Do you feel like you have a hundred things you need to get done today? If you’re a business leader, the answer is yes. You have to make decisions, fix problems, manage money. Rob Dube, author of donothing, has found that he’s become a much more effective leader by learning to do nothing.

His company has seen the results. Rob is the president and cofounder of image one which was ranked on the 2017 list of Forbes Small Giants, America’s best small companies.

In today’s episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Rob’s instinct for entrepreneurship took him from lollipops to ink cartridges to authorship
  • How one can go from refusing meditation, to trying it, to embracing silent retreats
  • The key to enjoying a perfectly imperfect meditation routine

Rob Dube: With a pretty active imagination and being independent, I often had to figure things out on my own. As I got older, I think it was around 14 years old, I moved in with my father. He was in sales, traveled a good deal so my independence was even greater, through my high school years.

During that time, my best friend Joe Pearlman and I decided to start a business. We started selling these Blow-pop lollipops out of our locker.

“We would buy them for a nickel from Joel’s uncle who owned a drug store. Then we’d sell them for a quarter out of our locker.”

Kids at our high school were literally lined up and down the hallway.

Picture that, because this is exactly what it was to buy these Blow-pops. We would skip lunch, go right to our lockers, and be selling these things throughout our lunch period.

By the end of the lunch period, we would have baggies full of quarters. We didn’t want to leave them in our locker because it seemed like it was a zillion dollars at the time, so we’d be walking around school with these baggies of quarters bulging out of our pockets.

Charlie Hoehn: Were you making like 10, 20 bucks a day?

Rob Dube: Probably, I would love to know the actual amount actually. It’s really funny.

Upon reflection, an entrepreneurial bug had bit us, so we had all sorts of different businesses through high school and college. Around the time we were getting ready to graduate college, Joel was reading an entrepreneurial magazine, and in the back of it, there was a small classified ad.

That ad was for budding entrepreneurs to learn how to take these toner cartridges, which were new at the time and went into these new machines called laser printers, about 26, 27 years ago. It was a very new product, and you would learn how to recycle them or remanufacture them.

We went to Austin, Texas, with a loan from each of our parents, and we got trained on how to remanufacture these toner cartridges. Then we came back and started this business out of our basement and grew it into a small office.

“When our parents kicked us out, we really got going.”

The challenge that we had early on was Joel and I are not very handy. When we would remanufacture these cartridges, 50% of the time, they would not work. We would get customers, who would be excited that they were saving money, and I’m sure they were equally excited that they were supporting these two young kids out of college. But unfortunately, the products weren’t working.

We had to learn very early on that we had to take amazing care of our customers.

Right from the get go, we knew we had to provide an extraordinary experience for them, and that’s just what we did. Somehow, some way, we were able to retain a good number of these customers and continue to grow the business.

An Instinct for Business

Charlie Hoehn: How did you provide that phenomenal customer experience?

Rob Dube: It had a lot to do with how we made our customers feel. When you look up the word service, it’s really tactically speaking. It’s what you’re delivering and what the customer expects.

In our case, they expected a toner cartridge that worked, and we weren’t providing that service very well. But we were very hospitable, and that’s what we call the X in ‘extraordinary.’

It’s how we made them feel. Just by our nature, it’s inherent in us. We were empathetic, we listened deeply, and we urgently wanted to take care of their problem. We would do whatever it took.

So we used to do things like go to the large office suppliers like Staples and buy a brand new toner cartridge and replace it with the remanufactured toner cartridge that we had sold them. That would come at a financial loss to us, but it was worth it in our minds because we just wanted them to be happy. Somehow—again, inherently—we knew. I wish I could say that that was a strategy. It wasn’t. It was just the way we were wired.

“We knew that they would stick with us if we did the right thing.”

They would tell other companies, and those companies would do business with us, and our company would grow from that.

As our industry evolved and as printers turned into multi-function printers, we became a company that was not a remanufacturer of toner cartridges. In fact, we don’t do that anymore and we haven’t for a good number of years.

Now, we actually sell, service, and supply multi-function printers and copiers. We have contracts that usually are three to five years in length with our customers to manage all those print devices that they have at their businesses or organizations, and then we also supply them with software solutions that help them to print smarter to save them money and be more efficient. We make sure their print devices are secure and help them with their document workflow, electronically.

