Michael Heinrich of Garten: Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments; How To Relieve Stress, Clear Your Head, and Prepare Yourself For High Stakes Business Encounters
Feeling the body, a negative emotion or thought that comes has a corresponding physiological manifestation in the body. I tune into that and feel it through until it releases and leaves my body.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High-Pressure Moments,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Heinrich.
Michael Heinrich is dedicating his time to making the world healthy and blissful. He is the founder & CEO of Garten (formerly Oh My Green), a Ycombinator Top 100 (S16 and YCG F19 batches) and Stanford StartX company. Michael started his career in technical product management and engineering at SAP and Microsoft, helping shape the strategic vision of xApps Duet as well as MSDN academic alliance and ImagineCup (the world’s premier student technology competition). Then he worked for Bain & Co, consulting Fortune 500 companies in the technology, CPG, and financial services sectors. Afterward, Michael joined Bridgewater Associates, a leading hedge fund, where he was responsible for portfolio construction.
Quickly he discovered corporate culture prizes productivity over health. At a young age, learning about the power of food in his grandmother’s garden in Germany, Michael found the corporate perspective to be flawed. Research has since proven that health and productivity go hand in hand, and the more healthful foods people consume during the day, the happier, more engaged, and creative they become. Supported with research, nutritionists, chefs and a mission, Michael founded Garten and his mission has expanded to bring in wellbeing through meditation, mindfulness and community events. (Garten is the German word for “garden.”)
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?
Shortly after I was born in Ukraine, my family moved to East Berlin where my father is from. There I saw the Berlin Wall fall. I didn’t understand the significance since I was so little but saw my parents celebrating. They were able to find jobs at SAP and I witnessed many changes around us, western commercials, western goods, train lines extending across Berlin and so on. When I was 13 and just after a year of high school in Berlin we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area due to my father’s work with SAP. I was mesmerized coming out of the SFO airport by the palm-lined 101 highway.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
As a kid, I loved to build and create things with legos and mechanical toys. So what happened later was only natural. One day when I was hanging out at Palo Alto Labs after high school and surfing the internet, one manager discovered me and asked me if I wanted to make myself useful and learn to program. I said sure and became SAP’s youngest visual basic programmer. I met many entrepreneurs and soon-to-be entrepreneurs during my time there and was inspired by their creative spark. I remember working on a voice recognition demo that directly interfaced with SAP R3 at the time.
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?
Most definitely Steve Blank and the teaching team at Stanford’s Lean Launchpad course. The class completely changed my trajectory as an entrepreneur. I learned to understand concepts such as startups are a search process for a scalable business model not smaller versions of bigger companies. Also, most initial ideas fail their encounter with the market, so get out of the building and chat with potential customers and hypothesis test and learn before building anything.
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?
Making my career choices based on a false story: I created a story around my dad that I was not good enough for him. So, to get his attention I sought to find what was most prestigious and hard to achieve so I could prove I am good enough and perfect (working in management consulting, working for a hedge fund, getting into top schools, etc.). I often felt miserable and unsatisfied in my work as I felt I was doing work for the wrong reasons. When I realized this as a story I created, and I confessed this to him, our relationship totally changed and I could finally say I love you dad. With that my relationship to work totally changed and I started living in a world of possibility and exploration. My journey into purpose and meaning accelerated.
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?
Do live a life of purpose and bliss and be curious and open to learning and evolving. The five most meaningful growth experiences I’ve had besides university are transcendental meditation, landmark education, interpersonal dynamics, YPO, and conscious leadership. These practices helped define my true self and be free of limiting beliefs and thoughts. Standing outside of your past baggage what is true to you? What is your purpose? How do you bring happiness to others? What have you been complaining about that you want to change? Every moment is a gift and you can be the transformation in the world that you want to see.
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 book, Getting to Yes, made a strong impression on me. I understood how negotiating for interests versus positions leads to better and happier outcomes. I consistently use the idea of a win-win in all my negotiations, whether it is negotiating an acquisition or an essential partnership. My favorite question is “what are we really trying to accomplish for each party?”
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Life is about the expansion of happiness” and “do less, accomplish more.” U.S. work culture tends to be about doing more and getting more done but is it at the quality necessary and is the cost worth it? Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford Professor, found the U.S. workplace to be the 5th leading cause of death because of long hours and more. It’s a badge of honor to work super hard all the time to the point of burning out: “look at me, I pulled 2 all-nighters, I care so deeply about my work.” It’s noble and shows deep dedication and care for one’s work but it’s a false trade off. My wellbeing experiences and education have taught me that it is indeed possible to work on the most important things with more focus to accomplish more. This can come in the form of not needing to fix all the mistakes that came from decisions made with a groggy or unclear mind. Wouldn’t it have been less stressful to do the necessary parts of work correctly to begin with?
