If you struggle to find the time to eat healthily, experiment with a meal kit delivery service such as Gusto or Hello Fresh. This significantly reduces the mental energy, time and effort that comes with food prep whilst also providing you with varied and nutritious meals.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Alex Young.
Dr Alex Young — an NHS trauma and orthopaedic surgeon by training — is the CEO and founder of mixed reality training platform Virti. Virti develops immersive training tools to improve human performance in organisations around the globe. Passionate about improving human performance, Alex built and sold his first company whilst at medical school, before boot-strapping and scaling an award-winning medical education company while still training in the NHS. Virti — Alex’s most ambitious venture to date — has won a wealth of awards and grants, including being voted one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2021.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial and interested in tech; as a teenager I was a huge video game nerd and I taught myself to code from my bedroom aged 14. Because I wanted a career in which I could challenge myself and help people on a daily basis, I decided to study medicine and train as a doctor.
Whilst still in medical school I grew an in-person events, conference and education company, then later I founded an online education company for health professionals preparing for exams — and scaled this to 7 figures in revenue whilst balancing my day job as a doctor.
When I’m not working to grow my current business, Virti, I enjoy interviewing guests for my podcast The Human Performance Podcast, recording advice vlogs for fellow entrepreneurs on my YouTube channel, reading, Crossfit and marathon running.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I’m fascinated by the process and science of human learning, which is why I studied for a degree in education following my first medical degree.
Then, when I was undergoing the latter stages of my medical and surgical training, it struck me that the development of essential practical skills amongst doctors was too often left to chance. Because it was too difficult or dangerous for students to gain the hands-on experience they needed (something which has worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic), many were missing out on ‘real life’ learning opportunities. Doctors’ and students’ confidence and capability was suffering from a lack of repeated practice in a zero-risk environment.
Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave my role as an NHS Trauma and Orthopaedic surgeon in order to found an immersive training company, Virti. My goal was to empower learners to access high-quality, engaging and interactive training conveniently and in a more data-driven way.
I partnered with two experienced VR developers, Nils Hellberg and Lukas Roper, in Bristol. We secured pre-seed investment from VR/AR investor BoostVC in San Mateo, CA, and launched the first iteration of the Virti platform in 2018.
We picked up multiple customers and awards and were selected onto the NHS’ Digital Health London accelerator just 2-months post-launch.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My mum, who just recently retired from a long career as a headteacher, has given me a huge amount of support and encouragement over the years. She sparked my passion for education, and her commitment to helping every one of her students to be the very best version of themselves definitely inspired my mission to improve human performance.
Now, I’m trying to pass forward the advantages that her support gave me by sharing my own advice and success secrets with the wider entrepreneur community.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
In the earliest days of growing Virti, the pace of growth was incredibly rapid. I was hiring, onboarding, fundraising and developing all at the same time, wearing dozens of hats simultaneously! During this period I made the mistake of not prioritising the establishment and embedding of a robust company culture. This was something that caused some friction and obstacles in the team, not everyone was aligned to the same mission and goals. I then had to retrospectively define and put in place the Virti culture and mission, which proved more difficult than it would have been at the start of the journey. Reflecting back, this experience drove home just how important shared culture and goals are to the success of any team endeavour.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
It sounds cliche, but I honestly believe that in order to be successful you need to love what you do, be passionate about your goals, and be clear about your mission. You also need to be incredibly mindful about the people you choose to surround yourself with and work with — choose them wisely. I wake up every morning excited about what my team and I are going to achieve and I get my energy from working with the fantastic people I have hired.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m an avid reader, typically completing over 100 books per year. However, one of the books that made the biggest impact on me was Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. I was struck by Kleon’s message that one of the best things a founder can do to help other budding entrepreneurs is to share their company journeys, warts and all, via blogs, podcasts and videos.
Standing up and self-promoting can be challenging, and some founders are reluctant to share too much for fear of having someone steal their ideas or intellectual property. However, since reading this book I’ve found that sharing in this way is pivotal to helping me build my network and credibility amongst different audiences and stakeholders, which all feeds back into the success of Virti.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?” ― Lance Armstrong.
