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Five painful lessons I learned about stress through bankrupting my first business

on Thursday, 02 April 2015. Posted in Wellbeing, People

Malcolm Scovil learned the hard way how not to grow a business. Meditation and mindfulness taught him the benefits of taking a calmer and more collected approach

Five painful lessons I learned about stress through bankrupting my first business

I once knew the owner of a software company that was so focused on expanding his business that he had blinders on to anything other than revenue growth.

Issues with people in the team were put on the back burner, financial challenges were ignored and he stopped caring about sleep, fitness and health. The list of challenges piled so high that eventually everything collapsed and the business failed. That business owner was me, 3 years ago.

It was my first business and I had a “grow, grow, grow” mentality. I’d read all the advice saying things like, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying” and I felt the pressure of delivering month on month revenue growth, at all costs.

In hindsight, what I should’ve been focused on was building a healthy business, not simply a fast growing business. A healthy business can grow fast, sustainably. A fast growing business doesn’t necessarily do that. And as we all know, fast growth can be quickly followed by fast decline.

I had many very depressing days during that time. I’d often sit on the floor of the shower hoping that the hot water would wash away all my problems. It didn’t. 

When the business went bust, I went bust emotionally. 12 months of slowly laying off 25 people I’d become friends with, having hundreds of difficult conversations with frustrated investors, creditors and clients and eventually having to admit defeat took a heavy toll on my self-belief and happiness.

1. Pretending stress and anxiety aren’t there don’t make them go away.

If you’re anything like me, you link at least some of your emotions to how well your career is going. We often aren’t aware of it, but our jobs have a huge impact on our overall level of happiness and fulfillment.

In the difficult months that followed the bankruptcy of the company, my thoughts were dominated by the fact that I’d failed. I didn’t tell many friends or family what a hard time I was going through because I thought the right thing to do was stay tough and just soldier on. Needless to say, that strategy isn’t very sophisticated or effective.

That’s when a friend, Alex Tew of Calm.com, suggested that I look into mindfulness and try out meditation. He said that it helped him through a tricky time in his career. I didn’t really know what mindfulness was and had been hesitant of meditation in the past primarily because it seemed a bit ‘soft’ and I find it really tough to sit still for long periods of time. It also didn’t seem logical that doing nothing in silence for 10 or 20 minutes a day could have any positive benefits.

2. The most successful people and companies are dealing with stress, proactively. If you’re not, you should be.

I respected Alex a lot though and I started reading articles online about meditation. I quickly discovered that many entrepreneurs I admired were long-time meditators. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, jumped out. He said he started meditating when he was Oracle to handle the stresses of a high-pressure role.

Another friend, Michael Acton Smith who founded Mind Candy, suggested I read ‘Search Inside Yourself’ by Chade-Meng Tan, the story of how Google implemented a mindfulness and meditation programme to build the emotional intelligence of their leaders. The book led me to the work of author Daniel Goleman, who studies the impact of emotional intelligence, self-awareness and empathy on leadership and the success of teams and organisations.

3. Our brains and bodies are wired for stress and emotional reactivity. You need to learn about this stuff so you can manage it.

This academic and medical work on emotional intelligence was fascinating and I started to read everything I could get my hands on. I discovered that LinkedIn, Blackrock, Starbucks and 100’s of other organisations, even the UK Government, have programmes in place to develop mindfulness – which is best defined as the mental state of being present in the moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting ones feelings and thoughts. I learned that mindfulness is cultivated through meditation – a workout exercise for your brain.

This mental state of mindfulness was in such contrast to any state I was in when I was running my previous business. I was in a state of mindlessless, thinking constantly about the future or the past while frantically ignoring my anxiety and all the signals around me.

I decided to learn everything I could about the science and research behind mindfulness and to start meditating every day to see if this was more than just an interesting theory.

The science went way beyond what I expected. The advances in neuroscience and brain scanning technology in the past few decades show measurable increases from meditation in the parts of the brain responsible for strategy, planning, memory and executive function while actually reducing grey matter in parts of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety.

Research out of Harvard, Oxford and other leading academic institutions is growing exponentially with over 400 peer-reviewed studies in 2014 supporting the positive benefits of mindfulness and meditation on the human brain and body.

Worryingly, the research also shows the staggering impact of stress on cancer rates, heart disease, obesity, depression and many other illnesses. One study linked 70% of doctors visits to stress and anxiety. Dis-ease is literally causing millions of people to be diseased.

4. Mindfulness meditation strengthens your brain and emotional resilience just like going to the gym tones your biceps and abs.

It was when I started to meditate for 5-10 minutes a day consistently that I really started to experience an impact. The biggest change was in my levels of self-awareness. I could feel and sense my own emotions much more clearly, as they were happening. This sounds like a small insight but it’s profound. Being aware of a negative emotion or voice in our heads and acknowledging it helps to soften it. It also greatly reduces the likelihood that our actions will be ‘hijacked’ by our emotions. It makes us calmer and gives us back the controls.

When we’re able to be aware of our own emotions we start to become more aware of the emotions of others. This leads naturally to becoming a more empathetic listener and leader.

Dozens of peer-reviewed studies confirm that mindfulness meditation goes beyond strengthening our emotional resilience. For instance, research out of the University of Massachusetts Medical School shows that regular mindfulness meditation improves our immune system, reducing levels of cortisol (aka the stress drug) in our bodies and improving resilience to flu, skin disease and worse.


5. Winning another client, drinking a bottle of scotch or going to a yoga class aren’t long-term solutions. As leaders, we need to take our companies beyond stress-fuelled cultures to a future of work where health (mental and physical) and happiness are the foundation of greatness in teams, products and businesses. Otherwise, we’re all headed towards burnout, hospital beds and maybe even bankruptcy.

This awareness of others emotions is one of the unexpected drawbacks of becoming ‘mindful’. You’re constantly able to see others being pulled by their emotions and acting from states of mindlessness. It’s very clear after a few months that the world and the world of work is literally sick with stressed out people living at the whims of their emotions.

This is changing though. More and more business owners and executives are looking for a solution to their own stress and anxiety. So often, they find it in some form of self-reflection, mindfulness and/or meditation. They are then bringing the benefits into their organisations through training practical ways to build resilience, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and compassion in their teams and leaders.

This is encouraging for the future of work. For too long, we’ve simply looked for ways to get from A to B, quickly and efficiently. This strategy doesn’t take into account that we are humans and we need to look after ourselves and each other. The successful path forward for business is to get from A to B, healthily and happily.

Malcolm Scovil is the founder of Calmworks, a London-based company helping to improve the health and happiness of employees through training mindfulness (not always using that word) to teams inside creative agencies, financial institutions, publishers, technology companies and other leading employers. He co-founded the Mindfulness Summit for business leaders taking place in London on 16 April, 2015. He is also an advisor at venture capital firm Forward Partners and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. 

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