SAS' CTO Tim Bulk gives his account of why and how he practices meditation.
As a busy serial entrepreneur, engineer and pilot over the last 14 years, I never believed in a segment of the executive coaching arena on the recommended therapy benefits of mental breaks, or even more extreme - executive mediation. The connotation and image of meditation for me was a bell-bottom pants Boulder hippie sitting under a tree in some yoga-esqe pose. As a career aerospace engineer, the mystical realm of “quiet time” and a focus on controlling the so-called “monkey-mind” was always on the fringe. It wasn’t until I hit a mental and creative wall in the summer of 2020…that I became a disciple of the practice.
Some brief history… I am a former NASA Engineer who left Government service in 2007 to co-found Special Aerospace Services (SAS). Over the past 14 years, I have spent on average about 50-60 hours a week on the business, thinking, strategizing, coming up with new ideas and businesses. The business grew from my wife and I working in our basement, to well over 100 people, 5 offices, and a manufacturing subsidiary. Yes, we take vacations, but as many business owners know, you are never really “away” from the company. Emails early in the morning, telecons between vacation events, and more emails at night. Vacations became, “working vacations”, for my wife and me. Yes, both my wife and I working these hours, and juggling raising kids, and the other responsibilities of the household… (my wife far better at multi-tasking than I!)
Personally, it was an “ego” thing for me to always be connected to my team, “the mission”, and to constantly be focused on creating new ideas, business ventures, expanding the relationships, and growing the business. I got my energy out of collaborating on ideas, proving others wrong when SAS completed new missions, or developing some new innovative technology. This all changed with the Great Pandemic of 2020.
Being unable to meet with our clients and strategic partners, and forced to communicate via video chats proved to be, and I think most business development professionals agree, unfulfilling. For creative people, isolation from a creative environment can be devastating mentally. On top of that, add on the pressures of making sure your kids are doing schoolwork, and juggling all the other commitments, to the stress and pressures that everyone was feeling.
During this time, I was discussing with my executive coach how to energize the team and myself. She asked me a question: “During this time, what would happen if Tim went off-line for two weeks? No, computer, no cell phone, no contact with anyone from work…?” My first response was, “That would be tough.” “For you, or the team?” she said.
The more I thought about this, the more I relished in the idea. Could this determine gaps in the organization? Could this help identify areas that I could let go in? What would I learn?
So, we strategized on how this would work, effectively.
How I approached my break
I took two weeks off in the Fall, most of which I spent at home, just to switch off and recharge. For the first time, I didn’t look at my phone or computer once. I started a daily practice of 30 minutes just sitting quietly – very hard for the first week, but thereafter I found I needed it. It wasn’t always easy to find a quiet spot in the middle of my busy family, but I made it a priority just to sit down and have time to myself, often in the morning. I found it helpful to use the 10% Happier app and book to guide me through the meditation. In addition, I exercised outside – mountain biking and walking and I spent time with my family. Above all, I had no interaction with work or digital media except listening to executive coaches for inspiration. I also I read (printed books!) on how this approach really helps Olympic athletes, military personnel, and those who need to be their best in stressful situations.
Three benefits I’ve seen and how I’m applying them to my life and work
1. Thinking before talking, not reacting
I am learning to really think and be present before reacting to things – leading to fewer knee-jerk reactions. This helps relieve the stress created by constant interactions on email, phones, social media etc. and it helps you catch yourself when you start to get spun up. It helps me plan more effectively at work and at home, thinking about the long-term strategic implications of what I’m doing.
2. Being more present in the moment
Calming my brain has meant that I can enjoy what I’m doing in the moment more without being distracted by other thoughts rattling around inside my brain. I can focus on enjoying my time with my family more and I’m more engaged in the little moments with my wife and kids. I did this over the 2020 holidays and I remember the moments more clearly. The laughter, the smells, the family discussions.
3. Being more inspired and creative
I’ve found that I’m more open to new ideas and being inspired to think about new innovations. This is beneficial for my company, but I’m also increasingly realizing the importance of new approaches to life and how much giving back matters to my happiness. I have renewed enthusiasm for my foundation, Who Dreams WinsTM. Coming back into the company I am taking the time to observe, listen and reflect, rather than jump back into the busy day-to-day. I’m putting less pressure on myself to come up with ideas straight away and I’m letting myself be inspired. This means taking the time to be quiet and then draw, doodle, write down things with pencil and paper and NOT in front of a computer!
What I’m going to do differently now
I’m going to try to continue my 30 minutes of quiet meditation every day, no matter what happens. I now believe it is particularly critical for executives and others in high-stress environments to have a regular practice like this. At SAS we’re going to start encouraging our executive team to take one week per year specifically to turn everything off. In addition to normal vacation and PTO allowances, we’ll give them time to learning something new, not necessarily work-related, but most importantly, just time to calm down and detach from work. A real opportunity to switch off.