If you know me or work with me at all, you know that I am an early riser. Most weekdays I am up at 4:15am on the dot. I don’t even set an alarm anymore – my brain just knows to flip on that time every morning.

Of course, to get up that early means I also go to bed early. Most nights I struggle to make it past 9pm which also why you don’t see me as much on the evening circuit of Charlotte civic engagement and nonprofit events. Everything starts shutting down pretty early.

Most nights I am out like a light as soon as my head hits the pillow. The exhaustion has been different since the start of the pandemic as I find myself unable to look at a screen and need to close my eyes just to rest them. I find that my brain is delighted for the respite, and my subconscious mind clicks in and uses my dreams to work stuff out.

So it is super anxiety-forming when I don’t just drift off to dream land. I can usually tell within 15 minutes whether I’m going to have “one of those nights,” where my brain refuses to turn off and everything comes flooding forward. Knowing that I can tell when I will be challenged to sleep creates even more anxiety, creating a shame cycle that can last well into the wee hours.

This used to happen very infrequently – I’ve been a great sleeper all of my adult life. But over the last 18 months? I will admit that it happens more often. Not weekly, but at least a couple times per month or more. If I’ve seemed grumpy first thing in the morning, now you know why.

The thing is, I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve noticed others complaining of insomnia on social media and with good reason. There is a lot of heavy stuff happening in the world. It got me wondering, what do Charlotte leaders think about when they can’t sleep?

I reached out to my network with a simple question: “What keeps you up at night?” The responses were varied and truly a snapshot of this moment in time, and I could empathize with all of them.

Getting Back to Normal

When we launched our Zoom business roundtable at the start of COVID-19 last year, we made the mistake of titling it “The New Normal.” Some rather vocal people hated the title from the start, openly campaigning for us to rename it. While we thought we were encouraging people to find ways to embrace the changes that needed to be made at a time of a global pandemic, I must admit longing for the days when we could get back to the way things were. The longer this goes on, the more “the new normal” appears to be taking its toll.

According to one leader of ESG programming at a local corporation, the ongoing disruption to status quo has had a visible effect on coworkers:

“What keeps me up at night is the emotional well-being of my teammates. You can see the exhaustion in everyone’s eyes, or at least as much as you can see on Zoom. While ‘work is work,’ there was some joy that we would all get out of it pre-pandemic. I am worried about how and when we can get that back.”

A return to normal was on the minds of others as well. Will Teichman, VP of Operations at Kimco had a similar reflection following a year-and-a-half of growth and change at his company:

“After 18 months during which we’ve worked remotely, merged with an industry peer, and grown our workforce by over 100 new employees, I’m wondering what a return to ‘normal’ looks like and whether we will be able to maintain and continue to grow the uniquely diverse, collaborative and entrepreneurial culture within our company.”

Staying competitive for talent was a recurring theme. Blair Primis, OrthoCarolina’s Senior Vice President, Marketing & Talent Management sees the current challenge around the workforce an opportunity for employers:

“I am most concerned about the great resignation. It’s affecting our team members and our clients. We have to develop ways to be an employer of choice for existing and new employees not just now but in perpetuity.”


Tackling the Big Stuff

Big thoughts were on the minds of some in my network who find nighttime a backdrop to problem-solving and idea generation.

Valaida Fullwood is a writer, public speaker and consultant who has accomplished so many things having recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of publishing Giving Back, her award-winning book that chronicles philanthropy among African Americans. So it may be a surprise to learn that she can feel challenged by barriers to realizing vision.

“While few things keep me awake, I do experience tremendous angst when I have a powerful vision for something, can see a clear path to achieve it but feel thwarted by time… or anything that blocks progress toward it,” said Fullwood. “Arghhh, I’m tenacious though and generally am driven to figure it out, like a puzzle or labyrinth.”

Cathay Dawkins, Executive Director of Black Businesses of Charlotte, can relate:

“I find I’m most creative and most ‘in tune’ at night. No emails or calls to disturb me, and I can hone in on one Big Idea. I never try to shut off my brain when I’m in creative mode, it would only lead to a restless night. So I grab my pen and paper and let the visions flow. Every single one of my best ideas, events, businesses, etc., was birthed at night.”

