The Zone

//David Hirsch//

On my plane ride this morning I read Ben Horowitz’s book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. It got me thinking about getting into the zone –  how I’ve learned to get there and how entrepreneurs can do the same.

Getting into the zone can’t really be defined, but it’s something that we see happen with athletes from time to time – when Tim Tebow kept finding ways to win football games, when Jeremy Lin took New York by storm, or even a few months ago when Carmelo Anthony scored 62 points in just over three quarters of basketball. You see it in pitchers when they toss a perfect game. If you ever witnessed such a performance, you know exactly what I mean.

I notice the zone in my everyday life, too. I tend to gravitate towards people without huge egos who treat others the same – from the CEO to the janitor. This status agnostic feeling is extremely powerful and very important for me. Tim Armstrong, Chairman and CEO of AOL is a great example. In 1998, when I was 25 years old, Tim hired me at a company called Snowball to build out the business development and monetization team at IGN.

One morning at 7:30 AM, I cold-called Tim and convinced him to speak to me later that day. I remember that day like it was yesterday. It changed my life.

I was blown away by Tim’s poise, magnetism, and merit-based values. Here was an entrepreneur from Littleton, Massachusetts (which we joke has two traffic lights in the whole town) who was in the sort of zone that made people around him feel like they could accomplish anything. He was the first person to introduce me to the Henry Ford quote, “whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right”. The quote hung in his office (and subsequently traveled with him to other offices throughout his career).

He hired me that day and I remember going home that evening and saying to my wife at the time, “I met someone today who will not only change our lives but change advertising as we know it. He’ll be running a major public company one day.” He was 26 years old at the time. She asked me how I knew and I couldn’t really explain it other than to say he was in this sort of zone at all times. He had a magic touch for empowering people. I spent the next 11 years reporting to Tim at Snowball and later at Google when we joined together in 2000.

They say regular people see with their eyes open and innovators see with their eyes closed. What does this really mean? Is it innate or can it be learned? Does it correlate with being in the “zone”?

In 2008, I left Google to start Metamorphic. We would start from scratch, trying to build the sort of VC fund that entrepreneurs would gravitate towards because of the culture. We wanted to cultivate the spirit and hustle of a startup, rather than the staleness of a fund.

While we have been successful at raising capital, there are tremendous mental and physical trade-offs involved with giving one area of your life 100 percent.  Time is finite and is a zero sum game. For me, creating a startup fund at a 24/7 pace requires building out pipes, hiring, thinking about our employees, helping entrepreneurs, helping our portfolio companions, and curating the best advisors and investors. At the same time this is coupled with acting as a single dad raising two young kids, moving apartments, moving offices, being a good ex-husband, being a present dad, being a good son, and being a contributing member of society. All of which are things entrepreneurs can relate to. Balance is hard and takes discipline. At times, the separation between my personal and professional life is blurry, which makes balance even harder.

A lot has changed since those days at Snowball with Tim. I had an amazing run at Snowball and at Google. My experience at Google was particularly incredible. I was part of a revolution, surrounded by the most inspiring and dedicated people on the planet, many of whom were in the zone 24/7. I have had a lot on my plate over the course of the last few years and can see so much potential. But at times I have felt out of that zone that I felt at Snowball and Google. How do I keep the zone persistent?

About four years ago I moved into a building in Nolita. I was fortunate enough to find a place directly above an Ashtanga Studio. One day, I decided to knock on the door to that studio, where I met Eddie Stern, a world-renowned Yoga and Meditation leader. I was doing some construction in my apartment and wanted to be mindful of Eddie’s yoga practice. When I mentioned my concern, his response was, “I teach on Broome Street with the windows open in the concrete jungle. There is no escape. My practice is about creating your own space at your own tone, regardless of the situation.”

Boom – the zone I had been missing! We hit it off right away, and Eddie transferred that feeling to me immediately. We talked for hours about street art, children, inequality, mindfulness, and of course, “the zone”. I told Eddie that, although I’m not a yoga guy, I’d be willing to give it a try.

After attending a few of his classes and then a few private sessions, Eddie agreed that maybe it wasn’t the right time for me to do yoga. No disrespect taken. Really, all I was seeking was the ability to sleep a little more throughout the night. I had been waking up in the middle of the night and my brain activity would keep me awake until the morning. What could’ve waited until the next day was keeping me awake when I should have been resting.

Eddie introduced me to Bob Roth at the David Lynch Foundation and at the same time urged me to be open to Transcendental Meditation (TM). Like many passionate people I had a lot of things going on and needed to learn to multitask better in order to execute. TM has been different for me than other types of meditation I’ve tried (as a side note, there was something cool about David Lynch helping me with the zone using many of the same tools the Beatles and the Rolling Stones used). I was hooked. I took a 4-day class (2 hours a day for 4 days), learned technique and found my mantra. This enabled me to practice for twenty minutes a day, twice a day.

I have come to count on meditation as my “zone in the cloud”. I’ve done it on planes, churches (from St Patrick’s Cathedral to Notre Dame in Paris), and in Central Park. My personal favorite place to meditate is inside Uber cars, combining transportation with meditation.

TM has allowed me to become more of a thermostat than a thermometer. I can set the temperature versus the temperature going up and down without my control. Email responses can wait. The important ones will find you and you will find them. There are countless other examples of how we let lower priority activities consume our only finite resource –  time.

Meditation has helped me slow down, be more creative, and more iterative. It has helped me address and deal with conflict and , made me a better father, friend, VC, partner and person. There is no silver bullet;  and many of life’s challenges and opportunities are very interconnected. I have a long way to go (and iteration never ends),  but  I feel that I can now trouble shoot when needed and also preempt friction by finding w my zone.

[Thank you for all your help, Eddie. Eddie doesn’t ever seem to have a bad day. People travel from all over the world to see him. I’m grateful that serendipity placed us in the same building.]

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Eddie teaching meditation and yoga to a few members of our team at Metamorphic

 

I’m glad to see meditation making it onto the stage at SXSW. There has been chatter about the Valley embracing it. My friend Josh Felser and I joked on Twitter that we should co-meditate before we co-invest. I welcome that, Josh. Mario Batalli and I talked about exploring whether or not there is a place for meditation in our children’s schools. I think so. The Seattle Seahawks meditated before their improbable win over the Broncos in this year’s Super Bowl. Eddie is actually building a non-profit with Deepak Chopra, which aims to bring mindfulness to the public school curriculum (Eddie asked me to get involved and I’m humbled and excited to help). There are countless examples of the link between meditation, productivity and being in the zone.

At Metamorphic, I tend to think a lot about how we can help all of our employees get into their zone. How do we create the most special place to work? What’s the definition of a workplace, anyway? We have a conference room at Metamorphic where we painted each wall a prime color of Metamorphic’s logo. I try to meditate there once a day and now Eddie comes once a week and works with our team (and friends). We plan on doing more of these sessions,  so let us know if you want to come by and participate.