Part 1: Exploring Mindfulness With Cory Smith
David: You all are doing tons of cool stuff at Wisdom Labs and are really advancing this idea that meditation, and mindfulness, and other practices in this direction can drive productivity and be used not just as a chill-out mechanism, but really as business tools.
But before we dig into the science and the methods behind all of that, I wanna ask you first about yourself, and first and foremost, how you sniffed out this business opportunity that eventually became Wisdom Labs?
As a co-founder of the company, what were the signals that you saw in the market or in a culture that made you think, “Hey, there’s absolutely space for a company like Wisdom Labs that uses mindfulness to increase productivity?”
Cory: Yeah, you know, I think the reason I got into this early on, we’ve been at it for about six years now and when we started, it really was out there. You’re gonna talk about this in business and everyone was like, “Okay, that’s just kind of not something we deal with here.”
There was… I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 25 years or so, and I’ve seen what it takes to be an entrepreneur, and I’ve seen what it takes in all kinds of different business environments. And it was clear to me that also as a tech entrepreneur based in San Francisco for all this time, I’ve also seen the… You could see the tension rising in people, and the stress, and worry, and anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.
And I had also, as an entrepreneur, already burned-out myself and part of the reason I got into this is that, if I’m going to be thriving as an entrepreneur myself, I’m gonna need to figure this out.
And I even had a practice, but I didn’t have all the different pieces. I didn’t have a lot of the science behind it and I’m somebody who really wants to understand the science behind things.
And another reason also, David, behind this is that after being an entrepreneur I’ve had this philosophy of, “How do you have a lined entrepreneurship?” Meaning that, how does your purpose in life and what your passions are line up with your skills and then line up with what’s something that’s greater than yourself that’s good for… You know, is mission-driven?
And so, I have always had a radar for where those things line up for me. And this whole idea of mindfulness, the crossover between mindfulness, meditation, and productivity, and the workplace has always been an area of interest for me.
And then also, as I mentioned, I had the burnout scenario after running too many companies in a row, and those things really combined to say, “There’s an opportunity here.” But we had to figure out, was there really an opportunity? That’s where we really started getting into companies and listening instead of just assuming that we had any kind of answer.
David: And what did you hear when you started probing around?
Cory: Well, immediately when we started talking with companies, we realized that they were experiencing so many of the same things that we were as entrepreneurs and that is chronic stress.
Stress is not a bad thing. Stressors can be really good, but this whole idea of chronic stress that just continually goes on and on, it really takes a hit on your health and well-being.
And so, it was just obvious right out of the gate that people are really interested in mindfulness, learning how to meditate. But the thing behind it is it’s really, for some people, it’s a spiritual path, if you will.
For some people, it’s just that what they’re doing is not working, and their mind is running so fast that they need a moment just to get the basic skills to understand how to respond instead of react.
Because if you’re always in that reaction mode and you’re not able to take just a moment between reaction and responding, and a pause there in between, then it just… Everything is on autopilot all the time and that’s where that kind of wheel, and the stress, and everything just starts to build up.
So, I think a lot of people that we came across were saying, “I’ve gotta do something different. I’ve been hearing about mindfulness in some of these early companies. Let’s give it… How do you do this?”
And then we had the issue of, we can’t go into companies… We work with a lot of big companies and we work with a lot of engineers and skeptical folks that… You gotta go in with the science. And so, from the very beginning that’s the other thing we understood is that, let’s understand and come from a scientific background and understand what’s going on in the brain and neuroscience and all that first before talking about the benefits. And so, that’s some things we’ve learned along the way as well.
Stress Will Eventually Catch up With You
David: Let’s put a pin in the science part real quick. I’m gonna get to that in a second. But let me ask you about your personal burnout because I know we’ve had a lot of entrepreneurs that we’ve talked to including on the podcast who’ve burned out and I know that it can take a lot of different forms.
I mean, sometimes it’s that the business gets too big, other times it’s that the business isn’t big enough. There are a lot of different triggers that can cause people to kind of get fried.
What did your burnout look like, and in hindsight, I mean, what was kind of out of hand that led to that?
Cory: Yeah, there are a couple of things. I had one of the earlier if not the first online webcast companies called MediaCast in 1994-’95 and we did a lot of the very first webcasts. That was really just a full-on run and when we were doing international work. And then later, a company called Webcast Solutions that took the same concepts we were doing for media and entertainment companies and music webcast and did it for corporations.
