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Ego and entrepreneurial innovation

Welcome back to our blog post series exploring the intersection of neurology + mindfulness and innovation + entrepreneurship. In our previous post we set the stage for our exploration of how recent discoveries in neuroscience, along with centuries-old mindfulness practices, could shed light into the complex space of entrepreneurship and innovation. We highlighted six areas of interesting intersection. In this post, we explore the second and third of our intersections of interest.

Intersection No. 2: An unchecked ego is an obstacle to innovation.

A follow up to our first observation, “Innovation does not exist without failure,” is that a big ego can be a great obstacle to innovation. Those who have a big ego may fall in love with their idea too soon, because they might perceive it as an extension of themselves. Or as a proxy for their self-worth, something related to the process of identification with the self.

However, one of the core principles of Silicon Valley innovation is your initial idea is not as good as you think – and it’s probably worse than you believe. That’s why iteration is so important.

In fact, there are stories of major companies starting in a very different way than what made them successful. And it’s the founders’ abilities to pivot (technical term for turning aspects of your business around), which led them to success. This is particularly difficult if you have a big ego.

Someone with a big ego identification problem, who sees an idea as an extension of himself/herself, will put more effort into proving their idea right versus putting the energy into making the necessary adjustments. Mindfulness practice can help with the dis-identification process that would then allow the innovator to part ways with the initial idea effortlessly, evolving from a subjective (egocentric) perspective into an objective (mindful) one.

A robust mindfulness practice helps us have a rotation in consciousness from the egocentric perspective to a more objective clear seeing perspective. This is referred to in psychological literature as “re-perceiving” or “dis-identification.” This helps individuals understand that their value doesn’t come from their ideas being right (or from the innovations or ventures being successful, for that matter) but from being.

The recommendation to set one’s ego aside has an interesting counter-argument: many innovators actually have had egos large as life (think Jobs, Bezos, and XYZ to name a few).

But is a large ego necessary for success? If so, why would I want to practice mindfulness to prevent my ego from getting in the way? There a couple of ways out of this conundrum. First, in some cases, successful entrepreneurs have needed to grow out of their egocentric ways—at least until they’re back at a level of functionality. And, in other cases, what matters (to quote Ash Maurya) is to, “Love the problem, not your solution.”

Intersection No. 3: If you can’t control your attention, you can’t innovate.

Innovation is challenging, requiring relentless focus. This is pursued in many ways by successful entrepreneurs—whether its’ Bezo’s day 1 or Google’s laser focus founding mission statement—there are plenty of examples of the importance of staying focused.

Harvard research shows that on average our minds wander 47 percent of the time. This poses interesting questions: Are successful innovators supposed to be successful being able to use their minds at will only 53 percent of the time? And, is that even desirable? Isn’t some mind wandering needed to have creative insights?

Let’s begin with the issue of percent of the time the mind wanders: We can train and stabilize our attention so the mind wanders less. Cultivating this laser like attention is essential, and a mindfulness practice is a great way to achieve this goal.

This takes us to the second point: Is all mind wandering undesirable? No, but we need to distinguish between involuntary mind wandering and deliberate mind wandering. The former usually takes place when the mind is being hijacked by ruminative anxious judgmental thoughts, which contribute nothing to innovation. The latter, however, happens when we deliberately, consciously choose to let our mind roam freely as we seek the solution to a challenge. Having the ability to choose when to let our minds roam freely–and when to focus on our tasks at hand is a crucial asset for innovators.

Entrepreneurs need to take this to the next level. They have the extra task of helping their teams focus their attention on what matters to the company. Daniel Goleman explains more.

Join us for our upcoming posts to explore our fourth and fifth intersections of neuroscience, mindfulness, entrepreneurship, and innovation:

  • What we practice grows stronger

  • We suffer when we resist what is

We would love to read and respond to your comments. Please post below.

Co-Author: Shauna Shapiro

Shauna is a professor, author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness. Dr. Shapiro has published over 150 journal articles and chapters, and coauthored the critically acclaimed texts, The Art and Science of Mindfulness, and Mindful Discipline. She was an invited TEDx speaker, her 2017 Talk has been rated one of the top 10 TED-talks on Mindfulness. With twenty years of meditation experience studying in Thailand, Nepal and in the West, Dr. Shapiro brings an embodied sense of mindfulness to her scientific work. Dr. Shapiro is the recipient of the American Council of Learned Societies teaching award, acknowledging her outstanding contributions to graduate education, as well as a Contemplative Practice Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, co-founded by the Dalai Lama. Dr. Shapiro has been invited to present her work to the King of Thailand, the Danish government, and the World Council for Psychotherapy in Beijing, China, as well as to Fortune 100 Companies including Cisco Systems, Genentech and Google. Her work has been featured in Wiredmagazine, USA Today, Shape, Dr. Oz, the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, and the American Psychologist.

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