When COVID-19 shut down the world, Lena Jennings, SJND ‘14, found everything she loved stripped away. A people analyst at Google and self-proclaimed busy body, Lena prided herself in maintaining a full schedule filled with volunteering, continued education, time with friends, and traveling.
“Once the pandemic hit and everything was essentially stripped away, all the external noise was stripped away,” she said. “I was left with just myself, and I had to reevaluate how I defined my worth. I so closely attached my worth to my work. I kind of had this small kind of like some identity crisis because I knew who I was but I had this like, ‘am I making an impact? Am I doing things of meaning? Do I have relationships that are sustainable?’”
“What was important to me and I took a few months or a few weeks to be still and understand the impact of what it is I did,” she added, “and re-evaluate how I associated my work to not what I did, but who I was.”
These questions are, perhaps, an extension of Lena’s quest for a more personable life, manifested in a running, three-year blog, podcast, and project, A Personable Life.
“I was inspired to start it because I wanted to start the conversation around how hard it is to authentically show up and be seen as yourself,” she said. “How hard is it to kind of brave the wilderness and stand out on an idea, and share your feelings and emotions with someone when someone asks you how you're doing and really be honest.”
With the pandemic throwing most people’s lives into the air, dashing ideas and expectations of what “normal” should look like, Lena advocated for more meaningful connections as opposed to a comparison game.
“Not everyone will be successful, but everyone will fail,” she said. “If we can connect on the things that actually matter, and the things that we learn from and grow from, that will take us a whole lot farther than just saying how great I am.”
Lena put this into practice when Google mandated their employees to work from home. While currently based in the Bay Area, she took the opportunity to spend two months remote working from Tulum, Mexico.
“When would one ever get the opportunity and chance to live in a different country, take root in a different country, understand the community and the culture in a way in which you get ingrained and embed into it as opposed to experiencing it as a traveler in at most a two-week, week-long stint?” she asked.
Pre-pandemic, Lena had travelled extensively, though she had never gone for more than three weeks, preferring to hop between cities and countries. In going to live in Tulum, she found an opportunity for a different kind of travel, community, and connection.
Lena Jennings, SJND '14, is all smiles during her two-month stay in Tulum, Mexico.
“What does it look like to get yourself rooted and planted into a community, a culture and an environment that's completely different from your own?” she asked. “That's what I wanted to do, and that's exactly what I did. I think I consider myself very conversational, if not fluent in Spanish, and developed friendships from that experience with locals, other travelers, and business owners. Everyone is incredibly present and fully there. No idea, no adventure felt weird or awkward or uncomfortable. No judgement, no preconceived notions”
In current times which have forced many to reconsider the meaning of home, relationships, and connections during quarantine, Lena encourages others to be intentional in their interactions.
“I would say make time for [intentional interactions], make space for it,” she said. “Get to know the person first and understand the person first. Have some empathy for that person realizing that we're not just working from home, we’re working from home in the middle of a pandemic; we are working from home under so much stress. And, we never know what people are going through.”
As the world continues to push forward into many unknowns, Lena shared some thoughts on daring to be our authentic selves. “We have to dare greatly enough to authentically brave connection,” she said, quoting a recent read.
“My thing has always been “know your why.” Understand your why, and that why guides you into making the decisions. Never lose sight of that. Don't be afraid to kind of stand in the wilderness, if that is an unpopular opinion or perspective.”