Add a Little Stoicism to Your Startup





As a kid, going to the library for me was like going to a candy store. I never knew what yummy books and magazines I would find to devour; I rarely left empty-handed. Now, as an adult, with less time to read and more clients to help, most of my reading material is related to learning more about the brain and behavior. (When I retire, IF I DO, I’ll go back to picking up books on marine archeology and UFOs)!

As an adult, my trips to the library are just as adventurous, but more of a gamble, in that only about 6 out of 10 visits I’ll find something really helpful. However, 1 out of 10 times I‘ll leave with something life-changing for myself and for those I coach. A recent example of a 1 out of 10 moment was when I got to the “new books” table (it’s hilarious how my heart rate picks up when I approach this table− I’ve actually measured it!) and noticed a book on the philosophy of Stoicism, called “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Despite my previous study of existentialism and Buddhism, I had never given Stoicism much thought until that day.

As I read about this 3rd century philosophy and all the famous people who subscribed to Stoicism from George Washington to the New England Patriots coaching staff, I was stunned to see how dead-on-the-mark applicable it was to two of my favorite topics− communication and entrepreneurship. Before you start rolling your eyes thinking that “Stoicism” is about living life with a stiff upper lip towards life, it is not like that. It is, as Epictetus (A.D. 50 – 135) put it, about how “to use our reason to choose how we categorize, respond and reorient ourselves to external events.”  What a better way to prepare a founder to weather the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. In future blogs, and as I learn more about this very inspiriting philosophy, I will occasionally sprinkle in helpful pearls of Stoic wisdom to add to your success as a person and as an entrepreneur.

To learn more about my CollegeCore and CoreFour Coaching for Entrepreneurs, see

Time and Energy Wasters – Stop the Madness!

#1 Redundancy – how many lists and calendars have you?  I had to write this blog today after a new client came in with 4 calendar books and 3 GAGS (my acronym for Gimmicks, Apps and Gadgets) to manage his schedule. Folks- Less is More!  He was taking a couple hours each day ( Holy Cow!!) filling them all in, adding fancy color coding, cross-checking and looking for them.  Consolidate your life into one week-at-a-glance calendar book and one to-do list, and  THAT’S IT! There are many enticing and expensive agenda books out there, the more expensive they are, the more fun they are and the more time you’ll waste filling them out versus doing the work you need to get done. You are fooling yourself into being “busy” in this way.

#2  Perfection is the enemy of “good enough and on time.”

Try to get to the bottom on your “perfectionism.” Are you anxious about the quality of the deliverable, worried that it will not meet acceptable standards – then what can you do about it? Perhaps your perfectionism is really procrastination?  Ask me about my invincible 80/20 approach to procrastination.

#3 Are you allowing the 50-60 interruptions a day that are robbing you of time and money? How often do you:

  • check your phone?
  • take unscreened incoming phone calls?
  • sneak in a podcast or video game?
  • shop online (Gotta have that new GAG or self help book today? Really? You know when it arrives it will either sit in a pile of others you thought would change your life, or take up valuable work time)?
  • accept the drop-in office “Do you have a sec?” visits

STOP the Madness today!


Say No to This

If you saw the Broadway musical Hamilton, you are familiar with  “Say No to This the song Hamilton sings when he’s tempted to cheat on his wife. If you want to capture this refrain for the purposes of resisting the temptation to do things NOT on your to-do list, check it out here. It’s one of those catchy rap tunes you can’t forget, and one that can guide you towards a productive versus the self-sabotaging path that contributed to Hamilton’s downfall.

Another good reason for knowing when to say NO and being able to say NO, is that it frees you up for saying YES to activities that more directly contribute to your company’s success and your personal well-being. We learn to say “no” so we can say “yes” to:

  • business opportunities that hold great potential
  • setting aside quality time with your family
  • carving out time to listen to team members and customers
  • regular exercise, a healthy diet and good sleep.