And between those two companies, I had an opportunity to work with the United Nations, travel around the world for a year with the team, documenting world heritage sites. And in that scenario, I got caught in a suicide bomb in Jerusalem, which really rocked my world in a lot of different ways.
But one thing it created was post-traumatic stress for me that I really didn’t deal with that much because right after that experience, I was on the road for a year.
I can unpack that at some other time, but I went right into another business which was this Webcast Solutions business, and that business just took off, and eventually, we built up this business, it was right… It was again around the corner, we were doing this way before other folks were doing it. Even before the technology can catch up ’94,’95.
When we started the second business, it just took off. Eventually, it got acquired by a public company and then I was… I had a whole new set of responsibilities. So, it was a situation, in this case, where it was just success that just kept building and responsibilities kept building and me not dealing with the PTSD that I actually had from that earlier situation.
And the combination of those two things really just… And I had had three businesses in a row without any stop as an entrepreneur and I see that a lot, especially… I’m based in San Francisco. I see that a lot where you get serial entrepreneurs, that they just go from one thing to another and without a break, and it’s good when you can do that for a while. But that just catches up with you.
I think if I didn’t have PTSD, it still would have caught up with me. And so, yeah, so that was my personal story about how… And then it’s like, okay, well it turns out I’m still an entrepreneur. I still love this stuff. I’m not gonna change in that way, so I better figure something out. I better figure out how to solve it for my own self. And that’s how this journey started for me.
Entrepreneurial Stress vs Employee Stress
David: You’ve talked about how stress is going up in the workplace and I can believe that for sure. But I’d say that there’s at least as much stress for entrepreneurs who are launching or building something of their own. This is something that, of course, you know very well.
But we recently did a podcast with Ezra Firestone and Ezra is this… He’s this real badass with ecommerce and digital marketing. He’s been doing it forever. And we had him on to rap about Facebook ads and the podcast was going fine.
But then the moment we started talking about stress, and I don’t even remember how it came up, but we started talking about stress and he just went off, he absolutely lit up and he talked about how anybody who’s signing up for entrepreneurship is, without fail, signing up for a very, very stressful situation. He’s lived this entrepreneur stress. He’s seen it in others and he knows how deep it goes.
And of course, as you’ve talked about you’ve lived this entrepreneurship stress yourself, so I’m curious how you would compare or kind of contextualize the in-office workplace stress that I think a lot of people are used to versus the sort of stress that people are gonna run into when they try to start their own business or as they scale their own business. How do these things look compared to one another?
Cory: What I see is, first of all, stress overall. Let’s just say in the United States, which has the stats I’ve been tracking, has gone from 73 percent to 83 percent just in a jump in one year of people that say that they’re stressed out. And again, stress is not a bad thing in and of itself, but chronic stress. So first of all, it’s widespread and it’s global.
But I can tell you, for sure, that a typical entrepreneurship path has a lot more inherent stress in it than just working in an office for… With a larger company for a few reasons.
One, is because you really have to figure out every element, even the basics of healthcare and how your…
Cory: Payroll, and… And all the different things that you just don’t where… When you come into the office, do you have a chair and do you have… Like, shared workspaces are helping in that regard, but you know, all the basics.
And then every little element you’ve got to figure out yourself and if you’re one- or two- or three-person, four-, five-, seven-, eight-person shop, then that means everyone is wearing a lot of hats and it means everyone’s doing more than what they would be doing typically in a particular role in another kind of situation.
And so, just inherently it’s much more stressful. You’re dealing with a situation and… Anyone who’s listening to this and thinking about being an entrepreneur and doesn’t have their eyes wide open on this should definitely be thinking about all those elements before they go into it, because it’s not for the faint of heart at all.
It really is something… And that’s why for me it really is important that, to go into something that you feel some passion about, one, that’s something you feel some purpose around, some passion around, something that lights you up and gives you more energy because there are gonna be these times.
Second of all, it’s something that really fits your skillset that you’re really, really good at and that you can find other people to do the things that you’re not good at. So that’s that.
And then also, if at all possible, we’re entering into a time where everyone’s business skills on the entrepreneurship side of things are needed, for doing something that’s greater than themselves, that’s helpful for people on the planet.
And also, businesses are gonna thrive that are… We’re looking at something beyond just their own well-being. And so, that third piece is a little bit harder to get when you’re just trying to figure out how to get product-market fit and your product off the ground.
