Metaprogram your own mind: A conversation with Cameron Yarbrough of

Is it possible to reprogram your own mind? Yes, it is. Coaching, therapy, meditation, and group work are the keys to unlocking incredible potential. Trauma is a surprising common trait for many founders, and those who can overcome their past can truly build the future. Cameron Yarbrough was my coach for years before starting, the best way to get exec coaching. We discuss the problems we've faced over the years, and how you're not alone. There is absolutely a way forward.  

I wish I worked on these things 10 years before I did— doing deep work will change your life if you let it. 

If you take care of your mental health and have a great executive coach, what you get to do is meta programming your own mind. And if you do that, you'll greatly increase the chances of your success.

00:59 Many founders have difficult childhoods that set them on the path to founderhood 
02:19 How difficult pasts can uniquely prepare founders for startup life 
03:26 Cameron was Garry's coach through many difficult periods in his business life 
03:53 Critical moments in your business career are driven by your own mental health 
04:49 Cameron could coach Garry because he had to overcome many of the same challenges 
07:10 Cameron's childhood impact on his early founder experiences 
07:59 Cameron's past leadership challenges drove him to seek therapy, meditation, and coaching 
08:47 It's extremely valuable for repeat founders to do deep internal work before diving back in 
10:05 The horse and rider allegory: Deep work lets the rider can better steer the horse 
10:37 You can work on mental health right now. 
11:46 Executives who get their own mental health right will radiate this health to the whole org. 
12:47 Bibliotherapy 
13:37 Proper deep work is metaprogramming 
14:41 How to get behavior change 
15:25 Regular coaching and therapy enables breakthroughs 
16:45 On finding the right coach or therapist 
17:41 Even coaches have coaches
18:30 Radical candor enables winning leadership style 
20:12 What is the optimal organization? 
21:04 Your own experience is not universal 
22:02 Leadership and mental health in the time of COVID-19 
24:17 Wartime leadership requires more empathy, not less 
25:01 Cameron’s toughest COVID-19 crisis decision 
26:54 Why coaches are important even if you have lots of friends 
28:13 How to get help in group sessions 
29:46 You are not alone

Founder origins often start with a traumatic past

Garry: Cameron, thank you so much for hanging out today, man. It's always a pleasure to spend time with you.

Cameron: Thanks, Garry. I'm super, I've been looking forward to this moment and I'm really glad to be here.

Garry: You know, we've both spent a lot of time sort of working on ourselves and we've spent a lot of time with founders, one of the things we've talked about in the past is how common really, trauma is as a common origin for so many startup founders. It's not the only prime driver but it's a very big one and I think a lot of people prefer not to talk about it. Some of them who haven't actually ever dealt with anything very difficult in their lives, we would see it at YC every so often and it would actually result in sort of instant failure. It's almost like their limbic system's sort of overwhelmed because they'd never dealt with such big loss or such big failure in their lives previously and then on the flip side, some of the most successful founders both of us have worked with have actually seen a lot, have been through a lot. So, a lot of strength can kind of come out of that.

Cameron: I started first noticing this pattern with founders back when I was a therapist. People who were running startups and coming into my practice, were people who often came from family systems that were very, very tumultuous. It's not uncommon for founders to come from alcoholic family systems, systems where they had had a parent die, family systems in which there was physical and verbal abuse. Very often, I would see that founders had come from these very rocky paths and what was interesting to me was how much they were uniquely positioned to succeed in a startup environment because in some ways, startups become this proxy environment that we can recreate that traumatic kind of family experience, which is very alluring. 

But also I noticed that it became a proxy environment for people from trauma to heal their past. It was both repetition compulsion, but also this opportunity to heal something and bring something to fruition that they hadn't been able to do before.

Garry: They try to find situations that allow them to gain more control and sort of overcome those experiences to sort of become stronger.

Cameron: It's really common for say, a child that was physically abused, to grow up and then choose a spouse that's physically abusive. That happens because of repetition compulsion. So very similarly, founders who went through very tumultuous organizational systems in their families unconsciously seek out environments that are very intense and severe.

