Ask the Expert: Finding stillness in a chaotic world

Ask the Expert, Startup Initiatives |

This article first appeared in the Union Leader in June 2022

The general and world conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte used to instruct his secretaries to give him his mail three weeks after it arrived.


Because Napoleon knew that in life and work, everything is urgent. That doesn’t mean, though, that everything is important. By reading the mail three weeks later, most urgent problems had already resolved themselves. Leaving Napoleon more brain power to think about the important issues.

The most important issues — the ones that actually move your life or company forward — are evergreen.

And, as the great Dr. Julie Gurner says, “You don’t solve them between meetings.” You solve them by thinking, which is becoming more difficult to do every day.

We live in a hyperconnected world. While writing this article, I have been interrupted by a text message, an email, a Slack, a screaming child and a meeting reminder. The digital age is rewiring our brains to the point we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish. This means that those who can find quiet in the chaos will be the ones who win. The great marketing executive Ryan Holiday knows this, which is why he titled his bestselling book, “Stillness is the Key.”

But how do we remain present in the moment in a world fighting for our attention?

Schedule time to think

As a newlywed, I used to scoff at couples that scheduled date night. And then my career took off. And I had kids. And now I get it! Life is busy. If you don’t make something a priority, it gets put on the back burner. This is true of thinking. You need to block off time in your calendar for strategy. When you do this, shut off your Wi-Fi or go for a walk. It is so easy to be constantly reactive to every urgent task. But you will only get ahead if you find time to be proactive. Scratch that. You will never find the time. You have to make it.

Let go!

In the 1500s, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.” It is easy to spend our time either regretting the past or worrying about the future. But what does that accomplish? All it does is prevent us from enjoying the moment we are in, which in reality, is the only true moment that exists. Focusing on the present moment will not just happen. You will need to practice. When you find your mind wandering to a meeting you have tomorrow or overanalyzing someone’s response to what you said yesterday, slow down. Pause. Refocus. Shut off your phone. Be present. It is easier said than done, but it will be a game changer.

Trust the process

University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban is one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football. Yet, perhaps Saban is best known for what he calls “the process.”

Saban says that most people focus on results. I am one of those people. I’ve always been obsessed with the outcome: Win the game. Get a good grade on the test. Play the song perfectly. Have a big exit for a startup.

But people who get to the top and stay there (don’t just get a good grade on the test but become valedictorian) are not obsessed with the outcome. They are in love with the process. It is the process — the daily grind of practice — that leads to the outcome you want.

If you love the process then you will always be happy with the outcome. Because you’ll know you have given it your all. And if you can fall in love with the process then you will find joy every day because you can always practice. Outcomes are more fleeting. If you can rewire your mind to think this way then the process becomes a gift you give yourself while the outcome is a gift you give others.

If you can do all of the above, then you will develop a super power. In a world full of chaos, you will have found your stillness.

Adam Coughlin is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of York IE, a vertically integrated strategic growth and investment firm.