But if you can take some time back and think about those three buckets between the passion, the skills, and the mission, and you can start to align those, a lot of times, when you do have these hard times, you’ll have the wind at your back when it comes… When the hard times come up. And you’re actually enjoying what you’re doing, you’re enjoying the process. And so, it takes you through the hard times.
If it’s just about the money or just about the opportunity, I think I see over and over again, organizations just fail because there’s not enough to get them through the hard times because it’s not really built into what they’re about, built into their skillset. It’s an idea, it’s a concept, rather than actually something that is aligned. And alignments are kinda the name of the game.
Pushing Forward Despite the Challenges
David: So what was it about entrepreneurship for you that made it worth continuing to chase? If we excerpt what you just said, we can paint a pretty gloomy picture of entrepreneurship, about the inherent stress and then having to do everything yourself. What was it about it that you said, “Okay, I’m gonna stomach this, I’m gonna absorb this and I’m gonna do it anyway”?
Cory: I wanna paint the negative picture just to get it out of the way.
I think entrepreneurship is an absolute gift for me, in my life. What it’s allowed me to do is to do just those things, align the things that I’m most passionate about.
I have this piece of marble on my desk with a roomy quote, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.” If you have an opportunity to do something that you’re really passionate about, that really lights you up, that’s your particular gift, and you can create a business around something that you really get excited about and you wanna come into work every day. And it has been a real gift for me. It’s been hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love what I do and even in the hardest times, I really wouldn’t trade it.
So, there are certain people that are built that way, and there are certain people that aren’t built that way. And if you’re not built that way, give it a thought, but if you’re not built that way, but you… In other words, you… It’s really hard for you to deal with the stress, there are ways to kind of mitigate that, and that’s what we’re doing at Wisdom Labs, is to help in that regard.
But yeah, it’s a wonderful thing. My whole life has been dedicated to entrepreneurship and working with entrepreneurs and leading shared workspaces for entrepreneurs. I like the Impact Hub. Social entrepreneurship is something that I’ve been really passionate about over the years. And I’ve seen so many people thrive in that environment. It’s just, knowing yourself before you go into it.
The Science Behind Mindfulness
David: You all at Wisdom Labs really lean a lot on science and you brought this up earlier. And a quick look at your blog makes this very clear. So, one blog post for example says,
“Scientific studies have shown that meditation, even by non-expert meditators, can enhance creative thinking and improve the ability to solve problems that require insight.”
And there’s another post that says,
“We at Wisdom Labs know that a regular meditation practice has the power to help reduce stress and anxiety, be more creative, focus better, get more done.”
Obviously, this medium does not lend itself to you showing us brain scans and charts and graphs and stuff. But if you would walk us through this science that keeps coming up, and what the science says about this connection between meditation and creativity, what are some of the key points that people should know about that connection?
Cory: Yeah, study after study and meta-studies that look at this just keep coming back to the results that a regular mindfulness practice, typically through meditation, but there are a lot of different ways to come to this, helps down-regulate your system and really helps in so many different ways about just creating a ground and a place for you to operate from.
I’m not a scientist myself. We have a chief science officer in our company, we have from the very beginning, Dr. Parny Paul, who writes a lot about this and has looked at a lot of the different studies. But it’s all very much available online about the connections between mindfulness and both productivity, well-being.
And everything that we do as it relates to the content that we have on our Wise At Work app and on our communities program, basically has that same structure where we will start with a lesson and then a practice.
So, what I mean by that is a science-based lesson around, say, a fixed mindset or an open mindset. What the science says about what’s happening in the brain and then the practice. So, everything that we do, we’re working with the top scientists in the science of happiness, in emotional awareness, in all of these different categories. And everything we do on our Wise At Work app and our “Communities” program has that same structure.
Let’s provide the science on this particular minor topic that we’re talking about and then let’s try to practice. So, it’s a little bit like the gym. And also, we’ve just seen over and over again, if you don’t get the science to start with, it’s hard to do the practice. So, it really breaks down by the various practices that we have on the app or on our “Communities” program.
Bite-Sized Practices to Combat Daily Stress
David: And so, if creativity and thoughtful problem-solving, if those are scientifically confirmed by-products of mindfulness practices, what’s on the flip side? What are the bad by-products of not having any foundation here?
And what, especially as it pertains to entrepreneurship, what are some of the headaches that people might not be equipped to deal with if they don’t take a few minutes a day to kinda wrap their arms around this?
Cory: Yeah, you have a tendency, as an entrepreneur, just to run, run, run and there’s a never-ending list of tasks that you need to get done on a particular day, and when you’re not doing something and you’re laying in bed, oftentimes you’re worrying about the things you didn’t get done or you’ve got coming up, and so spending so much time in either the past or in the future.
