The next person that tells me that they are impressed that I made it through yoga will get punched in the face.
About a month ago, my friend Aaron Batalion decided to take a much deserved vacation from his startup and get himself into shape.
“Hot yoga, Micah. It’s fun, you should come.”
I had done Bikram yoga in the past, and enjoyed it, so I came along to a class. It was hard. It was fun. And I became obsessed. Now, a month later, I have taken classes in five cities, four states and from countless teachers, and in 30 days, I have missed only 3 days (2 because of travel).
A couple of quick points about Bikram Yoga. It’s in a room heated to 105 degrees. There are 26 poses, which were designed by this guy Bikram after a back injury, so they are focused on strengthening the core, and stretching the back. Which means, no Downward Dogs or other yoga moves than include jumping around. Oh, and there is farting. Which is always funny.
After each class, I would complain about the teacher to Aaron.
“Dude, why are the teachers so judgmental? Why are they so mean? I thought yoga was all about meditation and getting zen and shit.”
As I finished my tenth class, I finally realized why I had such a bad reaction to the teachers.
I hate being taught, but I love to learn.
To truly understand something, I just have to do it. Just jump of the proverbial cliff and figure it out on the way down. Being taught doesn’t allow for interpretation or freedom of expression. It requires that something is known and that knowledge is being shared. That exploration is dead.
But that isn’t all that yoga has taught me.
Yoga is judgmental
The next time someone says to me “Don’t worry it gets easier,” or am asked to not be in the front row, I am going to punch them in the face. They call yoga a practice, which by definition means that not only will I not be perfect, but that I will also improve over time.
As an entrepreneur, this is a powerful concept. It’s not about perfection, but about the pursuit of perfection. Startups are our practice. We never are able to create the perfect startup, but we can improve them over time.
The most perfect you are is right now
Being present is a concept that is often thrown around as a practice of focus on what you are doing, and worrying less about what came before or after. For me, the idea that I am doing the absolute best I can in that moment, that regardless of my previous success or perceived future success, I am accomplishing everything I can in that moment, blows me away. Imagine the stress relief I gain through that realization.
This ties into my lack of financial motivation. Every six months or so, my board offers to set up a bonus program for me. I always respond the same way, “I appreciate the offer, but it is impossible for me to work harder. I will achieve whatever is the maximum possibility, and a bonus can’t drive me any harder.”
Less is more
We hear this a lot, and always pass it off as contrite. But in yoga, it’s true. As a swimmer, football and lacrosse player, it was all about working as hard as possible with the physical manifestation of that effort being hard breathing, sore muscles, etc. If you worked so hard that you couldn’t move, then you clearly left something on the field. In yoga, its about pushing yourself just far enough. Imagine having the fortitude to stop. Can we be as successful in our startups if we stop working (or worked less) so that we could sustain our effectiveness over time rather than in bursts? I say we can.
Have a soft face
One of the teachers says this about ten million times a class. The day before last, I tweaked my back a bit, making me have a harder time holding poses. So last night, I decided to focus on having a soft face.
We often say “don’t let them see you sweat,” in an attempt to say that a leader that seems to be constantly under control, is a stronger leader. Last night, as I struggled to not grimace to furrow my brow, I noticed that when my face was relaxed, the rest of my body was relaxed. I didn’t hold my breath as much. I stopped scrunching my shoulders. I could feel each part of my body and make micro-adjustments to improve my pose. And at the end of the workout, I was exhausted. More exhausted than I had been in at least a week. Forcing myself to relax let me understand more of what was going on around me. Amazing.
At the end of each class, the teacher says “Namaste” and we all repeat it. Then, usually instead of laying there and resting for a couple of minutes, most folks grab their stuff and escape out of there rapidly. I assume it partly has to do with the heat of the room (105 – 120 degrees) that we have endured for 90 minutes. I always try and hang out for at least a minute or two. Mostly because I want to remind myself that being done, doesn’t mean that I am finished. Running a startup is a series of short bursts surrounded by minute rests that hopefully lead to a “namaste moment.” But, for most of us, the namaste moment isn’t an exit, but just an indication that the current effort is done, and a new day starts tomorrow. It’s important to reflect on what you accomplished every day in the context of that day.
We all make mistakes, do somethings awesome, and live our lives in the hope of building one amazing thing. For me, the 90 minutes I spend at yoga lets me focus on me and only me. All the concerns I have exit my brain. And all I think about is the cold water I am going to drink when yoga is done.
Yoga is fucking judgmental. I don’t care what all the hippies say. Yet, it has also provided an opportunity for me to learn new ways that help me live my Startup Life. And for that, a couple of farts, 90 minutes of painful heat, and an old dude in desperate need of a haircut calling me “Big Guy,” is worth it.
Earlier this week, I wrote about 500 or so words on my practice of focusing on the moments in our days as a way to create energy, ideas and pleasure. But, I accidentally deleted it. Yes, in a moment, it was gone.
