As anyone working at a high-growth startup can tell you, things get very hectic and stressful very easily. Motivating a ten person team and also having a life of my own presents itself as a single gigantic challenge. Until recently, an acquaintance or social media follower would view my life as successful, but there was one huge problem: I was anxious, stressed out and not all that happy. Thankfully, over the past year I’ve taken a new approach to life that involves being mindfully aware, or “present,” that has made me a better manager and partner in quantifiable ways.
First, I should make a slightly embarrassing admission: much of my anxiety boiled down to FOMO (fear of missing out). I felt anxious on a daily basis about missing out on, well, everything that it seemed others were doing that I wasn’t. Faster revenue growth (because 150% isn’t enough). Boozy brunches. Unicorn valuations. Skyrocketing personal wealth with minimal work experience. Bottle service. Personal training sessions. One Direction hair.
I looked at the world and saw what I didn’t have and felt bummed out and a little bitter. And how did I overcome that feeling? I got intense, took control and lived on the edge of a stress-induced breakdown, which resulted in the occasional snippy comment, the short-term desire for a “quick win” in an argument with my wife, or a passive aggressive comment to a subordinate.
Basically, I was taking my unhappiness out on those around me and being a lot less of the person that I wanted to be.
So I started searching to see if there was anyone else in the world who was wrestling with the guilt of being someone with so much yet fighting bouts of unhappiness that came in waves every few months.
And it turns out that a TON of people have felt this way—not just startup VPs, or Americans, or millennials, but human beings for hundreds of years. The introduction in the book Mindfulness in Plain English crystalizes this common anxiety and convinced me that I could do something about it.
To combat my anxiety and unhappiness, I started meditating. It has worked by making me be more “in the present” (more on that phrase a bit later).
I was an economics major in college, so the way that I measure the success of mindfulness is by the increase in positive feelings (feeling happy more often) and decrease of negative emotions (feeling anxious less often).
Let’s tackle the biggest problem first: the anxiety that makes you feel unhappy. Every single time that I feel anxious I am thinking about something in the future, meaning that I am not in the present. Things like hiring faster (we MUST go FASTER!), what our go-to-market strategy will look like in 6 months and getting industry recognition are all thoughts about the future. By meditating, I’m able to steer myself away from dwelling on those thoughts so that when they enter my mind, I gently push them aside. The result: so much less anxiety about the future!
Another big contributor to unhappiness is feeling annoyed by something difficult to avoid: other people. This is a life lesson and also a practical management one: it’s worth it to try to see things through someone else’s perspective. By practicing empathy you have a much better chance of going through life feeling happy rather than crushed by the boredom of standing in lines or dealing with a coworker’s nagging cough. David Foster Wallace’s This is Water captures the necessity of this mentality perfectly: be present and take a second to see the good in a situation or else you’ll be mired in petty annoyances and the feeling of everyone being in your way (especially during the holiday season!).
Seeing the good in others rather than getting annoyed by them has been the biggest boon to me experiencing more positive moments. Ellen Langer notes this in her podcast interview on the Science of Mindfulness as seeing someone not as gullible but rather as trusting, not as impulsive but as spontaneous. Sitting in an open work environment near others and managing different personalities has its inherent challenges, so why make it more difficult by not finding things to enjoy about those around you? And in case you think that the idea of mindfulness and being present is only a Buddhist philosophy that requires time spent meditating, Langer’s research shows that being mindful is more about actively focusing on the here and now (rather than meditating to get you ready to be present).
The irony of FOMO is that by worrying so much about missing out you actually miss out. You miss the joy in seeing a new hire grow and gain their own recognition, the value in not knowing where your company will be in 2 years but knowing that today, in this place, is a ton of fun. You also miss the beauty that can be found in watching leaves fall from the trees, or the colors in a sunset or the way your kid’s voice sounds when they sing Doc McStuffins songs. This is the first year of my life that hasn’t flown by—it’s been rich with work and life moments because I’ve been here, in the present, much more often.
It’s a happier place and I hope that those that I get to meet enjoy it with me.
Daniel Rodriguez is the VP of Marketing at Seismic, the leading sales enablement platform. Rodriguez previously founded marketing software company Indivly and held roles at FLAG Capital and Alliance Consulting Group. He holds an A.B. in Economics from Harvard and an MBA from MIT Sloan.