Say NO much of the time, so you can say YES more often.


Mindful Listening: 5 Steps to a Better Business

Mindful listening in the workplace saves time and money, improves productivity and creates employee AND customer loyalty. It is one of my Core Four skills and routines that every founder needs to succeed. Here are five ways you can start to benefit from the mindful listening mindset today:

1)  “Set your mind” first thing every morning.

Before you’re flooded with interruptions, set aside the first 5-10 minutes to close your office door, sit quietly with hands resting on your lap and breathe. Attend only to the feeling of deep inhalation and exhalation. When other thoughts creep into your mind, notice them, let them pass and get back to the breath. Settle down the internal noise. After about 15 settling breaths, keep your eyes closed for the last couple minutes, and imagine the day as you would like to see it unfold. Resolve to give your personal soap operas a back seat for the next 8 hours. Ponder the notion that what will make your day today is the ROI derived from giving employees and customers what they REALLY want – appreciation and respect.

2) Create a ‘listening culture’ in house

Offer employees a Monday morning bagel hour, an 8:00 a.m. huddle to get to know each other, to brainstorm new ideas and solutions without fear of reprisal. No idea is crazy. In fact, talking through ideas that appear to be out of the ordinary will stir up the creative juices in team members.  Encourage top levels of management to be present whenever possible. Reinforce each person’s contribution.

3) Tell back what they said.

Paraphrasing, or telling back what someone said is a powerful tool. People are reluctant to “tell back” because we’re not good at it. Paraphrasing or telling back what someone said, in your own words, offers your speaker opportunities for clarification. It also saves you and your customer a lot of time, because with paraphrasing you get the message straight from the get-go. Practice paraphrasing on your way to work. Listen to a podcast. After about 5-10 minutes, pause the podcast and tell back ALOUD what you remember as much as possible. With practice, you’ll be able to WOW your customers with your conscientiousness, concern and efficiency, which is what customers LOVE. Paraphrasing aloud, or silently to yourself during your practice, helps to burn in information you want to remember – you’ll be smarter for it!

4) Don’t deny a complaint.

When customers complain, try to hear it as I’d really like to continue to do business with you. But, here’s a problem that I’m having that can only make your company better. Complaining customers are a key components to your marketing department. This is where paraphrasing can come in handy. You don’t have to agree with them to be a good listener, but you do need to appreciate their reality.

5) Get them talking. Forget yourself!

Just like at the movies, forget yourself. To get people talking, ask open-ended questions like, “What are your objectives?” or “How could we do better for you?”  Allow the speaker to pause between thoughts. Let your curiosity take over your tendency to give advice, judge their statements or interrupt. Let their facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice tell you how they really feel about the product or service. You won’t learn anything from hearing your own movie again and again. Read more about the movie mindset in my book “The Zen of Listening.”  

Founders Fess-up

Hello again future founders! This problem has come up a fair amount lately in my group discussions with investors, so I wanted to re-visit it for you. Be mindful of your past and present activities and “clean up your act” if you need to.  Investors, when meeting new founders, are getting over things like casual dress, lackluster personalities and the fact that you may not have finished college. But one thing that will most certainly deter an angel’s buy-in is your record, your reputation and online behavior.

Here’s an example. A rather large company recently invested millions in a founder (to protect the not-so innocent, we’ll call him “Leon”), with a flawless presentation and a stellar team behind him. The company’s due diligence was spotty at best. Once they started dishing out the money to Leon’s group, who had reportedly been “living on canned soup to get the business off the ground,” Leon went out and bought a top of the line BMW M6 G-Power Typhoon, got high on cocaine, which apparently had been his habit for the last 10 years, had an accident and was unable to get back to work for several weeks. Stunned with this out-of-character behavior, the company, on the verge of another infusion of cash, probed deeper into Leon’s background and discovered previous skirmishes with the law and some raunchy activity for which he had used an alias. The investors got nervous and cancelled the contract.

