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Startups I was a corporate executive addicted to work. But an unexpected crisis made me realize I was on the wrong path

Jason Tafler is a former executive at Rogers Communications and founder of Unyte Health, a meditation technology company.

As far back as I can remember, I was most passionate about health. But like most people, I pushed my passion aside, and my career took me in a completely different direction: twice an investment banker, building and selling a media company, growing a global marketing technology startup to more than $100-million in revenue, and succeeding in a top-15 executive role at Rogers, a 30,000-employee, $30-billion market-capitalization corporation.

Throughout my journey, I always knew deep down that one day I would dedicate my life to helping people learn how to optimize their health. What I could not predict was that I would have to go through a near-death experience to finally change course.

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Shortly before my 40th birthday, I started feeling really burnt out. The toll of working 80-plus-hour weeks for almost 20 years straight was too much for my body to handle. I had always been known for my “infinite capacity” in the business world. It was my calling card. Looking back now, I was fully addicted to work, achievement and the adrenalin rush of success.

My role at Rogers was incredibly challenging and complex, trying to simultaneously lead the company’s digital transformation and reinvent its end-to-end customer experience. The endless meetings, deadlines, projects, e-mails and to-do lists kept me going round the clock. I routinely ignored physical ailments and kept my stress locked up inside.

And then, almost three years ago, my world was forever changed. During a routine morning meeting, I started turning yellow and bleeding internally. Over the next 36 hours in the ER, I would lose half of my blood volume, get four blood transfusions and come to terms with the reality that I might not make it out of the hospital to see my young son and wife again. I was very fortunate to survive this near-death experience, and after being diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease that was partially stress-induced, I was very thankful to make it out alive.

While in the hospital at the peak of my blood loss, I had what one might call an awakening. At that moment, I knew I had to quit my job and focus on my own health, my family and my true passions. Even though I had practised many tenets of great health for so long – a good diet, regular exercise, supplements and more – I had still managed to push myself to the brink of exhaustion through an intense focus on work and achievement, which led to very high levels of stress, anxiety, anger and resentment.

Fast forward to today. I am healthy, full of energy, more peaceful and have founded a business in the health space that I’m passionate about. And much to my doctor’s surprise, I do not have any signs of disease. I was able to largely transform my health and life by changing my mindset and routine and by creating new habits, some of which I will share with you now.

Have perspective and gratitude: When I wake up every morning and the stress and anxieties begin to enter my mind, I remind myself that I am thankful to be alive and I recall at least three things that I am grateful for in my life. The research shows, and I agree, that this type of gratitude helps positively shift my mindset and energy to start the day.

Meditate and be mindful: Meditating almost every day for the past few years has been a life changer for me. After living for so long with an incredibly busy mind, meditation and mindfulness have allowed me to finally quiet it down, take a breath and gain clarity and focus. Did you know the average human breathes almost 20,000 times a day? Being mindful of even a few of these breaths helps you slow your mind and body down and come back to the present. In fact, I was so blown away by the benefits of meditation that I founded a company called Unyte that teaches people how to reduce stress and calm their nervous systems through real-time biofeedback and interactive digital meditation exercises.

Be aware: I truly believe that one of the reasons I became ill was because I wasn’t aware of my thoughts, feelings or physical sensations. I just ran through life as quickly as possible, ignoring how I felt and rarely stopping even for a single mindful breath. I held all of my emotions inside and blocked them out, turning to work instead of facing myself. I still get angry and anxious sometimes, but I am now infinitely more aware of my thoughts and emotions, and I’m able to analyze the limiting beliefs that give rise to them. I’m also better able to forgive myself and others for the inevitable mistakes we all make on a daily basis.

Simplify and follow your purpose: While I still have a very active schedule, I have simplified my life dramatically. Being aware and mindful has helped me determine who I am, why I’m here and what is truly important to me. This, in turn, makes it much easier to make decisions on where I should or shouldn’t invest my attention and energy on any given day. If 2019 was the last year of your life, what would you do more of, and what would you let go of?

In summary, I’ve learned how important it is to have perspective, be aware and take care of yourself every day. And most importantly, to try to just be yourself and do what brings you joy. The approach I use energizes me and ensures that, more often than not, I’m a more present, productive and calm husband, father and human being.

At Unyte, we’ve also been able to experiment with a more mindful culture, including a strong focus on purpose, a compassionate leadership style and an emphasis on long-term effects vs. short-term financial results. Recent data from impact-focused investors cited at the MaRS Social Finance Forum shows that more conscious leaders run more effective organizations, and I definitely feel like this mindful approach has helped me become a much better business leader than ever before.

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