…Organizational health starts with transparency and vulnerability within the leadership team. If you don’t have transparency and vulnerability at that level, you won’t unlock the true potential of individual people. After we read The Advantage, we had to sit back and decide what our values within our organization already are. Not the values that we aspire to, but what are the values of our organization inherently? We found that transparency, empathy, and creativity- those are the three things that we truly are. If we can hone in and value those three things, this gives us the opportunity to grow. This also helped guide us in the idea that humans are so diverse. The key to happiness in any individual is the opportunity to be free, to find our individual value, and to live those values. We can help each other do that by recognizing diversity and allowing people to be their own person. The movement I would love to inspire would-be less judgment and more freedom in acceptance. What if we grant ourselves and others the freedom to be themselves, and we don’t add judgment to their personal attributes? I truly believe people are good. Most of the suffering in the world is emotional, and most of the emotional suffering is caused by human relationships not going well. We need to give humans the space to be who they are in the workplace and outside the workplace.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan Olsen. He is the CEO and one of the founders of BestNotes, an electronic health records company.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Nathan! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I came from a family of 10 children, and if you look at the current careers of my siblings, you can see a huge influence from our parents and the opportunities they created for us. My father was a wilderness expert and taught outdoor survival skills, which evolved into a wilderness therapy career. He would take young people out into the wilderness for an extended period of time and let that experience have an impact on their lives. It was a very effective intervention in the lives of people who were struggling. That passion he had has grown into an entire industry and where I am now currently involved. My company, BestNotes, was designed to be an electronic health records system for those wilderness therapy programs. I initially started out in agricultural farming in third world countries, but I was drawn back into our family business and to wilderness therapy.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
My father taught us the value of spending time alone in the wilderness. If you were a student in his program, you would go out with a group and learn outdoor skills. You would be with a group for the majority of the time, but the last three days were spent alone. It was a time for self-reflection. I can’t emphasize enough the impact that has on an adolescent. The value of mindfulness and being self-aware during those three days, with increased attention to the sensations of your body, become heavily evident in a wilderness setting because you are exposed to all of the elements. You are working to stay warm at night; you are often hungry during this time, so you appreciate even a small morsel of food. The feeling of water replenishing your body and hydrating you after a long hike is very sensory-rich. You become so grateful for even a small berry. You learn to relish that flavor and the feeling of energy that it is providing for your body. In our day to day lives, we consume food as if there is an unbounded amount. But to actually taste a morsel of food when you are actually hungry and being so grateful for that simple pleasure, is the foundation of gratefulness and mindfulness in my life.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
Life feels like it is constantly resetting and regrounding. You drift and you pull yourself back, you drift and then you have to regrind yourself. We all have limited bandwidth; we can only pay attention to so many things. That whirlwind of life is always trying to suck you up into the vortex. You have to remind yourself of what is important. For me, my refuge from the intense over-demand of bandwidth has been reconnecting with the simple things. About a year ago, I made a commitment to play with my kids like a child. Before that, I found that I was constantly focusing on work while I was home and that brought me a lot of anxiety. Having recognized that in myself of not being present with my kids or grandchildren, I now absolutely refuse to not be involved in their activities and be present with them. If we are at the park, I am going down the slide with them. I have seen this positively translating itself to other areas in my life. At work, I have found that I am able to be more present and have an easier time compartmentalizing and focusing on my teams.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
More successful and that has just come with the ability to stay present with my teams and customers. This has helped with getting into “deep work” and being able to stay productive.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
As part of working in the Behavioral Health field, we attend conferences to collaborate on best practices in the behavioral health world. I have noticed a common theme at these conferences: self-care. I used to be of the opinion that thinking about yourself or taking care of yourself as a form of selfishness. I believed, for a long time, that you should be lost in helping others and if you are lost in helping others, you would just be happy. Now, I believe to be in a place to be present and helpful to others, you have to take care of yourself first. By self-care, I am referring to practices in your life that build your capacity to help others in the end. Taking the time to focus on things that you are personally interested in and developing those interests, taking the time to relax, to enjoy simple pleasures, learning to say no to things, and learning to set boundaries, keeps you out of the whirlwind.