Even before a business has a chance to succeed, a startup can be sabotaged by the founder in many ways, and this is one of those ways. Most investors and large companies will do a thorough character investigation before handing over a check. Seasoned investors, as most are highly intuitive, can often smell something fishy from the start. They will want to explore your work, medical and marriage history, past tweets and posts, your Facebook page, run-ins with the law, bad debt, and remarks of former partners and the rants of disgruntled customers.  If their findings are unfavorable, you may be cast as unreliable, untrustworthy, and incompetent. Be mindful of the behaviors, past and present that could de-rail your great idea. However, if a founder can admit these transgressions from the start and demonstrate sincere efforts to change, investors may be more forgiving. Nobody is perfect.


Be Your Own Uncle Bob

Every day I put aside about an hour to follow various productivity gurus. I look for the golden nuggets that can help my free agent clients succeed. Most of the advice is quite good for the average person, but a good deal of is not helpful for those whose brains are wired differently. Lately, I ran across a tip that I totally disagree with for any brain. The tip was to get mad at yourself for not doing something you should have done. With all due respect, this is really bad advice, particularly for those who already feel guilty about slacking off.

Negative self-talk abounds compared to the kind of talk we need to hear to get us moving. Is there a psychologist anywhere who thinks that berating ourselves is the catalyst for taking action and sustaining a desired behavior? If so, please set me straight.

Have you ever known a golfer who, furious with a bad shot, threw his 9 iron across the green, called himself every name in the book and proceeded to shoot a perfect hole in one? No, because it takes the brain many minutes and sometimes hours to recover focus from that kind of self- flagellation.

Instead, let’s bring out the mentor in ourselves. Perhaps you had a supportive big brother or an Uncle Bob who pointed out when you were doing wrong and when you were doing right. Talking to yourself in this way, aloud, using your name (which by the way is much more powerful than not) is a more positive mobilizer than adding more shame to the mix.  We all disappoint ourselves from time to time, but let’s admit those transgressions then move like Jagger to problem solving mode.

For those that want an example, here it is.  Max looks at his watch and says, “Max, you forgot about your plan to get an hour’s worth in before checking your email this morning.  Now you know why you are running behind schedule. It doesn’t feel good. Therefore, Max, before checking your email again this afternoon put a post-it on your laptop as a reminder to address at least two items on your list before re-checking email. If you can get that done Max, enjoy reading your email at 4:00 with a tall Starbuck’s – you’ll deserve it. Love that Uncle Bob − a tough guy with a soft heart!

That Elusive Present Moment

When I started meditating in college back in the late 70’s, nobody ever mentioned “staying in the present.” I assume that’s what the mantra was for. Now, the emphasis is all on “staying in the present moment.” I totally get the idea – it’s pointless to bash yourself over old stupid mistakes or worry about the future. But when we’re told to steer clear of the past and future, like the pink gorilla we should ignore, it only further exposes our pitiful ability at self-control. My clients get very uptight about trying to “stay in the present tense,” and for good reason…it doesn’t last that long. Even thought all the mindfulness gurus will come down on me for this, I tell my clients to forget about trying to “stay in the present.”  Here’s why…

Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest moralists in modern times said it perfectly. He wrote, “…almost all that we can be said to enjoy is past or future; the present is in perpetual motion, leaves us as soon as it arrives, ceases to be present before its presence is well-perceived, and is only known to have existed by the efforts which it leaves behind.”

So, I suggest we stop struggling to stay in the moment (just about impossible) and grasping for “the present.” Instead, wrap yourself around the task at hand, give it all your thought and concentration, especially if it’s an odious task, and hope it will be over with…now.