If you’re doing that all the time, you don’t have an opportunity just to let your system relax and unplug from that.
And this heightened sense over time of just being on alert for everything that you have to pay attention to as an entrepreneur and what could go wrong and where are all the Achilles heels, what went wrong in the past, they just, people will go really hard for a while and then they just crash and maybe they get back up and then they go for a while and then they crash again.
So it really is important to get some type of practice going that allows you to unhook from that for a period of time and there are some easy, easy things you can do including just deep breathing.
It’s one of the things and you could take about 20,000 breaths a day on average, it’s one of those things that you have to do anyway, and you can actually just take a deeper breath in any given moment and that will down-regulate your nervous system and kick-in your pair of sympathetic nervous system which is your rest and digest, instead of the fight and flight system.
So you can do different types of breathing that just has… You can breathe in for a period of time, hold and then the slow exhale. I like a four-seven-eight pattern, where you’re breathing in for four, holding for seven and exhaling for eight, if you do that around three times, instantly down-regulates your nervous system.
And that’s a thing which doesn’t cost an entrepreneur any amount of time that actually, just in the moment, helps with this process of unhooking from this chronic stress situation.
Another thing I would just mention that I find really helpful is when you’re an entrepreneur, you go from one thing to another to another. Almost always, there’s something coming up right around the corner.
And what I do is set a signal that before I go between this meeting and that meeting, I will just take one minute, one deep breath, and ask myself what’s my intention for this upcoming meeting, for this upcoming segment of my day?
Just taking a breath and taking a moment about thinking about what’s my intention for this next segment of my day and this next interaction keeps you from dragging whatever it was that you just got done doing, if, say, it’s a meeting with your co-founder or somebody on your team, into this next conversation and it also helps you set your intention right away and putting that breath in there instantly gives you an opportunity throughout your day, little touchpoints to just simply down-regulate your system and release a little bit of that stress throughout the day instead of just in the morning or just in the evening through a mindfulness or meditation practice, which is also awesome.
Having More Self-Compassion
David: One word that comes up a lot in the Wisdom Labs content, I’ve heard you use it as well in talks that you’ve given is compassion and I think compassion is perhaps an even harder concept for people to rally behind than meditation or mindfulness just because compassion… It’s softer or flimsier or whatever the word is, kind of like a barefoot tree-hugger vibe with this word that I think the other words don’t have as much.
But you all talk about compassion as a way to reduce friction and increase self-awareness and really, it has the same business asset as these other things that we’ve been talking about. If someone dismisses passion as some hippy nonsense, what are they missing?
Cory: Again, for anyone who wants to check out the app, you can get it for free and there is a great seven-part series there called Compassion in Action by Lori Schwanbeck and it’s basically… And then we also have another from the Greater Good Science Center which is all about the science of compassion.
So we’ve gotten past mindfulness, we’ve gotten past that idea. We know there are enough studies out there that show meditation’s good for you, your productivity, but also just your overall well-being.
Now, this next front edge really is kind of compassion. And so, you’re starting to see people, one of our big clients is LinkedIn, the leader of that company, Jeff Weiner talks about compassionate leadership, we also work with Salesforce and their CEO, Marc Benioff, talks about this as well, and it’s not a matter of… And there’s a lot of science behind this, as well.
But basically, compassion is traditionally a soft word. The idea first is most people think it’s always, like, giving it to somebody else. But the first thing actually I think people wanna know about compassion is, how can you have more self-compassion?
Because oftentimes, we are the hardest on ourselves and we have this inner critic that’s just constantly going, “I’m not good enough, I’m not doing this”.
So the person beating up on ourselves is not somebody external. You may have that happening, your co-founder or your partner. But mostly it happens with ourselves. So to the degree we can be self-compassionate and again, on our app, we have something called letting go of the inner critic and why you should do that and what the science is again about that. But self-compassion is the first part of it.
But compassion goes deeper than that. It’s also seeing somebody else and wanting to help that other person and by making a connection with other people and being of service to other people gives you energy, it gives you more than actually, what it takes away.
So, it’s counter-intuitive, that being compassionate to other people is good for you, your well-being, but study after study shows that well-being is improved by helping or intending to wanna help other people.
And certainly, self-compassion is a great start for people just to really just start to talk to themselves in a way and disavow themselves of this idea that the inner critic in me, the one that’s driving me all the time, “You’re not good enough. You should do this,” is the only thing that propels you forward.
