Meditation and the Life of a Startup

Mind, body, soul. I aim on a daily basis to improve myself, but not just on one of these fronts, I want to improve on all of them. I think in most modern societies a disproportionately large focus is placed on the body. That is why I want to spend some time discussing mind and soul. Of course they are all intimately linked, and I in no way mean that you shouldn’t also focus on physical health.

Learning and schooling is how the mind is fostered as we grow up. This is a sensible thing to do. Children are made to study a range of subjects, including those they find uninteresting or even worse ‘useless.’ I argue that the latter is nonexistent, particularly during developmental phases of life. I illustrate why using a two fold approach.

Firstly, treat the mind like a growing tree, any branch that is not invested in is cut off from energy and left behind. Trees literally do this. Similarly, branches that were nourished and invested in early on become the parents for many more branches for the years to come. Taking a full spectrum of subjects creates these fundamental parent branches I believe we all need in our adult lives.

Secondly, view the mind like a muscle. It is all about routine and training. The first time you do push ups in months they will be really hard, but do them everyday and before you know it you can do a hundred. I bring all this up because I believe there is a very important branch that does not receive the attention and training it deserves/requires. This comes back to mind and soul and is most easily described by saying how we tackle it, and that is meditation.

Meditation, why engage with it, what holes does it fill that other things don’t? What branch of the brain does it form and exercise? These questions have so many answers, so I won’t even try to answer them entirely, but I will say what immediate gaps it fills for me. Meditation enables you to deal with your own thoughts, so in the most extreme sense you can think of it as an internal coping mechanism to deal with yourself. For example, you are super stressed, how do you deal with it? You can either let it run its own course or you can deal with it in structured way. I think at this point anyone would say the latter is more desirable. It is the internal coping mechanism and understanding of one’s own thoughts that is neglected and currently not dealt with openly.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”

Before getting into more details, what are some of the practical benefits of carrying the load of life in a positive, constructive way? Just imagine if you could live a balanced, happy life, where you live in the present, focusing effectively on the things that truly matter, all whilst consistently overcoming the obstacles of life. These are some of the many benefits commonly ascribed to meditation. More explicitly: A more resilient mind to daily life, whether it be coping with stress, anxiety or something else. A sense of clarity or attaining more focus/balance on a fundamental level. Really living in the present, not looking for happiness, but experiencing it because you realise it was there all along. This is all just the beginning.

The title of this post does include “and the life of a startup,” so it’s about time I get to that. Anyone in startups experiences them in their own way, but the startup world is notoriously stressful and unpredictable. People working in these types of company love what they do, or they wouldn’t be doing it, but this also places an immense load on them. The sheer amount of uncertainty, especially at the early stage (which is all I have experience of), and the different skill sets and types of challenges you need to face mean that you need exactly what I said earlier, a resilient mind. You need a way to cope with the uncertainty or stress, and I think meditation fits the bill perfectly.

This structured way I mentioned earlier, is the framework with which you approach your own thoughts and the implications this has for who you are. More conventionally in the West, your current emotions and experiences (help) define who you are, they are part of your identity. One of the pillars of mindfulness, and Buddhist philosophy more broadly, is that this is not the case. To abstract to the Western mentality, the way you carry your feelings instead is much stronger in defining who you are. Emotions are fleeting moments in your existence.

Now I want to dig a little bit deeper into the underlying philosophy. A core tenet of Buddhism is the idea of impermanence. Nothing is permanent, but in the most extreme of senses. You exist as a series of images and each consecutive image brings the next into existence - like the frames of a movie. This may seem like a convoluted way to describe time passing, but it really is important to explain this view around emotions. Just because a given image is experiencing an emotion, this does not mean the next must also experience this. The emotion is not part of this sequence of images, so it does not define you. This implication gives a complete new way to think about your thoughts (to generalize away from emotions) and how you deal with them. To dig deeper into my attempt at understanding the philosophy, read the next paragraph, otherwise skip it!

