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Michael Acton Smith on Finding Flow

The Calm co-founder is leveraging everything he's learned about mindfulness and meditation for the A.I. era.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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BY CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN, EDITOR AT LARGE, INC.@LAGORIO

A San Francisco software startup hawking the stuff of ashrams seemed pretty far out in 2012. Over a decade later, guided meditation com­pany Calm has expanded its app's offerings to sleep-inducing stories, mental health products, and soothing music.

The app has been downloaded by more than 150 million people, and Calm Business--the company's fastest-expanding product--is now used by 10 million employees of 3,500 firms. We asked co-founder Michael Acton Smith how he finds flow, tunes out, and--you know--stays calm.

You weren't a lifelong student of meditation before starting Calm. How did it become personal for you?

There was a time I didn't fully understand meditation or mindfulness. My previous startup, Mind Candy, which made Moshi Monsters, was growing like crazy for years. We were the hottest London startup; everyone thought we were the next Disney. Inside, it was starting to lag. I could feel it; I'd wake up at 4 a.m. in a cold sweat. We'd end up doing layoffs--five rounds of layoffs--which are pretty much the hardest thing you have to do as an entrepreneur. When you run a company, your identity is entwined with it, and you have responsibility for so many people.

I was not doing great. I was fried and burned out, not sleeping, not ­looking after myself. My good friend Alex Tew, who'd been meditating since he was a teenager, introduced me to it. A light bulb went on in my head that this wasn't about ­incense or counterculture or religion.

It was neuroscience, a way to rewire the human brain. We both felt if we could simplify this ancient practice and make it more accessible, we could bring it to the masses.

Talking about mental health wasn't very mainstream then either.

Mental health was so stigmatized. It was brushed under the carpet. It's extraor­di­nary what's happened over the past few years, that a bright spotlight is shining where there was only darkness before.

Today, we're all aware of tech burnout. But you merged meditation with an app, on phones. How do you approach burnout and technology?

I do think one of the reasons we have more stress and anxiety in the world is screens and social media. But technologies are neither good nor bad; they're tools. It's how we use them that matters, and as a founder, you have to be thoughtful around where your energy and focus go. I now put my phone on airplane mode overnight and usually don't turn it off airplane until I've left the house. It's amazing what happens when you let the mind roam and you fill up notebooks with handwriting before the avalanche of the world's information comes surging in.

Is that how you find mental space--espe­cially during times of stress?

You have to be conscious of your time as an entrepreneur. When things are difficult, you're basically firefighting the whole time. There are a million people who want to have a meeting and tell you what's wrong. There are endless emails, and you're constantly in this fight-or-flight state. You don't get a chance to step back from the coalface. And something that I found valuable was to schedule that time to allow ­myself to think. I used to do it on a Friday morning. I wouldn't go into the ­office, or do emails. I'd find a quiet space, usually in a coffee shop, and sit with my pen and notepad and just breathe before thinking of the longer term and asking myself: Were the decisions I was making the right ones?

What advice do you have for leaders to help infuse better mental health into their workplaces?

I think calm leaders are more effective than ones frazzled with adrenaline and cortisol and intensity and shouting. I could see it at Mind Candy, the anxiety it would create for the team if I'd come in without a good night's sleep and forget things in meetings. I'm not talking about taking it easy or achieving some perfect work-life balance. To build anything, you have to commit. You have to go deep and make sacrifices. But you can move fast and do the best work of your life and still be mindful and calm about how you do that.

What changes do you see in the future of mindfulness and mental health?

How can we bring mental health into the $4 trillion health care industry? That's a big focus for the company. Alex and I are, meanwhile, going back to our entrepreneurial roots, running something called Calm Studios in ­London and thinking about the future of mental health and new products. We're fascinated by A.I. It will transform every industry, including mental health. How can these silicon brains help support and heal our human brains? How can A.I. augment what therapists and mental health care ­professionals do? The opportunities are very exciting.

Photo Credit: Michael Acton Smith.  Photography by Hollie Fernando.

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