Talking about men's health with Nash

Nov 19, 2019 • Avik Das

An overhead photo of two people sitting at a table with coffee. Only the coffee and their hands are visible.

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

As men, we don’t have enough frank conversations about how we feel. During Movember and beyond, I want to start these conversations more frequently. While I’ve been talking with people informally, I decided to sit down with Nash Raghavan and ask him a few tough questions.

Nash is someone I’ve worked with on and off through my career, and he’s constantly been a positive male role model. I’ve seen him lead others with empathy and emotional intelligence, so I wanted to know: how have society’s expectations of men have affected him?

Here’s what he had to say. Note that I’ve edited the interview to streamline it, but rest assured I ran it by Nash to make sure I represented him accurately.

Avik: What is masculinity mean to you?

Nash: I don’t know if it actually has a strict definition in my mind. What I think of masculinity are traits and characteristics that are unique to being a man. I know there are specifically health issues that affect men, but outside of that I don’t really resonate with the term masculinity too much.

Avik: Have you encountered situations where traditional ideas of masculinity ever had a negative impact in your life, personally or professionally?

Nash: I grew up in the early 80’s in Florida. It was a very different time, a very different generation, a very different culture about what was expected of a young boy growing up. There were expectations like boys play sports, boys fight or they stand up against bullies. Some characteristics can be confrontational, some characteristics are based around physical strength and agility.

Growing up, I was a pretty introverted kid, I wasn’t a very sports-centric person. My brother was on the football team, I was playing with computers. As much as I like playing football with the kids outside, I was never this kid who was going to join the varsity football team. Whenever I got into a conflict or a fight with a kid in school, I was always the one who would back down. I wouldn’t assert my physical dominance or presence.

There were these odd, dated, cookie-cutter expectations of what a man is, and what a boy should be growing up to be. It certainly had an impact on my personal life growing up, because I never felt like I fit that mold.

What I’ve seen, it kind of irks me, and maybe it’s an unfair thing to bother me, but if you look at leaders around you, more often than not, leaders are tall, physically fit males. I’ve kind of always thought in the back of my mind that one of things that could be holding me back is my height or my physical fitness because it’s difficult to look at someone who’s short and overweight and aspire to be them. I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s held me back, but it’s certainly been something on my mind as I progress into more of a leadership role.

Avik: Have you encountered expectations what it means to be an assertive or effective leader? Have you ever conflicted with that?

Nash: Yeah, especially earlier in my career. Leaders tend to be extraordinarily assertive. They may not always speak a lot, but when they do speak, they’re very assertive with their tone. That’s not my style.

You’ve seen me in meetings, and I’m not like, “We must absolutely go this way. I don’t want to hear anything else.” It’s more like, “I think we should go this way. What do you guys think? How do we come to a solution together?” I have a very collaborative, empathetic leadership style. I think that’s at odds with how a traditional, strong, male leader has been seen in the past. I think that’s changing over time. But a lot of leaders I’ve seen to date, especially the males, are alpha males, dominant, vocal, assertive, and that’s not really my style.

(Avik’s commentary: having worked with Nash, I’ve found him to be an extremely effective leader. This goes to show that the standard archetype of a male leader is not the only way to lead.)

Avik: How have you navigated some of the more emotional experiences in your life? For example, this notion of aspiring to this alpha male stereotype but having some contention with not wanting to fit that mold? Or a stressful project where you have certain expectations put on you?

Nash: If you look at traditional leaders, you often see they don’t take a lot of time off. They don’t have or don’t talk about mental health issues. They seem to be these very strong constants in the workplace. Which is kind of what you want out of a leader: you want that constant source of strength, that the business continues in the same direction and doesn’t oscillate based on the emotions of the leader.

I go through a lot of what I would say are emotional roller coasters at times. For example, we were doing this project. We got everybody in one building, all the devs, all the front-end engineers, all the mobile engineers. It was working nights and weekends, and during that time, [I experienced the loss of two people close to me]. I was going through emotional turmoil.

So there’s a lot of these things in my life where I felt emotionally unstable and I didn’t know how to handle it. It’s tough because you come to the workplace and you’re not allowed to have those feelings. You’re not allowed to be sad, or confused, or even down. That’s not what they expect out of a leader. So, I actually ended up taking a leave of absence. I think it was a couple of months, can’t remember how long it was. I just had to reset and there was this period of… it wasn’t because I needed to do anything other than focus on my mental health.

