Your Brain As A Startup

There are many things I hate about startup culture. The sexism. The ageism. The arrogance. The fetishisation of growth regardless of social impact and sustainability. The compulsive sqwording.

But there are also many ways in which Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ethos puts a rocket up my self-effacing British arse.

The can-do attitude. The impatience with self-pity. The celebration of failure as an essential element of progress. The relentless questioning of how people really behave. The willingness to suck it, see, then keep sucking until it tastes just right.

A fortnight ago I interviewed Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares about their new book Traction, which outlines how businesses can achieve the elusive holy grail of an early, active and loyal consumer base. Then last week I devoured the brilliant latest release from neuroscientist David Eagleman, The Brain: The Story of You.

It produced a slightly weird collision of ideas, and I began to wonder. Could I use startup principles to gain better traction… with my own brain?

A confession. I’m a secret self-development whore. I find it impossible to pass up a shaman or system that promises to turn my fractious monkey brain into a gleaming unicorn. I’ve shacked up with PaulTonySteveEckhart. I’ve done CBT, NLP, MBTI, the Lightning Process, the Naked Voice, psychotherapy, coaching, hypnosis, silent retreats, meditation, mindfulness. I’ve sought out everything from neuroscience to Nutribullet in my quest to evolve into something a little more sophisticated, a little more serene, than a puppet that dances to my synapses’ subconscious tune.

And you know what? That shit works. After spending my twenties in various states of disorder, depression and low-level dissatisfaction, I am now healthy and happy; ridiculously so, most of the time. The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter that much. Gurus, after all, are just grappling hooks for the lonely clamber of your own mind. But the practice of making a deliberate and consistent daily effort to understand and hack my own habits has been the most powerful and positive work of my life.

So why am I still so embarrassed to admit it? Perhaps it goes back to that Britishness. While embryonic West Coast founder-CEOs wouldn’t hesitate to swap their latest brain-training tips over birch water in the co-working canteen, I can’t help but find picking over the wiring of my inner circuitry as distasteful as discussing the movements of my bowels.

But then that encapsulates my introvert’s ambivalence about startup culture’s aggressive openness. I feel both contempt and longing at the thought of approaching my private self with the same unsentimental, data-driven honesty and public transparency required of a box-fresh brand. And yet, and yet, it’s hard to deny that the behaviours required of successful startups make a damn good blueprint for a flourishing mind.

A willingness to challenge the status quo. Flexibility. A ruthless paring-away of old inefficiencies. Sociability. An aptitude for instilling addictive habits. The practice of seeking out continual feedback, and the courage to swiftly change direction to capitalise on what works.

The consequence is that, over the past few days, I’ve been wondering whether it might not be helpful to adopt an entrepreneurial approach when it comes to the not insignificant business of OurMinds. Burgeoning neuropreneurs might, for example, want to sit down with their recording device of choice (I favour an analogue notebook covered in yoghurt stains) and work through questions like these.

  • Opportunity: What’s my current product-market fit, where my brain is the product and the market is my life?
  • Business plan: What are my development goals? How will I measure them? What would brilliant look like for my brain in six months’ time?
  • Hardware: How can I upgrade my nutrition, my sleep, my exercise?
  • Software: What are the bugs creating pinwheels in my mind? Which one do I most urgently need to root out now?
  • Team: Who around me fuels, and who drains, the health of my mind? Who do I need to spend more time with to feed it exactly what it needs more of, from empathy to curiosity to calm?
  • Investment: Which VCs of the brain do I admire? Might I need to hand over some control and cash to an expert who can help drive my next growth stage?
  • Traction: Which one brain-channel is going to provide rapid early results? 20 minutes of morning meditation? Banning a disempowering word I use all the time? Enrolling in a School of Life course?
  • CRM: How do I keep myself loyal to myself? What surprises, delights and incentives for my own brain do I have in store?
  • Sustainability: Am I maintaining the right balance between revelling in the now, and striving to grow?
  • Future -proofing: How am I going to keep evolving? What can I do, today, that’s entirely new?

Whether you’re a coder or a carer, whether you live in Shoreditch or Slough, whether you dropped out of Harvard or fell into corporate middle management, you can become a world-class wetware developer, starting right now.

And the thing is, with neuropreneurship, no-one else need ever know.