Kogan ’98: “What I Wish I Knew When I Was A Super-Successful Wesleyan Overachiever”

Nataly Kogan ’98, the author of Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones), will present a WESeminar on Family Weekend about strategies she has learned to manage stress and develop self-compassion. (Photo courtesy of Nataly Kogan)

Nataly Kogan ’98 will present a WESeminar, “What I Wish I Knew When I Was a Super-Successful Wesleyan Overachiever” in the Ring Family Center at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 28.

Kogan, who at 13 emigrated with her family to the U.S. as a refugee from the former Soviet Union, graduated from Wesleyan with High and University Honors as a CSS major. She achieved early success as a consultant with McKinsey & Co, a venture capitalist at the age of 26, and a tech executive with companies like Microsoft. However, this came at a huge personal cost, she says, and it didn’t have to. Now the founder and CEO of Happier, she is the author of Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones), published in May 2018.

Kogan looks forward to sharing her strategies for how to manage stress, treat yourself with compassion to increase motivation, connect with your sense of purpose to boost your resilience during challenges, and thrive while achieving goals.

She spoke about her upcoming talk with the Connection in this Q&A:

Q: What is it about college campuses that make your message particularly important for students to hear?

A: According to The American College Health Association, in 2011, half of undergraduates reported they felt overwhelmed with anxiety. By 2017, 61 percent did.

These are scary numbers and it’s a scary trend. American college students are stressed out, overwhelmed, and feel intense pressure from themselves, their parents, their professors, and our society to succeed.

And what makes it scarier is that we don’t teach college students—or any students, at any level of education—the skills to cultivate and strengthen their emotional and mental well-being. As a society, we’ve not yet embraced that these are not optional soft-skills, but that emotional wellbeing is the foundation for helping students thrive and learn, without burnout, depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, instances of which are increasing every year.

And one of the things I’m committed to doing is just that: Sharing the science-backed practices to help cultivate emotional well-being with as many amazing humans, including students, as possible!

Q: If you had the benefit of the knowledge you share in your book, Happier Now, when you were at Wesleyan, is there any one thing you would have done differently, a course you would have taken or an activity you would have joined?

A: Honestly, I would have savored my experience much more.

I felt it was such an amazing opportunity to be at Wes and I really pushed myself to make the most of it. And I learned and accomplished so much that I am proud of!

But I always felt this pressure to do more, achieve more, be more. And in all that chasing of “more,” I missed so many moments when I should have paused to truly experience the joy of the experience, of learning, of being in this amazing place, with such incredible, inspiring students and professors.

Q: Can you talk about the balance between grit—a quality you admire—and self-compassion?

As an immigrant, grit was my best friend. I was always very hard working, but I had to start from scratch and I felt that if I were gritty, if I worked super hard, then I would achieve great things and truly make the most of the chance to build my life in America. Grit is a very American quality so I also felt like by embracing it, I was truly becoming an American.

But all this grit, overworking, never giving myself a break, and being so harsh towards myself if I ever made a mistake, brought me to a breaking point. I stood at the edge of an abyss, with a great life on the outside, and inside, completely overwhelmed with anxiety, self-doubt, and fear that I was never going to be good enough.

I didn’t learn about self-compassion because I wanted to—I always thought it was for wimps, not fighters like me. I learned about it because I had no other choice—I had a family I cared about and I needed to find another way to live.

Through research and guidance of my teacher, I realized that self-compassion is the furthest thing from letting yourself off the hook or not being motivated to improve. In fact, research shows that self-compassion increases motivation and hard work!

Self-compassion is, very simply, treating yourself as you would a friend, with the goal to reduce suffering.

After I began to practice self-compassion—and it is a skill, one we get better at through practice—I felt that I could actually do better work, be more productive, creative, and motivated to improve. I felt fueled rather than depleted, and while my grit was still there—I am a huge believer in hard work!—it now came from a place of love vs. fear of not being good enough.

Q: And how can families support a Happier college student?

A: My daughter, Mia, is now 14 and just started high school. I can’t really believe it because my husband, Avi Spivack ’99, and I, actually met at Wesleyan, 21 years ago (and have been married for 17 years)!

So I think a lot about how I can be a great parent to her, how I can encourage her and support her to be her best self.

I think one of the most essential skills for a parent to learn—and one I am trying to practice with Mia—is how to help our kids feel unconditionally accepted, as they are.

There is so much research that shows that when we are able to feel accepted and okay as we are, that we are better able to make choices and decisions that are beneficial, that we manage stress and anxiety better, that we are more motivated to work harder and improve.

And yet, as parents, it’s so difficult to accept when our kids are doing something we feel isn’t quite right or they aren’t making the most of the opportunities they have or doing something we don’t understand. I know this firsthand.

But I’ve learned a huge lesson by implementing what research and my work at Happier have taught me with Mia: When I am able to practice acceptance—also, a skill that is easier with practice—she is more at ease, she is more honest with me, and she often comes around to doing the right thing faster than if I push her towards it.

Another side of this is learning how to allow our kids to feel that it’s okay to not always be happy. This is huge and so difficult. As a parent, of course we want them to be happy and when they are not, from love, we try to distract them, or tell them it will get better, or to cheer up.

But that doesn’t just not help—it carries the risk of them learning that it’s not okay to feel difficult emotions, that they are doing something wrong. And research shows the opposite: When we accept and acknowledge our difficult emotions, we feel them with less intensity and for a shorter amount of time.

To help our kids learn that it’s okay to be not okay, we have to create space and allow them to feel this way, even if it means holding our tongue for a bit. It’s not that we never help or offer advice; it’s that first, we simply offer unconditional acceptance.