Mindfulness in the Hyper Speed Startup Environment

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As a culture we celebrate multitasking, busyness, and being overbooked.  We glorify long hours, a lack of sleep and putting every ounce of energy into our jobs, particularly if our job happens to be a start-up.  We make ourselves available 24x7.  We are over-caffeinated and under nourished, mindlessly eating lunch over our keyboards.  For those working in a start-up, the level of stress can be tremendous and the sound of “speed to market” rings constantly in our ears like a bad case of tinnitus.  

For those who have spent enough time on the adrenaline rollercoaster, the concepts of pause, contemplation and calm seem antithetical to success.  But in fact, the opposite is true.  Subjecting ourselves to a constant state of stress, multitasking, and foregoing sleep for greater production is not only bad for our health, it is bad for the bottom line.  What a growing number of highly successful entrepreneurs, business leaders, athletes and artists have come to understand is that mindfulness practice directly translates into higher performance.

Before delving into the benefits of a mindfulness practice, let’s first understand the physiological and psychological effects of our glorified, habituated work culture:

Multitasking.  In computers, it is the concurrent performance of two programs at the same time.  In humans, it’s a terrible idea, yet an activity that most of us engage in for most of our waking hours.  When we multitask, we get a reinforcing shot of dopamine, but our bodies also automatically increase levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, as we try to manage competing priorities that exact a mental toll.  Each time we switch between tasks, our executive control functions have to turn on, an action that might only take a few tenths of a second each time, but those seconds add up.  Researcher David Meyer, PhD reports that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time”.

Stress.  Our bodies react to stress as a perceived physical threat in much of the same way they did in prehistoric times, and we are thrust into fight or flight mode where our senses sharpen, our heart rate increases, our metabolism changes, endorphins are released and our judgment system is turned down so more primitive decision-making can occur. Stress causes the adrenaline high that start-up employees know all too well.  Ultimately, though, continued and continuous subjection to stress can lead to adrenal gland issues such as constant feelings of fatigue, difficulty sleeping, poor hormone regulation, and a diminished ability to metabolize fat and carbohydrates.  

Sleep. During sleep our body restores itself, repairing the damage of the day.  It is during this restorative process that the body is able to replenish hormone levels that modulate insulin and appetite, build new neural pathways that help with creativity and problem-solving, and prop-up the immune system in addition to many other important regulatory functions.  Consistently getting fewer than 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night presents in the workplace as poor decision-making and an inability to manage emotional responses.

So how can mindfulness help?

There is a significant and growing body of science that validates the benefits of meditation.  Demonstrable effects include, but are certainly not limited to, a lessening of depression, increase in immunity, improvement in sleep patterns, marked improvement in focus, increase in memory and recall, and heightened sense of optimism and well-being.  Through the use of functional MRIs, researchers have found that meditators have increased gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and response control, learning, memory, and attention.  These benefits have a direct mitigating effect on the pervasive workplace culture.  Meditators in the workplace find that they are not only better able to manage stress, but that stress is significantly diminished through a new found ability to establish emotional distancing and objectivity.  They are better able to make decisions, listen, and concentrate, and find that activities take less time than before, with better results.  

So it is easy to see why, for those leaders who have found meditation, they credit so much of their personal and professional success to it.  They have fundamentally changed their brains, health, and work habits for the better.

Mindfulness practice can begin with as little as 3 to 5 minutes per day of quiet breathing exercises, practicing concentrating on the breath and letting go of thoughts that enter the mind.  It can also start with the help of technology, through the use of apps such as Headspace or 10% Happier.  On my next Illume Insight, I’ll delve into what a meditation practice looks like.

I am caught in the pause.

The recent events that have followed the inauguration have catalyzed the nation and served to break us out of our over-digitized, self-indulgent, largely complacent lives and forced many of us to truly re-evaluate who we are and what we stand for.  These events have served as the spark.

Yet between the spark and the flame there is a pause – a moment. 

I feel caught in this pause.  It is uncomfortable and it is tinged with an overwhelming sense of “not-knowing”.  It feels unnecessarily elongated, almost paralyzing.  Yet it is less of a paralysis than a contemplation.  I try and remind myself that the pause is critically important.  The pause is exactly what allows us to be thoughtful in our approach and in our reactions.  The pause is what people strive for in meditation; to lengthen the time between trigger and response.  It is what I have personally worked on over the years through meditation and other mindfulness practices.  I’d like to think that I have lengthened the pause, and some days I have, but it is very much a work in progress.

And it is during this period of pause, for whatever reason, that I have been repeatedly pointed to “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, by references in podcasts, articles, books and interviews.  The frequency with which it has presented makes it seem as if it were some new bestseller, yet it has been printed more than 12 million times since its first publication in 1946.  Call it synchronicity or coincidence, but clearly I was meant to read it.

Although brief, it is hard to read the book and not come away moved by the strength of belief, and a clear understanding of our need for purpose in our lives.  Told through the first-hand experiences and learnings from a life in concentration camps, Frankl considers the value of the pause and puts forth a notion of its infinite possibility for growth, and for determination of purpose.

The power of the pause plays out for those who have found great personal and professional success, those who have achieved some level of "mastery in their craft" (to quote Michael Gervais).  I see it as a critical component of development, and pursuing it an essential part of whole person leadership.  So with that in mind, and despite its discomfort, I am trying to sit with and embrace the pause, the space, without rushing to judgment as to who I am, what I stand for, and what comes next.  