The “self-care” theme has been so fascinating to me and has been taught so well at these behavioral health conferences. We have people that have chosen, as their life’s profession, to be helpers to others, and they are showing us that research says they can be most helpful to others when they take the time to be helpful to themselves. To help yourself means to take time for meditation and enjoy simple routines and reminding ourselves to protect the time around those routines. Drawing a boundary around the number of hours you work because we all know there is always an emergency; there is always something that justifies staying longer at work. However, the end path of that is burnout and the lack of ability to really be productive.
Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?
I can remember back to when I was 7 or 8 years old and our cows got out. Nobody knew where they were, but we were able to track them. I was ordered by my dad to go out with my two older brothers to find the cows. We tracked them for a couple of miles, and I can remember getting so tired. The cold wind was blasting and my brothers had longer legs than I, and I was having trouble keeping up, so I was getting pretty exhausted. I finally laid down on the ground and fell asleep. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by my mother. She said, “what are you doing?” I told her how tired I was. She told me that my dad had sent me out to do a job, and I needed to finish the job. This was unusual to me because my mom was usually gentle and compassionate and always looked out for us. For my mom to make me get up while I was exhausted really shocked me. I remember I got up and had to really dig deep for the strength to keep going. My mom hiked with me until we found my brothers and the cows. I remember that experience because, in my young mind, it was really an extreme experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Of course, I have to say my mom because she has been so impactful. My mom pushed me to dig deep when I needed to. I call that ability to do so, grit. My mom demonstrated grit to me throughout her life. She is such a hard worker and so project- orientated. She has left her mark in the world in so many ways and has reinforced the message to me of the ability to stay focused and see a project done to completion.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
For many years, I didn’t understand the value of a culture in the workplace. I didn’t understand the value of helping people feel important or that their work was meaningful. I was so project-orientated, I would come to work and just get the job done. I didn’t feel the need for personal praise. So, I had a lack of empathy for the needs of others to feel accomplished and supported or to have a fun workplace. I didn’t feel the need to take the time to develop those topics. The last several years has been a real learning experience for me, and a lot of the learning has been through the reading of great books, written by people who have understood the value of work cultural and have been able to explain it to me in a way that has made me re-evaluate the way I look at my job and being a leader in the workplace. It is no longer just about getting a list of tasks completed. It is about the way people feel while doing that. I have a long ways to go, I know this is an area I could improve in, but I have had other strong leaders throughout my organization that has stepped in and have helped employees in providing counsel and have taken the time to develop those characteristics that are helpful to employees. Our work culture has been developed by individual personalities and the huge diversity in the humans that are working within our organization. Our employees have such variable interests and different styles of approaching and solving problems. I have worked on developing a strong sense of gratitude in the differences in people across our organization. I have backed off on not trying to decide how people should approach a problem, but giving them the freedom to solve the problems in the way that they feel they need to.
I have found the best way to keep people engaged is by being transparent and talking about being creative. I don’t want people to feel like they are at a place with a ticking time clock; I want them to feel the personal value of doing deep, creative work. You know, we are all here, and we are all just trying to make it through the workweek; let’s make it together.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We went through an exercise as an organization based on The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. His philosophy is the one thing that an organization needs to have to succeed is good organization health. Organizational health starts with transparency and vulnerability within the leadership team. If you don’t have transparency and vulnerability at that level, you won’t unlock the true potential of individual people. After we read The Advantage, we had to sit back and decide what our values within our organization already are. Not the values that we aspire to, but what are the values of our organization inherently? We found that transparency, empathy, and creativity- those are the three things that we truly are. If we can hone in and value those three things, this gives us the opportunity to grow. This also helped guide us in the idea that humans are so diverse. The key to happiness in any individual is the opportunity to be free, to find our individual value, and to live those values. We can help each other do that by recognizing diversity and allowing people to be their own person.
The movement I would love to inspire would-be less judgment and more freedom in acceptance.
What if we grant ourselves and others the freedom to be themselves, and we don’t add judgment to their personal attributes? I truly believe people are good. Most of the suffering in the world is emotional, and most of the emotional suffering is caused by human relationships not going well. We need to give humans the space to be who they are in the workplace and outside the workplace.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?
If you want to find me, find me in the wilderness. And don’t bring your cellphone!