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Rohan Gunatillake: You Are Not Your Work

About this talk

At the heart of any creative endeavor often lies fear; fear of missing an opportunity, of burning out, of not scaling, or fear of failure. In this presentation, Mindfulness Everywhere Director Gunatillake reminds us of the humanity in an often cold business world—and how to never lose sight of the fact that there is another human being at the other end of the screen.


Rohan Gunatillake, Director, Mindfulness Everywhere

Rohan Gunatillake leads Mindfulness Everywhere, a creative studio making products which combine meditation, technology, and design. Rohan is best known for making Buddhify, the urban mindfulness app which helps you bring awareness, calm, and kindness to even the busiest of days. Alongside his work as a meditation entrepreneur, Rohan has a specialism in digital innovation in the arts having led major programs with the Edinburgh Festivals and national arts funders in the UK. He is a trustee of the British Council and in 2014, Wired magazine named him as one of 50 people who are about to change the world.


Full Transcript

As you all know, this sort of funny thing happens when you put products, apps, books, designs, whatever, out there. This funny thing happens in that people actually start using them. And some of those people write reviews. So I thought it would be fun to start by sharing a recent app store review of one of our products. Now it starts really well– “Excellent design and programming make this app a delight to use.” I’m loving this consumer’s moment. “It’s elegant and intuitive. I’d say it’s one of the best interface designs I’ve ever seen.” Wow. Amazing.

The problem: “The problem is with the voices used in the guided meditations. They are sharp, rushed, bland, and in the case of one male voice, positively irritating, making about two thirds of the content obnoxious.” Three stars. Now, as those of you know who is sort of a self-funded company like me, like ours, the best talent is the cheapest talent. So that obviously that one male voice happens to be mine. They didn’t know that when they write that I might be reading that.

But so statistically, there will be someone in the room who finds my voice bland and obnoxious. And that’s pretty bad news given that it’s about 20 minutes that I’m about to talk. If you are that person, this is Nessy. Nessy is my dog, she is the cutest dog in the world. If you ever find– you just find the rest of the talk unbearable, either what I’m saying or how I’m saying it, think of her and everything will be all right.

So when you’ve done a lot of meditation like I have, over the years of your practice, different parts of your life start to become part of your practice. More and more parts of your work, your relationship, all becomes fodder for this investigation, this awareness, this inquiry, and so on.

And so what I thought I’d like to actually share with you is some research. And this research sample happens to be over a group sample of one, namely myself.

And so in the last three or four years in which I’ve been making products, I’ve also been looking at my experience of that through the angle of meditation, through the angle of looking into my mind, looking into what that experience is like. And I want to share essentially some of what I found and what I continue to find on a daily basis as I make stuff, as we make stuff.

And what I’ve actually found is that the overriding experience I have is that I’m afraid. So there’s this term, FOMO– the fear of missing out. It’s actually the thing that drove me to make stuff in the first place. And the more and more I looked into the idea of fear, and in this weird world of start-ups and apps and the digital economy or whatever, what I found was that not only is FOMO the reason we as makers make, it’s the reason investors invest, and it’s the reasons consumers consume.

So in a weird way, the whole digital economy is built on fear, which is quite interesting. And this word FOMO is a little bit too cuddly for my liking because ultimately what we’re talking about is this big word, the F word, it’s fear.

And so as I started looking, especially the last two years, in particular, I spent a lot of time looking into my own fear. And what happened was, as I looked more into that, I was listening to a Pink Floyd album one day– and a joke for the prog rock fans in the room. I looked at fear in a lot of detail, so one of my favorite things to do– because I’m a weird meditation geek– is look at experiences in quite a lot of detail. And I started looking at the fear, and the closer I looked at it it started to resolve into four flavors, to four types of fear.

And I just want to share those with you, because I feel that I’ve got a sense, having spoken to some of you already, that these might be some things, some types of fear, that you recognize.

So the first fear is sort of the classic FOMO, other people are going to make things. In my case, this whole area of mindfulness is really popular now and is growing and growing. And I was scared four, five years ago that as an early stage industry an area worked, developed, that people would make stuff. And I didn’t want to be that guy in five, ten years time who just went, oh, I could have made better stuff than that. This is incredibly motivating for me. So that was fear one. That was the first thing I said. It was very obvious and very clear.

