true WELLth Podcast: Sunil Arora Episode Transcript

Explore the show notes for this episode

Announcer:

The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial wellbeing firm that helps you align your wealth, your passions, and your purpose. Learn more about how you can live a richer life at BrightonJones.com.

Sunil Arora:

So there’s a reason people don’t sit alone with their own thoughts, on their own. It can be daunting and scary, right? If it’s 10:00 AM on a Tuesday and there’s not a meeting you have to get to, or an email you have to respond to, you have no choice but to say, “Hey, what am I thinking about? What’s coming up for me?”

Sunil Arora:

And so at first it certainly can be daunting as I think about my pasts and my fears, my future regrets, all the things that have shaped me to this point, the transformative events in my life. But it’s my belief that if you lean into those things, address them, work with people at the right times in your life to explore them, you can turn that wilderness into something that can be, again, extremely revealing, formative and form a wonderful foundation of consciousness and self-awareness for you going forward.

Stan Hall:

Hello and welcome to the true WELLth podcast, a show where we bring on experts to help analyze and redefine our definitions of wellness and wealth. Our guest today is Sunil Arora. Today, Sunil’s a professional coach for individuals and companies, helping them through major pivots. But his road to this current stage in life has been eventful, to say the least. Sunil really checks all the boxes when it comes to what we think of as the type A overachiever. But the resume flush with such accomplishments as an undergrad from Berkeley and a master’s from Columbia, to working on economic policy for the National Economic Council and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and starting on the ground floor of Addepar, a financial technology firm based in Silicon Valley.

Stan Hall:

Where Sunil truly shines in his role as a coach though isn’t pulling from his experience and lessons learned from the inevitable burnout. This affords him an attuned perspective into prioritizing wellness into our lives. Like many of our own journeys, Sunil didn’t take a direct route into this role but rather a meandering path of pivots. Let’s dive in.

Sunil Arora:

I was born and raised in the Bay Area, so I’d like to say I’m the very proud product of the classic immigrant story. My dad came to the United States a long time ago for grad school, worked his butt off, became a citizen and started life here. And as a result, I was born with this winning lottery ticket to life. All he said to me was, “You worry about working hard and taking care of your schoolwork, and let me worry about everything else.”

Sunil Arora:

So from this really early age, I had this subconscious plant in my brain of, “You’ve been given a lot. What do you want to do with it?” The most formative educational and professional years for me were spent in a very type A, son of immigrant, get stuff done, overachiever mindset, and honestly, came into the world of finance somewhat by happenstance.

Sunil Arora:

At the time I was interested in just doing something kind of different, that didn’t a defined path or a set ceiling. There were certainly… I’d like to do well, I’d like to earn a good salary. But the, again, conventional paths into finance, I wasn’t interested in, right? There’s a very established path, you do well in a certain type of program in college, you can go and work as an investment banker, put your time in. If you do well, you’ll have an opportunity to grow and build from there.

Sunil Arora:

Then for myself, I was more interested in learning broadly about business and, quite frankly, being part of a smaller business or a place where there wasn’t, again, a defined path and I could just go and establish myself and earn my way forward based on what I demonstrated and what I was able to learn and do on my own.

Stan Hall:

After graduating, Sunil embarks on his next big pivot. And, as the adage goes, iron sharpens iron, Sunil embarks for the Island of Manhattan and its economic industry at a very monumentous time.

Sunil Arora:

Early in 2008, my then girlfriend and now wife had applied to grad school and one of the programs she got into was on the East coast. So I leaved my job in the late spring of 2008. So that fall ended up being the upside down, crazy world falling apart existence. And I was navigating it as best I could. Somehow, someway I ended up landing an opportunity in the midst of the crisis. I got an offer in November of 2008 from a very reputable firm, which I was thrilled to have in terms of some stability and…

Sunil Arora:

But again, I found myself only wanting to talk to my colleagues, and the hedge fund managers we’re investing in, and people in the industry about the macro, or our government’s response, how are we going to think through it, how are we going to prevent this from happening again. And a year into that experience came the next pivot, and this was a more major one for me of saying, “You know what? I want to go back to grad school and study this world of finance that I know a lot about and care about from a different angle.” And, for me, that was international finance and economic policy. And so I went into a full-time program.