In actuality, when you look behind that, if you always have this inner critic that’s, “You’re not good enough, you’re not doing this,” it actually constricts you, and it constricts your options, and it constricts your view.
And to the degree you can start to let go of that inner critic and start to say, “Yeah, I got it. I understand you’re here to help me out, but I don’t need that. At this moment, it’s actually not helpful to me.” And start to get a little bit of control of your environment and your thoughts, you can start to put that aside. And I think those are the things that are really applicable to just a day-to-day entrepreneur.
David: Awesome Cory, we can leave it there. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat, and anybody that wants to check out Wisdom Labs, head over to wisdomlabs.com. They got podcasts, a blog, they got research and of course, the app that Cory mentioned. You can read more about that and find out where to download it there.
But yeah, Cory, thanks so much for breaking this all down for us. I really appreciate it.
Cory: Thank you, Dave. It’s been a real pleasure.
Part 2: Understanding Meditation With Bill Duane
David: An expression that I’ve heard you use a couple of times is, “We are all the descendants of nervous monkeys.” What does that mean?
Bill: Well, whenever I was experiencing stress, one kind or another, but particularly at work, I had this idea like, if I was better, if I was a better executive, if I was a better engineer, I wouldn’t feel this anxious about this stuff that I’m doing.
So as I read into neurobiology, particularly the neurobiology of evolution, what are the characteristics that made humans successful? One of them was being anxious. This idea of, “If there’s a potential threat, better to assume it’s a threat and act on it than not.” Even though that’s what we call a false positive in computer science.
If you and I are cave people and we’re sitting outside the cave at night around a fire, and we hear a twig snap in the darkness, if you haul back into the cave in safety and I assume, “Oh, that’s Spock from the next village come to visit,” you can be wrong 10,000 times and you still get to survive and make baby cave people. I only have to be wrong once.
So we have this nervous system that’s really tilted towards, “When in doubt, freak out.”
that we are now the descendants of those nervous monkeys like the chilled out Lebowski monkeys didn’t make it.
So now we have this nervous system that scans both the present and the future, and, Lord help us, even the past, looking for threats. And then our system will have a habit of activating the fight-or-flight systems preemptively just in case it’s a threat.
Now, if you were working behind a computer or you’re working in an office, the chances of you being in physical danger as a result of what you’re doing are really, really minimal, almost non-existent. And yet, both you and I and the people listening to this talk, have a nervous system that if there was a loud noise near us, would startle us, cause us to focus attention on it, elevate our heartbeat, do all these things relatively involuntarily.
And you know what the kicker is, an email can do that. You ever get an email and you can feel your heart going, and then maybe your cheeks are flushing ’cause the person is unreasonable or they’re pulling some maneuver. This is the nervous monkey in you saying this could be a threat.
But so many times that stress reaction is misplaced and actually inhibits us from being able to do the smart thing.
David: Yeah, I mean, that all checks out. And there’s a lot of new research in evolutionary psychology like you mentioned, that really shows how ill-suited our brains are for chilling and just being satisfied. So evolutionarily, as you said, it’s not really productive to be satisfied.
But what you say and what a lot of people in this space say is that, there are knock-on effects that are greater than just being antsy or just being down sometimes, and that there’s an impact on creativity and on productivity. And so talk, if you would, about not just this tendency that we have to be wound up, but what this tendency means in our day-to-day lives and how it manifests in these various ways.
How Stress Manifests in Our Daily Lives
Bill: When we talk about stress, a little bit of stress is good. If you ever felt like… At low levels, stress increases your focus. When you’re worried about something, you’re focused on it, and to a certain extent, that’s really good. Increased blood flow to the brain, mental acuity a little bit higher, you have a sense of energy and purpose, these are all great things.
Kelly McGonigal from Stanford has a great book called The Upside of Stress that goes really deep into this.
But there’s a certain point at which that fight-or-flight response kicks in the older parts of the brain and turns off the newer parts of the brain.
So the parts that are responsible for connection, creativity, thought, you more and more go on to autopilot. And when you go on to autopilot, this is a vast oversimplification, but what people call the lizard brain and the paleomammalian brain, really kicks in automatically. And when that happens, you start doing things on autopilot. And when we’re on autopilot, we have a tendency to look at the world through very dark glasses.
There is fascinating research that shows that when we’re highly stressed, humans look at ambiguous data as threatening.
