How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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Can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup? Take the test.

 

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The tech community and startup culture has a long, widely-recognized history of romanticizing a cult-like approach for building successful companies.  Popular tech media publications like Wired have published pieces on the topic: You Should Run Your Startup Like a Cult. Here’s How, Inc.‘s The Cult-Like Cultures of Amazing Startups,  Forbes Are Successful Companies The New Cults?, Fast Company‘s Facebook VP’s Leaked 2016 Memo Betrays Cult-like Obsession With Growth, and Fortune‘s Fired Google Engineer: Tech Company Is ‘Like a Cult’.  It goes without saying that the rapid rise  and influence of technology companies have changed nearly every facet of the world as we know it.  Living and working within Silicon Valley’s tech ecosystem, I see firsthand how the ubiquitous mantra “our mission is to change the world” permeates organizations.  Have we lost sight of the line between cult and ‘cult-like’?  Is the over-use of the cult-inspired phrase “drinking the kool-aid” in tech pop culture a sign we have become numb to the real differences that exist between cults and startups?

Many years ago I had the privilege of completing coursework taught by renowned forensic psychologist Dr. Margaret Singer, a world expert on brainwashing, cults and psychopathy.  In her long career, she investigated and testified about techniques used by North Koreans against American soldiers in wartime, the Symbionese Liberation Army‘s influence over the kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst, David Koresh in Waco with Branch Davidians, and countless other criminal cases examining psychopathy, cults, and serial killers.  Dr. Singer helped several people leave the San Francisco-based religious group Peoples Temple before 900 of the members committed mass suicide in Jonestown in 1978 by drinking kool-aid flavored cyanide.  Even in her late 70’s, Dr. Singer remained a formidable speaker and made a deep, long-lasting impression on me about the irresistible charisma of cult leaders, and the lure they had over their members.  I’ve outlined the key principles she taught as fundamental to a cult’s ability to successfully wield power over others.

Read through the following 15 tactics and ask yourself, can you tell the difference between a cult and your startup?

Submission:

  • Complete, nearly unquestioned trust is bestowed to the leadership.  Doubt and dissent are highly discouraged and may be met with uniquely tailored forms of punishment.
  • Leaders are given prophet-like power within the group, and embraced as special, visionary, ‘highly gifted’ individuals with unusual connections to a critical higher purpose or higher power.
  • Increased submission to the leadership is rewarded with additional responsibilities and/or roles, and/or praises, increasing the importance of the person within the group.

Exclusivity:

  • The group is the only ‘true’ belief system, and members are encouraged to think of themselves as elite and enlightened for their involvement in the group’s membership

Persecution complex:

  • ‘Us against them’ mentality is encouraged as a means to unify the group, and reinforce the group’s mission against outside thought or influence.  Extreme efforts to protect and shield the group from outside threats are manifested by expecting members to devote inordinate amounts of time to group-related activities, including recruiting.

Control

  • Keep members unaware of what is going on and how they are being changed a step at a time.  Potential new members are led, step by step, through a behavioral-change program without being aware of the final agenda or full content of the group.  The goal may be to make them deployable agents for the leadership, to get them to ‘invest’ in the group, or make a deeper commitment, depending on the leader’s aim and desires.
  • Total control of members’ thoughts, feelings and actions through repeated indoctrination and/or threats of loss of affiliation with the group’s special purpose. Members are rewarded for their expressions of loyalty, and are made to fear negative consequences for expressing autonomy of thought.
  • Members are encouraged to believe that they will experience deep loss (of love, financial opportunity, respect from a revered community) or danger should they lose their group affiliation.

Isolation

  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in group members.  This is accomplished by getting members away from the normal social support group for a period of time and into an environment where the majority of people are already group members.  The members serve as models of the attitudes and behaviors of the group and speak an in-group language.
  • This facilitates further control over the thinking and practices of the members by the leadership.

Love Bombing:

  • Showering great attention, , gifts of affirmation and love to a person in the group (especially newcomers) by others in the group, to help transfer emotional dependence to the group.
  • Threats of loss of love and severing of meaningful in-group relationships are used to maintain loyalty.

Special Knowledge:

  • Special knowledge and instructions comes from the empowered leader who is thought to have rare gift for predicting the future. This leader then instructs the members how to carry out plans according to this vision.
  • The special knowledge may be received through visions, dreams, or new interpretations of revered content from past adored thought leaders and their teachings.

Indoctrination:

  • Control of a person’s social and/or physical environment; especially control the person’s time.  Through various methods, newer members are kept busy and led to think about the group and its content during as much of their waking time as possible.
  • Manipulating a system of rewards, punishments and experiences in such a way as to inhibit behavior that reflects the person’s former social identity. Manipulation of experiences can be accomplished through various methods of trance induction, including leaders using such techniques as paced speaking patterns, guided imagery, chanting, long prayer sessions or lectures, induced states of physical taxation through sweat lodge sessions, fasting, hard labor.
  • The teachings of the group are repeatedly drilled into the members, but the indoctrination usually occurs around a system of ‘special knowledge’.