We’ve evolved quite a bit in the 26 years that we’ve been in business.

Anxiety Within Success

Charlie Hoehn: What was the journey to where you are right now like?

Rob Dube: In 2004, we were approached by a public company. We happened to have won an account where the two of us were sort of duking it out, and we were the ones that came away with the account. They were a bit baffled that this little company out of Detroit Michigan won the contract over them.

To their credit, they contacted us to see what exactly we were doing and what we were up to. It started a dialogue. One thing led to another, and we ended up selling the company to them.

First of all, we were very interested in growing the company. They had 500 sales people located around the country, and it wasn’t hard to figure out that if those 500 sales people just did a little bit of business selling our services, our company would grow tremendously.

The second reason we did it was they were going to allow us to run the company separate from theirs, so that was what was called a wholly-owned subsidiary. Nobody in our company would lose their jobs. It was very exciting, and it was a great vision.

Very shortly after, we started to realize that vision without execution is hallucination. I think we were all hallucinating, because we were not executing on our vision. The sales people were not being trained, they weren’t being held accountable to selling our products, and that vision just wasn’t taking place.

“My anxiety, which had started when I was a child and stuck with me as I grew up and was running the business, was at an all-time high.”

I had been looking for ways that I could help subside that anxiety over the years. I had been to therapy, which was helpful. But my anxiety was still around. I’d read about meditation but I never tried it, and I never did anything with it.

Charlie Hoehn: How was your anxiety manifesting?

Rob Dube: I think the best way to put it is I wasn’t my true self. Often, I would be in another place even though I was with people like my team members, my family members.

Sometimes I would be a little bit short with people, and so that was another component to it. Just sometimes my mind just felt very full, which made it hard for me to be my best self.

I have a very busy mind by nature, and when it is on overload, I just don’t operate at my best. And that manifests other things in our lives as well. I wouldn’t sleep well, my stomach would bother me, things of that nature.

I could just tell things were not right. Being in therapy brought it out as well.

From Hesitance to Silent Retreats

Charlie Hoehn: You tried therapy, what else did you try?

Rob Dube: When I say I tried it, I’m a big believer. That was a very helpful part of my journey. I would not discount that, and I’m not suggesting you were saying that. But that was really it.

I have run, and I felt like that was a bit of a helpful getaway for me. Again, it wasn’t really subsiding it too much, but it was a helpful release of energy for me.

When I had read about the meditation, it did prompt a curiosity for me. I happened to be on vacation in the summer of 2005 with my family, it was a beautiful day. They were all out enjoying the day as they should have been.

I was inside the home in Northern Michigan, working and dealing with some frustrating situations, and I was literally on the verge of tears. I got off the phone and took a breath and thought, “I don’t know what to do right now.”

And this meditation idea sort of popped in my head.

I looked over at this chair, and I said, “Rob, go sit in that chair and just breathe in and breathe out like you read about, and just do it for five minutes.”

I set a timer for five minutes, and at the end of the five minutes, I actually felt better.

And I’m not saying the world changed, because it didn’t. My problems didn’t go away.

“I still had the same frustrations, but I felt calmer.”

I’m a fact finder by nature, so I started to look more into what meditation was all about and to understand it better. Trying some different techniques, understanding the science behind it—that was important for me.

So I started to take on a daily practice with a little bit at a time each day and sort of worked my way up. It wasn’t a day and it wasn’t a week—I can’t really pinpoint the exact amount of time, but I noticed that I really started to feel a bit calmer.

I wasn’t as reactionary in my life. I had greater patience and a better presence and awareness with my family and my kids, and then I really started to notice at my business. It felt like I was a better listener. People would say, “I really appreciate how well you were listening during that conversation.”

Things of that nature started to bring out in my own mind that meditation is really making a difference. Again, being that fact finder and so curious, I started to learn more about different components of meditation. I learned about silent retreats, and I went on a day long silent retreat out in California just to see if I could do it.

I had no problem that day. In fact, I thought it was an amazing day.

Charlie Hoehn: A lot of people here have meditation retreats and they assume they’re like ten days long. Are you someone who can just go for one day, once you get comfortable with it?

Rob Dube: I’m glad I started that way, because I was nervous. But then I felt like I could do it for a longer period of time, and the next year, I went on a seven day silent retreat and I found that to be very impactful.