So that same email that seems super threatening after a good night’s sleep and some exercise or some meditation, will all of a sudden not seem that clear. So what you end up with is the very parts of your brain that are required for innovation, for connection, for thinking through complex problems, when you’re highly stressed, those actually go offline.
So the research that looks at stress arousal and performance at work shows a little bit of stress is good, a little bit of stress gives you all the things you talked about in the beginning. There’s a certain point at which it becomes neutral and then actually negative.
You send the email that you regret, you make a terrible decision in the heat of the moment. And when we’re in this really intense auto-pilot mode, the focus becomes tunnel vision and we do generally what was successful for us last time, even though the situation may have changed.
So there’s that idea that I think if you want to be an entrepreneur, you’re stepping into a lot more unknown and ambiguity. Now, the human nervous system deals with unknown and ambiguity with a heightened sense of alert, but yet, you become an entrepreneur to create things, to have something new, which means that you have to sort of face the unknown. But we have this other body of mind that happens to generally treat the unknown as dangerous. So, for me, there’s this big question, “Okay, we’re not stuck with this.” Thanks to neuroplasticity, we have the ability to change the structure and function of our brains and nervous system via various methods.
And so whenever I’m giving a talk, I always mention, like… It’s super depressing in the beginning, but trust me. Okay, because we are in a pickle. And I think if you want to be an entrepreneur, you’re sort of wading into the middle of that situation because the things that are very important for survival, like income, your business thriving, that’s actually on the table now, in a way that’s a little bit not on the table if you’re working an office job.
The Perceived Counter-Intuitiveness of Taking a Break
David: You talk about resilience building and when you mentioned the different stresses that an entrepreneur will face, I think resilience building is absolutely something to be taken into account. And in some examples that you’ve used, when it comes to resilience-building include napping, walking, reflecting and meditating. And I’d say that those are all things that people are kind of predisposed to view as, if not waste of time then at least not hyper-productive.
It’s hard to generate revenue while reflecting and so I wanna ask how people can overcome this allergy to these activities that require deliberately not doing. So you’re not checking emails, you’re not launching a new campaign, you’re not replying on Slack or whatever your thing is. It’s tricky to do, so I’m curious how to cultivate this ability to not do it.
Bill: Yeah, yeah, yeah, ’cause it seems like it’s off-task. Now, the research shows generally that the level of effort and stress becomes neutral and then negative. And I think we’ve all known this. There’s a certain point that when you’re super burned-out, you end up creating more work for yourself down the road.
But in the moment of saying, “Oh man, I’m a little uptight, I really gotta get this stuff out,” it can be radically counter-intuitive to say in order to get more done I should go sit quietly in that corner. So, for me, one of the things that was really important was to convince myself with the science and the research that this was true.
Two, is that I’m pretty lucky. For me, mindfulness and exercise were the first two things that got me and I immediately felt better and clearer. I was like, “Okay, it’s actually, it’s worth it to take ten minutes out and then come back because I know that I just feel like I got a reset.”
So this brings me to the most important point. Is that the right resilience-building thing that you do is the one that you actually do? Not the one that you should. So for example, if you say, “Oh, I really wanna get into meditation”, and it’s not for you, well, move on to something that you do like to do, right? You can have a meditative walk, you can go to the gym, you can take a nap.
So the most important thing is to actually realize which of these things that can give you resilience actually does and then do that.
Because I think having that short feedback loop, so many times, some of these resilience-building things take a few weeks or months to really have their effect build-up and it’s really tough in the beginning to establish a habit if you’re not getting a good short-term return on investment.
Form Habits in Small Doses
Bill: Yeah, there’s this idea of the wedge model of habit formation and with that, normally when we say, “Oh, I’m gonna go to the gym and I’m gonna go for an hour”, and then the first day you don’t go and then you’re like, “Oh, I’m a failure and I never go.”
So BJ Fogg from Stanford calls this the wedge model of habit formation. So what is, choose something that you actually like, like not something you feel like you should be doing, but something where there’s, where either it’s enjoyable or get an actual, “Aaah” sense of that. And this can be napping, this can be walking or moving your body.
Interestingly, I Googled, number one with a bullet of what people found restorative was time with friends and family. To find the thing that works for you and do it in very small doses, very small doses means if you don’t end up saying, “I’m gonna go to the gym for an hour,” and then you don’t and then you feel like a failure and so you can never go again.
If you do it in small amounts and this also speaks to the origin of your question of, if you do it in small amounts and say, “I’m just gonna do this for five or 10 minutes,” let’s be honest, you would spend that much time spurring around on Reddit or something else, so it doesn’t need to be this huge thing.