Cameron's journey from founder to coach

Garry: For the audience, Cameron actually at one point was my coach, also and he helped me really fundamentally better understand a lot of the things that were going on at work were actually coming from my interpersonal dynamic sort of set up from my family system, like how I would actually react to conflict and really be averse to conflict. I, as an adult, really thought I had put all of those things behind me and yet now I can really see how really critical moments in my career, I didn't do the right thing. It actually cost me dearly, in a lot of ways to be not actually as aware as I needed to be at that moment. This is addressable, right?

Cameron: Yeah

Garry: Like, if you are aware, if you're conscious, if you're mindful and you have help like someone like Cameron, I found that that's really changed my life in just a very fundamental way and if anything, I wish I figured that out when I was 22 not when I was 28, 29, 30. There would have been an entire decade of additional creation that I could have had, if I figured it out earlier. So if you're that young, you can actually do this and skip all of the things that I had to learn the hard way.

Cameron: What I wasn't sharing with you at the time that I was working with you partly because in the coach client relationship, it's not necessarily appropriate to open up too much about my own personal history but part of the reason that I was able to work with you is because I've been through a lot of that similar stuff myself. 

I grew up with a father that was an alcoholic. He was a very successful businessman. He was an alcoholic and he was violent. 

I'll never forget one particular story in which I was out playing, I was actually out jogging. I was about 13 and I was out jogging in our neighborhood and a very big aggressive dog, it was a Doberman Pinscher ran out of this house and started chasing me and it was super scary. I was able to get away from the dog. I ran home and I told my dad, he had been drinking at the time. He reached into his drawer, he grabbed a gun out of his drawer that he kept loaded and he threw me in his car and we drove to that person's house and he had me point it out and he banged on that door and accosted that dog owner with a gun and that was one of my most vivid memories as a child, that's who my father was and that was the environment that I lived in. 

I grew up in an environment where there were problems, they got very, very severe, really fast and we're over the top. So in some ways, I too, was wired to become a founder. He was a very successful business person. So I grew up watching him make business deals my whole life. And so I once feared him, was terrified by him but always wanted him to love me and so becoming a business person was partly I did it originally because I wanted to get his love right?

I became a business person straight out of undergrad. I've actually after post-undergrad, I've never had a job, I've only run businesses and being an entrepreneur was driven by this relationship with my father but also, all my trauma was driven by my father and ultimately, my becoming a therapist was driven by him which has brought those things together, the world of psychology and the world of business.

Doing deep work: How to overcome trauma

Garry: I mean... I'm really thankful for that. When did you start your own deep work? I think my experience is that there's always something to be working on.

Cameron: So I think that what really brought it all to a head for me was my first relationship with my first co-founder. So we were running a successful e-commerce company during the first wave of the .com boom and although we had a small but successful exit in 2005, my relationship with my co-founder was fraught with conflict and I was a big reason for that conflict. 

I had a lot of anger, I had a lot of aggression and it was all very un-metabolized because of all stemming from my family of origin, it was all very un-metabolized for me and I was kind of out of control with it. I wasn't being the model leader that I thought I could be. 

So when we sold the company, I decided to dive into therapy, my own. I had already been in therapy but I like really double down and then I started getting very focused and doubling down on my meditation practice. I started going on a series of these week long, two week long month long meditation retreats. I did several long deep therapy workshops but then I had my own weekly therapy and I really think that that was the moment, post 2005, post small acquisition experience that gave me the opportunity and the finances to be able to just completely focus on my psychology.

Garry: So you could sort of go back and unpack things that had happened during the course of the last business relationships, in relationships with executives, with, people you worked with, partners, your automatic responses to things had a deep effect.

