By Tyler Calder
When I spoke to Jen Gotch in January of this year, I was giddy (she tends to elicit that from people). The founder and now Chief Creative Officer of ban.do — a brand known for its bright and colorful lifestyle products and proclivity for joy — is among our most-asked-for interviews, and for good reason.
Jen has made a name for herself not only through the brand she’s built, but also through her own personal brand on Instagram, which acts as part mental-health diary and part parking-lot dance party. For many who follow ban.do and follow Jen, she’s a shining example for anyone who aspires to live creatively and authentically while navigating the highs and lows of life.
When I spoke to Jen on that January day, I knew her new book The Upside of Being Down would resonate with people. But I didn’t know that, in a shifting world that would soon challenge us in unforeseen ways (yes, I’m talking about Coronavirus), it would have the capability to be so much more to people: a laugh during a hard time, a cause for reflection, and a light on mental health and illness that we now need more than ever.
In it — in her signature lighthearted, honest way — Jen takes on her own lifelong mental health journey, from breakdowns to a bipolar diagnosis and the incredible creativity and spirit she built along the way. For anyone on their own winding road with mental health, it’s a reminder that things can change and answers can be found. For others, it’s a reminder that feeling your best is both the journey and the destination for all of us, really.
Congrats on the new book! Throughout it, you talk a lot about maintaining your positivity and resilience through the ups and downs of life. What advice do you have for others trying to prioritize positivity through it all?
At its core, The Upside of Being Down is a book about optimism. That’s how I chose the title. While I do have a natural proclivity for positivity, the simplest piece of advice I have is that I try to distill it down to one choice every day and in every situation — do I want to be positive or do I want to be negative? It feels empowering to take back that control. I also try to practice realistic optimism — you should feel sad when you’re sad, but I try to look for information in those moments of crisis.
Something you mention in a pointed moment in the book is the importance of building a support system, especially in the face of learning to live with a mental illness. What can building that support system look like?
During that chapter of my life [when I was trying to get to the root of my mental illness], I didn’t have a large support system. I had my therapist and I had my mom. My psychiatrist was not a support system at all. Sure, I had a lot of people that didn’t want me to suffer — but also there wasn’t much they could do.
I think sometimes the phrase “support system” makes it sound like you need to have an intricate network of people, but in my mind, it starts with one person that you can rely on — especially in a time of crisis. You can expand from there. If you’re fortunate enough to have a mental health professional in your life, that’s a great place to start; but that support can come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe it’s your general practitioner — maybe it’s your eye doctor. You never know!
There are different types of support. Sometimes you need someone that’s going to listen to you cry for three hours and is just going to be there. Sometimes you’ll need something a little deeper than that. I think it’s important to look at your support system as something that can grow and evolve over time.
The first step to being able to build a support system, though, is finding ways to talk about mental health.
Image via @shopbando on Instagram
One of the most illuminating parts about the book is that you illustrated a lot of mental health scenarios that so often take place behind closed doors — like your first nervous breakdown, finding the right therapist, and bringing a psychiatrist (and the right one at that!) into the fold. Why was it important for you to pull back the curtain on these moments?
The good thing is that sharing and pulling back the curtain are some of my strong suits. There are no limits to what I will share, as long as it doesn’t impede on someone else’s privacy.
I really wanted to write a self-help book, but I was asked to write a memoir. So, for a while, I was really trying to sneak some self-help in there. At first, I wasn’t convinced that my stories were anything worth writing about. I lived them, and I’ve revisited them so many times that I wasn’t aware of the impact stories of mental health could have. Thankfully, my editor at Simon & Schuster really pushed me to tell them.
You have a necklace line that puts words that often feel big and scary — like “anxiety” and “depression” — front and center for those who wear them. How do you think can we get better at talking about mental health and mental illness?
I find that people often celebrate the lightheartedness I bring to conversations about mental health, but I’ve just never seen the shame in it. So many people suffer — and if you don’t suffer, then someone you know does. So of course we should talk about it. It’s relatable. The more secure you are, and the more you understand it, the less BIG it all feels. The more self-awareness and emotional intelligence you can build — and the more you can learn about mental health — the more you’re able to flip the script in the way you talk about it.
I’ve realized that the more informed I’ve become, the less of a mountain it feels like to talk about mental health.
How does someone build that security and emotional intelligence?