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl

If you are looking to understand and elongate your pause, I submit the following resources as a place to start:

Man’s Search for Meaning

10% Happier

Real Happiness – The Power of Meditation  

Rob Bell Interview with Susan David, PhD on Emotional Agility

How to Meditate (Even If You Are Really Impatient)

Finding Mastery Podcast Interview with Microsoft CFO Amy Hood on Purpose and Progression

The Deleterious Effect of the Income Gap on Health

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The Economist published an article (1) in November that piqued my interest as I am pretty universally obsessed with health and health outcomes, and solving for health's complex determinants.   The article, Illness as an Indicator, examined levels of discontent from the latest election, and a high correlation between poor health indicators and a swing in votes toward President Trump, as compared to those who voted for Mitt Romney in the prior election. Apart from a correlation between votes and non-college white demographics, no other factors correlated as highly to votes for Trump as did a collection of public health measures of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, physical exercise and life expectancy.  Given the vulnerability of this population, their level of risk for acute and catastrophic illness, and the GOPs opposition to health care reform, I am left wondering what will happen to them if there is an all-out repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with no viable replacement?  It also leaves me wondering, what is at the source of this very real, very legitimate discontent?

As I do not have a crystal ball on the former question and can only surmise some solution will come from a necessary reconciliation process as the ACA-repeal progresses, I turned to the latter. To answer the question as to the source of discontent, I dug into other research that evaluated for the degree of happiness (or conversely discontent) in populations, which would so inspire a group to stand-up and vote for political change.  I found fascinating correlations between income disparity and health indicators, perceptions of well-being, and stress.  This research, conducted by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and published in their book Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2), used the Gini coefficient, an internationally recognized measure of income distribution, and mapped it against a broad range of health and social measures.  In doing so, they identified a strong correlation between each indicator and the income gap between the highest and lowest wage earners.  Through their research, they concluded that countries with the narrowest income gap did best for their citizens, had the best health outcomes, highest perceptions of well-being, and lowest levels of stress.  Those with the greatest income gap expressed high levels of stress, poor health outcomes and a low sense of well-being, among many other measures.  Notably, these correlations occurred not only for the lowest wage earners, but also the highest.  To clarify, when the income gap was large, even the richest had poorer health outcomes, a lower sense of well-being, and higher levels of stress.

Interestingly, the Gini coefficient for the United States has increased consistently over time, and is now at the highest level of divide in income since the 1930’s.  

So what does this mean?  Without concrete answers, but armed with this information, I have to posit:

  • If those who called for change, in a complete reversal from their prior voting patterns, expressed a strong discontent with the current political system, and have, writ large, poor health outcomes, and
  • There is a strong correlation between the income gap and poor health outcomes, perception of well-being and stress, then
  • If we were to close the gap in income, would we necessarily see a direct improvement in health indicators, perceptions of well-being, and feelings of stress?
  • Would that improvement then necessarily effectuate a reduction in health spending and have a pronounced positive impact on families, U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy?
  • Are we chasing our tails trying to engage people in improving their health outcomes who are so adversely affected by income pressures that those efforts are wasted? 
  • Should we not consider, rather, how to put energy behind economic development for those regions which are experiencing the greatest divide, to the benefit of everyone?

And truly, when will we realize that these things are not mutually exclusive and cannot be addressed in isolation?

There is so much more to dig into, and far more than I can cover, never mind resolve, in a blog post, so for those interested in further examination, I point you to some additional research and commentary:


I am not a feminist.

Up until this past election cycle, I was lulled into believing that feminism was a radicalized view of gender discrimination that drew from extreme, outlier- examples of bias.  I grew up in a time of Title 9, when women could vote, were in the workforce, and had some representation at executive levels, particularly in healthcare, my chosen industry.  I wrongly believed that I didn’t have to worry about discrimination because someone else took care of that for me, and with the advent of corporate HR departments, representative governance over such matters would protect me.

As the election drew on and a greater lens was placed on gender issues, I began to notice more, and remember more about the truly negative incidents that happened to me over a career, and a lifetime.  And then I saw examples right out in the open that demonstrated the world I lived in was quite different from the world I thought I was living in. I realized that I couldn’t just delegate responsibility for ensuring gender equity to other, more radicalized forces.  I understood that if we were to create a family-supportive, human-supportive nation, matters of equality had to be mainstream, and mainstream people like myself had to wake the heck up and embrace their inner feminist.

On the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Harvard’s MBA program, Robin Ely, Pamela Stone and Colleen Ammerman surveyed more than 25,000 graduates on work, family and career achievement1.  Upon leaving the program, male and female graduates had similar career ambitions, however, they found that women did not attain senior management positions at the same rates as men. Although this is consistent with national findings whereby women only comprise 22% of U.S. senior management roles, placing the U.S. among the bottom 10 performing countries, the expectation was that for Harvard MBAs, this gap would be far narrower. Through their research they found “not just achievement and satisfaction gaps between men and women, but a real gap between what women expect as they look ahead to their careers and where they ultimately land.”1.  Contrary to common belief, this had nothing to do with taking a career break for children.

The authors suggest that we need a sustained dialogue in all settings, about how and why this is occurring.  Many believe, as do I, that this stems from a gap in women in an internal belief in themselves as leaders – a leadership identity – and a willingness to step into the kind of roles that will result in an ascent to senior leadership.

I intend to talk a lot more about this – not just about leadership development, but leadership belief, as a function of whole person leadership for women.  Because we need to build, support and sustain women leaders.  If we don’t, then who will?

 

1.     Ely, Robin, Stone, Pamela and Ammerman, Colleen. “Rethink What You Know About How Achieving Women.” Harvard Business Review December, 2014 http://bit.ly/2gZs9p7