Stan Hall:

Having done well in grad school, all that was left was for Sunil to decide what the next step he was going to take.

Sunil Arora:

This unexpected opportunity in the world of financial technology came up. It was just exciting, flabbering, unexpected opportunity to help start and run their New York office. And I dove in. Again, this is the mindset of you’ve been given a lot led me to say, “Hey, here’s a chance to learn more, grow more, do more.” But found myself about three years in feeling a little burned out in the classic start off way of I was going back and forth to California, a bunch of things were shifting at the company constantly. And I was just a little worn out, and feeling like I was ready to think about what was next, and this is the pivot that was especially critical and dramatic for me to think about something entirely different.

Stan Hall:

I mentioned all these other minor pivots to contrast the most drastic one in Sunil’s life. Experiencing burnout and unclear on his direction forward, Sunil made the inspired move that rather than continuing to charge forward into the unknown and risk further burnout, he would take a pause. And I think it’s important for us as outsiders to this story to really consider our definition of a pause, and the actions and thoughts we have whenever we do pause at any task in life, no matter how big or small.

Sunil Arora:

As I was thinking about what was next for me, potentially at that point, I was going about it in the way I’d always thought about and seen peers and colleagues do it of you triangulate between three things. What have I done before? Who do I know? And what are the things I’ve studied? If you’re fortunate to have the experiences I had to that point and the education that I had that point, you’re going to have a decent chance at landing a well-paying job in a field that’s well regarded.

Sunil Arora:

As I thought about it, though, I realized that there was an equal opportunity for me to wake up in three months with a different business card and paycheck and say, “Yeah, this is the same thing. I didn’t really address the root of my burnout or what I might want to do differently or how I’m thinking about things.” And I realized that for the first time in my type A, get stuff done, achieving life, I wanted to hit pause with the idea, I had no desire nor was I in any financial position to retire or just hang it up, right? It was a, hey, I’ve never thought about making a transition in some white space, to really stop what you’re doing and turn down the noise, internally and externally, and think about what’s next in a more holistic way and take stock of not only what you’ve done, what you’re great at, but who you are, where you come from and address some of the deeper questions for yourself. So for me, this idea of pause was especially intentional, right? I liken it sometimes to the idea of music.

Sunil Arora:

Right. When you have a bunch of notes strung together without any pause in the midst of them, you have noise. What’s the definition of a beautiful melody? It’s notes strung together with repose, with pause. Right. But oftentimes in our lives, we don’t think about things the same way. We’re just onto the next thing. Wrapped up here, starting there next week. Finish this project, immediately going to start the next one without the opportunity to give yourself a chance to take a step back, not only replenish yourself, but be more intentional and thoughtful about what might come next.

Sunil Arora:

So for myself I said, “Hey, there’s an opportunity here logistically and practically to do that.” To be clear, it was really scary to me. And this is not something I’ve ever done before. I was a planner. I was a know what’s next person. And the idea of just going into my own personal wilderness, to not knowing what’s on the other side took a lot of getting used to. But in hindsight, it’s the best gift I have ever given myself.

Stan Hall:

So was there a clear and defined goal then during your pause?

Sunil Arora:

For me, the goal of this pause was to explore being for the first time in my life and think about how to balance out the doing. So at a high level, I had, again, just been a doer all my life when I said, “Let me understand what it’s like just to be for a little bit, and then think about on a consistent basis going forward, how I can merge that with the inner ambitious doer inside of me.” What that goal practically meant for me was to mentally exercise for the first time in my life. And that meant four things. So for the first time, I started working with a therapist, I started working with a coach, I started meditating and I started journaling. And all of these things were in service of sitting alone, playing on thoughts and exploring some of these concepts of being.

Stan Hall:

Sunil, was it during your pause that you came upon the epiphany that you wanted to go into coaching?

Sunil Arora:

This is an important point to highlight in terms of the non-linearity of the path. I was flushing out a few business ideas during this pause and one of them was in the coaching space. As I had audited my personal and professional tasks, I realize I’d inhabited this role a lot in my life but I had never made anything more of it beyond being flattered to be asked, glad to be helpful because I was a research analyst and a portfolio guy and the head of strategy and the head of sales, right, all these conventional titles and this was just something that came up on the side.