Cameron: It was super important to go have the opportunity to not have to have a job and just focus on my own psychology and connect all those dots from my childhood to my adult relationships to my relationships with girlfriends and just really try to make sense and cultivate insight such that I could chart a new course for myself because it was very much needed at the time, like I was really broken and I would not have been able to be the father I wanted to be and I wouldn't have been able to be the leader and co-founder that I wanted to be the person, I think I am today, I would not have been able to do that had I not taken that opportunity.

Garry: Yeah, I hear that, I feel everything you just said that feels like that's like played out in my life in the same way, though a lot of the people who are going to be listening to this, they won't have had an exit yet and in fact, they will be us when we're sort of in the middle of our startups the first time we did it. The allegory I like to think of is everyone thinks of themselves as this sort of unified consciousness but the more useful way to think about it is that there's a horse and a rider almost, that time where you pause and you can meditate and do these retreats and sort of invest in yourself, that's like a very, almost the perfect way to be very clear about who is the horse and who is the rider, it's really about understanding the horse better so that both of you can work towards the same goal. 

You don't have to wait for perfect conditions. You can work on your mental health right now. 

Given that a lot of people don't have that time to take time out, what would you recommend? What can they do?

Cameron: I think it's a really good question. It was a major privilege for me to have that opportunity to just completely focus on my psychology and I think that a lot of founders, especially early stage don't have that luxury, there's probably about 80% of what I did that they could still do now, which is get weekly therapy and go, start meditating and go on regular meditation retreats, also get a coach, so oftentimes, the company will pay for a coach and especially if you're in the Initialized portfolio, they'll always support that sort of thing and then going on meditation retreats. Say you take a week, every six months to go and sit for seven days, the return on that investment, think of how good it's going to be for you, for your co-founder and for the business and your investors are going to love it because you're going to be a better leader if you do those things.

Garry: It's paid crazy dividends to me many times over at this point. So I really recommend people to do inner work because the inner work allows you to actually radiate that outwards into your organization. And it's real. 

The reason why you can really see it in organizations is that it's the same reason why people look at the CEO, or the founders of a company and the culture of that company, how they make decisions, how they work together, it's actually the outgrowth of the personality of the founding team. It's exactly that right? 

If you can find ways to upgrade the founders real time, if you can find, without swapping in different people like literally taking the people who are there and helping them be more aware of themselves and aware of each other, if they can make better decisions like oh my God, how powerful is that? That'll radiate out into the org and people will actually be more effective by 10x.

Cameron: Yes, because positivity and mental health is positively infectious, it will affect other people and it affects business outcomes. So one other thing that we're going to get back to is what we used to call in the clinical world, bibliotherapy and this is something you've done a lot of Garry is you've done a ton of research.

Think of all the research and reading that you've done on your own mental health from all the way down to the brass tacks of how your brain functions around your neurobiology, the way the right brain and the left brain work in relationships, the impact of trauma on the brain, all of this is actually really important to do all at the same time, the therapy, the coaching and the research. Because really diving into the source code of how your mind works, will really help you make sense of the changes that you and the behaviors that you need to address.

How does a mind reprogram itself for better outcomes?

Garry: It's interesting that you say source code because I actually think about this as meta programming, so how does a mind reprogram itself to have better outcomes? Like I want to have better relationships with my co workers and I want to be more effective at work but not only that, I want to be a better dad, I want to be a better husband. 

There are definitely moments now where I can sit there and watch, I mean, it's almost like the horse— You have some sort of strong emotion set, you're stressed out and you snap at someone, right? And those are sort of the moments of the horse needed something here, it needed to be fed in some way, or it needed to express itself in some way and then that's like sort of the rider, the rider part is, oh, I need to be conscious of this, I need to actually know that this is happening. 

So that then I can very explicitly make space for that next time that happens, I'll notice the signs that like lead me to that and then I can take another path. I think that people are actually really capable of changing themselves through the application of these things.

Cameron: In the neurological world, they have a saying: Neurons that fire together wire together. So when you're changing behaviors, first of all, it's hard to change behavior because you actually have to physically change your neurobiology and neurons that fire together sequentially in a pattern and often on a regular cadence gets stronger and stronger and stronger so it's physically hard to change behaviors because there's all this bandwidth dedicated to those old behaviors. 

