In the past five years, humanity has seen incredible advances in almost all areas of activity and knowledge. We’ve witnessed an unparalleled level of disruption by innovative entrepreneurs entering established industries and turning them on their head. Simultaneously, we’ve seen an explosion of research in the juncture of neurological research and mindfulness.

Advances in neuroimaging have allowed us to more precisely see what’s going on in the brain during many different activities and experience. And rigorous research in the new field of mindfulness demonstrates the significant beneficial effects of physical health and well-being, as well as increased effectiveness and skill in the workplace.

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Although centuries-old, mindfulness has found its way into the corporate world. Google, Intel, P&G, Genentech, and Cisco, to name a few have turned to this field as a way to increase employee well-being and productivity.

Below, and in the following posts, Dr. Shauna Shapiro and I will explore six intersections of innovation + entrepreneurship and neurology + mindfulness. For each of these intersections, we explore the innovation insight, the connection with neurology, and finally how mindfulness practice can help.

The intersection points are:

  1. Innovation doesn’t exist without failure.
  2. An unchecked ego is an obstacle to innovation.
  3. If you can’t control your attention, you can’t innovate.
  4. What you practice grows stronger–including optimizing your work for process execution or innovation.
  5. When we resist what is, we suffer.
  6. Cognitive flexibility, openness, and the capacity to ‘pivot’ are necessary for innovation.

Today, we look at intersection No. 1: Innovation doesn’t exist without failure.

Startups have gained great status, and we often idolize those successful founders. However, often we oversimplify how successful startup founders attained their success. Many of us think the story goes like this: a genius has a great idea, the world thinks he or she is crazy, then he or she proves them wrong with great success.

It’s a fine story (good enough for a movie or two), but it’s often not reality. Any major success requires founders to start with an initial idea, test it, learn from why all or part of it didn’t work, iterate, try again–and continue to pursue the accelerated iteration cycle as quickly as possible. In fact, a founders’ ability to succeed is more directly related to their capacity to adapt quickly to what the iterative learning testing process shows them, instead of coming from a prescient ability to foresee the future and get it right the first time. This is a well-known phenomenon in Silicon Valley, and there are even books and conferences about it.

 However, as anyone who has experienced setbacks or even failures can attest to, it’s not easy to accept failure and quickly move on.

Part of why it’s not easy is because we often take these “failures” as personal, permanent, and global.

It’s quite natural to experience feelings of fear, frustration, disappointment, and grief when we confront a failure or setback. Some of us simply become consumed by these emotions and quit. Those who are successful typically accept the experience of the emotions. They let them rise, fall, and then pass away (as all emotions do),

Let’s look at why we struggle to let emotions run their course. Often, we judge ourselves for our failures and spiral into a pit of self-judgment and shame. As we become caught up in our emotions, and the subsequent stories we tell ourselves, our brain becomes emotionally hijacked by our amygdala. This inhibits our higher order reasoning (the prefrontal cortex) from coming to the rescue. In other words, our self-judgment and emotional overwhelm literally shut down the learning centers of our brain, inhibiting our perspective taking, and decrease our capacity to respond in our best interest.

Thus, when the prefrontal cortex has been hijacked, we’re not at our peak intellectual performance. And our ability to creatively and effectively move forward with our innovation or entrepreneurial quest will be jeopardized.

Learning to respond to setbacks and failures with equanimity and clarity may be the differentiating feature between future success and ultimate failure. It’s possible that many of the successful startup founders’ and historical innovators’ achievement is attributable more to their mental and emotional capacity to deal with failures than to sheer genius.

Mindfulness practice can help prevent emotional hijacking. First, it helps us see the situation clearly, objectively, and without shame. Instead of having our thoughts and emotions control us, mindfulness gives us the space to consciously, deliberately, and purposefully respond by keeping our prefrontal cortex on board.

To help, here’s a simple mindfulness practice to help increase your self-awareness and self-control.

Three-Minute Mindful Practice

Step 1: Become aware of your experience. For example, notice if you’re stressed, upset, disappointed, or whatever you are feeling. Let go of the story and see if you can actually feel the emotions. Rest your attention on sensations in your body, not on cognitive thinking.

Step 2: Become aware of your entire body. Feel your feet, feel your spine straight and upright, feel your belly, your chest, your face. Soften your jaw, your eyes, your forehead.

Step 3: Become aware of your breath. Feel the gentle movement of the breath flowing in and out of your body.

Join us for our upcoming posts to explore the second and third points: the ego as an obstacle for innovation and attention control as a requirement to innovate.

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 Wired magazine, USA Today, Shape, Dr. Oz, the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, and the American Psychologist.



Oseas Ramirez Assad

Senior Manager, Business Development and Innovation Enablement

Strategic Innovation Group