that year, and our son had just turned three (I think his third birthday was the first day we were all home together). We decided to keep the kids home to be cautious, and month by month we were trying to juggle my work in a high-growth organization leading a marketing function, with Kara’s growing business.
And I say this knowing that we come from tremendous privilege and are extremely grateful that we even had a choice to keep our kids home and keep working in any capacity. After nine months of juggling every second of every day, we were beyond burnt out. Professionally, as a family, as partners—we were a mess.
For me in particular, it was becoming increasingly difficult to start and end each day feeling like I wasn’t doing enough as an employee, a people leader, a parent and a partner.
Kara: As I mentioned above, even I—who lives and breathes the theory of performance and mental health—started to feel less like I wasn’t doing enough, and more like I was not enough. I felt I was somehow deficient for struggling in the ways I was as things were challenging. What I realized then, was the depth, breadth and power of the work systems in which we function. Suddenly, I knew in myself—and started seeing in my clients, individual and corporate—how we could care, be excellent and strive, while also being enough.
Evan: Once the pieces of the puzzle started to become clear for Kara, she started trying to convince me that she needed help growing what she was nurturing: a mental health consulting organization that offered meaningful education and training to integrate performance and mental health at the individual, team and organizational level. I wish I could say it was smooth and I was sold right away, but for the very reasons the work is so necessary, it took a while for me to feel comfortable and ready to forge an alternative, unchartered path.
What steps are needed to counter this way of thinking? Within organizations? As a society?
Kara: The ‘what’s next’ mentality is not an abstract thing but a commodity mentality. We need alternative metrics for success at work, and more granularly, to counterbalance the all-present power of productivity as it ties to freedom, meaning and restoration. There is no one answer or alternative regarding how we navigate our relationship to performance or doing, and my work is helping people, teams and organizations to understand how to find those alternatives, and work meaningfully to action them in everyday life as well as organizational processes, policies and systems. Performance in life and beyond requires mental health—and mental health requires practice.
Evan: Again, I think it’s important to name and recognize our privileges and advantages as part of the context of how we navigate the greater discussion around meaningful alternatives. There are consequences financially and emotionally to the values we are enacting. We need to be choiceful in the clients that we seek to work with, to communicate our ethics clearly (sometimes awkwardly), and to be willing to learn as we go regarding what’s working and what needs more attention. The idea is that our work personally shows up in our professional practices, and that affords us opportunities for growth and impact (rather than detracts from it).
Our context makes it reasonable and possible for us to choose to chart a new path for ourselves and our family. Opportunities do not distribute evenly in our society, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to address those injustices. We want to support systems in our personal and professional lives that honour the dignity of all people, and in doing so, shift those systems to make our context (and the choices we have) more available to others.
What do you see as the biggest opportunity for wellbeing brands in terms of taking action to reinforce some of these measures?
Evan: We are in the process of building a brand and company that will help in filling those needs with on-demand content, education, strategic consulting and coaching services. The questions we want to encourage larger organizations and teams to think about revolving around seeing mental health and wellbeing not as a reactive strategy when times are tough, but as a part of the fabric for sustainability and business development. Mental health really needs to be looked at like any other talent development framework within an organization—ensuring that it is woven into the pillars and values of the company across levels and functions.
Most of my professional experience to date has been growing wellbeing brands in various categories and one of the constants for those brands that is more important than ever is how their brand’s values extend beyond product and communications and across the entire organization. The ‘employee brand’ is merely an extension of the master brand—who is attracted to work with you on your mission, do consumers want to spend their dollars to grow the company you’re trying to build, how do you create a future-proof organization that is progressive in how it thinks of employee wellness and understands how much of employee wellness is a function of context rather than the employee themselves. We are looking for wellbeing brands and organizations to drive progressive policy leadership in areas like parental leave, work flexibility, education and mental wellbeing.
Kara: While we can all develop competencies and skills in relation to flourishing in our lives, it’s important to regard the work as practices that are embedded in how we show up in our personal and professional lives. Organizations that commit to integrative, proactive and data-driven practices that tie directly to their values and mission, at the individual, team and systems levels, are best positioned to actualize their business goals.
What’s next for you and your business?
Both: In the short term our focus is delivering exceptional work in a way that aligns with our values and the life that we want to live for ourselves but also model for our children. We are working towards a shared vision of what ‘enough’ is for us. Not every startup needs to or wants to be a unicorn. It’s not the only definition of success or impact.
Kara has built an incredible business in the last three years (www.karahardin.com) on her own. Working together, we are almost ready to launch our new business and brand, The Practice Lab (www.thepracticelab.org)! We are growing the team and would love to hear from like-minded individuals who believe in the power of putting people at the centre of business impact. If you are a leader or organization who also values and wants to attend to the health of your people meaningfully, we’d love to help you take that desire from a wish to an actionable, data-driven list of next steps. At the end of the day, we want to build something that really helps others, while letting us live a life that models what we are trying to share with others. It is very easy to get caught up in ‘we are a growing business, what’s next, what’s more’, and so looping back to what we said earlier, for now, we are anchoring in thoughtfully creating something we are excited and proud to share with our families, friends and communities.
Kara Hardin, Founder and CEO of The Practice Lab, is a mental health educator and clinician, who works at the intersection of mental health and performance. She specializes in creating educational workshops and long-term curricula for individuals, teams and organizations looking to integrate mental health and high achievement in meaningful, sustainable and human-focused ways. She holds a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) and a Juris Doctor from the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law.
Evan Shuster is the Chief Growth Officer of The Practice Lab, having spent the last 15 years in progressive Marketing and Sales leadership roles with Fortune 500 and startup organizations in the CPG, financial services and energy industries. He holds an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and a Bachelor of Commerce degree from McGill University.