So what you've done Garry is you've done a great job of understanding that source code and then physically doing the hard work and it actually is like schlepping to change your behavior because you're moving against a physical system.

Coaching and therapy is basically like going to the gym, but for your mind

Garry: Having another person actually allows that to happen. I think meditation is a very fundamental piece of it for sure but I feel like I have not been able to get the sort of break-throughs I get sitting with someone else. I've had crazy breakthroughs with you, with my therapist, with my Torch coach today that I wouldn't be able to have just on my own, even with unlimited literature and unlimited time to think, my mind would probably wander and I'd probably go someplace else. And there's something very powerful in sitting with someone, going deep into a particular episode, a particular moment. 

Especially around conflict and a lot of this coming from my family of origin. I really, really get pretty conflict averse but I've become a much better manager by being able to spot those strong emotions and then now I have a bunch of different tools that I use to try to catch those moments and sometimes it's, I need to take a moment and I cannot, I shouldn't make a decision in the moment. Sometimes it's I need to ask questions of the other person so I can better understand where they're at. There's like all these little tools. I've gotten so much out of coaching seriously.

Cameron: You know, there's a true and lasting change, behavior change happens primarily in the context of a very trusted and empathic relationship, right? So, the research and the reading is part of it but also, the interpersonal nature of a coaching or therapeutic relationship is the other very essential piece and that's what I think you're speaking to is you've got to have that near in another person to really help you think through these changes and in your case and in my case, I would like to believe is, every time I've made a very big behavioral change that's led to a leadership change and positive business outcomes, it's started with a conversation with my coach or my therapist.

Garry: I mean, to me, it's like going to the gym but instead of for your body, it's for your mind. 

Even Coaches have Coaches: Cameron's Coach is the author of Radical Candor

Garry: So in terms of your coaching, I understand your coach is very eminent, she's the author of Radical Candor, which is an incredible book.

Cameron: You know, I first read Radical Candor by Kim Scott a couple of years ago and then I started using her curriculum in working with executive teams and it was incredibly effective. She's a business person, she's not a psychologist but there's so much psychology in the content that it was really, really accessible for me and then I just started tracking her, following her on Twitter and then went through like three or four different intro attempts to try to get her on the phone with me and then it happened and I've been so thankful for the work that we've done. It's made a huge difference.

Garry: What is Radical Candor? And then, how has that sort of affected what you've been doing as as a leader and CEO?

Cameron: As a leader, the culture that I'm trying to create at Torch, as I call it, high empathy, high accountability. What I mean by that is you have to be a high performer. The expectations are extremely high because we are, after all, a venture backed startup that wants to be a very big company. So, the accountability piece is really essential. 

But the empathy piece is the part that makes us human, that makes us capable of understanding the interpersonal and the inner world of our employees and our co workers. 

If you look at Kim Scott's work, it's actually similar, she has a framework for Radical Candor. 

Kim Scott's x axis is challenging directly and Kim Scott's y axis is caring deeply. In the upper right quad, you have Radical Candor, which is this perfect combination of challenging directly and caring deeply. 

Then in the lower right quad where you have low empathy but high challenge, you have obnoxious aggression, right? Which, leaders who are assholes to paraphrase and then in the upper left, you have high empathy founders who don't challenge directly.

Garry: By default, that's me. By default that's for sure me.

Cameron: Right? So, there's a lot of psychology built into that very simple framework, which made it really perfect for me.

The optimal organization is high love, high structure

Garry: One of the things that I think was one of the big breakthroughs in coaching with you, I very distinctly remember you saying, "Hey, Garry, "what do you think is the most optimal organization? "Is it high love high structure? "Or is it high love low structure?" You didn't even ask about the low love part because yeah, you knew me. I grew up in comparatively a low love high structure environment. In adulthood, I found that I was looking for exactly the opposite of that and what was right for me is actually totally wrong for pretty much everyone else is what you have you helped me realize.