As an entrepreneur who loves to pursue a challenge, I’ve been rejected and I’ve failed hundreds of times and in hundreds of ways. But this quote has always inspired me to pick myself up, keep moving forward and never stop working towards my goals. Looking back today, I place value on every single one of my failures and I appreciate that they helped me get to the place I’m at now.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We’ve recently announced a $10 million Series A funding round raise, which consolidates a pivotal period of growth at Virti; not only did our revenues grow 978% last year, but our team also doubled in size.
This Series A funding will enable us to continue along our current path of exponential international growth, researching and developing new technologies to improve performance for everyone on the planet. As the hardware and technology continues to improve, so will the data we can collect and use to demonstrate training insights.
We feel privileged to have both deep tech experts and world-leading educators on our cap table in this funding round. Together, we are going to achieve our ambition of becoming the world’s leading developer and distributor of deep learning and digital training solutions, removing the barriers that prevent people from reaching their full potential.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Our habits are what make us who we are as people. They influence our daily actions, which impact on how other people perceive us and on the mark we leave on the world. If your habits drive you towards fulfilling your goals, then you can change the world according to your dreams. In contrast, if your habits are holding you back you’ll find yourself quickly becoming frustrated and self-critical.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Being a surgeon and a successful entrepreneur are two careers that demand impeccable time management and self-discipline. In order to stay physically and mentally healthy whilst at the top of my professional game, I’ve had to work hard to create and embed positive habits across every part of my life.
As the billionaire businessman Charlie Munger famously said, “those who keep learning will keep rising in life”, and I agree that a commitment to life-long learning is one the most important habits that fuels my success. I have a set time in my day that I dedicate to reading and researching how I can become a better leader, a more effective manager and a more creative entrepreneur. Over the years, this has become a habit, the positive results of which have directed and accelerated my personal and professional journey.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
The key to developing good habits is to understand that you own your time and you have the power to decide how you spend it. Reflect on what your goals are, and allocate time to the actions that are going to help you to achieve those goals the fastest.
If a certain action or behaviour is routinely getting in the way of you achieving your goals, or preventing you from reaching your potential, that thing can be defined as a bad habit. Recognising this is the first step to cutting it out of your life before it can do any more damage.
Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.
1. The importance of sleep for wellness cannot be overestimated. I find that the quality of my sleep correlates closely with the quality of my work and performance across all other aspects of my life. Good sleep habits are essential.
2. Exercise is also crucial for mental and physical wellness, and a habit that should be prioritized. Even when I’m very busy, I always make time for a gym session, HIIT workout or run.
3. Finally, don’t fall prey to the myth that successful people never take a vacation. Your brain needs time to rest and reset, and you’ll benefit immensely from some down-time with friends and family.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
- Setting time reminders on your phone will make sure that you maintain a consistent and healthy wind-down and sleep routine. Yes, it’s tempting to scroll on social media late at night, so stop yourself from doing this by downloading an app that locks your social media accounts between, say, 10pm and 8am.
- If you struggle to find the motivation to exercise, invest in sessions with a personal trainer. Paying for and scheduling these sessions in advance means that you’ll be much less likely to cancel, and working with a professional will help you to make faster progress towards your fitness goals.
- You can make vacation into a habit if you take the same weeks or weekends off every year, or if you block out certain times and dates in your calendar for relaxation. Some entrepreneurs that I know have a habit of never working on Sundays, and treating these days like mini-vacations in their week that they can dedicate to their families and hobbies.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
- Getting into the habit of saying ‘no’ to things that drain your time and energy without bringing you equivalent rewards is an excellent place to start. For example, if I’m invited to a meeting that I don’t think I can add value to, I’ll politely decline the invitation and explain why.
- Knowing when and what to delegate is also very important to drive optimal performance. If someone else can do something better than you can, you need to relinquish control and pass the task or opportunity on to them. Stepping back in this way is a habit that can be strengthened over time and with repeated practice.