I started going every six months and ultimately got to know one of the teachers at the retreat that I had been attending in Colorado, called the Shambala Mountain Center. They were teaching base stuff of mindfulness-based stress reduction, which was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn out of the University of Massachusetts.

Jon is a scientist and used meditation as a way to help people reduce stress. He found it to be very successful. He’s done a number of studies and has a program that has gotten to be pretty well known at this point.

I struck up a conversation with the teacher, and he had mentioned that he goes on these solo silent retreats, and I was curious about that.

Now, I do a combination of silent retreat with the group, and then I’ll do one each year by myself for seven to ten days in length.

Meditation in Daily Practice

Rob Dube: I haven’t had revelations per se, although many people do. But many people also just start to gain a better ability to sit on a daily basis and meditate. The other thing that it helps me with is really honing in on being in the present moment right here, right now.

Example: I’m with a team member and they’re telling me about a challenge they have. Old Rob might have been thinking about how to help them fix it. As they’re telling me the story, I’m already thinking about solutions.

“Instead, now I’m just listening. I’m not coming up with any solutions.”

My mind is able to stay completely focused on everything that they’re telling me.

Then, at the end, we can start thinking about solutions together, and usually—this is the amazing thing from a leadership standpoint—they have the answer. They just needed to talk it through.

Charlie Hoehn: It’s challenging if you have that constant chatter in your mind and you’ve grown accustomed to having people come to you and you assume they’re looking for your solution rather than their own. What are your thoughts on this?

Rob Dube: That’s so true. A few years back, I was sharing some of these insights that I’m sharing with you to the executive director of an organization called The Small Giant Community. She was very curious about it and asked me some questions.

She later called me and said, “We’re having a conference coming up in a few months. Would you be willing to share what you shared with me on stage?”

“I said, ‘No, I’m not qualified to do that but thanks for the offer.'”

She kept nudging me, and so I took that as a personal challenge and I said “Okay, I’ll go up there and I’ll just tell my story and you know what? If one person finds it to be valuable then it was worth it.”

To my surprise, after I did my talk, which was about twenty minutes. I had many people coming up to me with everything from just basic curiosity to sharing stories of hardships in their lives and wanting to know more about how this might help them to even their own leadership challenges.

This went on throughout the rest of the conference, and it went on for a full year after the conference, where people were emailing me, calling me, asking me questions, asking me for maybe even advice or asking if I could point them in a certain directions.

I was blown away by the response.

One of my favorite responses was there was a gentleman who emailed me at three in the morning, and he said in his email:

“I wanted to let you know, I couldn’t sleep tonight so I decided to get up and meditate. Before I go back to bed, I wanted to let you know my mind is a lot calmer now. You really made an impact on me.”

I spoke again at the next year’s conference, and again, the reaction was very similar. A few months later, I was on my silent retreat and I got this idea that this could be a very impactful thing for leaders, for entrepreneurs, business owners.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I could share this—maybe I could write a book.'”

And then I thought, “No, I can’t do that, I had never written a book, I’ve never even thought about that.”

When I came out of the retreat, I was speaking with somebody about meditation who is similar situation. They said, “You know, you ought to write a book about that.”

I spent this year writing a book which I called Do Nothing – The Most Rewarding Leadership Challenge You Will Ever Take, and in it I answer many of the questions that people have asked me.

Benefits for Leaders

Charlie Hoehn: What do you think are the most profound benefits for leaders and entrepreneurs of all the ones that you’ve read about that are backed by science?

Rob Dube: It starts with awareness and presence. You’re honing in on that practice. It’s much like working out.

I’ll use running because I’m a runner and that’s easy for me to talk about and hopefully people can relate to it. So you don’t run, and you decide you’re going to try running. You start out and run maybe half a mile or a mile, and it’s pretty hard. You have to do that for a period of time.

And then you work your way up to three or four miles. You might even go run a 5K, like three miles, and then the next thing you know, you could run five or ten miles or maybe even a marathon.

Meditation is very similar. You start off slowly and you start to hone in on the practice, really focusing, in my case, on my breath. Some people use mantras, but I used a breath-based meditation.

How this translates into our life is that moment between stimulus and response. It’s a millisecond, and we don’t have a lot of time to think about it.

