From Abuse To Homelessness To Shoplifting To Fame
Singer/songwriter Jewel is working to help employers invest in their Human Capital in a more meaningful way by solving pain points for employees. I had a chance to sit down with the recording artist and ask her about her journey from abuse and homelessness to musical fame and workplace mental health advocacy—which has personal roots, penned in her best-selling memoir, Never Broken.
Growing up with no running water on an Alaskan homestead where she was indoors for eight months out of the year, Jewel knows about isolation. Her parents had a show in hotels for tourists, and she grew up singing cover songs in bars. “When I started having high anxiety around eight or nine, I saw people in bars drinking, trying to outrun their pain,” Jewel said. “And I saw it never worked and made a promise to myself to learn to handle the pain as it came.” After moving out of an abusive household at 15, Jewel was homeless by age 18, hitchhiking across the country and learning to play the guitar so she could street sing along the way, learning to shoplift as a way to handle stress, anxiety and trauma.
Jewel’s Personal And Professional Journey
How did Jewel go from an anxious teenage shoplifter, suffering from debilitating panic attacks and agoraphobia, to an award winning, multi-platinum recording artist with one of the best-selling debuts of all time? And then on to become an advocate for mental health in the modern workplace? “Statistically, kids like me end up repeating the cycle of abuse, and I didn’t want to be a statistic,” she told me. “But there was nowhere I could learn a new emotional language. In school I learned math and English, but at home I learned an emotional way of relating to the world.” So she set off on a mission to understand how not to be a statistic and what to do with her pain.
Jewel noticed when she was journaling, it helped her anxiety go down. Looking back, she realized it was a great mindfulness tool because it caused her to be curious in the present. She told me she couldn’t figure out what she was thinking because of her anxiety. “Our hands are the servants of our thoughts,” Jewel said. “So I came up with an exercise to watch my hands during the day, and that was the first time I discovered that my anxiety disappeared when I was present.” Her song “Hands”—which later became a big hit—was about the moment she stumbled into being consciously present. “I was very prolific at shoplifting, so I learned to write whenever I had the urge to steal to become prolific at writing because I was trying to stop being prolific at stealing,” Jewel said.
Jewel almost didn’t sign her record deal because she had just started learning how to be happy in that year of being homeless. “When you suffer with agoraphobia and panic attacks and start getting relief from those pain points, it’s like gold. That’s worth all the money in the world,” she said. “And you take somebody with my fragile emotional baggage background—and god forbid I get famous—that’s like becoming another statistic. The odds were really high that I would tank, so I made myself a promise. I remember being on the beach in San Diego saying that my number one job was learning to be a happy, whole human. My number two job was to be a musician.”
Jewel said she had to come up with a plan that was just as strategic for her happiness as it was strategic for her music career. “At 47, I’m very proud to sit here and say I’ve never let that promise down,” she said. She began to develop a set of tools to rewire her brain and create new emotional patterns that were later validated by neuroscientists. After learning meditation and discovering and innovating her own mindfulness practices, Jewel was able to heal her depression symptoms. “When you’re consciously present, you make better decisions, and there are exercises that build the muscle ability to be consciously present for longer periods of time like basic meditation or mindful walking—mindfulness in motion—that creates new neural networks.”
The experience made her wonder about kids like her without access to traditional support systems such as counseling and therapy and how she could arm them with a “psychology for life.” So she used some of the same tools to help at-risk youth through her charity Inspiring Children Foundation and offers the same tools online for free at Jewel Never Broken. Then she began to wonder how she could help employers invest in their Human Capital in a more meaningful way.
“Traditionally our work culture is perk driven,” she said. “Companies have been offering everything from dry cleaning to dog sitting. But what if your employer could help you solve your pain points in your life outside of work?” Jewel partnered with SaksWorks and launched a first in-person work culture curriculum that offers deeper engagement and loyalty while also creating greater productivity. “Employees will show up at work with more bandwidth, more creativity and more courage—as well as more loyalty,” she added.
Jewel On Job Stress And Burnout
“Our work shouldn’t make us sick. That isn’t to say we can’t be productive. Those things aren’t antithetical. In fact, we’re learning that when we help people soften their anxiety and trauma, they become more productive, but it’s not about working more, it’s about working smarter. We’re learning that by helping people clear up their stress, anxiety and trauma, it expands their emotional bandwidth, and they’re showing up to work much more functional and productive without having extra work hours.”
Jewel On Work/Life Harmony
“One of the things we teach in our coaching sessions is that balance is anti-life—anti-nature because you’re talking about a binary system that’s precarious. But what is life? It’s change. So balance sets you up to fail—all day, everyday. Because the second your work needs more, you’re out of balance, and your kids lose out or visa versa or whatever you put it in conflict with. And so you want to think in systems of harmony. Harmony takes presence, and when you’re present you learn to make a lot of micro-adjustments quicker. When we’re not present, we don’t notice the micro-adjustments that have to happen like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m getting tired. Maybe I’ll work from home today.” Or “You know what, I’m feeling so disconnected. I’m gonna make sure I do something that will make me feel connected to an employee.” When you’re present, you make these little micro-adjustments that help everything work together better versus these systems of balance where we may not be present and don’t notice until suddenly one of them hits hard.”
Jewel On How Employers Can Help
“Workplaces lost an estimated one trillion dollars in a year due to depression and anxiety alone. It behooves employers to get involved and help solve this for their employees because we have to. Traditionally, would it be an employer’s job to start thinking about these things? No, but you have humans in your workplace, and you have to handle the fact that these humans are struggling. There are simple solutions to make that pain point go down. We’re realizing emotional health affects our physical health and then improves productivity and reduces turnover. We have to find a way to create a wholistic system that benefits productivity. Connection cures so much. If you could create a highly-connected work environment and show leaders why it’s a win-win, it should increase their bottom line.”