Cameron: You understood your psychology enough to start to adapt. Everyone starts from someplace, right? Like you started from this default of being very high love low structure, but then that's your starting point for making change.

Garry: Yeah. I mean, I actually think that I was so unaware of my own personal differences that I actually and I think a lot of people still do this. A lot of people really assume that whatever your experience is, is actually the common and general experience. And if anything, spending more time in coaching, especially about interpersonal dynamic is having a much deeper appreciation for neuro diversity, like all the different other people out there, it's sort of two things, one is recognizing what is automatic for me, what is innate to me is not innate at all for other people. That's where management falls down a lot. Not having empathy really means believing that everyone else operates and thinks exactly in the same way I do and that's just definitely not true. The next step is, how do you actually make space for it then?

Cameron: And how do you change it.

Garry: How do you make it work for sure, right? Like we want diversity. We want people from all kinds of different backgrounds, all kinds of different experiences 'cause that's actually how you get a much better outcome but it's hard, right? It's really hard, requires a leader who's extra conscious of a lot of these things. 

How founders and executives can handle mental health in the time of COVID-19

Garry: Changing gears a little bit, we're all sort of going through a lot with COVID-19. Your coaches are working with Fortune 1000, working with like sort of every type of organization. What should the listeners really be paying attention to as leaders in their organization.

Cameron: COVID is mostly causing a tremendous amount of suffering for a lot of people. 

What that means to me is, how do I galvanize the team? How do I invest in more in mental health? How do I improve my communications? 

And I think there's a few ways that we've done that really well. 

One is that we adapted very quickly to remote work and adapted our communication cycles and our communication strategies. 

Two is that I have become more, even more transparent as a CEO. I have been really open with my employee base about things like churn, about economic uncertainty around about layoffs, I've been very open and not particularly guarded around that information and the reason why I've done that is that first of all, I believe that the worst thing you can have right now, during the crisis is a team that doesn't trust the leadership. 

Because to me, that's what is going to kill your companies, if the team loses trust in the leadership and the number one way they're going to lose trust is that they believe that you're lying to them, that you're not telling the truth. I've been extra open around the hard stuff, so that people know that they can trust me that way when I do have to have a hard conversation or if I do have to lay people off, I've done so in integrity with them. So I would say that's the maybe the unusual thing that I'm doing, that I feel particularly focused on and proud of.

Wartime CEOs must be even more empathetic

Garry: That's really powerful. I mean, everyone's in it together, the empathetic thing is to actually include people and be super upfront with them. And then the one thing that I think is really interesting and I think we're seeing increasingly is, if you show great gratitude, then the team will show great gratitude to you as well and the team actually gets bound together much more tightly through this sort of thing.

Cameron: There's a lot of talk out there about what it means to be a wartime leader after the book, "The Hard Thing About Hard Things" but what I think that's not talked about, in terms of what it is being a wartime leader is— Yes, you do have to be more decisive, yes, you have to make stronger and quicker decisions but at the same time, you also have to up your empathy game and up your compassionate game and up your transparency game. Those things are not mutually exclusive. 

You can be a more decisive leader, you can be a high accountability leader and be compassionate and empathetic and honest all at the same time. To me, that's the special thing about this whole opportunity is I think it pushes us into being our best selves.

Cameron's hardest decision guided by strong coaching

Garry: Cameron, one of the really difficult decisions that turned out to be great was the acquisition of Everwise, another startup that had built incredible enterprise base and we built Torch thus far to be very focused on startups and now we're sort of in the middle of actually a relatively difficult time for startups.