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m living my purpose via my company garten. Our mission is to empower people to live healthy and blissful lives. My grandma, a retired medical doctor, kept emphasizing that “health is wealth” and that healthy lifestyle habits are an essential part of life like eating directly from her organic garden. I am working on transforming our medical system from fixing and treating diseases to preventing diseases and living a life of bliss and wellbeing.
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?
All of my strategies fall under Wellbeing as a non-negotiable. I define total wellbeing as Mind, Body, Environment. All three are interconnected and interact with each other. E.g., researchers on myokines call certain forms of exercise the best thing you can do for mental health or did you know that certain foods combat depression or that 80% of chronic diseases can be prevented through nutrition alone?
What I consider my long term practices:
- Transcendental meditation for 1.5 hours 2x a day
- Interpersonal dynamics practice (sharing feelings, sharing unhelpful stories, not being identified with external objects and results, etc.)
- Family and friend time
- Shaolin Kung fu, kickboxing, yoga, HIIT
- ~8 hours of sleep before 10:30pm
- Healthy organic plant-based food
- Lots and lots of water during the day
- Herbs that help with detoxing
- Strong company culture and purpose
- Clean and pleasant surroundings
- Connecting with nature
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?
- Sound meditation, deep breaths, or Transcendental meditation beforehand
- Positive affirmations or visualizations where I perform very well in a specific situation
- Staying as present as possible: I know that I don’t control the outcomes, I only control my actions and my being
- Sharing vulnerability: how I feel in the moment, how much I care about the other person, what negative story I have created about the situation.
- I have recently tried the positive intelligence program and have enjoyed practicing short bursts of PQ reps like deep breaths, rubbing your fingers with intention etc.
- Feeling the body, a negative emotion or thought that comes has a corresponding physiological manifestation in the body. I tune into that and feel it through until it releases and leaves my body.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Besides the ones I have mentioned, I ask myself every morning what is most important right now / today? I then do that thing. It reminds me of the adage “When everything is important, nothing is important.”
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?
I have found that it is easier to be 100% compliant than 96% compliant when building a new habit. Certain habits like the wellbeing practices I mention are very important to setting a solid foundation for being successful, to be alert, to be calm no matter if the sky is falling or not, to see opportunity in crisis, etc. For instance, I have set a habit of exercising every day since the start of COVID. I’m proud to say that I’ve been 100% compliant. I set the same intention for my meditation practice since 2008, I missed a handful of times and couldn’t imagine living without it now. The same can be used in business, I set a habit of giving something to everybody I encounter during the day: a smile, a meaningful compliment, good guidance, etc. Or setting the habit of making the company a bit better every day and that bit by bit adds up to a lot in months time.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
I’ve had success in 4 aspects:
- Clearing out the underlying stress that causes bad habits in the first place: The four most impactful growth experiences like transcendental meditation have helped tremendously with this
- Support from friends, family, fiancee: For instance, my fiancee likes to remind me to put the phone away during lunch or dinner to be absolutely present and enjoy the moment as it is happening :).
- Coaching: Working with peers or professional coaches helped me unlock limiting beliefs which led to bad habits
- Replacing a bad habit with a positive one: Instead of watching a Netflix show before going to bed, reading a book instead to calm down for deep sleep.
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?
The five most meaningful growth experiences I mentioned above have led me into a state of flow frequently. I get “lost” in my environment, in my work, in my interactions. I’m simply present, experiencing myself thinking, enjoying, acting in the world. Often by simply going into nature and smelling a rose or watching the waves crash onto a beach get me into a state of pure awareness. In my meditation practice, a permanent state of flow is possible by having made the pure awareness that is at the basis of your experience be permanently featured in your awareness along with all the other sensations. Often just noticing your senses, and listening to your thoughts gives you access to that state of awareness. You can ask yourself, who am I really? Am I the body, no because I can experience my body and be aware of it. Am I my thoughts? No, because I can experience my thoughts. You are the awareness behind your thoughts.
My state of flow gets interrupted when I multitask, reading an email as it comes in during a meeting, responding to a slack when watching an educational video, checking the stock market during meditation. So, I’m working on replacing that habit with being present and having specific times during the day to work on these messages.
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.
Have a twice a day purposeful pause and twice a month purposeful pause days for deep rest and rejuvenation in every office. Take a stance for health and bliss/wellbeing. This allows time with oneself, for reflection, for rejuvenation, for pausing, for not working, for “sharpening the axe.” It’s not just smart for your health, it’s smart business. HERO for example found that companies investing in wellness outperform the S&P500 (they appreciated 235% compared to 159% over a 6 year period).
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 :-)
Elon Musk — I’m deeply inspired by his ethos to push the boundaries of what is possible and his resilience.