The wedge model says enjoyable and frequent and on the regular, so finding a trigger, like the same time every day, but just in that tiny, tiny amount.
So I think that’s a way to get over this and then, in particular, if the initial time investment is pretty small and you get an immediate sense of “ah”, then all of a sudden you can then start increasing the time depending on how much return on investment you get for it.
Breaking Down What Meditation Really Means
David: I think we talked about meditation, and I think you could say that the word’s out on meditation. There are meditation apps, and meditation books and a mountain of meditation content online, and now as you well know, meditation has been embraced by companies as a way to foster a healthy workplace, and this is something that you’ve helped spearhead inside of Google.
But I think as part of this mainstream-ification of meditation, the word now has more meanings than ever. Some people think about meditation as like a 60-second thing that they can do on the subway and others think it’s gotta get on the seat for half an hour or it doesn’t count.
And so, what should people think about when they hear the word meditation and what’s… And on the other side of that, what’s something that they shouldn’t associate with meditation?
Bill: Yeah. Wow, that’s a good and broad question and I feel like I need to start answering it with a confession. If you had come to me, like, 15 years ago and said like, “Hey, you should really check out meditation.” I would have been like, “No way, you hippy,” you know? I’m like, “No, I’m an engineer, I’m a scientist, I’m an executive. I’m not into crystals and meditation and incense and all that crap.”
And so what’s interesting is, so one is that if there’s anyone out there listening to this and saying meditation isn’t for me, one is, I am with you and two is, that’s totally okay. Remember what I said earlier the best resilience thing is the one that works for you.
If anyone listening to this is feeling bad, ’cause they tried meditation and they didn’t like it, totally fine. There are other ways to go about developing resilience.
Now, having said that, I also think, as you mentioned, that meditation covers a huge amount of ground, right? And when we talk about mindfulness and meditation, we are talking about a huge variety of things.
We’re talking about spiritual traditions in some cases, where meditation is part of a much larger spiritual tradition that includes things like ethics and behaviors, and a philosophy of a way of life, that’s meditation. Also, the secular mindfulness app where you’re doing 30 second pops, also meditation.
So I mentioned all that gap in between there. But generally speaking, some ways to think about what mindfulness and meditation is…
So meditation is the activity that then gives you mindfulness.
So for me, mindfulness my way of shorthand is, you develop the skills, if you’re mindful you have self-awareness, you have self-regulation, and you have connection and understanding or we could call that compassion and empathy also. These are all trainable skills, which is amazing. My roommate from undergrad… We’re talking and he’s just like, “Oh you’re much less of a jerk now than you used to be.”
He didn’t use the word jerk, and it was a little tough to hear. But at the same time it was like, “Okay, these are actually sort of profound changes.” So mindfulness is that outcome. Meditation is a process by which then you reach that.
So, you’re not meditating to become an excellent mediator. You’re meditating so that even when you’re not doing these practices, that you do have these skills of self-awareness, self-regulation, connection, and understanding to fall back on.
So, a way to that would connect to the resilience conversation as a lot of times when I was really stressed out, I didn’t know I was stressed out. This is the boiling frog syndrome. So some kinds of mindfulness like mindfulness of the body, you know in poker there’s a thing called tells when you’re bluffing, you’ll like pull your ear, or you’ll wink or something? Your body is constantly giving you tells about your emotional state many of which we don’t pay attention to because they’re non-verbal, they’re just sort of sensations in the body.
So one type of meditation as you’re examining your body, and the science shows us that this increases emotional awareness, and also emotional regulation, and also awareness of other people’s emotions. So that’s one form of meditation and something that’s common between most of these is you’re developing this moment-by-moment, present-time awareness. John Kevinson’s definition. Sorry, moment by moment, non-judging awareness. And then the non-judging part is really important where you just sort of time scientists observing your own state and condition.
So I think it’s super important to say that meditation is the exercise, mindfulness is the result, and there are many different kinds of meditation that get you there. There’s the body meditation, there’s breath meditation, you could do connection and understanding meditation.
So basically, they all have this idea of moment by moment, present-time awareness without being super judgy about it and doing it on the regular.
The great news is that mindfulness and meditation works. The challenging part is it doesn’t work if you don’t do it. And the more you do it on the regular, the more helpful it is.
Which is why I think that the wedge model is so important. I’ve just… I think even for five minutes, most people will notice something. But then when you do it for 20 minutes an hour, a day, 30 days, the longest silent retreat I’ve done was a month, and those are really high-powered experiences.
