Meditate Your Way to Better Product Management

Paul Wissam

The Meditation Retreat That Transformed My Life (and made me a better Product Manager)

For ten days of silence – yes, I attended a silent meditation retreat! – I sat for twelve hours a day, cross-legged with my eyes closed, completely still, and I focused. 

I focused deeply. I lost my focus. I got distracted. I got frustrated. At one point, and I’m not proud of this, I punched a port-a-loo after a particularly infuriating session. And then I focused again. I mentally explored every physical inch of my external body in minute detail.  

Ever spent days focusing ONLY on the space between your nose and upper lip? I have. I journeyed inwards too, to the myriad of thoughts careening through my mind. I stopped and I watched them and learnt to calm them. 

The experience was one of the most challenging of my life, but equally the most rewarding. To a soundtrack of cicadas and creaking eucalyptus trees, I found a sense of self, a better way of dealing with the crazy world around us, and by a happy coincidence, I left the experience as a better Product Manager. 

Immersion

At its core, Vipassana is a meditation technique that helps you “explore the nature of reality”.  Vipassana can be translated as “Iisight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. By learning to observe our ‘reality’, and practice non-reaction to sensation, we begin to intimately understand the nature of life as impermanent, the root of all human suffering and remove the walls of illusion, craving, and aversion. 

Now, that’s an easy-ish concept to understand intellectually, but the practice of Vipassana suggests that we can only TRULY know through experience. This is now something I’ve applied to my Product Management. 

Too often in the past  I’ve read a book, blog post or tweet and assumed I’ve understood. But this was only a shallow, intellectual understanding. Do not underestimate the power of doing. It allows us to go beyond conceptualizing, to a much deeper, more impactful level, ingraining themselves in our mind in a way that superficial processing can not. 

Perspective 

During one meditation session, I revisited every, single, human interaction of consequence I’d had in my entire life. Every heartbreak and every passing crush. Every disappointment, every triumph,  every mistake, success or in-between.  Every single one rose to the surface of my consciousness. It was both deeply unpleasant, and powerful & purifying at the same time. But this intense scrutiny of my own past gave me one thing that I believe all Product Managers need: perspective. 

Stepping back is a practice we can take for granted. Observing thoughts, memories, emotions, or situations — whether retrospectively or in the moment — gives us, as PMs, the ability to understand and empathise with our customers more deeply and to be kinder to ourselves. 

Impermanence 

During one “sit” I observed all sorts of sensations throughout our body. As someone who has no flexibility or core strength, sitting cross-legged on the floor for 10-days was a unique form of torture, despite my complex arrangement of supportive cushions. 

But the truth is, those sensations of pain always came to pass. I learnt to control my focus, and eventually my lower back stopped screaming at me. The cramps disappeared. The hip joints settled. This was when the concept of ‘annica’ or impermanence really hit home. 

As Product Managers, it can be easy to get caught up in success or wallow in failures. But our products have little momentum of their own. By recognising the impermanence of our products, we can be more pro-active in ensuring they continue performing, or turn around a sinking ship.  

Focus 

The experience was really a boot camp for a muscle that had gone to mush. My focus muscle. Every day we’re bombarded with information. The cacophony of noise surrounding work, home life, news and politics and the environment, makes for a foggy headspace. Phones ping, and computers ding, and red bubbles call for our attention at every instant. 

After ten days my focus muscle was stronger than ever; more able to find clarity within the fog. With practice I’d learned how to distill a single thought or idea, and explore it completely. This kind of deep thought work is crucial to the Product Manager mindset. With our work, no stone is left unturned. Multiple iterations and approaches must be thought through. 

Training that muscle heightened my ability to go deep, to think more clearly and more deeply than ever before. And this, perhaps, is the most vital skill a product manager can have. 

 

Interested in learning more about how understanding mental health can make you a better Product Manager. Read Diverse Thinking Requires Diverse Minds by Senior Product Consultant, Martin North.

Paul Wissam

Paul Wissam | Author

Curiosity is Paul's calling. This curiosity has led him to the intersection of social, digital and the ‘real world’. He's spent the last decade finding answers and building solutions to the challenges businesses face in this increasingly complex space. He is highly experienced in social strategy development, content creation and management, sponsorship integration, the product management of mobile apps and websites and the leadership of teams of freelancers and contributors all whilst working in high-pressure, high-stakes environments.

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