We recently undertook a survey of entrepreneurs running start-ups that we had placed in offices and workspace over recent years.

We were interested in finding out what happens after we shake their hands and wish them well, and wanted to learn more about the next stages of their journeys.

This article is about the responses that we received to one particular question – ‘What personal lessons have you learned from your start-up journey?’

Assembling an airplane on the way down

The most common response from respondents was that entrepreneurship was much tougher than expected.

was no surprise. An entrepreneur, on a daily basis, has to not only take on
so many roles, but excel in each of them to get where they want to be. They may be creating website content, preparing press releases, email marketing, running social media, coding, carrying out SEO tasks, product designing, processing inventory, graphic designing, running ads, negotiating with suppliers, networking, making sales calls, customer servicing, accounting, and so on and on.

An entrepreneur, depending on resources, often has to wear all of the ‘hats’, whilst also wearing the CEO ‘sombrero’ and overseeing overall strategy.

Combined with this, the entrepreneur may have concerns about paying their personal bills – rent, phone, power, credit card and so on. On top of general overwhelm, responses indicated – fear of missing out (FOMO), fear of being a bad friend, partner, sister or brother due to missed social events and lack of financial freedom, as well as a niggling wonder whether they’re in the middle of a bad life choice.

Elon Musk once famously stated that, “Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” Reid Hoffman put it a slightly different way, saying, “Starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down”. The leap of faith/jumping into the abyss analogy is a common and logical one for entrepreneurs.

We also know it takes patience and stamina; James Altucher, investor, entrepreneur, author and podcaster recently created an infographic highlighting the ‘20 Habits of Eventual Millionaires‘ – in it he observes that, “every overnight success [he’s] spoken to, took 10 – 20 years to get there.” 

So, it was clear that being an entrepreneur in a start-up is tough, and is certainly not the bottle-popping lifestyle image conveyed on Instagram.

Help is in your hands

What was really enlightening to us was that the majority of our respondents (a surprising 62%) indicated that they are also actively engaging in some form of mindfulness or meditation practice to proactively counteract the stresses of the entrepreneurial journey.

This was encouraging because entrepreneurial stress can often come with consequences – in the early 2010s, clinical professor at UCSF, Dr. Michael Freeman surveyed 242 entrepreneurs about their mental health. Of the 242 he surveyed, 49% self-reported having some form of mental-health condition.

We were heartened to learn of the use of these techniques by respondents because there is increasing evidence of the benefits of mindfulness for stress reduction.

A study carried out by Elizabeth A. Hoge et.al, was published in 2017 in the Journal of Psychiatry Research. The researchers randomised 70 adult participants with generalised anxiety disorder into two groups. One group learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as a technique. The other group, acting as the control, did not receive any sort of meditation or mindfulness training.

This study found that participants who learned and used the mindfulness techniques, showed much lower levels of biomarkers (specific hormonal and pro-inflammatory indicators) for stress. These results suggested that mindfulness techniques reduced stress during stressful tasks as well as created resilience for future stressful periods.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence available with famous entrepreneurs and business people advocating the benefits of meditation including; Tony Robbins, Chase Jarvis and Russell Simmons.

Start-up investor, entrepreneur, NYT-bestselling author and podcaster, Tim Ferriss describes meditation as, “a warm bath for your mind”, and estimated that, on a day that he meditates, and, specifically, after a consecutive four or more days of meditating daily, he gets, “20 – 30% more done that day, with 50% less stress.”

Meditation comprises a variety of different techniques, tools and practices. Indeed, it meant different things to respondents in our survey – these included; using a mindfulness app such as: Headspace, 10% Happier or Insight Timer; using a Transcendental Meditation mantra; attending a local class; listening to a podcast such as Tara Brach’s; attending meditation retreats; studying online courses; and for some respondents, it was a combination of some or all of the above.

A (very) brief history of meditation

Meditation, of course, has been utilised by various religions for thousands of years. Eastern teachers introduced meditation practices to the west a long time ago – in 1920, Indian guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, travelled to the US and ran lectures about meditation that thousands attended, and his book, ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, published in 1946, has been in print ever since.

In 1958, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began his own global tour and achieved fame as the guru to the Beatles – he taught them meditation in Bangor, North Wales, which lead them to spend a month in India further developing their practice.

In the last decade, the take-up of meditation practices has accelerated and our survey indicates that this is partly due to the effect of social media, podcasts, and other online resources, but also apps that allow users to effectively carry around teachers, researchers, and former monks in their pockets. Whilst we were surprised by the recent jump in
popularity, it comes as less of a surprise when the Headspace mindfulness app (launched in 2010 ) now has over
6,000,000 regular users.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started

So, how to start to experience the benefits of meditation? Sam Harris, Ph.D., neuroscientist, philosopher, best-selling author and podcaster, recommends a mindfulness practice as a starting point – because, with it, “there is no need to embrace any of the doctrine of Buddhism or other religion.” He advises that the practice is just, “paying exquisitely close and non-judgemental attention to whatever you’re experiencing” and “the first technique to train that capacity is to focus on your breath, which you always have with you.”

He advises that this helps to develop, “that quality of mind [that] allows you to pay attention to sights and sounds and sensations, and even thoughts themselves, without being lost in thought, and without grasping at what is pleasant and pushing [what] is unpleasant away.”

Ray Dalio, Co-Founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, has been practicing meditation since 1968 and states it, “has been the single most important reason for whatever success [he’s] had”, “it helps slow things down so that [he] can act calmly, even in the face of chaos, just like a ninja in a street fight.”

We feel that it’s really encouraging that more and more entrepreneurs are following his and others’ examples and incorporating meditation into their toolkits and, looking at the evidence for its benefits, we hope that the trend continues.