Salvation:

  • Salvation from the judgment of a higher power is maintained through association and/or submission with the group, its authority, and/or its special knowledge.

Group Think:

  • The group’s coherence is maintained by the observance to policies handed down from those in authority.
  • There is an internal enforcement of policies by members who reward “proper” behavior, and those who perform properly are rewarded with further inclusion, increased power and acceptance by the group.
  •  If one expresses a question, he or she is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to be questioning.

Cognitive Dissonance:

  • Avoidance of critical thinking and/or maintaining logically impossible beliefs and/or beliefs that are inconsistent with other beliefs held by the group.
  • Avoidance of and/or denial of any facts that might contradict the group’s belief system.

Shunning:

  • Those who do not tightly align with group policies are shunned and/or expelled, and remaining members are encouraged to see their exit as a personal failure and/or irreversible damnation.

Gender Roles:

  • Control of gender roles and definitions are maintained by the group’s power hierarchy to maintain rank and order.
  • Gender differences may be used for sexual exploitation of those with less power within the group by those with higher group rank.
  • Sexual favors may be encouraged to display group loyalty or affiliation with group leadership.

Appearance Standards:

  • A common appearance that signifies group membership is strongly encouraged or required.  There may be appearance differences that draw attention to group rank to reinforce the group’s hierarchy.
  • Differences in appearance among group members are created to convey special achievements in upholding the group’s tenets or purpose.

Lack of Accountability:

  • Group leaders are not held accountable for any mistakes or wrongdoings because of their special status within the group.
  • Group leaders are often protected from negative evaluation by other group members through systematic secrecy, and are treated according to special rules that free the leaders from accountability.
  • A closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure is used, permitting no feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership approval or executive order.  The group has a top-down, pyramid structure.  The leaders must have verbal ways of never losing.

 

References:

(Singer, 1995)

Cults in Our Midst, The Continued Fight Against Their Menace

What “Crazy Rich Asians” tells us about the current struggle women face in work, love and family

The box office hit Crazy Rich Asians has proven to be a massive success, with a $34 million domestic haul over five days, with estimates projecting an eventual domestic take of more than $100 million.  The film stretches beyond it’s rom-com roots, showcasing female leads exploring the complexities of Asian cultural identity, as well as the current struggle women everywhere face in work, love and family.

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The film entertains with an array of well-developed female characters facing what modern women everywhere are still fighting for – the ability to compete fairly to achieve a high level of professional success, personal self-worth beyond unattainable standards of beauty, egalitarian romantic relationships based on mutual respect, and a family life that allows for motherhood without total self-sacrifice of personal aspirations.  The New York Times recently published back-to-back pieces on these very dilemmas: Costs of Motherhood Rise, Catching Women Off-Guard, How Sexism Follows Women From Cradle to Workplace capturing how far behind American society is in providing equal opportunities for women to balance work and family engagements compared to their male counterparts.

Crazy Rich Asians’ myriad of honest storylines capture women fighting to defy oppressive gender stereotypes, using brilliant strategy to seize control of their future, as well women complicit in their own oppression, scorning others for not having ‘corrective’ plastic surgery, wielding power against women for not being born into wealth and class, and hurling misogynistic insults like ‘gold digger’ to provoke conflict and pain.

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Crazy Rich Asians brings thoughtful attention to the intersectionality of Asian culture and gender identity in light of major life milestones women aspire towards, including professional, marital and family developments.

I continue to be inspired by the diverse mix of Asian women I’ve come to know though my coaching practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Supporting them through their pivotal life transitions has given me a deep appreciation for their unique experiences as Asian American women striving to achieve work/life balance in Silicon Valley.  Inclusive stories like those depicted in Crazy Rich Asians create an enriching opportunity for us to dissect, discuss and plan for success through all the challenges they may face.

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Decoding my personal truth: how to figure out what to do with my life (and still ideally pay my bills!)

These days, people are increasingly using executive coaching for the purpose of ‘figuring out what to do with my life’ (and ideally still be able to afford living in the Bay Area!)  From high-ranking executives at globally successful companies, to startup founders who’ve sold their company and are now free to roam, to Bay Area transplants who’ve grown disenchanted with the tech scene- all have entered my practice ready to decode their personal truth, find their greater purpose, and build a personally meaningful roadmap toward their version of success.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”  Albert Einstein

Our personal truth serves as our unique roadmap, helping us navigate toward a future created with purpose.  Every day we make choices that steer us on our personal path- our inner beliefs, preferences, sense of right and wrong all come together to drive the direction we take in life.  In his book Unapologetically You, behavioral science academic and author Steve Maraboli advises us of the importance of this position: “Live your truth. Express your love. Share your enthusiasm. Take action towards your dreams. Walk your talk. Dance and sing to your music. Embrace your blessings. Make today worth remembering.”  