The second one was that through the work, just the general stresses– as we’ve heard– of making stuff, that me and my team would burn out. And that’s incredibly embarrassing to start with, when you’re making stuff which is designed to reduce stress in other people. Now, it needs to be embarrassing– it was important that we didn’t want to go through that experience ourselves, but also when you’re making a product which has this sort of outcome, I really strongly believe that the whole supply chain of that should in some way be imbued with a sense of the qualities that the product is trying to result in. So whether it’s the audio engineer, the UX designer, the meditation teacher, the PR specialist– actually, how do we ensure that we don’t burn out in the process of making these products and lose it and all authenticity in the journey of that.

The third fear is another classic one. It’s that my company is just not going to be big enough. It’s the fear of scale. It’s the fear of not enough impact.

And the fourth fear is that my company will fail. So there’s a lot of talk about failure in the start-up world, but when I looked a little bit more closely, this wasn’t the fear I was actually fearing at all, it wasn’t that my company would fail. My fear was that I would be a failure, which is actually very, very different. And we’ll talk a bit more about that in a bit.

So if that was the was the end of my talk, then it’d be a bit of a downer, right.

So what we do as a company and as a studio is that we effectively, to summarize it really simply, is that we design mindfulness practices and we turn them into products. And so given that this is sort of what we do, and I saw that these are fears that I feel effectively on a daily and weekly basis, if not a daily basis. But what I want to do is actually share what I do personally as a small business owner, as a maker, as an entrepreneur, as a sort of a leader of a team. And what do I to deal with that and to roll with those fears. Because these fears are incredibly natural and an important part of the entrepreneurial journey, I’d say.

So this first fear, the fear of other people making things. Now, like I said, this FOMO of other companies and makers and designers and creatives getting stuff in the market ahead of you is very motivational. And– but if that is the primary thing which is motivating, then that is incredibly tiring and incredibly corrosive to yourself. And so, for us– and it’ll be different for each of you– but getting in touch with the biggest sense of what we’re doing, and being aware that what we’re making is, in fact, for other people, for other people to experience and really be connecting with their sense of generosity. Because not only is their generosity available to your clients and your users and your consumers and your people– but it’s also incredibly generous to yourself to recognize that and not to let the fear totally be in the driving seat, but to let it be in the passenger seat. It’s a bit lot safer there.

The second one is a really important one, especially in the way that we’ve been designing, I guess, doing the business design of how we run as an organization. So the fear of burnout. There’s a lot of talk in the start-up world– and I’m sure we’ll talk about it tomorrow– around growth hacking, as a company grows.

Now very rarely do I hear in those conversations any talk of personal growth and personal development. And so what we do and why things are really important– it’s a real invitation, I hope, to you guys– is to, if you’re the sort of company that has a white board or blackboard in which you put your sales figures, which are very visible– what would it be like to put human metrics on that board with the same level of importance? What would it be like to name their well being and the development goals of your team members where if you’re a leader of a company or heading up a studio, so on? What would it be like to do that?

A, to work out what those metrics would be– which is a fascinating exercise. And B, to actually measure them and to give them a priority, give them a seat at the top table. And so if you’re in a small company, you might do it through a mechanism like the whiteboard where you put up your app sales or whatever. But if you’re maybe within a larger company, you could still go through this exercise where you’re actually working out what are those metrics for me that I’m trying to support in myself, and actually track them over time. And hopefully you’ll be able to share that kind of information with your boss or your management structure and your teams– and can also correlate that information with some sort of productivity metric or some other more classic metric– that could be really powerful thing.

So it’s a real invitation, it’s something that is really important to us, because when we were designing the way our business was setting out, just placing these metrics and these ideas and building the lifestyle of the team members into the success of the company was a thing that was really important. And it’s still quite early in our journey of that, and I’m happy to share in the coming years how we get on.

