As the startup world moves at ever-faster internet speeds, it may seem quaint or even naïve to suggest that the most important thing for a founder to do to succeed these days is to slow down. But I’m here to tell you it’s the truth.
Mindfulness may be your most important tool as a founder.
In Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, a highly-skilled climbing expedition team meets a tragic fate on Mount Everest. The journey to climb Everest is an extremely high-risk endeavor. More than 300 people have died attempting it. In addition to intense physical preparation and skill, scaling Everest can only be achieved by studying a considerable amount of data.
One piece of data the Everest team knew was that there exists a “point of no return.” If climbers don’t cross that point by a certain time of day, storms move in, the temperature plummets, and visibility disappears, making it almost impossible to reach the summit.
Knowing they hadn’t gotten there yet, the team did a quick check on how everyone was feeling. Not a check on their physical conditions. It was more an emotional check. Of course, being type-A climbers, they all agreed, “Let’s get to that summit.”
As a group, they had lost the ability to self-regulate. So they plowed forward, and eight people on that mission died. Several others were stranded on the mountain and had to be rescued later. The Everest disaster was a situation where the team had ready access to the data needed to make the right decision to turn back, yet they kept going, and the mission ended in tragedy.
As entrepreneurs, we’ve always been taught to set our eyes on a business goal, to not let anything stand in our way, and to never stop pursuing it. But the fact is entrepreneurs must be wise enough to also keep an eye on what’s going on around them while striving towards their goals. To succeed – to survive – you have to be mindful of the many pitfalls to success.
Mindfulness may be the most important skill for any entrepreneur to cultivate. And in the next two blog posts, I’m going to tell you why. In this edition of StartupHeat, I’ll define what mindfulness is and put it in a business context for entrepreneurs.
The thing that really inspired me to write down my thoughts for this blog was seeing so many new entrepreneurs crashing and burning because they weren’t paying attention to external signals. Instead, they were wasting time being distracted by noise and letting their entrepreneurial exuberance for their solution get the better of them.
They had fallen in love with the solution as opposed to falling in love with the problem. This may be the most important differentiator between successful entrepreneurs and those that never make it to the summit. Successful entrepreneurs are obsessed with solving a problem, ridding prospective customers of their pain, and that obsession leads to the creation of products and services that stick!
Around the same time I began evaluating why so many new entrepreneurs were failing, I met Tim Skaggs. Tim is an organizational development and behavioral consultant and as a head program facilitator for the American Leadership Forum (ALF), he was leading a year-long program in which I was enrolled.
Through the ALF program, I learned how to expand my ability to be self-aware and “be present” in my life, especially in professional situations. Over the course of several months, I immersed myself in the concepts of mindfulness.
So, what exactly is mindfulness, and how does apply to early-stage businesses?
In basic terms, mindfulness is a state of being conscious or aware of something. To take it a step further, I use the following definition of mindfulness for founders:
A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
Based on this definition, there are three quick steps to helping achieve mindfulness in your everyday, business decision-making:
- STEP 1: Focus (focus on what matters)
- STEP 2: Awareness (be aware of the inputs required)
- STEP 3: Acceptance (accept the situation’s reality)
There is a lot of overlap between mindfulness and meditation as a mental activity and as a spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is used to calm and clear the mind. In business environments, the three steps to mindfulness also allow us to still our mind in the moment, become aware of situational noise, check our emotions, and become grounded in the critical moment of decision-making.
The ALF program Tim led included a wilderness retreat in Colorado. Participants finished the retreat with six to eight hours of isolation with nothing but a chair, a sandwich, a bottle of water, and a journal. That was it. We got basic instructions about how we might organize our time but, mostly, the goal was to get still.
Tim told us most people spend the first two hours just stopping the chatter in their head. And when they return to the group setting, about 80 percent of them report a profound shift in focus. They’re able to relate to their work and coworkers in a more positive, productive way. He said people often make huge life decisions during that eight-hour break because they’ve cleared the clutter long enough to allow something new to appear.
So what does this all mean for you as an entrepreneur?
Gaining focus, reigning in exuberance, and becoming more in-tune with personal and business/data inputs will provide the clarity, awareness, and rationality you need to separate signal from noise and make sound decisions. A more mindful approach will help you better understand all the elements required to climb your mountain (i.e., the problem) instead of risking disaster halfway to the summit because of an overzealous decision made while ignoring the glaring external signals.
Next time on StartupHeat, Part 2 of our Founders Focus on Mindfulness will explain how eager entrepreneurs can apply the three key steps to mindfulness in their decision-making process and increase their odds of success. Until then, stay curious, focus on the signal, and make mindful decisions on your journey to success!