I think one problem is we’re not taught about emotional intelligence at an age where we can start building it. I think steps like reading, talking to a therapist, participating in a support group, journaling, talking to friends, or even watching a movie with a character you identify with — really anything that gives you the ability to introspect — can help you build it. The more you learn about yourself, the more you can understand other people, and that opens doors to these types of conversations.
In the book, you often acknowledge your privilege in navigating the healthcare system and managing your mental illness. What advice do you have for anybody trying to navigate finding the right therapist or psychiatrist or medications who may be losing hope or patience?
The system is a little bit broken when it comes to getting help to people of all demographics. It’s just not there yet. At a certain point, learning to summon your own hope and patience (which we all have the capacity to do) is a key part of it because mental health is a truly never-ending journey. Even as recently as 4 or 6 weeks ago, I spent time re-addressing something that had come up with my mental illness and I realized the door doesn’t ever truly close.
Like I said earlier, another important part is learning to talk about your mental health. When you can talk about it, you can learn from people and connect to resources. If you talk about it, someone may drop insight or knowledge that can help. They may know of a support group that’s free. Talking about it can help you get at it and find those people and that community you’re seeking.
Therapy and psychiatry are a big part of it, but I do think that it has to be a multi-prong approach. You have to come at it from a lot of different angles. And that’s part of the reason we made the necklaces — to connect people with a community in a new way.
You also discuss how — through your openness on social media and work with ban.do — people were quick to identify you as a mental health advocate, before you were ready to use the term. Why was that important and difficult for you?
I still don’t know that I’m comfortable with it. I think — for better or for worse — there’s something in my personality that makes me buck convention. I think people associate advocacy with anger at times, and I struggle with that.
I feel like whether I use the title or not — I am advocating for mental health and for more open conversations around it, but not in the same way as others maybe. The moments when I’ve felt ready to embrace it have been moments when we’ve worked with Bring Change to Mind through the sales [and messaging] of the necklace. I recently went to their student summit with 300 high school students working within their schools to raise awareness about mental health, and I opened the floor for questions and I was just blown away. I felt so connected to them.
My therapist told me really early on that she could see me doing this someday, and I couldn’t even wrap my mind about how that would even come to fruition. That moment for me was something that stuck to me when it did come to fruition 20 years later.
I’m happy to do it — title or not title.
In TUOBD, you talk about how self-care is a series of smaller steps to help us maintain a baseline; and you also explain it’s just one piece of the puzzle. What do you think the slices of the “taking care” pie look like?
I think about it as holistic betterment. I hate to use wellness because it’s become a cliched thing now, but when I think about checking in with myself, I’m thinking about professional wellness, mental and emotional wellness, physical wellness, environmental wellness, and spiritual wellness. Checking in with all of those things constantly is important to me. It’s second nature to me now because I realized I need to be well. It’s important to a lot of things. I do try to look at it more holistically now, though, so I’m not leaving something out of the bigger picture.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your Emotional Rating System, the significance of the number 7.8, and how you recommend people incorporate this into their own daily check-ins with themselves?
The emotional rating system was born out of a need for my mom to keep tabs on how I was doing during a time of emotional struggle — and me not really wanting to talk to my mom about it. Sometimes that’s how mothers and daughters interact. She just started asking me for a number. That — coupled with my work with a psychiatrist, who’d often ask about cycles to my moods — put me in the habit of rating my mood.
It became an easy way for me to check in with my mom, but also myself. The 7.8 represents how drilled-down it got for me. There were decimals. The system I created was meant for someone like me with Bipolar, where there are highs and lows. A 10 would not be an ideal mood because that might mean I’m too high, but to me, 7.8 is my perfect stable mood. I like to take note of those days because we don’t get them all the time. It’s just a simple rating system, but you can get really deep in it and find a new way to communicate.
Creativity & Entrepreneurship
Over the years, so many of our readers have asked us to interview you because they love your work with ban.do and your candor on social media. In TUOBD, you’re very candid about your winding road to finding a creative and fulfilling role. What advice do you have for those in that experimenting phase?
Try lots of things and keep an open mind. Don’t limit yourself and pigeonhole yourself too early. There were a lot of things I did [before founding ban.do]. I didn’t just graduate college and say, “I’m a creative and I want to start a company and be the Chief Creative Officer.” It was through trying different things that I built a skillset that I wouldn’t have otherwise built. I’m not done yet — and I’m 48.
I think the idea that we decide and commit and need to stay narrow is limiting. If you put yourself in any creative environment, you’ll take something from it — even if it’s not your lifelong career.