But what if we aren’t sure of what we are meant to do, and our greater purpose seems unclear?  How do we ‘know’ what’s right for us?

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Disenchantment A new Netflix toon with a title that captures the sentiment of many.

How can we be sure of ‘what’s best’ when we make choices for our future?  Some people feel a deep sense of conviction about their life’s purpose- “I was born to make music. I was born to build.  I was born to heal.”  Other people don’t feel this depth of clarity, and take aim for their future by solving tangible problems first- they develop a range of practices, skills and resources to prevent commonly avoided hardships like sickness, injury, poverty, social isolation.  Others feel satisfied knowing they’ve contributed to offsetting the needs of their family, community, or are embodying their religious tenets faithfully.  Even with recognizable success, some people may still wonder if they they’ve adequately challenged themselves to fulfill their personal destiny or greater purpose in life.  How can we ‘know’ if we’ve made the right choices for ourselves? At some point, a person’s experience of happiness and purpose comes back to personal taste, or preference for achievement.

Cultural expectations, opinions of people we admire, and social influences related to the times further shape our notions of what an ideal, purpose-driven, meaningful life looks like.  How have outside influences shaped your assumptions about what you should do with your life?  Without awareness of what’s driving your thoughts, feelings and behaviors it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of chasing goals without fully understanding if it’s personally important to do so. We can distract ourselves by measuring outcomes in size, volume, impact, or accumulation as a marker to indicate the degree of our success.  We may even learn to rely on these outcomes to tell us how satisfied we should feel.   

Three Exercises for discovering personal truth-  how do you ‘know’ yourself?

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor- cognitive psychologists seek to understand human perception- the process of how we experience our emotions, how we develop mental representations, and derive genuine fulfillment from our experiences.  

Bring to mind some of your favorite moments in your past.  When you think about places, recreations, or experiences that you enjoy for the sake of the pleasure they gives you- try to uncover the why behind the attraction, or the feeling they’ve given you.  Identify your preferences in the following areas, simply based on your experience of them: how do you ‘know’ you like them?

  • areas in nature (cliffs, beaches, snowy mountains, open fields, woods, etc)
  • Sounds of specific musical instruments, musical genres, or eras of music
  • Social activities at a party (group games, exploratory dinner conversations, group cooking, dancing, people watching, etc)
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Discovering truth in Silicon Valley

2. Can you identify how external influences or mental representations play a role in how you developed these preferences? 

  • Consider how your family, social circles, workplace or local communities have shaped your understanding of how to best spend your time.
  • How does the narrative you’ve adopted about your personality style (e.g. loner, leader, helper) shape your predictions of trying new experiences and how you’ll feel about them?
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3.  Imagine moving to a society where areas of achievement, compensation for work and the social status of various roles were completely different than what we know them to be now.

  • Can you imagine choosing a role/occupation (a collection of responsibilities and activities) without knowing how this society thought of it?
  • What would you be doing? (Starting an original project? Building a team after evaluating competencies in people? Leading growth?)
  • How much of your attraction to these elements are because you’re familiar and/or been successful in doing these things in the past?  
  • If you found out there was one additional responsibility within this role/occupation that you were apprehensive to take on, what would that be?

These exercises are meant to help you uncover and tap into your personal truth, creating a guiding force for making choices in the big picture of your life path.  Be patient with yourself, track the evolution of your thoughts, feelings and insights throughout the process.  You’re on your way to ‘knowing’ yourself better than ever before.

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Lost a Job or suffered a career setback? Don’t flip out, take these steps.

Today’s job market is faster paced than ever, with swift role changes around every corner.  Learning you’re out of a job, whether it has to do with your performance or not, can be a tremendously stressful life event.  Job loss often ranks among the highest in stress on a list of life-altering events such as a death in the family, divorce, and serious illness.  In other cases, losing a key manager that was positioned to train you and advocate for your career advancement can also feel like a huge setback.

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These experiences can lead to feelings of panic, grief, anger and turmoil about what to do next.  If you let it, getting caught in a tailspin of emotions after a professional setback can keep you from moving forward in a productive way.  Allow yourself a good rant with your friends and family (not your colleagues) about the misery and injustice of it all.  Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and pull together an action plan so you can get on with your life.  No one wants to stay paralyzed like a deer in headlights after what feels like a dismantling career blow.  If you find yourself struggling to build momentum, consider enlisting an executive coach who can be a strategic thought partner in creating your next career come-back.

