Palma Michel is a qualified lawyer, mindful leadership advisor, executive coach, meditation/mindfulness teacher and author of The Authority Guide to Mindful Leadership. In this article, she explores how those working in tech startups and scaleups can benefit from mindfulness.
Creativity and innovation are more than ever becoming distinguishing factors for success in a world that is characterised by change, uncertainty and complexity. While tech startups are uniquely positioned to drive innovation, the stresses that come with startup life can be a hindrance to success and creativity.
The forefront of innovation
Creativity tends to happen in the space of not knowing. It requires a space, an opening from which something new can arise. Creativity is about making novel connections between what we know and what we don’t know. It requires openness and curiosity, the ability to take a different perspective and it often involves walking on uncharted ground.
Unlike leaders in traditional companies, tech startup founders tend to thrive on change and are usually quite used to getting out of their comfort zone, taking bold risks and meeting customer needs in creative ways.
Unique startup challenges
However, startup life comes with its unique challenges. From my experience in coaching founders, the biggest challenges are pressure from investors, paired with the enormous volatility in growing a business including unstable cashflow and worry about the ability to pay the bills.
Daily ups and downs can make it really hard to take the right decisions amidst the emotional turmoil of building a business. As you’ve probably experienced yourself, founders often find it hard to switch off, feel stressed and work long hours, while sleep and personal life often fall short.
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Our in-built obstacle to creativity
The problem is that when faced with pressure, volatility, lack of sleep or emotional turmoil, there is a tendency to jump to conclusions, to react unconsciously, to procrastinate or to collapse the creative rollercoaster prematurely: In short, a tendency to get out of the situation as quickly as possible, without taking account of long-term consequences. There is a tendency to have tunnel vision and to become closed, defensive and blame others when things go wrong.
What trips us up is our own nervous system. When our ancient hunter-gather brain, particularly the amygdala is active, we become reactive, irrational and make impulsive decisions without considering the consequences. Our amygdala is on high alert when we are tired or in situations that we appraise as stressful, uncomfortable or unpleasant. In those moments there is no space in our minds. It is impossible for our brains to get into a relaxed alpha wave state, which is required for those “light bulb” moments.
Innovative office design is not enough
Unlocking the team’s creative genius needs more than innovative office design. A funky office design with beanbags, colourful chairs and ping-pong tables will have no effect if the founder is a perfectionistic control freak, is crumbling under investor pressure, is very opinionated or shouts at employees when they make mistakes.
How mindfulness can support creativity
Contemplative neuroscience suggests that mindfulness has the power to alter our brain structure for the better. It can change our in-built response to pressure, demands and uncertainty. As a result, we get triggered less often. We gain the ability to step back, become aware of what is happening and can make wiser choices. Research also suggests that the default mode network where creative insight happens, stays more quiet in meditators as it is less consumed by worrying about the future or ruminating about past failures/shortcomings.
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Practical ways to use mindfulness to boost creativity
Hack your nervous system
Whenever you feel stressed, under pressure, notice negative thoughts or feel triggered in any way, try this short breathing exercise to calm down your amygdala and get yourself back into the control zone: Take a few conscious breaths through your nostrils, inhaling deeply all the way into your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth with pursed lips. Count to two on your inhale and elongate your exhale by counting to four. The key is to make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale.
Manage your energy
Be mindful of your mental and physical energy. Often we push, push, push and don’t take time to rest and recharge. Yet, when we push beyond a certain point, the brain is fried and our performance goes down. If we continue thinking about a problem with our conscious mind we block our unconscious minds from producing those “ah-ha” moments. The next time you are aware of being stuck with a strategic problem, take a break. Sometimes all that’s required is a good night’s sleep instead of another hour in the office.
Mindfulness practice encourages openness and curiosity to what is arising in the present moment. Asking questions is an easy way to break through the mental noise and bring curiosity to any situation. Don’t assume you know the answer or something is a given, but continuously ask questions and challenge your assumptions including your own beliefs about a situation.
Palma Michel is author of ‘The Authority Guide to Mindful Leadership; Simple techniques and exercises to manage yourself, manage others and effect change’ published by SRABooks. www.authorityguides.co.uk.