I was so inspired reading your reflection on the “I AM VERY BUSY” planner — one of ban.do’s most popular products ever, that you no longer feel so positively about. I thought you took a very reflective approach to acknowledging the world around us has a busy-ness problem at the moment. What are your thoughts on the current state of “hustle culture” and how we can step back from it?
As you can tell, I don’t love hustle culture, even though at many points of my career, I’ve been a major contributor to it. I think what people attribute to “the hustle” has grown to this highly unsustainable lifestyle, and so much of it is glamorized. In the end, you don’t actually see the negative effects of it — the effects on people’s health, relationships, or financials. We’re not programmed to work like that, so something always gets lost in that process.
I just don’t think we’re built for the workloads, workdays, access to work, and the constant digital stimulation of work that’s happening right now. I didn’t always understand that, and I talk about that in the book.
I was getting tired — and now, at 48 — I want my time to recharge or read a book.
I also really enjoyed the chapter or two about building a work culture that allowed people to express their emotions and your learnings about boundary-setting in an environment like this.
To me, I’ve learned within a company culture, everything starts with leadership. I’ve seen so many of my own qualities — both positive and negative — amplified by creating such an intimate space from the beginning, and I’m still learning. There have been times I’ve shown too much, and I needed someone to tell me to go home. And there have been times I’ve been too explicit with my emotions.
I’ve learned, though, that who you hire is important. I’ve learned that how you treat those emotional circumstances when they occur is important. Most people do not walk around our office crying, but I think people know it’s okay to show their emotions. And we know it’s important that when you’re struggling with something —and it’s going to affect your work — those conversations can probably look a little different at ban.do, where we encourage that type of open conversation.
I’d much rather someone tell me they’re having an anxiety attack — if they’re comfortable doing that — then pretending these things don’t exist.
Pivoting slightly, in the book, you also mention a certain pop star that put ban.do on the map in its early years. Care to tease who it was?
Yes, Taylor Swift played a huge role in us staying alive that first year! She was on a photo shoot for Seventeen magazine and the stylist had pulled ban.do of the very early days — we’re talking floral halos and hair accessories. Then her stylist called us and asked for more and we were like, “YES. You can have whatever you want.” She really opened doors for us by exposing us to a new, younger audience.
What books, TV shows, or podcasts are you currently loving?
I find myself revisiting older classics lately — like Seinfeld, I went through a Mary Tyler Moore Show phase, now I’m on Laverne and Shirley, and I want to track down Mork & Mindy next. I’ve fallen back in love with The Chappelle Show. I feel very Gen X. I am Gen X!
For podcasts, I’m not a huge podcast listener, but I do love The goop Podcast.
Book-wise, I am always re-reading The Four Agreements. I’m about to read a book called You Are the Placebo. I tend to nerd out when it comes to books. My dream is to have a bookstore in the desert, but because I probably won’t do that in the next ten years, I’ve been thrifting old self-help books. I don’t know if I’m going to read each one and do a book report or what, but even just reading the back covers is so interesting. I’ve always loved self-help books, since I was young. That’s my go-to. I love to learn.
What’s your favorite way to spend time with friends?
Talking in conversation — whether that’s going on a hike or walking around the Rose Bowl or just sitting at my house. That’s where it is for me. A great two-hour conversation about life — or working through something — is how I connect with people. Nothing trumps that.
What does an ideal solo night in look like for you?
I’ve had so many ideal solo nights in my life! It’s hard to even say. I think it has more to do with how I’m feeling than what I’m doing. There’s so many variations of that because I live alone and have spent a lot of my adult life living alone, and I love it. I think [my favorite is] a night that comes at the end of the day where I’ve been challenged, but I’ve also made progress — if I feel good in my body. If from there, I’m getting in my PJs and watching Schitt’s Creek or reading something that’s a good brain book, I think it has more to do with whether I feel like a 7.8. than what’s around me.
Nothing beats feeling good.
I like that response because I think a lot of people would answer that with external factors but you chose to look within.
There’s a lot inside of me — a whole world in there.
What advice would you give yourself right out of school, when you started ban.do, and when you really started to experience success with it?
I think I would say everything’s going to take longer than you think. And know that there will always be peaks and valleys, and a valley isn’t necessarily indicative of failure. I would also say put on some neck cream, eye cream, and stay out of the sun.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I’d love to be remembered for my dancing in front of garbage dumpsters but also as somebody who found a way to evoke joy in happy and not so happy times, too. That’s the good stuff.
Images by Nikki Neumann.