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1. Flip the script.  Major changes like the loss of a job or manager who was critical to your advancement can lead to emotionally derailing thoughts, rattling one’s sense of direction and purpose.  When clients in my coaching practice share professional setbacks with me, their emotionally charged reactions are often fueled by the perception that they’ve lost control of their future.  Particularly for the hard-driving, high-achieving ‘Type A’ people that make up Silicon Valley, this feeling is particularly intolerable.  Rant. Breathe. Shake it off. Hit the restart button. Relocate superpowers.

 Adam* had spent the last 2 years pouring all of his time and talent into an early stage startup after leaving a lucrative but uninspiring job at a large corporation.  He’d given up higher compensation for the chance to hone skills and autonomy typically not accessible at his level of professional development.  When the company shutdown unexpectedly as a result of cofounder conflict, he couldn’t stop ruminating about his decision to stay with the startup for as long as he had, and felt cheated thinking of all the financial sacrifices he’d made.

After losing a job, it’s completely normal to re-think every decision you made that contributed to the grim outcome of being out of a job.  People can get stuck obsessing about the past, especially if they feel jilted.  Moving on can feel like an unfair concession,  but dwelling on the past will only impede your ability to start over, not vindicate you.  Take inventory of what you’ve learned, where you are developmentally in your life, and let that inform how to prioritize your next work move.  Ask yourself “how have I changed?  What new insights am I taking with me? What opportunities am I free to pursue now?”  To develop an empowered point of view- flip the script.  Rebuild your narrative about what happened, and what’s going to happen next in such a way that you feel emboldened to turn the storyline into one of courage and success.  This is not to be mistaken for ignoring the role you played in how things transpired, or fail to learn from how you got there.  But those decisions are done and dusted, and now it’s time to move on. Develop a new narrative that captures the best possible scenario.  A few examples to illustrate the point:

Reactive thought: “I sacrificed for nothing, and losing this job is evidence that that my gamble with startups is a failure.  I’ve lost time and money and now I’m behind in life.”

Reframed thought: The calculated risk that I took gave me firsthand, invaluable experiences and insights that I could not have gained otherwise.  I now have clarity on what types of opportunities are best suited to my priorities in life.  With that knowledge I can start again with improved focus and direction to achieve my goals.”  

Notice the different approach to defining one’s progress and success in life- instead of measuring yourself by outcome alone, evaluate how capable you are of responding to life’s setbacks and challenges with aplomb.

2. Work backwards from the future.  Fast forward for a moment in your professional trajectory.  What specific learning and skill mastery will you need to successfully advance?  Staying focused on solutions, flexible problem-solving, and the ability to dig your way out of complex situations will aways be seen as evidence of competency under fire by future employers.

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Catherine* landed a coveted role at a prestigious financial firm after graduating with honors from an Ivy League university.  She was meticulous in architecting her career trajectory, parlaying her work experience to train in a new area of finance under the tutelage of a managing director at a different firm.  When this manager left for a rare work opportunity elsewhere, her chance to develop skills outside her wheelhouse was cut short.  Emotionally immobilized and without a game plan, Catherine was at a loss for what to do next.

When elements outside of our control topple our specific strategy for achievement, it can feel like our route to get from point A to point B has been destroyed.  Take a solution-focused approach and identify alternative routes to stay on target.  Imagine where you want to be two steps ahead in your career path, rather than focusing on what’s directly in front of you.  I asked Catherine to share with me what type of role she would be competitive for had her manager stayed and provided the specific guidance and training she’d wanted. 

“Let’s say you got everything you wanted from the current role you’re in, and now you’re interviewing for your next advancement.  What markers of success can you draw attention to in your interview?  What specific qualities and skills will you need to have demonstrated to be competitive for the next level of growth?” 

Catherine shared that she would need to demonstrate a high level of autonomy in her day-to-day work operations, process communication effectively between various parties involved in decision-making, and show success in developing and maintaining relationships that lead to new business.  From there we mapped out specifics around whom she might target for support and how, identifying internal and external resources for mentorship and learning, and personal routines to help her stay on track.          

None of these approaches are particularly swift or easy.  They take a high level of personal discipline and an ongoing willingness to course-correct when you notice yourself going astray.  Keeping people in your life who are closely aware of your intentions and support your efforts helps!  With practice and mastery, these steps will be to your overfall benefit by helping you cultivate new and effective resiliency skills when life throws you a curveball.

