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Episode 3

Finding Your Zone of Genius with Justin Kan

Everybody has a Zone of Excellence, where they’re really great at something that just saps all their energy. Where they really need to be is in their Zone of Genius where they’re thriving doing something they’re great at and they love doing it.

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Mathilde Collin Hi, everyone. I’m Mathilde Collin and I’m the CEO and co-founder of Front. I started this company because I wanted more people to come to work and be happy. And at the beginning of this year, I started a quest and tried to understand way better what companies can do to make their employees more happy and find more meaning. And so as part of that, I’ve been interviewing people with interesting perspectives on finding meaning and happiness at work. And so I’m very happy to have Justin Kan today. Justin was the CEO and co-founder of Atrium.

He has started a few companies before, one of them being Justin TV that became Twitch was sold to Amazon for, I think, a billion dollars in 2014. And 2014 is also the year I met Justin as he was a partner at Y Combinator. And very few people know, but I don’t think I would have been into YC without Justin, so I don’t think I would be here today without him. Now, as much as I respect what Justin has done as an entrepreneur and as a business person, what I admire most about him is his transparency and candor and vulnerability when he talks about finding happiness in this challenging journey of being an entrepreneur. And that’s what I want to talk about today. So, Justin, thank you so much for being here. 

Justin Kan Thanks for having me. I’m super excited. 

Mathilde Collin Great. So the first thing I want to talk about is this concept of meaningful work. So it seems like more and more people are not looking for just a job or just a career. They want a calling or they want more meaning in their work. And so the first question I have for you is, do you find your job meaningful? 

Justin Kan Yeah, I think I do. I don’t think that was always the case. I think a lot of times I didn’t find my job meaningful, it was just a means to an end. You know, I wanted to have a big company or I wanted to be famous startup founder. So I had to do all these things I didn’t like to do. The concept that really opened up my job and turned it into the best job I’ve ever had was the concept of living in your "zone of genius," a.k.a. the things that you love to do that really give you energy. Most people, founders and really everyone else end up in their "zone of competence," which is the things that they really don’t love to do, but they’re really good at and they think they need to do. And so they create a job they’re really good at, but they’re miserable. And even CEOs up there, where they’re in a spot where, you know, they’re like, I have to do all these things because my company won’t survive without it. I have to do the sales. I have to manage product. Whatever they don’t like to do, but they’re good at. And oftentimes when they get stuck in that position, they feel like they’re trapped. So I’ve definitely lived there in my past. And when I learned this concept of like living in your zone of genius, I went through and explicitly said, what are all my areas of responsibility? And which ones do I love doing? Which ones give me energy and what are the ones that don’t? And for the ones that don’t, maybe I can find somebody who actually it’s in their zone of genius to to do these things and have like true 100 percent responsibility for these things. And that’s what I did. And my work became a lot more meaningful to me after that. 

Mathilde Collin Yes. And how do you think you came to that realization? So why didn’t you do that in your previous jobs and what made it special in this specific opportunity? 

Justin Kan Yeah, so. Well, I spent 15 years not doing that, so I might be in the remedial class. But you know, I really learned it because of an outside coach. So this CEO coach, you know, Matt Mochary and Matt really isn’t a genius concept. As for Matt. So I didn’t make it up. He told me about it and helped me kind of do take the first steps by doing an audit of my calendar. So I went through my past three weeks calendar together with him, and he was like, did what was this meeting? Did it give you energy or did it drain you? And then I just circled every, you know, everything that gave me energy and blew and everything that took away energy and red. And I tried to figure out how to not do any of the red things. Yeah. 

Mathilde Collin What was the percentage of green. I did the same. Go say so I’m curious. 

Justin Kan Yeah. I think it was probably like 50 50. And what is it now? I need to do another audit. I don’t have a recent audit, but I would say that it’s probably like 85 to 90 percent blue now. Yeah. I didn’t have green pens so green. 

Mathilde Collin So one thing that I find interesting is you’re in this position where you’re askew and so you got the opportunity to meet with metamaterials, which is great. And I got the opportunities amazing. And I also think that it’s easier for CEOs and founders to find meaning because they know exactly why they’re working on what they’re working on. They usually care about it because otherwise they wouldn’t work as hard. And so what I’ve been curious about is how can companies and CEOs make sure that that’s also happening for their employees? So do you think that employees at Yttrium find their job meaningful? 

Justin Kan I think some of them do. And yeah, some of them probably don’t. Yes. Yet. Right. Yeah. I think that term start off is pretty normal company from an employee culture and workplace happiness. Let’s say two years were two years old, so two years ago. And I think we have been investing a lot in it in the past year. 

Justin Kan And so it’s gone. You know, we’ve improved a lot, but it’s still a lot to be improved, to be honest. I see my job as kind of the primary facilitator to help everyone in the company live in their zone of genius, because I have this comment right. I was outside coach a lot of outside resources, training, etc. I’ve been very blessed to get those things. But you’re right, it is hard for even executives on a team in a company, let alone, you know, kind of everybody else in the company to get that same kind of training. 

Justin Kan So that’s really what I’m doing for the company. So I actually went and went through all my executives. We went through their Ayoade and we said, what’s in your zone of genius? What’s not yet? And how do you with your team? Because each of these executives is really running their own team and within their organization. How do you, like, transfer the responsibilities? You’re not excited about that. Don’t give you energy to someone else where they might actually jump at the level of responsibility. Yeah. And going through that process now, and I think it’s it’s already been very freeing for those team members. And my goal is really to bring that culture, that mindset all the way down the organization. 

