Matthew Bellows dropped out of Brown his sophomore year in 1988. His father had gone to Brown; Bellows had a rebellious streak, and this was his rebellion. Bellows wandered the country and wound up living in an intentional community north of Phoenix called Arcosanti. He stayed about a year. He calls this his skirt-wearing, hippy, commune-dwelling phase. He looks back on it with mixed feelings: “I was struggling, I was being . . . but I wasn’t really growing up,” he says.
Bellows soon learned about another groovy-sounding place: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, which had been founded by a Tibetan meditation master. Bellows enrolled, and began a sitting meditation practice. Soon after, he decided to deepen that practice at another Colorado institution called the Shambhala Mountain Center. “That was the year where I really feel like I grew up,” he says. “I became an adult there.”
He spent between 4 and 12 hours a day meditating. He sat on a cushion, legs loosely crossed, and focused on his breathing. Sometimes–oftentimes–his mind would wander; he’d get swept up in thoughts–on conflict with his parents, or how a girlfriend had wronged him. Catching himself, he’d simply think the word, “thinking,” and then imagine bursting those thoughts, gently, like a feather might pop a bubble.
“There’s nothing like sitting in a room, doing nothing for hours on end, for you to get to know your mind,” says Bellows. “You start to get your patterns of thought, you have time to think about what your life is about, and what you want your life to be. And a strange ambition awoke in me during that year–the desire to accomplish something with my life.”
Though meditation, Bellows discovered that, at heart, he was an entrepreneur.
He moved to the Boston area, took out a phone book, and cold-called computer startups. He learned a trick: always ask to be connected to investor relations, since they’ll take any call. Finally, the work paid off, and a startup hired him. And now, 20 years later, Bellows is CEO of a tech company called Yesware, a digital-sales toolkit. Ultimately, he says, it was meditation that brought him to this place. He was disconnected from society: meditation reconnected him.
Meditation remains a big part of Bellows’s life, he says, and he encourages contemplative practices–be it meditation, yoga, or something else–at work. Yesware teaches in-house classes on “mindfulness at work,” which he says means “instead of being swept up in the crazy rush of activities we have, running from an email to a meeting to the coffeepot and back, we actually maintain some perspective on the flurry, the rush, and the activity. We’re still really busy, but we have some sense of perspective on it. We pause, take a breath, realize we’re alive, we’re human, we have feelings, and we relate with each other.”
But does it help the bottom line? “Definitely,” he says. “We’re a software company, and software is the most abstract product in the physical world. Software is a completely creative thing,” and ultimately the best software will be created at a company whose culture minimizes “stupid meetings, people freaking out, and a toxic managerial environment.” Mindfulness training helps prevent all those things. “Then people can be more effective, build better software, sell more of it, and charge more money for it,” he says. He is proud that one of his investors refers to Yesware as “a monastic startup,” due to the contemplative vibe that pervades the place.
Whether or not meditation is for you–and it’s not for everyone, says Bellows–Bellows advocates for some form of contemplative practice in your life. “The reason why it’s good for business people, for people who want to accomplish things in their lives, is twofold,” he says. First, it helps you get to know your own mind, its habits, its glitches, and whatever is preventing you from getting to the next level. Secondly, contemplative practice can “help you navigate your relationship to the world,” says Bellows: it gives you perspective on the ecosystem of partners, customers, suppliers, coworkers, investors, and bosses, and equips you to navigate these relationships gracefully.
This is the bit that might be most surprising about meditation, for those who haven’t tried it: the notion that it can connect you with others, rather than cause you to become withdrawn. By observing your own flaws and faults through meditation, says Bellows, “you suddenly become more connected to other people because you realize they have flaws and faults, too. You see other people in the street wrapped up in their thoughts and trapped in their patterns, and you have a sense of connectedness to them.”