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*Names have been changed for privacy

 

How startups use psychometrics for leadership development can make or break them: 4 major principles to follow

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management estimates that at present, 18% of companies use psychometric testing for a range of purposes, most commonly recruitment and hiring.  According to Harvard Business Review, skillful application of cognitive and personality tests (also known as psychometrics) help companies avoid hiring and managerial mishaps, which are estimated to cost a company at least one year’s pay.  Poor management can be especially fatal for startups, making skillful leadership critical to a startup’s early growth and success.  Ray Dalio founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world managing $160 billion discusses the value of psychometric use for leadership development in his widely recognized bestseller Principles: Life and Work.  Dalio and his employees use psychometric observations and evaluations to identify and minimize derailing behaviors among high potential leaders.  In sum, leaders who lack self-awareness and fail to learn from their experiences contribute to their own derailment.  Honing self-awareness is the prevailing objective among clients in my executive coaching practice aiming to mitigate the derailing pitfalls that new challenges bring.   Applied research findings in this area reveal the most common derailments among faulty leaders:

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  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Failure to build and lead a team
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Inability to learn from feedback and experience
  • Trust/integrity issues
  • Inability to change or adapt
  • Poor composure under stress
  • Over-reliance on strengths

Unfortunately, many organizations choose the wrong psychometric assessments to use in their leadership development efforts, or use them in the wrong way.  Expert application of psychometrics can be a costly investment for small startups.  Typically the luxury of employing an esteemed management company like McKinsey for psychometric use in leadership development is far outside of the budget of early stage startups.

My professional experiences teaching and utilizing a range of psychometric assessments and later coaching tech leaders through challenging transitions provide a framework for offering these guiding principles on how startups can optimize psychometrics for their leadership-development.

Four major principles to follow:

Consider applicable laws.  Stay in legal compliance whenever employing psychometric tests. in your organization.  Anti-discrimination laws apply to psychometric assessment tools (particularly cognitive tests) stating they must be job-relevant and demonstrate internal and external validity.  The Americans with Disabilities Act provides specific guidelines for using psychometrics within organizations- they must respect people’s privacy and not aim to “diagnose” potential hires or employees in any way.  Historically organizations have used clinical psychometric assessments like the MMPI-2 for employment decision-making, though it was designed for the purpose of diagnosing mental illness and identifying traits common in those with personality disorders.  Because the MMPI-2 was developed for use with psychiatric and prison populations,  some employers have been taken to court for using it in their organizational decision-making and lost.  Using psychometric tools designed for use and application in industrial/organizational settings is a safer bet for company decision-making.

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Choose your tests wisely.  Aim to build an evidence-based approach for evaluating leadership growth and performance, with specific purpose in mind. If using psychometrics for hiring, aim to demonstrate that your hiring tools predict how you’re defining ‘success’ in a given role using rigorous statistical analyses.  Relying on interesting but random psychometric outcomes will at best waste time and resources, and at worst lead managers to make faulty decisions.  If using psychometrics to increase self-awareness in leaders, select assessment tools designed for this purpose, proven to be scientifically valid by experts in the field, and have demonstrated utility in identifying and redirecting problematic behavioral patterns.  Whenever possible, get support from experienced organizational consultants to help your company select appropriate tools for your company’s specific needs.

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Follow test administration protocol or risk invalidating outcomes.  “Proctoring” assessments ensures they are being taken according to the test’s protocol, either by having people take the assessments in front of an informed test proctor, or through video conference monitoring if they are remote.  Be sure that test takers are given clear directions according to the test developer or risk invalidating test results.  Be aware that some people may feel compelled to influence their results in order to appear more competent for a particular role, or may be more guarded in their responses as a way of presenting themselves in the most favorable light to potential employers.  Some psychometric tests have built-in measures that indicate whether a candidate’s pattern of responses reflect an effortful attempt influence their test outcomes, or if their responses are inconsistent with one another.  Using outcomes from multiple psychometric tests (referred to as a ‘test battery’) can help to gather a more accurate, comprehensive testing profile.

Leadership development initiatives with opportunities for privacy and self-directed learning enhance engagement.  When participants are allowed to maintain a sense of privacy over their psychometric assessment outcomes, they are more likely to engage in deeper, lasting growth.

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This practice provides a safer space for leaders to do a deep dive into understanding their own personal challenges.   Innovative venture capital firms like Alpha Bridge Ventures are investing in startup founder success with an on-boarding process that uses psychometric surveys to determine leadership style, then tailors support through an inter-disciplinarian team of coaches and wellness professionals.  Other venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz recognize the limitation of time and resources executives have to spare for developing their own employees.  Outsourcing leadership skill-building through founder retreats, externally facilitated consultation groups modeled after Stanford’s T-groups, or providing a broad and deep alumni support network à la Y-Combinator are all ways startup founders are achieving leadership success.   Larger organizations are investing in employee development through bespoke leadership programs like Potentialife, which provide participants access to strategic, self-directed leadership growth modules through the convenience of an interactive app.