But going back to the wedge model, you wouldn’t start off at the gym lifting 500 pounds, you can probably injure yourself. I think in the same way that it’s really good to do that short meditation, try out different kinds of medications, see which one resonates with you, and then go on from there.
How to Fit Mindfulness Into Your Schedule
David: Bill, one more question for you then I’ll let you get out of here. So you talk about trying to make mindfulness and well-being not a side project or a compartmentalized part of the day, but instead, really building it into the fabric of your everyday life, really making it an approach to how you live.
Just on a real tactical level what could you tell somebody who wants to adopt these things and is ready to implement but doesn’t really know how it’s gonna fit into their day?
Bill: Yeah. So I’ll give one simple and one profound answer. So, the simple answer is to just look for places where you can double up. One of the kinds of mindfulness meditation you can do is walking meditation. Normally, we do that on the auto-pilot, and so you just pay attention to the pressure on your feet while you walk to the bathroom. You’re gonna walk to the bathroom a few times a day.
What if you took something as prosaic as peeing and turned it into this resilience building, this quite a beautiful form of practicing mindfulness. I always get a giggle when I take something like going to the bathroom and turn it into the little bit of a break that it actually is instead of thinking about whatever work I’m doing through that period.
So that’s the simple and funny one. Here’s the more profound one. I mentioned before there were different kinds of meditation you can do.
You can do meditation on the body. You can do meditation on sounds, meditation on things that you look at.
So this means that you can use other people as your object of mindfulness. And one of the things I learned through the Google emotional intelligence program called Search Inside Yourself was how to listen mindfully.
So a lot of times as a boss, I would have meetings with people that worked for me and I was listening to what they’re saying, but I was also coming up with what brilliant advice or sage advice I was going to give them, or ways in which they were wrong. When someone said something I disagreed with like I’m already formulating my responses in terms of what they’re going to say. And this is particularly true if you’re in a conflict with somebody. What if you actually used your conversation with the other person as them as the object of meditation?
So when you’re meditating, you know if you’re paying attention to the breath you’re breathing, and then your mind goes in a different direction and you say, “Oh, okay,” and then you bring it back. What if you were doing that about listening to somebody? That any time you had a thought of, “Oh, here’s what I’m gonna say,” you’re like, “I’m just gonna actually listen to this person.”
The experience of being listened to at that level is profound for most people because it happens so rarely. Like maybe in a relationship you get home and your spouse says, “This is what happened during my day,” and you start giving advice immediately.
One of the most simple and profound ways has actually just been to listen to the person.
And I find that when I’m in a conflict in a job setting so many times genuinely hearing the person out without defensiveness, genuinely getting curious about what it’s like for them, I would say that solves it like maybe 60 percent of the time. Just for that person to be genuinely heard.
And all of a sudden, the nature of coaching conversations goes really differently. So all I’m doing is I’m taking the skills that I learned while doing meditation of focus and non-judgmental awareness, and then applying that to listening to somebody else.
So that is something where if you can learn that trick, one is I mentioned the number one thing that Googlers said was increasing the resilience was time with friends and family. It’s like supercharging your time with somebody. Whereas if you’re on the phone, if you’re doing other stuff and saying to your kid or your spouse and you’re like, “What? What?” if you’re halfway there.
So this actually, this example ties into a knot all the things that you brought up. One is that you’re making much better usage of your time because you’re not killing it with continuous partial attention. Two is that the quality, like your own experience of being connected with this other person. And we are social creatures.
The joke I use when I’m teaching is next time you get out of the shower before you get dressed, look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I am the apex predator on this planet.” And it seems super funny, but the only reason that we are even though so many other creatures on this planet could kick our ass is that we use technology and tools and have since the get-go, and we do things in groups. We are inherently wired to connect.
So if you can learn the skill of mindful listening, that’s something that you can bake into your day and it superchargers the time.
It really increases the quality of the relationships. It actually makes a conflict easier to have, which, in a lot of ways is good. I mean better to have a small open-hearted conflict early than passive-aggressively let it go out.
So yeah, so the two things are to look for an opportunity for it to change how you interact with people in general, and then two is do some practice while you’re on your way to pee.
David: Alright Bill, we can leave it there. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. If you wanna check out more from Bill, BillDuane.com that’s D-U-A-N-E. Bill thanks so much. We really appreciate it.
Bill: Yeah, great, thank you.
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