To this day, it’s not something I’ve felt comfortable talking about because of the fear it would make me look like a weak leader. To need time to focus on your mental health, or to become emotionally stable, for lack of better words, is not something you would talk about or expect of a leader.

Avik: Did you feel any sense of isolation, not just from the people at work from whom you needed to take the leave of absence, but otherwise? Did you have people to talk to outside of work?

Nash: You know what’s interesting is even in my personal life, talking to my brother about these kinds of things is somewhat difficult. A traditional male brother relationship is you guys hang out, you drink beer, you watch football together, but you don’t talk about, hey I’m feeling sad today because I’m missing somebody. At least in my family, in my culture, those feelings are usually reserved for… you talk about it with your mom or you talk about it with your significant other. But my family didn’t have a very strong emotional kind of communication on the male side of the family. It made it difficult.

Avik: I have personally experienced that with male friendships as well. Even people you would hope to have a lot of connection with, it’s hard to bring up these topics and just talk about your emotions in a very frank way.

Nash: Yeah, totally. I mean, it comes back to that thing you said, what’s masculinity to you? I think to some level, I don’t necessarily correlate strong traits or characteristics of masculinity. There are some negative ones, when we talk about things like emotional openness. It’s almost like if you’re male or you’re masculine, you’re not open about your emotions or you’re not open about mental health things. Actually something I thought about when you first asked me the question, but I certainly associate those traits and attributes with masculinity, like shying away from those conversations.

Avik: One of the things that’s important is for those who do have a strong masculine identity is to disassociate these negative ideas from masculinity because they don’t necessarily need to get rid of their masculine identity to shed these negative ideas.

Nash: I agree with you. For someone who values that, thinks it’s valuable, hopefully that aspect of being able to talk openly about feelings or emotions or mental health is removed from that identity.

Avik: What do you think, going forward, men should be doing that they are not doing today?

Nash: I think there are a couple of things. We touched on one, which was this concept of being open with each others about emotions and mental health.

The other thing that I see, at least amongst my group of friends, is being a male and healthy is actually all about physical traits and attributes. Which is, am I skinny enough, do I have the right set of muscles, do I look good in the right suit?

But I think there’s another aspect of health that we never talk about and we never are proud of. If you lost ten pounds, you go to tell all your friends, “Hey, I lost ten pounds.” If you go to get a prostate exam, you don’t talk about it all. Nobody says, “Hey, guess what, I cleared my prostate exam!”

If you look at men’s fitness magazines, the cover is just like this dude who’s ripped in like some short swimsuit and that’s the perfect image of men’s health. But I think that needs to change, because there’s so much more to humans in general, not just men. There’s an aspect of internal physiological health, like your heart and your prostate and all those other organs that are in your body, not just the outside.

But also your mental health, right. How are you feeling? Do you feel supported? Do you have the right community? This is where I think this push in the recent, I would say, decade, of mindfulness and mental health, I think is amazing. I hope that somebody could be just as proud of lifting three hundred fifty pounds or whatever it is as they are about doing mindfulness for N number of days in a row. If we can equate health to being more than just those physical attributes, it’ll be a big win for us.

Avik: I think what I got most out of this interview is there are certain things not at the top of your mind day-to-day. But when reflecting on them, it’s clear to see how there were negative effects from how we as a society treat ourselves and others that we just don’t think about. And it has these negative effects down the line that we don’t anticipate.

Nash: Yeah, I think that’s right, specifically around the expectations of how somebody should behave or their physical characteristics as a result of being a male. Society has some expectations: you’re a man, therefore you should ride a bike and not play with Barbies. It’s kind of an interesting thing. It starts there and goes all the way up to, now you’re in a leadership position, you’re a male, you can’t have mental health issues, you have to be tall or strong. I don’t really think about these on a daily basis at all but certainly once in a while you reflect, and you think, “Hmm. Is this effecting me or is this not? I don’t know.”

Avik: I hope that as I grow into more of a leadership position myself, I am able to put aside these expectations both for myself and for other people I grow in my leadership role.

Nash: I think the fact that you’re taking such an open-minded and proactive approach to understanding men’s perspective and men’s health in general is leaps and bounds better than where we used to be, I’d say, twenty or thirty years ago. I think the good news, to end this on a good note, your generation and the expectations of how we treat men versus women have evolved so much in the last thirty years. I have incredibly high hopes this concept of boys play with bicycles and girls play with Barbies, I feel like that’s completely gone, at least in the circles of culture I know of. With your generation and the desire to do the things you’re doing right now, the future is incredibly bright for men’s health.

If nothing else, I hope you, the reader, will take the following from our conversation:

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