Over the past several years I have spent a lot of time researching and exploring failure. You could say that I was employing an experiential style of research on failure for most of my life.
In fact, my oldest scar, which sits on the pad of the index finger of my left hand was my first data point.
I had just learned to walk and was stumbling around our small house in Fort Collins, Colorado. My mom, an unabashed hippie, had probably just finished making my macrobiotic lunch and had started to sew some (very hip, I’m sure) baby overalls. This being before lasers and Walmart, she was using a Singer sowing machine with a foot pedal and belt on the outside of the machine. Think Little House on the Praire style. (To make this hippie hick story even worse, at the time my father had a job miking and delivering goat’s milk. Yes. Capital H hippies.)
As the story goes, I wandered over to see what my mom was doing, and with quizzical eyes reached up and touched the moving belt.
Pretty sure my mom screamed before I did. And as blood exploded out of my fingertip I can remember my mom freaking out, snatching me up and running to the bathroom to run my finger under some water stopping the bleeding.
(Yes, I was less than two years old, so I am making up most of these memories, but I do know that my mom has special mom powers which have been in full glory for years.)
Years later, now living in Mountain View, California, I was thirteen or fourteen and a pretty good soccer goalie (and defender). It was during a season that my father coached us, and we were doing alright.
On this particular day, I was watching the burners on the top of the stove turn from hot red to complete black with a simple turn of a dial. Red. Black. Red. Black. Red. Black.
I remember thinking to myself, I wonder if the burner is cold to the touch by the time it gets black. So I turned the burner on full Red.
And then turned it off. and waited. Black.
In retrospect, I would have probably tried to use a paper towel or something, but at the time, my hand was the only testing implement I had available. Black. Hand on burner. Seconds passed. Strange smell started to come from my hand. I believe it was the smell of burning flesh.
Oh shit, that really hurt. And, for the record, Recently Black on the burner is not cold to the touch. Just in case you were wondering.
I still carry a scar from that third degree burn on my left wrist, now situated between two tattoos.
How do these stories of self-mutilation matter?
Because failure cannot be understood if you don’t experience it. And not in a “shoot, I got an A-” kinda way, but in a “I will carry the scar forever” kinda way.
What I have learned over the years both experiencing and researching failure is that the act of failure has no consequence, its the reaction to failure that has real weight.
I will never again touch a moving belt or a semi-hot burner, but the lesson that I survived the pain or the embarrassment. Just like shutting the doors on my first company or losing an investment has not scared me away from startup land.
We pay a real disservice to each other by dealing and discussing failure so flippantly. Failure has real gravitas, it can change how someone lives their life drastically. Yet, we love the rags to riches story. The Hollywood comeback.
We talk about supporting founders who are struggling and, perhaps, headed towards failure, but in truth, we prop up the apparent winners and let the losers slink out to the forest and die.
Failure isn’t the end. It’s a painful, shitty process, but its just that. A step.
When I got sober, a friend of mine said to me that the hardest part of sobriety wasn’t being around alcohol and drugs, but forgetting the bad times. For that which we forget, we are doomed to repeat.
Every day, I look at my left hand with its jagged scar on the index finger and burn mark on my left wrist sitting between two tattoos, and smile.
For years I have struggled with the concept of “hiring only A players.”
After all, what the fuck is an “A player?” Is there a test? Is there a list of characteristics that outlines the specific nature of an A player?
On top of that, the concept of an “A player” extends beyond just the skill set into the ability of that employee to engage and comfortably integrate into a set company culture.
The famed Facebook and Google interviews don’t always expose top notch employees. It certainly is a process that scares off a fair number of folks, but it doesn’t guarantee that the new employee is that unique combination of skills, personality, drive and compassionate intelligence necessary for the perfect fit within your organization.
About eight months ago I started to recognize a commonality among the employees at my startup and others that clearing indicated “A player”-ness.
The CEO/Founder, with pride, showcased something awesome that the employee did.
Not really. What is awesome? How is it defined?
It’s like porn. You know it when you see it.
For me, awesome is when I see or find out about something the employee did, and I say to myself, “man, that’s awesome!”
I realized that the employees that I found myself saying that about where the ones that I was excited about. And the ones that I wasn’t, well, my excitement waned.
So we instituted a new rule:
If we are hiring you because you are awesome, then you have 30 days to do something awesome. And awesome is simply defined as me (or your supervisor) thinking to him/herself, “man, that’s awesome!” just once.
It has a real clarifying effect on our personnel and hiring discussions. We are clear when we hire folks that they have 30 days to do something awesome.
Now it’s clear that our team is full of “A Players,” and we can easily define what our needs are and if our team is properly filling those needs.
Is it harder than a Google interview? Who knows. It certainly isn’t easy. But The Rule of Awesome is clear and honest, and for most people that is more important.