There’s Focus, and Then There’s FOCUS

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Mindful CommunicationHere’s the most common complaint I receive from mentors and investors who are sponsoring entrepreneurs: “Please help my protégé improve her focus. It’s getting in the way of getting things done. Because of her lack of focus, we are losing trust in her ability to do what’s needed to move things along in a timely way.”  Sounds like someone you know? Here are some thoughts…

The trouble with her focus is likely a lack of FOCUS. In trep-talk, “focus” relates to keeping a product’s features to a high quality minimum, rather than trying to be all things to all people. If you strike gold on your first startup attempt, focus means avoiding the impulse to get involved simultaneously in other big projects, as they will sap energy and resources needed to sustain the first business. If you have trouble with focus, it’s  because it’s hard for you to FOCUS.

FOCUS, on the other hand, is the ability to lock into a task that needs to get done above all others. It means having a plan for getting the task done, and working steadily and consistently toward the outcome you have in mind. Or, if many tasks need attention, if you can shift seamlessly between them, giving 100% concentration to each task, that’s FOCUS. Do you go down the rabbit hole of details and stray from the main point? Do you waste minutes and hours on pleasant distractions instead of getting a task completed?

Here are a couple of ways (and there are many others) you can start today to improve your FOCUS:

When someone asks you a question, can you answer him in no more than two sentences? Can you edit your answers before you speak and give them just the information they need and nothing more? (If they want more details, they’ll ask.) This also goes for your writing texts and emails.

If you carve out one hour to get X done, set a timer to buzz every 15 minutes. When that buzzer goes off, what are you doing? If not X, then it will act as a reminder to get back to X.

For more tips and to learn more about my CoreFour Coaching, go to:


Get Up and Roar!

My previous post was about morning rituals. Since then, I received emails from folks wanting tips for just getting up early enough to start a morning ritual! If you are like most of my free agent clients, morning rituals might get a late start if you go to bed super late or toss and turn all night. (See my website for “ Tips for Quality Sleep) But, this post is for those who call themselves “lazy,” who are able to get up, are well rested and just want to stay warm ‘n cozy. Yes, there are the atomic alarm clocks, set far enough away so you have to get up to go shut them off. Then, there is the ice-water drip method favored by spouses and children who are fast on their feet. To avoid the slight irritation that may accompany these approaches, I have another suggestion.

On those days when you feel like slacking, the words of Marcus Aurelius may get you up and out of bed: “I am rising to do the work of a human being.” Folks, you were not born into this world just to seek pleasure; you have work to do and goals to pursue. While you neglect your work, notice how the birds, insects, plants and all of nature have been up for hours doing their specific jobs in their capacity, working to make this planet habitable for you and contributing to the Cosmos. They have no opinion; there is no slacking. They innately know their purpose and act accordingly.

A Morning Ritual − Not a Morning Retreat

Many clients ask for an ideal “morning ritual” − a routine series of activities meant to inspire and motivate you to make the most of your day. Some clients have their PhD in morning rituals and come in with a different routine for each day. Others, in search of the Holy Grail of morning rituals, bring in a hodge-podge of activities that take the average person till noon to complete! These elaborate and lengthy routines can be self-deceptive and feed the procrastination monkey that is always hanging around looking for distraction. I suggest a morning ritual that meets three criteria: an exercise component, a focused activity (e.g. reviewing your goals, planning), and a meditative or thoughtful activity. The morning ritual that works for you should refresh your mental and physical strength, and boost your intention for the day. It should build resistance to procrastination, negative thinking and all the other snags that deter you from your goals… in under 90 minutes.  My morning ritual is:  up at 6:00a.m. meditating on the day’s entry of “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday (10-15 minutes),  a short series of Ki-Hara stretches, made famous by Dara Torres the Olympic swimmer, for 10-15 minutes, a half hour of a high intensity bike workout (preferably outdoors in the West Newbury countryside, followed by a review of my schedule where I picture a day in which every moment I act in accordance with my goals and helping others to the best of my ability (20 minutes). My morning ritual is not in stone and varies a bit depending upon weather and the season, but that’s pretty much it. It may take a little fishing around to discover your optimal routine for jump-starting your day, but as you develop it keep the purpose in mind.

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