- Spending time reflecting on what has and hasn’t worked out well for you is a valuable daily habit. Only by honestly evaluating your own performance and actions can you identify areas for improvement or iteration.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
- If you use a diary or planner to schedule your days, you’ll feel more empowered and better equipped to take control over your time. Several years ago I started using a diary planner that allowed me to map out my personal and professional goals for the next 12 months and then break these down by quarter, month, week and day. This allowed me to set goals for larger projects (such as improving my fitness with a new gym routine or growing business revenues over a set period). The diary also helps to keep me aligned on my main vision and mission to focus my time.
- In order to develop a habit for delegation, you need to completely trust the people in your life who you are delegating to. This means that you need to invest in hiring a great team of people, and then in making sure that they are fully aligned to your mission and vision.
- Write down your reflections before bed every night. Every month or so, talk through your progress, highs, lows and learning points with a friend or mentor.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
- There is strong evidence that mindfulness can help reduce stress, improve focus, reduce distractions and improve memory and academic performance. A randomised controlled trial in 2013 by the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety and a 2018 study by the same researchers found that mindfulness practice can actually reduce stress hormones released by the body.
- Scheduling time for ‘deep work’ as one of your daily habits is a concept loved by Elon Musk, Cal Newport, and scores of other successful entrepreneurs. It’s all about protecting time for you to enter a ‘flow’ state, during which you can pour all of your undivided attention into a single project. I know that I work most productively in the mornings, so I make sure that I plan my deep work period to take place early in the day.
- Eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated and avoiding excess caffeine, alcohol and sugar are absolutely essential to maintaining optimal focus. Our bodies and brains are connected in so many ways, and what you’re putting into your body will directly impact your brain’s processing speed, your memory and your attention span.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
- I use the mindfulness app Calm everyday and mainly use the mindful guided meditations like the 10-minute body scan to help me focus my attention on the present moment. I tend to schedule 10-minutes for meditation just after lunch or as a quick break between tasks. This helps to reward me for a period of focused work and stops my mind from racing if I’ve come off back-to-back meetings or a period of deep work. If you don’t have Calm there are lots of mindfulness apps and YouTube videos available and UCLA have a great guided meditation library in a number of different languages.
- In order to enjoy daily ‘deep work’ periods, you need to block out the time in your calendar. It can be hard not to sacrifice this time for urgent meetings or small important tasks, but if you’re not strict with yourself about ring-fencing daily deep work then you won’t enjoy the productivity benefits that it can offer. Ask a colleague to hold you accountable to working on one single project in your deep work periods, so you’re not tempted by distractions.
- If you struggle to find the time to eat healthily, experiment with a meal kit delivery service such as Gusto or Hello Fresh. This significantly reduces the mental energy, time and effort that comes with food prep whilst also providing you with varied and nutritious meals.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Sometimes you need to trick your brain into Flow state by hitting a small goal and triggering a dopamine release. This helps you to feel primed, energized and motivated to dive into your main work for the day. For example, if I’m struggling to enter a state of Flow, I might start the morning off by achieving a fitness goal such as running 10k. When I’ve completed this, I’ll be feeling confident and capable for the rest of my day.
In sports psychology performance coaches encourage athletes to focus on process over outcome and on what they can control. So, be kind to yourself and ensure you celebrate small, achievable goals. Equally if you miss a goal don’t dwell on it, acknowledge this is part of the process and aim to hit your goal next time. Remember, ideally you should be having fun rather than treating the pursuit of your mission as a chore.
Setting small goals
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe that the movement I’ve already started with Virti, to make learning accessible and affordable on a global scale, will eventually bring significant benefits to millions of people. Every human has infinite potential to do good in the world, but to act on this potential they need to develop the right skills. That’s what Virti is all about.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Charlie Monger, or Warren Buffet. I’ve just re-read Poor Charlie’s Almanak, and the amount of wisdom and knowledge the team at Berkshire Hathaway has amassed over their lifetime is amazing. Both Charlie Monger and Warren Buffet are straight talkers and cut to the core of most topics with insight and intelligence, so it would be a fun breakfast or lunch.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can visit my website (https://blog.alexanderfyoung.com), follow me on Twitter (@AlexanderFYoung), subscribe to my YouTube channel, subscribe to my podcast or connect on LinkedIn (Alexander F Young).
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.