“Through our meditation practice, we are actively honing in on that millisecond.”

So when I am dealing with a challenging situation, that millisecond is the difference in how I react between stimulus and response, and how I react makes all the difference.

In terms of leadership, it’s the ability to listen deeply and understand emotionally where people are coming from before they speak. The words that we choose and the things that we say affect our team members’ lives deeply.

It could be an innocent comment said in an edgy way where that team member goes home and shares with their family how frustrated they are at work, where I can walk away as a leader not even thinking about what I said.

Meditation practice can really help us with that. I know it’s helped me, I know it’s helped the leaders that I profile in the book.

Charlie Hoehn: What do you say to somebody who is a leader or an entrepreneur thinking, “I am a million miles a minute. I don’t have time to sit and do nothing.”

Rob Dube: In order to speed up, sometimes we need to slow down. My experience and those that I profile’s experience is that we are actually more productive. We are getting more done and we’re doing it better because our minds are clear.

You know, one of the things that a daily practice does, and especially with the longer retreats, is really helping us to hone in on that moment where we can slow down and ultimately focus. So when we are working on something, we are extremely focused, doing it at a really high level, and doing it better.

What I see in many of the practitioners, many of the leaders, and myself is that we’re actually becoming more successful in many ways because of our practice.

It also translates, by the way, into our personal lives. I really feel that I am a better father, I’m a better husband, a better friend, a better family member, and I feel better.

I am a better person to the people within my community and the people that I interact with day in and day out.

How Busy People Do Nothing

Charlie Hoehn: What do you say to somebody who knows the importance of meditation but doesn’t necessarily feel the urgency?

Rob Dube: Well, they might not be ready for it. That’s the simple answer. They might not be. They know it’s there, and when they’re ready, they’ll sit down and try it.

Charlie Hoehn: You’ve done so much intensive meditation. In what surprising ways has it shaped you and transformed you and your life?

Rob Dube: Well that’s a great question. The first thing that came to my mind is just being in the moment and really enjoying the moment.

That doesn’t always mean that wonderful things are happening, because I have challenges in my life, and that will go on forever.

“It’s how I can frame what’s going on in that moment.”

Not being concerned about the past and not worrying about the future, because there is nothing I can do about the past.

I can learn from the past and be wiser, which I do, but there is nothing I can do to control the future. All I have is this moment, and it’s a precious moment.

Charlie Hoehn: Would you agree that’s the benefit of meditation? It’s a practice, and so that it carries on in normal life when you’re no longer sitting still with your eyes closed. That’s what they call mindfulness—effectively living, breathing, moving meditation.

Rob Dube: Right, exactly, and that’s why they call meditation a practice, because we are practicing. So some of the misconceptions I think that people have is that when they meditate they should stop thinking.

“Be with the frustration. Allow it to be with you, don’t push it away.”

Just be with it. There’s something very impactful about that in our minds.

Let’s just say you were sat down and meditating for five minutes. You might be thinking non-stop very fast for four minutes and 57 seconds. It’s very possible, and that isn’t uncommon.

We live extremely busy lives. There is so much coming at us very fast. So this is a time to let those thoughts fly. In my case, I learned to go back to focusing on my breath until I lose that focus and start thinking again, until I notice I am thinking and then I go back to my breath.

You start to notice what’s going on and then you take pause. It’s that split second.

Trying to Make it Perfect

Charlie Hoehn: How did your meditation practice evolve?

Rob Dube: I think it’s important not to take it too seriously. Some do that and get caught up in the fact that they don’t feel like they are doing it properly.

I searched out a meditation teacher in my area. She said, “Well have you ever meditated before?”

“I said, ‘Yes, I think. I don’t think I am doing it right.'”

She said, “Well why don’t you tell me what you have been doing?”

So I explained it to her. She said, “It sounds like you are doing it right to me,” and I said, “Well can you show me?”

So she grabbed a couple of chairs and we sat across from each other for about five or ten minutes. She guided me at the beginning, and then we were silent, and then she guided it at the end.

We opened our eyes and kind of sat there for a moment.

I said, “So how did I do? Is there anything that you should be explaining to me about things I should have been doing?” She said, “No it was fine.”

“I would like to make another appointment to come back and see you to do this again.”

She said, “If you feel like you need to come back, feel free.” So I came back and we did the same exact thing.

