Meditation and its impact on modern leadership

If you made a list of people you’d think would be into meditation, I'd probably be at the bottom of that list. I grew up as a skate punk and an athlete, competing first for bragging rights at the skatepark and eventually head-to-head on the soccer fields with my college scholarship at stake.

Soon thereafter I bailed on med school and dropped out of a PhD in Philosophy, where science and logic ruled the domain. I then found my calling as a freelance photographer - where it’s two parts art and one part science - and today I’m the Founder and CEO of the world’s top creative and entrepreneurial online education company (CreativeLive), a venture-backed start-up where I regularly interface with hyper-rational and decidedly un-metaphysical things.

With my background in competition and hard-nosed rationalism, like many of you, I never really gave meditation a second thought. Until my free-spirited wife Kate suggested we give it a try together.  

Now, I’ve always believed in the power of the mind (from a lot of time spent visualizing success in sports) and yet I’ll admit I was a skeptical at first. But that was a long time ago now... and I’ve become a staunch advocate of meditation over the past six year because - quite simply - it works.

I can say without hesitation that the 20 minutes I spend meditating every morning are the most important minutes of my day, and one of the cornerstones of success in my role as a creative entrepreneur, a husband and a friend. And I’m not alone: over 18 million adults in the US practice meditation, and companies like Disney, Google, and General Mills, have rolled out their own meditation programs.

My experience with meditation - clarity of thought, increased awareness, empathy, and feelings of confidence - apparently aren’t just mine. The benefits of meditation and mindfulness are extensive and well-documented in scientific and academic research:

Helps manage stress. Between setting strategy, working with my exec team and doing press appearances, my job gets pretty stressful at times and I’m sure yours does too. According to researchers at John Hopkins University, meditation can help us deal with the inevitable stress by teaching us to focus our energy on productive problem-solving, and letting the nagging worries go. It’s also a critical asset for difficult situations like negotiations or disputes, teaching us to control our emotions rather than letting ourselves be controlled by our emotions.

Read: Can mindfulness make you a better business leader?

Enhances creativity. Ever wonder why many of your best ideas come to you in the shower or on the treadmill? This is no coincidence: research shows that creativity peaks when we’re in a calm, relaxed state like the one created through meditation. I believe that creativity is the single most important trait for modern leaders in that it’s the genesis of breakthrough products and business models like Uber, Airbnb, GoPro, Slack and other companies that are redefining industry after industry.

Improves physical health. Your body is the foundation of everything you do as a leader, and the physical effects of meditation are both noticeable and immediate: people who meditate have lower blood pressure, slower heart rate and reduced oxygen consumption. Studies also show that meditation keeps insomnia at bay and generally improves sleep. While we have a tendency to romanticize burning the candle at both ends, the truth is that getting quality sleep is critical for leaders - don’t skimp on it if you want to be at peak performance. 

And the more you do it, the more significant the benefits are. Again, this isn’t speculation or anecdote - this is science. Like a muscle, your brain physically responds to regular meditation and actually gets thicker. It’s literally a workout for your brain.

There’s no right or wrong, one-size-fits-all way to integrate meditation into your life. I practice Trancendental Meditation, my wife Kate does a mindfulness practice, and I have friends who are into lots of different expressions of meditation. So it’s good to be assured that, at it’s core, meditation is simply the practice of learning to focus your attention. There’s a wide variety of approaches, most of which boil down to two essential steps:

Choose a focus. This can be a mental image, your breath, a sound that you repeat, anything that helps you focus your attention on this and only this. This is actually harder than it may sound! When I first started meditating, I found it incredibly difficult to keep my attention focused for more than a few seconds.

Read: Why leaders need to put their egos aside

Let go. You’ll find yourself losing focus, getting distracted or otherwise faltering. That’s ok, it’s part of the process. Just let it happen - let the distractions come, then pass. Find your way back to focus. Don’t judge or criticize yourself or worry about "how well you’re doing at meditating". For Type A personalities like me and many leaders, this is an easy trap to fall into.

My daily routine has meditation built directly into it. Just like you’d never leave the house without brushing your teeth - same goes for me with meditation. I’ve integrated it (morning & night) so fully that it doesn’t seem like work. It’s almost effortless... and that’s how i like it. But that’s just what works for me. If you’re interested in meditation then try out a few approaches and find what feels right for you - you may also find excellent online mediation classes to be the best low-cost key to jumpstarting your experience, or others might prefer some of the meditation apps like Headspace, Calm and Buddhify. Those are a great way for beginners to get started and experiment with some of the most basic principles.

Many people ask me what I would tell my younger self to help prepare me for the future, and I’ve given the same answer to that question for a while. It’s not winning Lotto numbers or stock picks, it’s something even more valuable: the peace of mind, balance and presence that comes with regular meditation.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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