Startups that invest in their leaders self-awareness will benefit from the long-term gains that self-knowledge delivers.  Appreciate that no matter how much progress we make, there’s always more to learn.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

– Albert Einstein

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Millennial men ask “Is it ever ok to approach women in public?” How to meet women in the age of #metoo

Downtown San Francisco during the work week is always swarming with millennials in clothing styles meant to convey ‘simple, smart and purposeful’ yet for many, dating life is proving to be anything but that.  The millennial clients that I coach through professional and personal life goals came of age in a time when digital technology had already changed how people communicate, disrupting social rules of dating among other mainstays of modern society.  Thirty-nine percent of Millennials admit to interacting more with their phones than the actual people in their lives, making them even less likely to to talk to strangers without clear cause in their everyday comings and goings.  Many millennial men who’ve achieved professional success are now ready to marry, but are realizing the strategies they used to find casual sex partners aren’t cutting it for finding ‘the one‘.  With no time to sift through dating profiles or spend nights in bars, these guys are engaging coaching to develop proactive dating strategies that set them up for success in their daily activities.

“I want to meet a really smart woman, much smarter than me!  Someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals, driven by values that we both share.  I want to be attracted to her mind more than anything! But she should want to be healthy and fit and enjoy being sexually active for us to be truly compatible.  Financial independence is important too, since living here is so expensive.  Is that too much to ask?”

That’s Silicon Valley in a nutshell, and honestly that’s not even a tall order compared to what my high-achieving female clients have on their marital check-list.  So while online dating has been effective for solving most people’s casual sex needs, it feels agonizingly inefficient to most people ready to meet someone marriage-worthy, especially with personal brand consciousness and FOMO influencing millennials’ major life decision-making process.  I encourage my single clients to attend curated social events or engage in recreational activities with a male/female ratio that benefits them, increasing the odds they meet people of similar caliber who share mutual interests.  I ask them to take the approach“if I had to solve this problem in the next two weeks, how would I do it?  What can I do to get started today?” which gives people a sense of urgency and gets them ready to apply practical solutions in the here and now.

After mapping out a few actionable plans with a male client, he earnestly asked “is it ever ok to just approach a woman in public these days? You know without coming across as desperate or creepy.” Admittedly I was taken aback by this question – I was struck by the difficult task of overcoming social anxiety they’ve spent less time addressing thanks to technology, while leveraging enough social finesse to engage others in a respectful and compelling way.  Many millennial aged men understandably prefer to play it safe in unclear circumstances, or risk coming across like a cheesy pick-up artist (PUA).  Have millennials come to rely exclusively on dating apps, social introductions, singles bars and events that serve the function of bars to form romantic connections?  Has the heterosexual male to female ‘cold call’ approach become totally obsolete?  Like the evolutionary equivalent of the human appendix, wisdom teeth or tonsils, once useful in our dark past but at best should remain dormant or at worst may trigger pain and suffering? Fox Monkey GIF by Animation Domination High-Def-downsized_large

Once upon a time men were far more likely to approach women in public outside of well-defined social circumstances, when our society was more deeply rooted in the notion that ‘masculine persistence wins the heart.’  American media largely produced by men has been dominated by storylines that convey if a woman responds to a man’s advances with disinterest, she can be persuaded to change her mind through a combination of charm, wit, and low-key psychological warfare.  This dynamic calls for female passivity, contributing to how women are treated as ‘fair game for romantic pursuits’ in public spaces.  The time of reckoning for gender inequality has come with the #metoo movement, an activist-led eruption of female empowerment that has become a global phenomenon, upending the longstanding tolerance of objectification and abuse of women for the purpose of male sexual gratification.  Though gender equality across all realms has a long way to go, it is still possible for men to safely and respectfully engage women in public by learning to read social cues with greater sensitivity.  It will likely not be easy or feel comfortable.  As I said to my male client “approaching a woman in public is graduate-school level game– we’re working on social skill mastery at the kindergarten level- first things first.”  (My clients are sturdy and know I don’t dish out what I know they can’t take!)

If you want to approach a woman in public but are unsure of how to proceed, take the time to read the situation closely.  This may take time you don’t want to spare- but keep in mind, a rushed approach increases the chance of a failed mission.

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HOW TO’S:

  • Make sure this woman is not wearing a wedding ring.  This is an easily avoidable rookie mistake!  Practice discreetly checking out left hands in various situations so you can be ready to quickly assess when it matters.
  • Respect women’s time.  Does it look like the woman is in a perceptible hurry?  Is she engaged in an activity that she’d probably prefer not to have interrupted?  If she’s busy working on a laptop she probably won’t welcome small talk- wait until it’s obvious she’s taking a break to speak to her.  Is the woman clearly relaxing, enjoying a meal by herself or having some personal downtime?  If she responds with only a fleeting or absent smile, minimal verbal response or eye contact, take the hint and keep it moving.  Persistence in the face of a minimal response is only going to feel uncomfortable and annoying to her.
  • Pay attention to eye contact.  Has the woman made purposeful, positive eye contact with you at least a few times?  Catching a woman’s eye once might be accidental, twice might be her checking to see if you are still looking at her.  Women naturally check their surroundings for their own safety, and women find they need to keep an eye out for guys who might be staring, stalker style.  Your job is to make sure you come across as friendly and safe– if you’re so nervous you can’t smile in the split second you catch a woman’s eye, you might not be ready to approach a woman in this manner.  Practice talking to women you don’t know in social settings where people are clearly expected to mingle so you develop a sense of how to accurately read non-verbal cues.

