It's All In Your Head: A Conversation With Sean Finnell, MINDSET BRAINGYM
It’s all in your head.
These are the words posted out front of Toronto’s Mindset, a new type of gym focused on training our brains to cultivate focus, resilience, and emotional intelligence through guided meditation. We sat down with co-founder Sean Finnell to discuss his personal entrepreneurial leadership style and what makes him stand out in this space.
Tell us a bit about your background?
I was born and raised in Manhattan, NY. I moved up to Montreal to pursue a degree in Strategic Management at McGill. I came into business school thinking I was headed towards a career in management consulting, but quickly realized that life wasn't a fit for my strengths or personality.
What is the problem that MINDSET solves?
Stress, anxiety, and focus. We want people to see "mental fitness" exercises like mindfulness meditation as the ultimate tool to strengthen the mind to make it more resilient to pressure and distractions, and to make anxious thoughts and strong emotions less sticky. It's not an easy practice – just like benching 400lb at the gym isn't – but if you start seeing it like any other exercise, where a lack of distracting thoughts during a meditation session is an eventual goal rather than something we should instantly be able to achieve, you'll start seeing a lot more Type-As embrace the practice. That's the misconception we're trying to reverse with our "brain gym."
Let’s get an idea of the journey you took from student, to employee, to owner:
Back in business school I had a lot of fun and fulfillment in organizing huge DJ shows for thousands of my fellow students, which I then parlayed into my dream job of working for a major concert producer right out of school. But after a couple years of that, I was feeling a bit jaded towards the whole music industry in general and unfulfilled not being able to call my own shots. I started to realize my true passions lied in creating memorable experiences for people – and that those experiences didn't need to involve world-famous DJs, lasers, and pyrotechnics (as fun as they first were). At the same time, I was also pursuing a very serious mindfulness practice inspired by business titans like Ray Dalio and elite athletes like Kobe Bryant that saw meditation as a crucial tool for unlocking their peak performance. I ultimately had the blast of insight that I needed to create a space and experience that paired meditation with performance, rather than the spiritual or wellness contexts you typically associate with the practice. So I put together a comprehensive business plan, secured funding for it, and then it was off to the races!
How do you handle slow periods?
It's rare you'll see a business that's not cyclical with busy periods and slow ones. When it's your first year as an entrepreneur, it's hard to differentiate a seemingly bad week for the business from external market factors. When you’re an entrepreneur, you've just got to ride the roller coaster and try to cultivate "equanimity" – not getting too excited by particularly good periods, but also realizing it's not an imminent failure when you're in a slow one. Take the opportunity when it's not busy to dive deep on a project you've been putting off for a while, and plant the seeds for new opportunities for business growth.
What does a healthy lifestyle look like to you?
Balance. I feel anything taken to the extremes is not sustainable, whether that's a restrictive diet you can't keep up in the long-term, or working out like a maniac and having to face eventual burnout or injury.
What would you say is your management style?
I've always believed in giving people lanes to run in, rather than to-do lists with tasks to complete. For people to feel intrinsic motivation beyond just a paycheque, they need to have ownership over a certain area and be their own mini-entrepreneur inside it. That said, I have high standards and if you can't perform with autonomy and need constant direction from me after initial training, my team (or any startup really) is not a good cultural fit for you.
What Is your outfit of choice?
The music industry has one lasting imprint on me: I dress mostly in black basics, which is the standard industry uniform. A black Kit & Ace tee, good quality Japanese denim, and a fun pair of fancy socks underneath that allow me to still showcase a bit of personality in an understated manner.
“When you’re an entrepreneur, you've just got to ride the roller coaster and try to cultivate ‘equanimity’ – not getting too excited by particularly good periods, but also realizing it's not an imminent failure when you're in a slow one.”
What steps did you take to become an expert in your field?
Mindfulness teaches us that we always need to cultivate that "beginner's mind" towards everything, and that there's always more learning to be had. All of the most experienced and transformative teachers I've learned from would never label themselves as an "expert," so you should always be very wary of the credentials of a meditation teacher that says otherwise. That said, I pursued a serious personal mindfulness practice of over an hour of self-guided practice every morning, which is the #1 step anyone serious about the industry would need to take. I immersed myself in every book, academic study, and article I could find on the science of how it all worked. I'm a very Type-A personality, and wanted to understand the exact neurological and psychological changes that take place in the brain with a consistent practice. I then furthered my knowledge taking two certificates at the University of Toronto in applied mindfulness meditation, which was a fantastic experience learning from some of the world's most experienced mindfulness practitioners in the clinical and corporate spaces.
What advice would you give to somebody to encourage a healthier body image?
Embrace a healthy lifestyle of balance, eating well, working out a few times a week, and understand that changes happen slowly with concerted effort. There is no quick fix for anything worthwhile. Once we understand that what we already have is enough, we can still push ourselves out of our comfort zone to grow.