The third, the fear of scale– am I making enough impact. So a few years ago, we put out our first sort of prototype product. And to celebrate, about six months or whatever, I hosted a dinner for a number of people who’ve been really helpful and supportive of the app. And about that time we sold of this particular product. And at this dinner– my memory’s very, very clear, it’s a really striking memory of mine– is that one of the guests, who’s more of a classic investor, I guess, when I shared how we were doing, he said, oh, that’s not very much, not a lot of sales. And then a mentor of mine, who was also there, interrupted this other guy and said, now, hang on, imagine all those people outside your house. And that idea has stuck with me to this day, this idea of recognizing that these are human beings who are experiencing your products and connecting with that. And so that idea has turned into a practice cycle I call full frontal feedback. And a lot of you will have emails or messages or cards or whatever or testimonials from– whether it’s customers or clients or colleagues even– and the classic thing to do is actually to stick them on your wall, so you see them all the time.

I actually recommend not to do that. My recommendation is to find the three or four messages that really, really connect with you, that really have a lot of meaning. Put them somewhere nearby– email, photo, whatever– physically, so you can access them when you need to so they retain their power, they don’t become normalized through being just part of the furniture. And then do a bit of full frontal feedback.

And I’m going to demonstrate a bit of full frontal feedback to you now. So about a year ago, I got an email from a lady in New York. She’s called Rachel, she’s a corporate lawyer. And she sent us an email. And she’s one of my go-to three emails that I do this with. And what I do is that I get myself into a sort of a posture, which is incredibly open and listening, and then I just read her email. Now in this moment, what does scale mean? When you could hear that, when you can hear Rachel’s– we can hear from her and really listen to that. So right now, so scale has no meaning for me. It’s that sense of, that’s enough, that’s enough.

How much is enough in this moment? And that is enough. And we’re an ambitious company. We have a big number on the wall that we want to achieve– and we have already. We’re excited for what we’re going to do, but is it better to have those ambitions and those goals? But this practice of full frontal feedback really helps me connect into what we’re actually doing and helps defuse that fear of scale. And just before I move on, just to let you know the caveat is that Rachel is working with a clinician. She’s not switching all her medication for using a digital product. So for people in the room who are worried about that, this is part of a much longer email in which she talks about her therapist and her clinician, and she’s doing great. And she is excited about us here in New York.

And the fourth one, the fourth fear, this fear of being a failure– not fear of failure– fear of being a failure. And the practice– this is the big one, this is the hard one, this is the big guy, I guess– decoupling self and work. Because if I am my work, if I am my product and my product fails, then I have failed. If I fully identify with my product, and then it falls over, then just sort of classic logic, I have fallen over. And that’s a really dangerous place to be in a volatile world where attention is all over the place and you don’t know what’s going to stick and what’s not going to stick.

So, decoupling self and work. So I’m just going to share with you a very, very quick practice. So in the mindfulness tradition, we often use phrases. And I’ve got to be really clear on this, these phrases aren’t affirmations, they’re not like classic sort of 90s power affirmations. These are statements which, when we read them and reflect, then– oh, this is the practice. So we read them and then we reflect on them and we notice what happens. So it’s not about believing the words, it’s about taking on the words and then noticing what comes up in the mind in response to that.

So the first one, let’s start easy, it’s so obvious– I’m not my Twitter bio. So reading your Twitter bio, whatever, the way you describe yourself, your little thing– and then actually realizing that that’s not necessarily you. The next is a bit harder, actually– I’m not my resume. I’m not my portfolio of work. That feels a little bit harder, but I’m interested in that reaction. The third is harder still– I am not my company. Those of you who have sort of either co-founded or run a small company, we often identify really strongly with– whether in a small company or in a big company. So this idea of I am not my company– what does that feel like? Being interested in the response to that.

And the fourth one is the hardest of them all– I am not my work. Just holding that statement, noticing that, but I am my work, I’ve put everything into it. The practice is just noticing that movement, noticing the struggle and the pain of that movement. And just seeing that pain, seeing that movement, seeing that, seeing all the thoughts that come up when we actually try and take on these statements, is the practice of mindfulness and will help actually defuse some of those fears and start decoupling self and work. And that’s where the magic happens.

So that was my invitation, so thank you very much.

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