Being an entrepreneur means building and growing a business under conditions of extreme uncertainty, involving substantial risk. This situation places high demands mentally on the entrepreneur, with regards to managing themselves and when dealing with others.
Mindfulness has become an incredibly popular topic over recent years[i]. Often entrepreneurs stumble across mindfulness when they are looking for a solution to ease the stress in their lives and later realise the more universal benefits of daily mindfulness practice. However, because of its recent arrival into popular consciousness, many people dismiss mindfulness as a psychology fad. But mindfulness offers several significant benefits to everyone, especially entrepreneurs.
So how can mindfulness practice help entrepreneurs?
An important part of appreciating the power of mindfulness lies in understanding how it relates to emotional intelligence.
The link between mindfulness and emotional intelligence
The topic of mindfulness is interwoven with emotional intelligence, because mindfulness allows people to focus, which is the foundation of emotional intelligence.
The term emotional intelligence (EI) was first coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book “Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence”. Since the book hit the wider business community the definition and applicability of this term has been hotly debated. However, it is generally accepted that there are several skills and attributes that together combine to create a person’s EI.
The picture below simplifies the concept of EI by systematically grouping the skills and attributes of which it consists.
For entrepreneurs to become effective leaders, they must have excellent social skills in every situation. Luckily these can be developed in different ways.
Since stress is an inevitable part of entrepreneurial life, let’s start there.
Mindfulness allows people to deal with stress
Stressful situations make us feel unwell in many ways. Our blood pressure rises, our brain develops a narrow focus, we become irritable and in extreme circumstances, and anxiety can prevent us from dealing with situations in a reasonable manner.
The neuroscientist Professor Steve Peters calls these extreme cases the “chimp hijack”. This involves the oldest part of our brain, also called the emotional or unconscious brain. This part of our brain is primarily designed to react towards perceived threats, and the way it functions would have saved our ancestor’s lives. After all, focus is beneficial when you have to escape a sabretooth tiger. If your ancestor had stopped to deliberate if the juicy berry is worth picking instead of escaping a sabre-tooth tiger, it may have cost their life.
However, whilst this response was once life-preserving, we have little application for the fight-flight-or-freeze response in today’s world, especially not in the middle of a meeting. Yet that’s what our brains make us believe during a stressful situation, that we are facing a matter of life or death.
This is why mindfulness training is so useful with regard to stressful situations. In mindfulness practice, you bring a stressful situation to mind and practice to recognise and accept the feelings of stress and observe them until they pass. This type of training has been shown to calm the amygdala (the threat centre of the brain) reducing impulsive reactions and feelings of stress.
Being mindful also teaches us to accept a situation as it is, rather than resenting it or engaging in wishful thinking. Being able to cope well in stressful situations means entrepreneurs can continue to motivate others, manage conflict and adapt quickly to ever-changing circumstances.
Increased focus and productivity
Another condition that hijacks our brain is mind-wandering. This is even more common than stress.
Mind wandering happens when we are unable to keep our thoughts on one single topic. Sometimes mind wandering can be a good thing, for example when we want to relax or when we are brainstorming. However, many times, our brains wander at inappropriate moments such as when we are listening to another person talking or when trying to write a complex document.
Reducing the amount of mental chatter your brain produces is one of the core elements of mindfulness practice.
Here are some typical mindfulness exercises to calm the mind and stop wandering:
- concentrate on breathing
- scan the body for any tension
- recognise when thoughts arise
- count or label thoughts
- return the attention back to the breath
It is surprising how many unwanted thoughts are repetitive and relentlessly push themselves to the front of our mind. During mindfulness practice, the emphasis is placed on avoiding engagement with these thoughts. Instead, you acknowledge thoughts, accept that your mind is busy and then return to the mindfulness exercise.
Being able to quieten the unwanted chatter reduces self-absorption and allows entrepreneurs to focus on their missions and results.
Enhanced meta-cognition leads to self-regulation
Observing the mind in action is possibly the most profound part of mindfulness practice.
Recognising feelings and emotions as they arise and being able to have independent thoughts regardless, is the basis for self-regulation. This self-regulation brings enormous advantages as it positively impacts all of our relationships.
Being able to delay decision making until after a strong emotion has passed allows us to show ourselves as authentic, measured and genuine. This, in turn, builds trust and respect, which is indispensable for inspirational leaders.
Entrepreneurs achieve their aims mainly by working through others, which means empathy is one of the most critical skills. It allows entrepreneurs to motivate the team and increase performance.
Empathy is the ability to recognise and understand another person’s feelings and motivations. This is particularly important as leaders need to be able to take the perspective of others. Without such an understanding it would be difficult if not impossible to motivate and lead.
Empathy starts with taking the time to listen and to make the other person feel understood.
Mindfulness can help in these situations because reducing the mental chatter in our heads allows us to be fully present when listening. Often, tricky situations can be diffused by merely listening to a team member who may themselves feel stressed. Being mindful also allows us to not jump to instant responses and to appear less judgemental.
Taking empathy one step further allows us to display compassion.
Compassion means having good intentions for others and showing it in our action. A leader displaying compassion will make team members feel safe, which in turn leads to increased performance and loyalty. Displaying compassion is essential for entrepreneurs who can often be perceived as lone wolves acting solely in their own interest.
Another frequent practice in mindfulness is aimed at building self-compassion. Being kind to yourself and admitting your feelings should not be considered soft and un-business-like. Admitting mistakes and showing vulnerability makes leaders appear more genuine and trustworthy.
Being open-minded to opportunities
For entrepreneurs, being open-minded towards opportunities is an essential skill. New ventures rarely start at their best, and therefore rely on refinement of an idea or innovation to succeed. Ideas can come from anywhere, so it pays to adopt a mindset that is curious rather than sceptical. Technology entrepreneurs can struggle with this as their science foundation means they were trained to be sceptical.
Being mindful does not mean accepting everything at face value and never to question anything. It does, however, mean that we practice divergent thinking, which is the ability to connect seemingly unrelated information.
With an increased ability to recognise and evaluate opportunities, the mindful entrepreneur has a big advantage over their less skilled counterparts, not only for spotting opportunities but also to embody the inspirational leader that the team is looking to follow.
Changes over time
In his most recent book entitled “The Science of Meditation: How to change your brain, mind and body“, Daniel Goleman captures the most reliable scientific findings which show that mindfulness meditation leads to the systematic strengthening of brain circuits and reduces mind wandering.
The data on meditation was collected from individuals which meditated from between 100 hours to 10,000s of hours throughout their lifetime. By observing and scientifically measuring the brain activities of these meditators, Goleman could demonstrate that there is a dose-response relationship between meditating and benefits. He was able to show that the higher the level of practice the stronger changes, including increased brain efficiency[ii], reduction in memory loss through ageing[iii] and even measurable reduction in inflammatory release through epigenetics[iv].
So, how can entrepreneurs benefit from that knowledge?
It is true that many entrepreneurs struggle to find enough time to do everything they consider essential. However, mindfulness offers one of the few the opportunities to create clarity and mental space to make good decisions. Mindfulness practice should therefore be considered as an important and worthwhile investment of any entrepreneur’s time.