Hyperfocus — You need to be able to set aside all of the noise and get hyper focused on dealing with or solving the most critical problems. What needs to be done right now? Pilots are taught that in an emergency, you should: aviate, navigate, communicate. When the pressure is mounting and the engines are on fire you need to get hyper-focused on staying in the air. Tool #1 is always being able to prioritize what needs your attention this minute. The noise is what overwhelms people and creates panic.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kosta Ligris of Stavvy.
Kosta is a lifelong entrepreneur and co-founder of real estate startup Stavvy, the remote notarization and mortgage facilitator. Previously, Kosta was the founder of the Ligris Companies (Ligris), a collection of professional services, real estate, and consulting firms with offices in Boston, Newton and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Kosta now serves Ligris as chairman, and he continues to advise startups and founders, particularly in fintech and prop tech verticals, both as an active angel investor and as Entrepreneur in Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.
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?
Thanks for having me. I’m the product of Greek immigrants who came to the US back in the ’70s. I grew up in the Greater Boston area, with my younger brother and strict Greek parents. I was the first in my family to go to college and then graduate school, although my little brother quickly followed suit. My grandmother, who never spoke a word of English, helped raise us while my parents held down jobs and then built their small business, so I grew up speaking Greek before English at home. My dad was a bespoke tailor in Greece and could make suits from scratch — which I thought was a super power.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
My father left his tailor shop in Athens to follow my mom back to the States. He had no formal education but was an incredible influence in my life. He built a dry cleaning business (where I spent afternoons and Saturdays working as soon as I could reach the counter). He taught me the value of hard work, perseverance, pride in your work, and a passion for customer service. But the greatest lesson was his genuine approach to networking and building relationships. Even though he was the local dry cleaning shop, he built an extensive network through his customers that became his friends. Although I didn’t realize it at a young age, my father knew that people are the single most important element to everything. I remember him connecting people or doing a favor for someone and telling me, “Help people because you want to; help them because it’s the right thing to do.” The lesson was that it was not about quid pro quo; when you are there for people, they are there for you.
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?
I am blessed to have a network of remarkable friends, mentors, and colleagues that I feel have all influenced my professional and personal development. Dr. Gerald Chan has been a very large influence in my life. He is a brilliant scientist, philanthropist, and investor, among other things. He came into my life a few years after I had lost my father, and, in many respects, has evolved into a mentor and influence much like my dad. He encouraged me to go back to school later in life and get my MBA — a decision that has completely changed my life by immersing me into the remarkable innovation ecosystem in Greater Boston. Some of the greatest lessons have come from just observing how he makes critical decisions. Investing and building businesses requires a special type of focus, particularly the ability to process information and queues quickly while balancing risk and opportunity.
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?
Ha! Well, that is probably my first business venture in sixth grade. Friday was “current events” day, and we had to bring in a news article or story to share in class. Recognizing that many students would forget to bring an article in, I started my first B2C business selling articles from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald to students for valuable lunch and snack money. Business was booming, and I expanded into another 6th grade cohort with a sales rep, but my capitalistic efforts came to a halt when certain students, who couldn’t afford our products, decided to spoil the venture by going to my teacher. I suppose my first exposure to a geopolitical event was back then — and although Mrs. Bene had to send me to detention, I’ll never forget her saying to me “I have to punish you for this, but I can’t wait to see what you make of yourself.”
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?
The road to success is long, it is windy, it is full of road hazards, speed bumps, and detours. Anyone who has experienced any level of success will tell you that the journey is full of mistakes, bad investments, and failures. The ability to persevere, learn from the mistakes, and keep getting back up every time you fall down is all that matters. Bring passion to everything you do, and surround yourself with the best influences and people. As we discussed earlier, nobody makes great things happen alone.
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?
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, an incredible collection of leadership stories that apply to entrepreneurs or managers. If you haven’t noticed, I am a strong believer that people are at the core of anything and everything. These relationships are the key to building teams that make an impact. Being well versed in group dynamics is the difference between good and great. Leaders need to be more than approachable, they need to be vulnerable. In fact, I tell founders that when they feel uncomfortable, that is where the growing happens. From Culture Code: “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust — it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.”
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
People close to me know that I love quotes and analogies. So asking me for a favorite is not easy. “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both right.” Apparently this is attributable in some form to Confucius. Having the right mindset and the perseverance to push through resonates with me, especially the concept that so many successful people pushed a little harder right when they were ready to give up, and that was the difference between success and failure.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am so excited about the future of financial services, payments, credit, and the like. Technology and innovation are creating opportunities to create faster and safer transactions. Banks and financial service providers are starting to really think like technology companies, and fintechs like Stavvy are getting more attention than ever before. The ability to provide tools that complement traditional and legacy systems and ecosystems so that they can transform their delivery of financial services is at the core of what we do. Our education systems don’t teach financial literacy, documents are complicated and lengthy, and it is well documented that underserved communities don’t have reliable and equal access to banking, payment systems, and credit facilities. The mere thought that we can put some dent into these systemic issues is just plain awesome and excites me in an unnatural way.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
- Hyperfocus — You need to be able to set aside all of the noise and get hyper focused on dealing with or solving the most critical problems. What needs to be done right now? Pilots are taught that in an emergency, you should: aviate, navigate, communicate. When the pressure is mounting and the engines are on fire you need to get hyper-focused on staying in the air. Tool #1 is always being able to prioritize what needs your attention this minute. The noise is what overwhelms people and creates panic.