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  • Drop the idea that channeling alpha male confidence will lead to a positive outcome.  Guys are really attached to the idea that exuding cool confidence is what women want.  It’s refreshing and much more likable if you can manage to be yourself and talk with a woman like she’s a person not an object to win over.  Better to be awkward and able to laugh at yourself if the situation calls for it!  Take it from a woman- we’re often just as concerned with first impressions, and you’ll make it much easier for her to respond to you if open with something genuine and friendly.

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  • Ask her opinion about something related to the shared situation you’re both in, and be sure to listen and show appreciation for her response.  This is simple enough to do, especially if she’s in nearby proximity.  Respond with something of equal tone, and if possible include an opportunity for her to keep the conversation going.
  • Get out of your comfort zone, and use light-hearted humor to break the ice.  Authentic self-deprecation and self-declared inexperience is an easy way to gain a moment of sympathy from women.  Women are natural care-takers, teachers and experts in many, many things!  Guys, if you put yourself in a situation where there are women who are excellent at something, you will stand out not only because you’re willing to risk looking foolish, but also because you’re interested in something they clearly enjoy.  This only works if you demonstrate a genuine interest in learning.  If you keep at it long enough, women will likely take pity on you and offer some support.  I’ve seen it happen a million times before!

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Adopting these strategies aren’t meant to guarantee that you’ll get a date after perfecting them, but can work to start an engaging conversation that could potentially reveal a reason to stay in touch with a woman as result.  Good luck out there, and you’re welcome!

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Millennial managers leading startups: their generation’s new face of management.

According to Pew Research center the millennial generation (born 1983 – 2000) now number 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964) and Generation X’ers (born 1965 – 1984).  More than one-in-three American workers today are millennials, and have become the largest share of the American workforce.

In today’s current work climate, it’s not enough for millennial-aged managers to focus on productivity for their company’s success.  Employees who share their generational employment outlook expect them to drive the company’s mission with clarity and inspiration, embody a leadership style that supports their work/life balance and self-care routine, and provide opportunities for them to do work that fulfills their passion for making a positive, meaningful impact.  Millennials widely embrace thought leaders like Simon Sinek who encourage them to marry their values and intentions to their work endeavors for lasting fulfillment in their life.  Amid these formidable expectations, it’s easy for a manager who understands the values of the millennial generation to feel conflicted about how to drive productivity while still supporting her employees work paradigms.

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Any manager who leads without a strong sense of direction is destined to fall short of their targeted goals.  A millennial manager I coach in the venture capital space suggested I write an article based on the headway we’ve made in developing her leadership approach to managing her millennial-aged team.  The following Q & A is based on questions she and other millennial managers have expertly hashed out through their leadership coaching work.

“How can I screen potential candidates during the hiring process to reveal their true work ethic?  The nature of our work is deadline driven, and it’s hard to know who will prioritize work objectives over personal objectives.”

How to hire them:  Work ethic fit is critical to a company’s success, because a candidate with mismatched work ethic will negatively impact productivity, disengage other employees, and create inefficiencies for the rest of the team.  Early stage startup culture has influenced new hire expectations – it’s not unusual for employees at startups to serve in multiple roles to sustain rapid company growth periods.  Experienced millennial managers ask potential hires to share how they’ve handled shifting workflow and multiple role responsibilities in prior positions.  “Can you tell me about a time when you’ve asked a manager for guidance on how to prioritize your workload?  Particularly when you’ve thought meeting a deadline was going to be difficult or impossible because of the high volume and pace of the workload.”  This gives hiring managers a chance to learn if the person has experience identifying and solving workflow prioritization with others. By being transparent about their company’s work style and pace, and sharing specific examples of how team members typically ‘get shit done’ they reduce the the risk of hiring a poor fit for their company culture.  Millennial managers recognize the need to reconcile workload with self-care routines, and have learned to ask revealing questions like “How do you deal with burn out or work fatigue?  How have you managed times when you’ve had conflicts with team members?  What are your expectations for personal time off, working overtime, or through holidays?”