Cameron: So I think that a lot of founders have that one thing that they did that they're really really glad they did before COVID

And for us, that was this merger with Everwise. I didn't know in Q4 of last year, I didn't know how big of a deal it was going to be for us but it was really tremendous and it was a hard decision because most of the advice I got was not to merge, not to acquire and the reason is because, when startups merge with other startups, it usually kills the startup. But for us, it was absolutely the right thing to do because it allowed us to move out market and enterprise and balance out our customer portfolio with all the startups that we're working with and where we have seen churn this year, we've seen it more on the startup side and we've actually seen stability and even growth on the enterprise side. Had I not done a lot of work on myself, I would have felt too insecure to make that decision when I was getting a lot of advice not to do it.

That's one really important reason why I think founders do need to get therapy and get coaching is because you're not going to be able to make unpopular decisions. You're not going to be able to tolerate people not liking you. You have to be able to tolerate those things to make the decisions that are right for your company.

Garry: Left to the most automatic response, you might not do the right thing and so it requires a lot more consideration. I mean, honestly, that's what I often also use my coaching sessions to do. 

Why coaching and therapy is important even if you have lots of supportive friends

Garry: One thing that some people talk to me about is, "Garry, why do you have a coach and a therapist? "Like, don't you have friends?" The reality is like, yeah, I have friends, I really like my friends. The amount of help that sometimes I need, is it exceeds that of what I would feel comfortable asking my friends to do, right? This is actually, even like the things that my wife is incredibly supportive, really good listener, really helpful and I still rely on her for a lot. 

There's still something to be said for someone who, professionally, they are here to help you make the right decision for you and that's actually a very big deal. Because even if you speak to executives on your team, or your investors or trusted advisors, they're still going to come at it from certainly their own experience and then the coaching experience is much more about asking questions for you to figure it out yourself and that's a very different kind of interaction.

Cameron: Yeah, I mean, I choose my friends for different reasons than I would choose my coach or my therapist.

And they're very different, right? My my friends are my friends, they are not experts on my psychology and I don't actually want them to be.

Torch group therapy, like Stanford T-Groups

Garry: Yeah, that's right. It's a totally different thing. So, there are so many levels to this. One of the things that I've been really excited about, one of your new new initiatives is this idea of group coaching. So being able to take sort of Stanford T-group style interaction and basically allow that to happen remotely facilitated through Torch group sessions. 

You were a T-group facilitator for Stanford previously and I haven't been through it myself but I've heard amazing things.

Cameron: The work that I've done in T-groups and the training that I got it Stanford to facilitate T-groups is some of the most meaningful work that I've ever done and it translates so directly into running an executive team. And it also translates really well into working with coworkers and so we've been trying to think of different ways to iterate on that format and recreate this experience within Torch, what it would look like is an opportunity with an expert facilitator, to get together with peers in a very structured format and talk through leadership challenges in this group context, I'm in a group myself, I get something different from my group than I get for my own personal coaching and for my own therapy. 

If I were to say there were three legs of the stool for me in terms of my own personal development, it would be group work, meditation and coaching/therapy, individual coaching. Those are the three legs of the stool. So at some point, if you haven't already, you're going to have to do group work. It's just, it's advanced work and it's super rich and meaningful.

Garry: Everyone's going through something and then the most powerful thing is to realize that you're not alone.

You're not alone. There are moments where you're facing some sort of crisis or some sort of problem that as a CEO, or as a founder, sometimes you feel like you're like on a desert island, you're on a distant planet completely alone and these things allow you to realize you're not. 

These are things that you can get help with that there are ways out, there things that actually just require a short conversation with someone who cares about you. It's almost like chiropractor, right? It's like a minor adjustment can be so powerful and it can lead you to a much better place.

Cameron: Yeah but instead of one chiropractor you're in a group of eight other chiropractors that can all help you.

Garry: Yeah, that's right, it's powerful man. Cameron, thanks a lot for this. Honestly, I really appreciate you and the things that you've done for me and I'm really, I'm also really appreciative of being an investor in Torch, because I see the work that you've done for our portfolio companies and companies all the way across the ecosystem. I think it's really special. Thank you, man.

Cameron: Thank you so much Garry, it was great to see you.

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