Sunil Arora:

But I saw what the concept… put my commercial and creative hat on and said, “What if there’s something more here?” and flushed out a structure and a framework for the business that I would create and the coaching approach and philosophy I would lead with in working with clients. And I decided to beta test it in my tech mindset background way of let’s see if this works.

Sunil Arora:

So I shared it with my community and I started working with a few clients during this time, towards the middle end of my pause. And I quickly realized three things, I loved it more than anything I’ve ever done before, humbly but confidently, I felt like I was really good at it, and the third thing was my background gave me a unique value add to the space, namely that I was able to and I enjoyed hanging out at 30,000 feet with people to explore their own spiritual questions, the transformative moments in their life, their answers to the deeper questions they were sitting with. And in the same engagement, sometimes in the same session, come down to a thousand feet to say, “Okay, so what does that reflection mean for this conversation you need to have with your boss? Or your approach when you’re going to raise money for your company, how are you going to think about this in a more tactical way?”

Sunil Arora:

This all led me to believe that this was a future thing for me. Excited to dive into it. Felt like I could really build something here. But to be honest with you, I was also extremely scared because this was so off resume. Right? Everything on my LinkedIn profile, my resume makes so much sense until you get to this point and you’re left scratching your head a little bit to say, “How’d that come about?” And as I was sharing it with my community, I got a common refrain from people who said some version of, “Hey, you’re clearly super passionate about this. I know you’re really good at it, but why don’t you wait until you’re X years old with Y dollars in the bank to go do that thing? You have all these exciting startup opportunities in front of you. You could be part of the next big unicorn company. Why don’t you do that, and come back to this later?”

Sunil Arora:

And as much as, again, I knew some of these folks were projecting their own fears or insecurities on me, it absolutely touched upon a fear I had in terms of was I ready? Did I have enough experience? Was I letting something lucrative and exciting go by starting down this really risky path around the same time that my wife and I were thinking about starting a family? And I gave in to this fear. So I didn’t transition straight from the pause to coaching. It was definitely not that clean.

Sunil Arora:

Around that same time, I had a bunch of inbound opportunities in the financial tech world, given my background, and I decided to take one of them while doing this on the side. So I spent a year being an early stage employee at a company here in New York city while doing this on the side. But to be honest with you, mostly, I was just fighting pretty violently internally with myself because all I wanted to do was build this new business, but emotionally and mentally, I just wasn’t ready. And people ask me all the time, “Well, if you could go back and do it again, would you have just started right then?” And I passed that year and there’s immediate and emphatic absolutely not.

Sunil Arora:

I needed that year to get ready. I needed that year to work through the motions, [inaudible 00:13:52] often when thinking about a pivot is it’s not always going to be clean and fluid and storybook in terms of the sequence, there’s going to be a lot of the messiness. And I think embracing that, being kind to yourself through it is critical for working through it.

Stan Hall:

In Sunil’s coaching work today, he draws on his own experience to help his clients on defining their own unique pauses and goals, and more importantly, what are the solid go-dos and improvements they can take away. He walks us through what someone should consider when considering a pause.

Sunil Arora:

The theme of the work I do with people, the work I did on myself is to explore some of these broader concepts we’re talking about here of consciousness and self-awareness and reflection with a tangible, okay, what are you going to do with this thing? Or what are the practical realities involved, right? Because all this isn’t a case study. This is your life, your career, your path forward.

Sunil Arora:

And so for me, as I thought about that time and got comfortable doing it, there were three things emerged that I share with everyone to say, “Hey, if you’re going to think about taking this pause for yourself, here are the things you want to consider.” The first is the easiest one in my mind, and that’s the math involved. Financially, are you comfortable doing this? And this isn’t a question for most people who are in the privileged, fortunate position to be even considering a pause in the first place. And to be clear, to consider one, to take one is an extremely privileged thing to do. There’s no doubt about that.

