So what is mindfulness?
Remember that scene in The Matrix where Neo first manages to dodge the bullets coming at him? Remember how surprised he was when he realised he could actually slow everything down enough to see them coming? Mindfulness is a lot like that.
“Mindfulness trains moment-to-moment self-awareness and the ability to optimise one’s internal state for effective leadership,” writes Dr Olga Muzychenko from the University of Adelaide.
In a piece on mindfulness in business, MBA lecturer Muzychenko says mindfulness not only expands awareness of self, but also about the people around you.
As your founder journey unfolds, you’ll become faster and stronger at the tasks required. But what about the things you don’t anticipate? How do you improve your response to those?
Stop. Sit. Meditate.
“I tried meditating! I got so distracted! My mind is so busy, I couldn’t concentrate!”
Think of mindfulness a bit like weightlifting. Can you deadlift 100kg when you’ve never lifted before? Of course not! It takes practice, training, and a more than a little patience.
Often, people will come to meditation when they’re already anxious, overwhelmed and frustrated — when it’s even harder to get into a calm state. That’s why we practice: so when the sh*t is hitting the fan, we already have mindful muscles, ready to do the heavier lifting.
Creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Dr John Kabat-Zinn, says mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
A good place to start might be just stopping and taking a few deep breaths.
Inhale fully, exhale slowly. Let your shoulders drop. Let your jaw unclench. Inhale. Exhale. Let your belly soften. There. That took 15 seconds. How do you feel?
Let’s Talk About Drama
When things aren’t going the way you expect, where does your mind go? What are the stories you tell yourself? Most of us automatically assign a value judgement to what is happening:
“I screwed up, I’m a failure!”
“This always happens! I’m a mess!”
“I ruin everything. I’m a terrible founder.”
Our minds love drama because it gives responsibility away to something else: “I would have made it on time, but EVERYTHING went wrong!” Notice how you communicate. Are you coming from a place of drama, hyperbole and catastrophe? Are you blaming? If you’re busy doing that, you’re not effectively focussing on the task at hand.
Meditation can help us take a step back and question the assumption we’re making. Are you really a failure because of this one set back? Does this really always happen? Taking that deep breath and questioning the veracity of our mind chatter can give us the wherewithal to get us through the crisis — and maybe even recognise that it’s not even a crisis at all.
Mindfulness in Startups
Let’s apply meditation and mindfulness to The Lean Startup (TLS) model. Often, I’ll see founders apply those principles with gritted teeth and a degree of masochism: not sleeping more than four hours a night, drinking Soylent for every meal or breaking up with their partner so they can work 24/7 and barely shower.
One of the central tenets of TLS is that “validated learning is a system for demonstrating progress in a chaotic and changing environment.” Nowhere in there does it say you have to make yourself miserable, sleep deprived and isolated.
We often hear the startup journey described as a “rollercoaster”, or “building the plane as we’re flying it.” Fast, dynamic, life-or-death. Your ability to navigate those ups and downs will have an enormous impact on your sense of wellbeing, and your longevity as a founder.
Communicate Good & Listen Hard
Deloitte Consulting’s Kevin Wijayawickrama says he thinks of mindfulness as “purposeful human engagement.”
When I’m working with leaders, I’ll often assign them this homework: go and ask five people in your life how much attention you pay when they’re talking to you. Tell them it’s a consequence free conversation — you’re not going to comment, or defend, you’ll just listen to what they have to say.
In this safe environment, most people complain about people in leadership roles talking over them. They say they are distracted, don’t remember the conversation, ask the same questions, or fail to engage with the conversation at all.
A senior leader at Google was brought to tears when his four year old told him: “I just tell you a little thing from daycare because I know you don’t like to hear more than that.” Even four year olds know when you’re not paying attention.
Take that into your conversations. Notice if you let someone finish a thought before you jump in. Do you remember what people say? Chances are, you’re listening more to the dialogue in your own head than you are to the person in front of you.
As you start this amazing journey, know that it’s to enhance your relationships and your communities, not at the expense of them. Know that five minutes of truly present attention can replace hours of guilty, distracted “quality” time. Know that you’ll be a more effective boss and leader if you drop drama, and take a beat before you barrel head first into problem solving.
It all takes practice. So let’s start.
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable, Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead – Brene Brown
- The Power of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment – Eckhart Tolle
- Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body – Daniel Goleman and Richard J Davidson
- Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World – Mark Williams and Danny Penman
- Be Here Now – Ram Dass
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn
- When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chodron