“And it hit me that I was completely overanalyzing everything about this.”

Now, one thing I have learned over the years is your posture is important. So I don’t try to be perfect with it, but I just try to remember how to sit properly.

There’s a seven step way outlined in the book. It’s almost like a checklist.

Charlie Hoehn: Now why is that so important? Is it to maximize the breathing and to be fully present with your body or what?

Rob Dube: I know there are many different ways, so it’s different for everybody, but the way I learned was you want to be in a state of not too relaxed but not too stimulated.

So you try to find a good balance. You want to have a good way of sitting so you can sit for a while. One of the challenges that some people have is just physically sitting. Some people do it in a chair. Some people do it on a mat, there are benches that you can purchase.

In the way that I learned, you take your back off of the chair and sit upright—not too rigid, not too soft. So just find a good balance that enables you to sit for a period of time without getting too antsy or too uncomfortable.

People are always taking lessons to hone in on their proper technique with their swing, but yet everybody has an individual way where they go about it at the same time.

But you definitely should understand at least the proper way to sit without getting too antsy or uncomfortable.

Embracing Meditation

Charlie Hoehn: Do you meditate with members of your family?

Rob Dube: No, I don’t. They know I meditate, and my wife meditates using an app. She likes the Meditation Studio App, which is a really good. But we don’t do it together.

My kids know that I meditate, and I always like to tell the story of when I first started back in 2005. I didn’t share with my family that I was going to start doing this. I had decided I was going to do it every day and try it out.

So I had this little office in my home, and sometimes I work from home like many people. They would pretty much know if the door was shut not to bother me, though it didn’t stop them necessarily, all the time.

They were pretty good about it, so I decided to close my door and turn the lights off and start meditating. But my mind was going crazy. I’d hear the kids, I’d hear my wife.

“Are they going to walk in? Are they going to knock on the door? What am I supposed to do? It’s dark in here, I am sitting on the floor.”

You know I had this whole thing playing in my head, and it was causing me all this anxiety until I realized, “Why don’t I just tell them what I’m doing so they know and then they won’t bother me unless it’s an emergency?”

So I just went to my family and I said, “I am going to try this out and see how this works for me. If you see the door closed and it appears that the lights are off, it’s likely that I am meditating. So just don’t knock or don’t barge in…It’s not the worst thing in the world, I just want you to know you might see me sitting me on the floor with the lights out. Don’t be alarmed by that.”

They thought it was funny, and they have been really great supporters of me over the years. Maybe one day it will be useful to them, and maybe it won’t.

Rob Dube’s Challenge to Readers

Charlie Hoehn: Can you give our listeners a challenge?

Rob Dube: Take it as a new year’s challenge if you want to, is try it for 21 days straight. There’s a good number of apps out there. Meditation Studio App, Headspace, Calm, are a few that come to mind. Insight Timer is another one. Some of them will even present their own little game and challenge for you.

Just try it for 21 days.

Many people are aware that that’s the approximate amount of time it takes to develop a habit. Initially, it will be challenging. But stick with it. After that period of time if you’re not finding it useful, certainly you’ll make your own decisions in terms of what’s best for you to go forward.

But give it that full effort and see if you start to notice a little difference. The caveat is you will likely not notice a huge shift.

Some people do, but if you go in with that expectation, it’s going to be tough to fulfill it. You will notice is little shifts, and that’s the magic. The little shifts over time.

There’s a great book called Ten Percent Happier that Dan Harris wrote. Very similar—it is just a little bit at a time.

“Stick with it, and over a number of years you will start to notice it’s serving you very well.”

Charlie Hoehn: How can our listeners stay connected with you and follow your journey or maybe send you an email thanking you for the episode?

Rob Dube: Well they can go to donothingbook.com and you’ll find a way to contact me there. You’ll find information obviously about the book, you will see some videos of some talks I have done at TED Talk.

You will also find some information about a leadership silent retreat that I organized, which is taking place April 23rd to the 26th. It’s a four day retreat for leaders, entrepreneurs, business owners that really want to either hone in on their practice a little bit deeper, or if they’re just getting started, really engulf themselves into the technique and what having a meditation practice can look like.

The silence piece of it is about a day and a half, and the other parts to it will be some leadership exercises as well as some instruction on how to get off on the right foot.