How Five Minutes of Doing Nothing Changed the Way I Lead
It was hard to take the first step and just “do nothing” when I was so busy and anxious. But when I did, meditation changed my life.
The day meditation changed my life I was “on vacation.” It was a beautiful day in Northern Michigan, and my family was outside enjoying the day…and I was inside working.
Just eight months earlier, I had reached what was supposed to be a huge achievement: my business partner, Joel Pearlman, and I sold imageOne, the business we built from his parents’ basement, to a major national company. We’d never intended to sell our business, but this company had been impressed enough to make us an appealing offer. Joel and I would run the company as a “wholly owned subsidiary.” There would be new resources and growth opportunities for imageOne, added job security and benefits for our team, and generous incentives when we hit extremely reasonable goals.
Sitting at my desk “on vacation,” I was not exactly enjoying the moment. Something was not feeling quite right…though I was doing my best to keep it out of my mind. We were still running imageOne, but we had lost much of the autonomy we had when we owned the company. For the first time in my adult career, I had bosses — and they did not always share my values or my priorities.
Growing up and into my adult life, I struggled with health issues and anxiety. That day, while on vacation, my anxiety was at an all-time high. My mind was racing. I was frustrated and on the verge of tears. I looked across the room at a chair and said to myself, Rob, go sit in that chair and breathe in and breathe out for five minutes. And I did.
And when I did…I actually felt better. My frustrations did not go away; my problems were still the same, but, I did feel better. Calmer. Clarity of mind.
Without realizing it, I’d just taken the first step of my meditation journey.
I’m a curious person by nature. And a fact finder. I wondered if there was something to this idea of meditating. So I dove in and became a student and a practitioner.
First, the facts. I learned that there have been 6,700 studies on the benefits of meditation since 1972. The last ten years alone have yielded 4,500 studies — most of which are overwhelmingly positive. In Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman’s book Altered Traits, they identify 60 studies that are rock solid and demonstrate the benefits of meditation for our minds, our bodies…and our hearts.
Next, I learned about the United States Military recognizing and teaching meditation. For example, the Virginia Military Institute requires all incoming cadets to take a class called Modern Warriorship, which teaches the benefits and proper techniques of meditation, and how to make it into a daily habit.
I learned that companies all around the world were incorporating meditation into their health and wellness programs. Places like Google and Aetna. At Google, their Search Inside Yourself workshops are consistently full and have spawned into a separate business which provides workshops all over the world for other companies. Aetna Insurance CEO, Mark Bertolini, a long time daily meditator, incorporated meditation into Aetna’s health and wellness program shortly after being hired. Over 13,000 of their 30,000 employees have taken the workshop, and the classes consistently have a waiting list to get in. The company has since seen their stock price rise from $30 per share to over $175 per share. There are no delusions that the increase in price is solely due to employees meditating, but Mark says that the one thing he notices most is that “people are just easier to work with.”
So I learned how to meditate. How to sit properly using the seven points of posture method as taught by Reginald Ray. I learned how to breathe properly, mindfully following my breath in through my nose, down to the midsection, and back up and out my nose.
I sought out a meditation teacher, which led me to Donna Rockwell, a psychologist, and meditation teacher in Detroit and New York. I went in for an appointment and told her I wanted to learn how to meditate. Donna listened to me tell her about the experience I had, what it had felt like, and what I’d done. Then, very gently, she explained that it sounded like I already knew how to meditate. We had a couple of sessions, in which she mostly focused on my concern that I was doing meditation “wrong.” It was hard for me to trust that I was meditating “right”! In fact, there is no wrong!
I kept meditating after seeing Donna. And I found that my practice made a difference in my life very quickly. Six months later, a new CEO of the company that acquired imageOne was hired. We met and he shared that managed print services was not going to be a part of their strategy going forward. He offered Joel and me the opportunity to purchase the company back. Normally, this would be a scenario where my anxiety would begin to manifest itself…but I noticed that I felt calm.
Joel and I were not sure we wanted to repurchase the company and we knew we had to be thoughtful in our decision-making process. If we lost our passion for running our company, we would not be doing our team any favors by buying it back. As we considered it carefully, I felt the impact of my meditation practice: I was able to be present in the decision-making process and open to what I was thinking and feeling about the situation. This led us to the clarity that we wanted to repurchase imageOne and run the it with a renewed sense of purpose in our leadership. Inspired by Bo Burlingham’s book, Small Giants, Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big, we would focus on a company culture that cared for team members (employees) and the totality of their lives. Cultivating life balance, not work-life balance (as if work and life are two separate things!).
Running imageOne mindfully means providing the team a human experience and structuring everything we do around living our core values…and my leadership has never been more satisfying (far from perfect — it’s a journey!). I’m honored to share that it has translated into unexpected successes, and in 2017 imageOne was ranked by Forbes Magazine as one of the twenty-five Best Small Giant Companies in America.
It has been a long journey from the first time I meditated in that chair. In the thirteen years that I have been practicing, meditation has helped to deepen my relationships, improve my resilience, and enhance my sense of joy, peace, and connection to the world around me. I feel myself growing as a person and as a leader, and have become passionate about sharing the benefits of mindfulness with others. My goal when sharing my meditation journey is to outline the benefits, de-mystify common misconceptions and challenge leaders to “do nothing,” even for just one minute.
I was encouraged to write a book about my experience, and I took it as a personal challenge. My vision is to change the way leaders lead. Mindful leadership can positively affect millions of employees all over the world. As part of my journey, I began taking silent retreats and found these to be a gift for my mind. When I would return, many of the leaders I interact with would ask questions and have curiosities about what happens on a silent retreat. With that in mind, I was inspired to organize a four-day silent leadership retreat which will take place in April of 2018.
For now, if you are curious about meditation, the day that you sit in a chair and challenge yourself do nothing for just one minute is the beginning. It is easy, but hard. A good teacher can help, and so can a retreat, but in the end, there’s no “one true way,” no wrong or right. Meditation is not another task to check off your list or something in which you will succeed or fail. You just sort of…do nothing. You get present. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
I would love to hear from you: what challenges are you facing? What gets in your way when you have good intentions to sit down and meditate but don’t do it?
If you are interested in learning more, feel free to download my free Leader’s Guide to donothing on my site.