So why are thoughts separate from any given image in the sequence that we conveniently designate as you. This is where it gets fun! Another fundamental Buddhist belief is that the self does not exist. The self, in the ontological and Buddhist sense, should be that which qualitatively makes you who you are. It is believed that this self does not exist. There are an innumerable number of things in the universe, so it is not hard to fathom that there is something else out there that has lived its life just like you. This person is not you, so if what makes you unlike anything else is your self, it cannot be what makes you qualitatively unlike anyone else. [Buddhism as Philosophy] As such the self cannot exist and your thoughts aren’t what makes you qualitatively unlike anyone else. Therefore, they also do not exist in an absolute sense of defining you. I’m sure I haven’t constructed the most solid argument here, I’m no philosopher, so please excuse any inconsistencies.

So now we can think about thoughts in a different way, where does this get us and how does meditation fit into all this? Well this new approach puts us in a position where we can observe our thoughts as a bystander and look at them impartially and non-judgmentally. Just think of what you can do when you clear your mind, you observe the stress you are experiencing and you realize it does not make you who you are. You can mentally treat it like any other thought. This is both an immensely free and powerful place to be. This may not feel intuitive, but just think of a time you caught yourself acting in a way you found inconsistent with yourself. You lost your cool, but moments later you realise that wasn’t like you, so you stop yourself and try to correct your behavior. Now apply a similar mentality to an emotion you conventionally did associate as being ‘like you.’ Do you see how this really is enabling? This process of ‘observation’ is something you can do during meditation as well as any other moment in daily life. This ushers back all the benefits of actually meditating I mentioned above.

I want to tie this back to startup life. One can start a company for many reasons, but ultimately it is always an emotional journey as much as anything else. You are more tied to your business and your business to you than anyone in a more ‘conventional’ job. This gives you an incredible sense of control, but it also makes you very vulnerable as it also contributes to identity. Company obstacles become personal obstacles. We all know we should not let our businesses define us, but that is the hard part. How does one not take the 15th rejected cold call personally? You want to drive forward every day. You can use meditation as a tool to deal with exactly these setbacks more effectively and to truly take advantage and live the good moments too.

I personally spend 15 minutes meditating every single morning, and I am thoroughly convinced that it is the most important quarter of an hour I spend everyday. It enables me in all aspects of my life. It gives me the calm and focus I need to think clearly and spend my time working on the right things. It stops me from collapsing and burning out. I find this easier to express through a personal example, so here I go. A few months ago when I was still a co-founder and CTO of Tyto, demo day was approaching and we wanted to get as much traction as we could. As a result of conversations with customers we pivoted subtly and decided to build a new, whitelabel app. Time was short, so I spent three restless days building, but I was proud and excited when it was done and couldn’t wait to see what our customers would think. We showed it to them and yes, they liked it, but all they could do was point out the things that weren’t literally perfect and all the other stuff they wanted. Looking back, this is totally understandable, but at the time I just couldn’t handle the negative energy. That app/company was basically my entire life at this stage. To say I was burning out is an understatement. I hadn’t meditated in a while since ‘I didn’t have time.’ Finally, I forced myself to start again. This single change gave me the mental space to reflect on what was happening, to view it from an outside perspective. This enabled me to see the things I now know to be sensible, to keep going and to drive towards my goal relentlessly. I know that without this coping mechanism I would have broken. This is how important those 15 minutes are capable of being. Matt Clifford, co-founder of EF, always talks about leverage and what moments/actions give you the most leverage. On a day to day front, meditation is the most leveraged time you can ask for. Now you should want to meditate, so how can you actually integrate something like this into your daily life?

15 minutes every morning is not a long time (I mean what do you have left if you can’t find 15 minutes 100% for yourself everyday?), but being disciplined enough to actually do it is surprisingly difficult. I am convinced that the way to do it is through routine. Do it at the exact same time everyday and don’t make it a choice, it’s just what you do. You would need to consciously decide not to do it. I would also recommend doing it in the morning, since I think it allows you to leverage the clarity you get throughout the entire day. Routine is super powerful. Getting one on track is hard work, but once you have it you have a positive vicious circle, and this applies to all aspects of life; mind, body and soul.

So, what’s the conclusion? Everyone should meditate, everyone! I explain it in a startup context, but the logic applies across the board. With that, I hope everyone who reads this and doesn’t already meditate will at least give it a shot. If you’re not convinced, hit me up!

PS: If you have never meditated before, I would thoroughly recommend Headspace to get started.

PPS: I aim to write more on the subject as I dive deeper into it myself experientially and spend more time studying the philosophy.