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Experts in psychological personality assessment use tactical questions like this to measure what they refer to as ‘faking good’, to detect a person’s willingness to be forthcoming or tendency to present themselves in an unrealistically positive light.  If given multiple opportunities, can a potential hire share a well-rounded work history that naturally includes unmet challenges, times of burn out, and how they’ve learned from those experiences?  Or are they consistently defensive and unwilling to acknowledge when they’ve been challenged or experienced conflicts at work?  Millennial managers seek to hire people who are willing to be direct and forthcoming, understanding this communication style lends itself to effective problem-solving with others.

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“What can I do to inspire my team members to take initiative in their own professional development?”

Millennial startup founders-turned managers understand the desire for personally meaningful work as a motivating principal behind professional development.  Based on this core value, millennial managers can inspire their employees to invest in their own development by encouraging them to cultivate their personal vision of career growth and success.  Managers seeking to inspire their employees ask “What do you enjoy most about their role?  What would you like to eventually do more of, and less of in your career path?”  By understanding what personally motivates someone, what is most rewarding, and how they’d like to see their professional opportunities take shape, a manager can provide support based on that particular vision.   Further, supporting employees in this way and holding them accountable for progress in their role performance will resonate on a deeper, more meaningful level.

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“How can I set the standard for work ethic with my team?  My employees get overwhelmed by deadlines, and it seems to be influenced by low self confidence and their desire to protect their work/life balance.” 

How to drive high performing employees:  When managers find they have an employee struggling to meet deadlines, the situation can put everyone on the defense.   The dilemma of many millennial managers in startups is that most if not all of the employees are highly valued for their unique abilities and everyone’s individual contributions are critical to company progress.  Further, the time and resources it takes to replace an employee and the risk of destabilizing team morale makes opting to solve the problem a frugal first approach.  While some employees may be failing to complete work as a result of prioritizing personal time, others may be failing to meet work expectations for other reasons.

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Through coaching, a millennial startup founder I support resolved how to effectively manage one of her highest-performing employees who’d begun struggling to meet his production deadlines.  After processing her emotions and generating a communication action plan, she began by conveying her high regard for his contributions to the company’s success, giving examples and recognizing his overall growth.  She listened to his perspective about why his productivity had declined without jumping to conclusions, with the intent to support him in finding a resolution that fit both of their needs.  This encouraged him to share openly about what his challenges and mental roadblocks were, and what changes could lead to a return to consistently high productivity.  This inquiry-led communication style led to both of them making a shift in thinking about how he could best operate in his role without compromising future leadership opportunities, provided new ways for him to contribute to deadline completion, fostering a solution-focused dynamic between them as manager and employee.

Many of the millennial managers I’ve supported have found inspiration for their managerial style based on the wisdom of their favorite leaders in tech, turning up their employee productivity and balancing idealism with practicality by:

  • making changes to the types of work an employee is responsible for completing (e.g. shifting an employee from working autonomously on projects to working in a support role to others)
  • providing alternative options for employees’ work evaluations based on their preference (e.g. brief periodic check-ins to ‘debug’ work progress rather than a longer final project critique)
  • building a work culture that encourages employees to take part in decision-making in how they solve problems rather than dictating how problems get solved

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Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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Settling down in Silicon Valley, just another impossible unicorn to chase?

A recent article published in The Washington Post titled “Why Silicon Valley singles are giving up on the algorithms of love” illuminates the struggle single people face, even while living in one of the countries wealthiest and most educated urban areas, attracting young, ambitious people from all over the world.  While the San Francisco Bay Area remains a high ranking city for adventurous singles, others find themselves tired of FOMO-driven dating sprints and casual hook-ups and start to crave the intimacy of a committed romantic relationship.  To be single and searching for ‘the one’ in the Bay Area is complicated according the wide range of people I encounter through my executive coaching practice with entrepreneurs and other high performers in the tech ecosystem.  The single women are far outnumbered by single men making the odds good for heterosexual women, but they’ll quickly tell you the “goods are odd”, describing tech guys as low in EQ and difficult to navigate with through early stages of dating ).  Even with the odds stacked against them, single men in Silicon Valley are more selective in their search for a romantic partner than literally, anywhere else in the country.   These findings are completely consistent with the feedback I get from the millennials I work with in tech.

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Back in 2014 I penned an article for techcrunch.com titled #Love: Hacking Social Isolation, bringing attention to how the increasing reliance on technology is making it more difficult for millennials to form and maintain authentic relationships with others.  Not unlike Silicon Valley startups whose valuations promise more than they actually deliver, millennials continue to rely heavily upon dating apps, an investment that is more likely to lead to user fatigue and burnout than to the relationship promised land.  This is a new kind of failure, and Silicon Valley hasn’t come to grips with it yet.  You can’t swipe right for automatic intimacy, you have to build it.  Slowly and unpredictably, at least for now.

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