(Photo: Shutterstock via VentureBeat)
Over the last couple of days, Brad Feld has put up a couple of posts titled Sometimes You Just Want to Scream and Learning to Meditate. Brad’s excellent posts continue a series of overdue conversations about the role of human psychology and emotion in startups, including a series of blog posts on his personal battles with depression. I was pleased to see the widespread discussion in response to Brad’s courageous opening of these topics in public view. The conversation even got picked up in Inc. magazine in an article titled “Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way — Should It?”:
I’ve heard from many fellow entrepreneurs and investors who have confessed to feeling the same way. Here’s the rub: Failure has become OK—it’s even a kind of street cred—as long as you can write the postmortem blog post about your heroic pivot.
But depression carries a stigma. Most of the success stories we hear involve an entrepreneur who pushes himself beyond his physical and emotional limits. He’s unbalanced—but in a good way.
My own experience has made me realize that this imbalance is no way to live the start-up life, and, in fact, it’s detrimental to this kind of work. The only way I survive the dark periods is by constantly renewing myself and my perspective. Starting over is part of the process of starting up. That’s something those in the entrepreneurial community should understand better than anyone else.
As venture capitalists based in the American West (Brad is in Boulder; I’m in Santa Fe), our paths have crossed many, many times over the last decade. Though we are not close friends, we have co-invested together in several startups, and we have shared ideas about the next generation of venture capital funds. This kind of dialogue has been essential for me, not only as a VC investor, but as an entrepreneur in the venture capital business. (Note to self: The ups and downs of being the founder of a venture capital business - an entrepreneur in the venture industry - are a good topic for a future blog post). In private, we have also shared thoughts about depression, meditation, and other mindfulness-based approaches to dealing with the human experience of the entrepreneurial life. As Brad has noted, every time he writes about these topics in public, he gets hundreds of responses in private. I’ve been among those.
In Brad’s most recent post today on learning to meditate, he asked for input and suggested resources. Serendipitously, I am just finishing a period of several days in meditation retreat, including the always-excellent annual “Neuroscience and Zen Brain" program at my local zen center, Upaya. So, upon seeing Brad’s post and request, I sat down to compose yet-another private response.
Upon reflection, however, I changed my mind. Instead of a private response, I decided to do my part in driving this conversation further out into the open among the entrepreneurial and startup investing community. So, Brad, consider this post a public response to today’s post.
Almost 20 years ago, I discovered the mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness meditation work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli. Developed originally as a medical therapy at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, MBSR laid the groundwork for bringing the value of meditation and mindful awareness into mainstream acceptance in western society. Of course, more explicitly Buddhist and spiritual practitioners such as Alan Watts and Jack Kornfield had already spearheaded the movement from a more spiritual orientation.
The genius and success of MBSR - and occasionally, the basis for its critics - was the “secularization” of contemplative mind and body practices long known in Eastern religions. By adopting a modernized, secularized, and medically-oriented vocabulary - essentially, by introducing mindfulness meditation and yoga as “the dharma without the Buddha” - MBSR became a more palatable, nonthreatening introduction to mainstream Americans. Not surprisingly, mindfulness grew steadily over the subsequent decades. I still think that Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are" remains the most approachable, relevant introduction available to secular mindfulness meditation practice.
Over the years, I have also added Buddhist teachings to my own contemplative practice. Originally inspired by attending an in-person teaching by HH Dalai Lama XIV, I have subsequently studied in the Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism as taught by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and, more recently, in the Zen tradition of “engaged Buddhism” as taught by Roshi Joan Halifax at Upaya in Santa Fe.
In parallel with my exploration of mindfulness and Buddhist contemplative practice, I’ve also delved deeply into the exploding field of “affective” neuroscience, which looks at the intersection between emotion, psychology and neuroscientific research. There are many scholars, researchers and practitioners driving incredible advances in these related fields, but perhaps the most representative are Dr. Richard Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the well-known author and psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman, best known for creating the field of “emotional intelligence.”
Almost exactly 2 years ago, a series of personal and professional events led me to focus on synthesizing the emerging knowledge and best practices of all of these domains, and integrating them with my own personal first-person experience of contemplative practice. I have regularly attended many scientific conferences, week-long meditation retreats, and dharma discussions. The highlight of this period of more intense focus was my 500-mile trek last summer along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, also known as “the Way” (and popularized in the 2010 Martin Sheen/Emilio Estevez film also titled The Way). For over a thousand years, the Camino has served as a pilgrimage route for those seeking to more deeply experience and integrate their spiritual practice. For most of that time, it was an explicitly Catholic journey; but in recent decades, it has taken on a much broader ecumenical flavor. I treated my 2013 journey as a Zen mindfulness pilgrimage, and met not a few others who were doing the same.
The integration of these personal contemplative practices and cognitive science studies has changed my life in profound ways. Mostly, I have kept those changes and their impacts to a limited set of family and close friends. Occasionally, I’ve shared thoughts and learnings in private conversation with friends like Brad as well as other professional acquaintances. Just as Brad has discovered, I’ve also found a insatiable hunger for information and insight regarding mindfulness and contemplative practice. Of course, anyone paying the least bit attention also knows that the topic of mindfulness has exploded in popular culture over this same period, perhaps culminating this week in the cover story of Time magazine, titled “The Mindful Revolution.”
To make a long story short, I’ve realized that the time has come to follow Brad’s lead, and more publicly contribute to this conversation in the entrepreneurial community. For a couple of years now, I’ve been writing and posting occasionally to a blog I call “Mindful Startups" at www.mindfulstartups.com. I’m cross-posting this article there. You can review the (somewhat sporadic) archives of my posts over the last year or two. You can also follow the twitter feed via @MindfulStartups.
Until now, I’ve kept the “Mindful Startups" content largely separate from my main personal blog at www.trevorloy.com, as well as from my various social media feeds. Moving forward, I think I will continue to maintain the two separate content streams, but I plan to experiment with cross-posting more frequently. Depending on the freedback I get, I will consider greater integration or perhaps merging them altogether at the appropriate time. I recognize, however, that many readers/followers of my “regular” blog and social media accounts may be only interested in the “regular” commentary about startups and investing. I respect that, just as I respect the inclination for most commentators on Brad’s posts to keep their feedback private.
That said, I really cannot overstate the transformative impact to my personal and family life of integrating my contemplative practice and cognitive science learnings. I increasingly see its impact on the quality of my professional work as an investor in startups and a teacher of entrepreneurship to graduate students. In the end, I think integration of all of this is the inevitable outcome that I seek to embody. The journey toward that outcome, of course, is long and winding and unknowable except for the next step in front of me. After all, focusing on the present moment is really, in the end, what this is all about. In that context, I am excited to take this next step toward a more public contribution to the conversation about mindful approaches to the entrepreneurial life.