Sunil Arora:

But it’s still something that warrants consideration because for a lot of people, it might be a situation, well, if I spend X amount of my savings, I’m immediately going to go to a place of anxiety and not be able to utilize this time in a proactive way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just being honest with yourself of what that number is, right, to say, “Okay, I’m comfortable taking three months off, six months off in a year,” whatever it is, right, and bracketing that oftentimes if you’re doing this in the context of having a partner, it’s a joint conversation to have, right? So you can both be on the same page with that.

Sunil Arora:

So I’m not diminishing the challenges around that conversation. But again, given that it’s math, you can sometimes get there a little more easily than these other two parameters.

Sunil Arora:

The second parameter to consider is how you deal with unstructured time. So on one hand, can be a wonderful thing to wake up and say, “There’s nowhere I have to be or nothing I have to do this week.” On the other hand, that might throw you into a fit of paralysis and anxiety. And again, it’s not a formative point or a normative point of you should be able to deal with unstructured time. Why aren’t you embracing this? No, it’s just being clear and kind to yourself about what your reality is. And if that scares you, or if it gives you a little bit of concern around how you might do it, it’s something to think through and get comfortable with to say, “Well, you know what? I’m actually going to structure my time in this way. I’ll have it mostly open and flowing, but I know I need to do this because it’s going to help this period be as productive as possible for me.”

Sunil Arora:

The third parameter is how you deal with both the internal and external soundtrack of expectations. Given that the pause and the personal repose, if you will, is not a common thing to do, although it’s becoming increasingly common, which I love to see, you’ll have the situation for yourself, if you’ve never done that or grown up in a environment where that’s not something you thought of, or you see other people doing, or you’re going to question and doubt yourself at times, right? The proverbial Thursday morning, you wake up a few weeks into this and say, “Okay, so now what are you doing? When are you figuring this out? Let’s go. Where are we going?” Right?

Sunil Arora:

So that’s the internal soundtrack of expectation that a lot of people might have in this. The external can be just as difficult to deal with. And that’s the person you’re sharing with asking questions of you, projecting on you in some way, probing around, “Hey, so how long are you comfortable taking off? Are you worried about the gap in your resume? How are you going to figure out what’s next? What’s your plan or approach here? What does your family think about this?” Oftentimes can be really well-meaning, concerned questions, but again, sometimes it can be people projecting their own fears around something they kind of want to do themselves, but haven’t got to that point or their own judgment about you doing that in the first place, such as starting a part of life that you’re going to encounter doing something like this.

Sunil Arora:

And it’s something, again, that I encourage people to really think through and get comfortable and prepared for that reality. There’s nothing necessarily that you can do to eliminate it. But I think being expecting of it to come and knowing how you’re going to turn down your internal soundtrack and then how you’re going to filter the external one to say, “Hey, there’s going to be some good, thoughtful, probing questions that I need to hear that I should intake to help me think about my path forward. And there’s also going to be some comments and questions that I face that I’m just going to leave and not address because they happen to do more with the other person than they do me.” Right?

Sunil Arora:

So building in that thought process, those mechanisms can help you with that third. But those are the three things, the financial piece, the dealing with structured time, and then the internal, external soundtrack of expectations.

Stan Hall:

Sunil, when you’re working with clients today, are you finding burnout to be the root of their problems on why they may want to explore something like a pause or a pivot?

Sunil Arora:

So it’s interesting. So the burnout question, I’m working through proactively with all of them on some level. For me, it’s really pushing people to understand for themselves and us collectively, how they define success, right? What are the parameters of that? How do you think about that? Because it’s a critical tie to the burning out or how they’re spending their time, appreciating how they might define themselves beyond the professional realm.

Sunil Arora:

So the definition of success and the definition of everyone’s individual purpose comes up a lot in the burnout work of addressing some of the root causes that might be there. And then helping them, again, appreciate different aspects of their identity. Often times in a lot of the urban, highly-educated places in this country and in the world, you’ll go somewhere or you meet someone and the first thing you or they ask is, so what do you do, right? Not, who are you? Where are you from? Tell me about your family. What do you like to read? How do you spend your time outside of work? But these are all real parts of people’s lives and their identities, right? So it’s helping them just think about that and understand where they might want to invest in addition to whatever they’re proudly and wonderfully working on professionally.