Fitting It All In

Does it feel like 2021 is flying by? It does to me. Whereas 2020 felt like a long, slow march, this year has been a blur. And not in an entirely good way. Perhaps it is just the energy in the world right now, but I can feel time slipping away and I worry that I am not getting to everything I want or need to do.

That nagging pang of accomplishing tomorrow’s tasks is mitigated through structured processing by Will Whitley, Partner at New South Properties of the Carolinas:

“Every night I ask myself, have I done all I can today to make New South Properties and our team members the most efficient and most successful possible? What did I miss? As I prepare my morning To Do list, what are my priorities?  What can we do at each of our properties to make them better?  How do we ensure our clients know we are thankful for the opportunity to work with them?  How do we get better tomorrow?”

Getting better was a sentiment echoed by Alan Primack, Director at the Property Risk Management Association:

“My job is to help my members prepare for things like fires, floods and hail, so the current state of our climate and all the increased changes we are experiencing can keep me up nights. How can we mitigate where we stand now and in-turn what can we do to be part of the solution moving forward?”

Children & Education

I’m sort of dangerous at parties because I know a little bit about a lot of things. That is one of the upsides of my job, exploring all the different issues and opportunities facing our Charlotte community. But it can also be a big burden, like knowing how bad things are for some people or how seemingly hopeless it can feel when staring at the enormity of a big problem.

It is difficult to ponder the challenges facing public education right now and not freak out a little bit. The pandemic has set us back so far, and we were already starting from behind. It’s on the mind of many in my network, including April Whitlock, Head of Corporate Citizenship at LendingTree:

“The biggest thing that keeps me up at night is the elementary education gap between our white and black students in our public school, and how it exponentially grew during the pandemic virtual environment. Charlotte cannot begin to close our income gap and improve the ability for upward mobility in this community until we fix our public school issue. There are so many great community embedded nonprofits who are doing great work and having big impact, but it’s not enough until there is change in the way the system operates.”

A Growing Sense of Urgency

April was not alone in channeling thoughts about systemic change and a growing sense of urgency that recovery is going to measured in years and not months. It was a sentiment voiced by Erin Barbee, Senior Vice Present for Programs and Fund Development at DreamKey Partners:

“My primary focus is getting emergency assistance funds to people who have been impacted by COVID 19. Millions of dollars must go out the door to keep people from being homeless. What keeps me up at night? What if someone loses their home because we didn’t get to them in time? How can we reach the most vulnerable of our population? Is this effort just a band-aid? How can I keep my team motivated when all they hear is despair and hopelessness each and every day? Am I doing everything I possibly can to make an impact? This list could go on for days. In our city, I see many things going back to normal and we aren’t talking about the hurt that people are still feeling from 2020. I worry that suffering in silence is starting to happen.”

“Are We Really Making a Difference?”

When I set out to write this piece, I knew I was opening myself up to feeling some feelings, but I don’t know if I was prepared for the emotional response it would evoke. It was summed up pretty well by a leader of corporate social responsibility for a sizable area company:

“The thing that keeps me up at night and I imagine for others… are we really making a difference?  Are we actually moving the needle?  The statistics and realities that we see daily, particularly during COVID, tells me no. But we seem to be busier than ever, partnering more, having more conversations, investing more. etc. I often wonder if there just isn’t a better way. Then at the end of the day, I presume that things could be a lot worse if we weren’t doing all of the things we are…. maybe just to ease my conscience or as motivation to keep going.”

I encourage you to re-read this statement again, because it says so much. We are all so much busier than ever before, and there is a flood of public and private resources throughout Charlotte right now, but is it really making the impact we intend it to make? Are we actually solving anything? Or are we using the tools of another era to try to solve the crisis of right now?

That belief that something different is needed, nay required is the nagging feeling that surely jumps to mind when I find myself tossing and turning at night. It drives our firm Next Stage. It also leads to a few sleepless nights. But I’d rather that than to turn a blind eye to the challenge that lays ahead.

Rest up, folks. We need your best selves to make a better day for everyone.

Written by: Josh Jacobson