Working at a start-up can be stressful. Just ask Chade-Meng Tan, who as Google’s 107th employee, experienced the company back when it was a start-up instead of the behemoth it is today.
Tan was an engineer, and engineers at Google are famously given “20% time” to work on projects of their own choosing. Tan used his 20% time, working with experts, to create a course called “Search Inside Yourself,” designed to help Googlers improve their emotional intelligence and mindfulness, making them happier and more productive employees, and better bosses. Ultimately, his goal is to make the world in general a happier place for everyone.
Tan, whose official Google title is “jolly good fellow (which nobody can deny)” has been teaching “Search Inside Yourself” for the past five years, and participants often report that it changed their lives–in fact one attendee reversed her decision to leave Google after taking it. Tan’sbook, distilled from the course, is now a New York Timesbestseller.
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Here are three mindfulness skills Tan recommends for every entrepreneur:
1. Learn inner calm.
Working in a start-up company often entails an endless stream of financial pressures and stresses. “The ability to arrive at a mind that is calm and clear on demand is very useful,” Tan says. “The analogy is a deep ocean: The surface is choppy but the bottom is very calm. If you’re able to go deep inside, you can access that calmness and exist in a world where you can be calm and in action at the same time.”
Sound like a tall order? “Gaining this skill turns out to be very easy,” Tan says. “It comes from mindfulness, and mindfulness is about the training of attention in a way that allows your mind to stabilize.” One way to achieve this is with a brief daily meditation session, but Tan says you can also get there by quietly focusing your attention on your breath from time to time throughout the day. “Three breaths, every now and then,” he says. “Or even every now and then be aware of taking one breath. You don’t have to train very deep.”
2. Increase emotional resilience.
“Entrepreneurs fail all the time, and if your job involves innovation, that always entails failure,” Tan says. “Begin with the recognition that failure is a physiological experience in large part. For me, it’s tightness in my chest, my stomach dropping, a lack of energy. I feel horrible. And the reason I feel horrible is because of the sensations in my body.”
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The first step, he says, is to recognize failure as a physical experience. The second step is to return to technique No. 1: Calm your mind by focusing on your breathing. “Calming the mind has the effect of calming the body as well,” Tan says, adding that these steps calm the Vagus nerve, which regulates physiological stress reactions.
“Let go of the sensation,” he says. “Consider emotions as simply physiological sensations, that is all. They may be pleasant or unpleasant, but they are simply experiences. Just let them come and go as they wish in a kind, gentle, and generous way. If you can do that, you can become more resilient to failure.”
3. Develop the habit of wishing success to others.
“The premise is that if you have to convince someone to help you, half the battle is lost,” Tan explains. “If you’re going to help them succeed in a way that you also succeed, it’s a lot easier. If you always frame things in those terms, people are more likely to want to work with you.”
A related and very powerful habit is wishing happiness to everyone you come across, Tan says. “Looking at any human being: ‘I wish for this person to be happy.’” You may not want to start with the person who cuts you off in traffic, he adds, but with people that you already like, and then people to whom you feel neutral. “The reason is to create a mental habit so that when you see someone, your first thought is, ‘I want this person to be happy.’ The people you meet will pick this up unconsciously.”
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It will also help you be a better boss. Tan recommends entrepreneurs strive to become what Jim Collins in Good to Great calls “level 5 leaders”–the kind who can propel their companies to greatness. “What’s special about level 5 leaders is they’re personally humble and ambitious at the same time,” Tan says. “Their ambition is for the greater good, not for themselves. This type of leader is very effective in a start-up, where you want to inspire everybody. That’s why the best skill a start-up leader can learn is compassion.”
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and vice president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. @MindaZetlin
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