- Meditation & Mindfulness — These are indispensable tools that I turn to almost daily. Something as simple as taking seven minutes to breathe and calibrate. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will not be able to perform under high stress situations. For me, that includes sleep, nutrition, hydration, and mindfulness.
- Lean on Me — You need to have a network of people that you can lean on. Friends, mentors, colleagues. Leaders experience loneliness. They may be surrounded by people, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t take unequal shares of burden and stress. We all need a trusted network of people we can talk to. Build this network and develop it throughout your life, and don’t forget that it is a two-way street.
- Antifragility — You need to be very comfortable being uncomfortable. Also known as being “antifragile.” Navy SEALS are trained to be comfortable in any environment. In business, we don’t need to swim with our hands and feet bound, but we need to be willing to have the tough conversations, make the difficult decisions, adapt, and pivot. That means that every time we punt or delay something that would make us uncomfortable, we are preventing that growth. Do the tough work — it makes you stronger.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
- Sleep — No further explanation needed.
- Prepare — Be ready for anything and everything. Imagine every scenario, and walk through what you would do if everything goes wrong at the same time.
- Know your limits — There is persistence, and there is recklessness. The line gets blurry for some people; don’t cross the line. Stay hyper-focused and know where the limit is.
- Use your words — We tell children to use their words when they are having a meltdown. Same applies to us. Talk it out with a trusted resource. Sometimes I need to talk about it and not just process it inside my head.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I most often use the 4–7–8 breathing technique, which is generally an inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale for a count of eight. You can use the strict timing, or adjust to what feels right — listen to your body. I can usually get my resting heart rate into the 40s using this breathing technique.
Diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) with eyes closed and some natural sounds like rain or ocean waves can reset me in just minutes. You will rarely find me without earphones in my pocket; you just never know when you will recapture five minutes in your schedule that can be repurposed for mindfulness.
Learn Sitali breathing — the breathing technique to “cool off” when you are all worked up or angry. It creates a cooling sensation through breathing. Follow it with an ice cold water, and I’m ready to let cooler heads prevail.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Music is a powerful tool and a big part of my life. I use music to unwind, to focus, and to get energized. People will ask what is on my playlists — and it really couldn’t be more diverse. I listen to everything, it just depends on my mood and the effect I am looking for. When I need to get some serious work done that requires focus, I put everything on do-not-disturb and turn up the tunes.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
My habits include reading, yoga, spinning and other HIIT, and occasional golf. My newest habit is cooking more — I enjoy taking the time to prepare a meal. It is a great way to disconnect a bit without feeling unproductive. Finally, I am a firm believer in balancing western and eastern medicine and I’m obsessed with biohacking. That includes frequent acupuncture, bodywork, and using supplements, herbs, and peptides. I rarely consume alcohol for a variety of reasons, including negative impacts on hydration, sleep, and recovery. It has been almost a year since I consumed any sugar, which I attribute to decreased inflammation, better sleep, and stable mood. All of these habits have decreased anxiety and stress and kept me very well balanced even during quarantine. I have struggled with weight my whole life, and I’ve spent the last year really fine-tuning nutrition, exercise, and these habits.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Accountability & Routine — Make yourself accountable to yourself and to someone else who can keep you honest. Some people have the discipline to do it themselves, others can use an app to remind them and keep them focused, but some people need a buddy system. They all work, you just need to pick the one that works for you. Having a routine is also very important. You get into a normal cadence of activities and these shape into good behaviors and habits. I use time on weekends to go to a yoga class every Saturday at the same time. I read The Economist with my coffee on Sunday morning.
As a business 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?
Don’t do anything half-way. Whether it is a project, a business, or a relationship — give it your all and give into it. GO ALL IN! I call it “being in the zone.” To experience it, you need to surrender to it, because regrets are poison. One thing that is a constant among successful people: they don’t make excuses. When I mess up, I own it. And when I want something, I go all in. The euphoria is felt in that moment between when you dive and your body hits the water. You cannot stop it, you surrender and just experience it.
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.
Now more than ever, we live in a world that is always open. We are always running from one thing to the next. We grow apart from people that have influenced our lives and are always too busy to connect despite the countless tools we have to communicate. I have been trying to be very mindful to just check in on people and tell them I care. We have lost brilliant people to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Post a picture of someone who has impacted your life, tag them, and share something about why they are special.
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? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Bill Gates, one of the most influential and prolific entrepreneurs of his generation. A fierce competitor that I believe has really evolved into a philanthropist who is changing the world. I am impressed with his ability to dive into different challenges; he may be the ultimate generalist. If he sees this, I am willing to go to Seattle to have breakfast with him and compare books for my next Think Week.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m fairly active on Twitter @kligris and on LinkedIn.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.