Sunil Arora:

For people who are looking to pivot or they’re thinking about how they might want to spend their time differently, one of the things I know you all have explored in depth with the other great guests on this podcast is the ideas of financial wealth versus time wealth. And this is an exploration I’ll do with a lot of people to understand how they’re prioritizing those two things. And on a nuance level, it’s often 1, 1a, to be honest with you of, “Hey, I’m in a stage of my life or my career where I want to and I need to build some financial wealth and time wealth is really important to me, too.”

Sunil Arora:

So that’s 1a. But at some point, honestly, those things might flip for the person and they realize, “Actually, I want to optimize for time wealth right now, while still building financial wealth.” That’s not 1a, but the ordering matters for the industry you might think about joining or whether you want to start your own business or work for somebody, or how big of a job you want to take on depending on everything else that’s going on in your life.

Sunil Arora:

So that’s an exploration I will do with folks who are thinking about the pivot. And another thing I often do is leading with the philosophy of it can be most effective and productive to center around your strengths. I love exploring with people what their superpowers are, the handful of skills that I think we all have where proficiency meets passion meets practicality. Right? What I mean by that is the thing that you’re confidently good at, you’ve done for some time, that you really enjoy doing, you love doing, and that can generate income for you. That’s a marketable skill. Right?

Sunil Arora:

It’s not easy to find many skills where all three of those criteria apply, hence the definition of it being a superpower. But I firmly believe we all have, again, two or three of those. But I love exploring with people, again, who are in transition to think about this in a more organic way. What are your superpowers? Are you optimizing for financial wealth, for time wealth? And then the other thing I’ll do with folks is help them build a literal scorecard that has everything from the values that are most important to them, the superpowers, I mentioned, the rankings of financial wealth and time wealth, also to the length of their commute, what they have to wear to the office when going to office was a thing, to how much they travel, whether they’re managing people, public or private company, whether they care about the mission of the company.

Sunil Arora:

These are all things that sometimes people think of or view desperately, and they think about at different times, and I’ll encourage people in the work we do to organically bring them together and let’s create a rank list of all the things that you know are important to you and use that both as a test against what you’re doing right now to see how it shakes out, as well as a filter for the things you might think about as opposed to the top down, “Oh, I’d like to work in this industry at that level.”

Stan Hall:

Before we go, I would love to hear what your refined definition of success is for yourself.

Sunil Arora:

Success for me is being in line with my purpose statement, as I thought about this over time, is to use my selfless curiosity, my deep listening, and my ability to hold space to help others live with full consciousness and intentionality, right? And that can be, again, in a professional context, in a personal context, but if I’m doing things that are in line with that purpose statement, to me, that’s being successful.

Stan Hall:

The three takeaways I had from this conversation are, number one, life without a pause is just noise. This mantra hits at something that almost seems antithetical to us overachievers. But in reality, a life without pause might as well be chaos. And the pause doesn’t have to be long or grandiose, but that little pauses peppered in throughout can make beautiful melodies.

Stan Hall:

Number two, the criteria for making a pivot of any kind. What have I done before? Who do I know? And what are the things that I have studied? Pivots and changes can be stressful. When compounded with things like a global pandemic, having a criteria like this breaks down decision to manageable chunks.

Stan Hall:

Number three, explore being not just doing. Your inner monologue isn’t something to run away from, but rather to get to know. I also found it fascinating how Sunil viewed his pause as a mental exercise training in four ways, working with therapists, working with a coach, meditating and journaling. And just like any other exercise routine, it should be bespoke to the individual.

Stan Hall:

If you’d like to learn more about Sunil or get in touch, you can find all of his links and transcripts of this show on our show notes page at truewellthpodcast.com, that’s W-E-L-L-T-H .com. If you liked today’s show, if you could recommend it to at least one other friend who could benefit from these ideas, we would be much obliged. Until next time.

Announcer:

The true WELLth podcast, made possible by Brighton Jones. Whether you want to save for the future or celebrate today, give back to the community or explore the globe, Brighton Jones believes your values are every bit as unique as your fingerprints. Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values so you can go after the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life at brightonjones.com.

Announcer:

Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall, alongside the rest of our true WELLth team, Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy, and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team is a trueWELLthpodcast.com.