When I was a kid, I curated my own museum in an old sewing cabinet. In this museum were rocks, leaves and feathers. In fact, anything I had scavenged when out and about.
One day, I decided it was time to make some money, so I took the feathers out of the museum.
I decided I would sell them to my neighbors.
On a sunny Saturday during the 1977 English heatwave, I sped off down the street and started knocking on doors. A seagull feather for five pennies.
I remember the first person answering the door. I noticed how her house smelled. She bought one.
It wasn’t long, of course, until my mother heard about this. She didn’t like the idea of her son turning into a door-to-door feather salesman, especially at age seven. That was the demise of my first enterprise.
There was, however, something joyful about that experience. I had a product. I could sell it. I could make money. I could buy Freddo the Frog chocolate.
I could have freedom.
Fast forward. School. University. Jobs.
Then, around 2007, I got the entrepreneurial bug. I wanted the freedom that having my own business could bring.
I started a company that made ready-made newsletters.
Launching a business is pretty easy. Running it 10 years later isn’t.
Indeed, these days, conceiving a new enterprise is perhaps too easy. A website plus a few Google ads and you’re off to the races.
After a while, a business starts to take on a life of its own. It’s like a child: it becomes your responsibility to nurture it and grow it; to make sure it can get through the lean periods without grazing its knees, working so each year is bigger than the last.
Because that’s what you do when you have a business.
Get Real, Roller-Coaster
Roller-coasters can be fun, but not if you have to ride them 24 hours a day.
And certainly not if you fail to realize how safe they are – safer than driving to the mall.
Running my business felt like a roller-coaster. One day there would be good news – sales were up, income was up, customers were happy. The next day would be bad news – sales were down, income was down, customers were complaining.
The trouble was, because I was a responsible good boy, I worried. The good days were great, but the bad days were terrible and needed to be fixed. Worse, the bad days were likely to lead to more bad days, then a bad month and a bad year.
All the way to a failed business and me living by the side of the road.
Blame The Lizard
Sounds crazy, right? But I bet I’m not alone in suffering these thoughts. It’s what our minds do.
The amygdala, that original “lizard brain” buried deep down in our heads, has an important function. When we hear a noise in the night, we’re startled. When a car drifts into our lane, we hit the brake.
It’s always on alert, like the home security camera that watches out for movement.
But most of the time, of course, our lives aren’t at risk.
The trouble is, our lizard brain doesn’t get this. Better safe than sorry, it says – all systems on high alert! That makes everyday situations more stressful than they need to be.
I was tired of constantly worrying about my business; fed up with the late nights and the ruined weekends.
But most of all, I’d had enough of not living my life the way I wanted to live it.
I wanted the true freedom of being an entrepreneur.
So I got myself some mindfulness training, and in just two months, everything changed.
Business Education Is Broken
Part of the problem is that our business education is missing a vital element.
When I started my business, I learned what I thought I needed to succeed: marketing, sales, finance, leadership – the lot.
But I never learned how to relax; how to get off the roller-coaster; how to stem the rising sense of catastrophe and panic when things went wrong.
That’s why business education is broken. It teaches you how to do stuff, but it doesn’t teach you how to deal with success – and setbacks.
If we want a complete education, if we want to maximize what we learn without it driving us crazy, we need to discover how to work with our minds.
We need “adult supervision” to stop our thoughts going on a bender.
It’s only when our business education includes the mind that we can call ourselves educated.
So Shiny, So Beautiful
One December day I was driving south on I-77 in North Carolina and I noticed something strange: the leaves were so shiny!
It seems silly to mention this now. Of course they were shiny – the sun was shining on them.
But the thing is, I had never noticed that before. I had probably seen it – but never noticed it. There’s a difference.
In that moment, as I was gunning it at 70, I felt so much joy. How could it be that there was so much beauty – so much wonder – on the interstate?
This is what mindfulness work does. It opens you up to noticing things.
You start by noticing your thoughts – maybe for the first time. You stay curious to them. You consider: how interesting that I am thinking that thought right now!
Then you start noticing other stuff. The single leaf suspended by a thread, spinning in the breeze. The subtle rasp in a bird’s tweet. The detail of white birch bark.
All this spills over into business. I noticed what was unsaid in the conversations I had with customers – the tone, the subtle inflection. I felt a connection with my team – their happiness and their frustrations.
When I learned to listen to customers – really hear them instead of automatically reacting to them – I solved their problems, making them happy.
When “bad stuff” happened, instead of my brain going on auto-pilot and reacting, I was able to notice what was going on and get perspective, and with that perspective came rational, creative answers.
Instead of efforting and stressing, hunched over my keyboard, I learned to let go and relax.
It was as if I had been looking through a pinhole and suddenly the aperture opened.
There was a whole world of beauty, detail and amazement that I’d never noticed because I was so zoomed in on my stressful problems.
I felt like I was back to being seven-year-old Simon, full of optimism on a sunny summer Saturday, selling feathers to my neighbors.
This was the freedom I’d sought… and I knew I wanted to share it with others. So in November 2018, I sold my business and this is the result.
Are We Chickens Or Eagles?
We have to make a choice: are we a chicken or are we an eagle?
Are we going to peck and flap, cooped up in a dusty pen of reaction?
Or are we the masters of the sky who soar above the sound and fury, calm thanks to the non-attachment of perspective.
Do we choose when to dine, or are we dinner?
I believe that all of us are eagles. We just don’t realize we can spread our wings and the air will support us.
And that’s a damn shame.
Because as business – and life – gets harder, it’s the eagles who will survive and thrive.
The chickens will end up in a stew.
Better People Create Better Businesses Create Better Worlds
This is important. Not just for ourselves, but for our communities and the world as a whole.
When we truly know ourselves – when we can manage our reactions and our instincts to live with empathy and compassion – we create better lives for those around us.
Those better lives lead to better businesses, which contribute more jobs, more wealth and more innovation.
Those better businesses create a better world.
Eagle business people know this. That’s why they spread their wings and soar.