Justin Kan Yeah. And I think that you might think that for someone a very junior, like a IC, you know, individual contributor have just started in the company. They’re like, you know, doing customer support. Yeah. Right. Something where they don’t have a lot of control over how they do their job. Yeah, maybe. I think you could still do that Zone of Genius exercise. And they can really if they’re being honest with themselves, they might. 

Justin Kan Do I like this? I love this job. Do I love the things that I’m doing? Do you have. I’m energy or not. If he answers, they’re not. Now, maybe the job can’t really be adapted 100 percent for them because it’s you know, it’s the job you need maybe like a thousand CSRs or something like that. Right. But maybe it’s not a good fit for them. Right. If they’re being truly honest with themselves, I think that will be made. 

Mathilde Collin People be very free. Right. So so if I understand correctly one thing the ego says that you’ve done in order to find which or isn’t a genius, then you have your. Exactly. Do it. So did they all print their calendar and highlighted in green what gave them energy and read what didn’t give them energy? 

Justin Kan Yes, we did the calendar exercise. The second thing we do is explicitly write out. We do a collaborative like areas of responsibility. Yes, you are. So like are you like a team? We’ll say. 

Justin Kan What’s the areas of responsibility for the CTO? Then everyone in a document will type out what they think. There is a responsibility for the CPR. We’ll aggregate it. And then we would go through I would go through with the CTO and say, Do you like doing this? Yeah. You love doing this. Does it give you energy? Yes. OK. It’s your responsibility. No. Okay. We need to find someone else to do it. Yes. 

Mathilde Collin But all the way down through the list again, what happens when you’re at the bottom of the list? And there’s two things on a calendar that are red. And then there is no one else to do this. Is it okay if no one does it or because there is a business or entity which is the work needs to be done? Yeah. Then everyone should accept some percentage of their job. Not being there isn’t a genius. 

Justin Kan Yeah, I think reality is it’s very hard to live at 100 percent. Yes. Your zone of genius. But I think that it can be a tool to teach you. What do I want to figure out how to not do tomorrow? You know, I might have thought it was a day, but what do I want to figure out how to not do it tomorrow? Yeah, there’s many ways that can happen. 

Justin Kan For example, I felt that I needed to still be in a certain set of review meetings. Right. Even though I didn’t feel like they were in my zone of genius. So I really asked myself, why do I not feel energized by this meeting and figured out there were some structural changes. Yeah, some work that we could shift to the pre meeting part. Yeah. That would make it be much more productive for me. 

Justin Kan Yes. And so that’s a way to like, both do it, but also change it so that it’s like more high energy. And we’re, you know, maybe you’re saying I need to do these sorts of things for my organization. And there’s no one else to do them. But I’m going to try to figure out how to hire someone or shift those responsibilities onto somebody else in the organization of tomorrow. 

Mathilde Collin Makes sense. So now a topic we may disagree on. I don’t know yet is, as I was thinking about, you know, meaning in your work. I’ve found that there is a difference between finding your job meaningful and being happy doing your job. 

Mathilde Collin So an example of this would be, let’s say you are inductor in a war zone like you might find yours are very meaningful, but you might not be as happy as you could possibly be just because you’re stressed. You don’t sleep as much or whatever. So the first question would be, do you think there is a difference between finding your job meaningful and being happy doing your job? Yeah, absolutely. Great. So now some people make the tradeoff of, you know, they give up some happiness for meaning. Do you think that it’s okay sometimes to give up some happiness for meaning? 

Justin Kan Yeah, of course. Do you do that? I think optimizing for your own. This is just one axis. Yes, like something you could do in your life. Yeah. Do I do that? Have I sacrificed my happiness for meaning? Yeah, definitely. I think that, you know, any sort of start up but atrium especially, you know, atrium is taking on the legal industry. It’s a huge industry and it’s a really complex problem. Yeah. And there are a lot of, I think, easier companies to start with, less moving pieces. But, you know, I’m interested in the complexity and interested in making a big dent. And so I think that tackling this problem is meaningful to me. Yeah. And, you know, but it is more complicated, which means there’s more problems. You have things to coordinate, more things that can go wrong. Yeah. Which is a, you know, potentially a short term blow to your happiness. Yes. Although I actually think that if you really or for me, if I’m you know, as I’ve kind of removed my attachment to outcomes, I can live in that situation where there’s a lot of painful things happening or uncertainty or whatever and still be pretty happy. 

Mathilde Collin Do you try to teach that to your employees as well? 

Justin Kan I try to. I think that it’s kind of one of those things where everyone has to come to it on their own. Yeah, I think that a lot of the tools for being happier in whatever situation you’re in and not being attached to us are now come to drive your happiness. You can tell people and I heard other people tell me, but until I was ready, it was like kind of falling on deaf ears. 

Mathilde Collin Yeah. And do you feel like the responsibility of leaders and companies is to provide any meaning and or do you think their responsibility is also to help them as individuals be happy or not? 

Mathilde Collin I think you well, I can only really speak for myself. I feel that I have the responsibility to do both. Yeah. The meaning is like why you should care. Yeah. And work hard and put in effort. Right. Why. Why do you actually care about solving this problem. Happiness is like why is this gonna be a sustainable situation for you. Yeah. I’m not interested in building a company in the traditional Silicon Valley way where people, you know, do a two year tour duty duty and then they burn out and have to go on sabbatical for six months because they were so stressed. Right.

That might produce a lot of economic value, but it’s just not the kind of place I want to work at. I’m particularly interested in building a company where people feel like they can continue working there for a long time because they continue to grow. They continue get opportunities to learn and they’re happy. They may not be like the most happiest people in the world. I can’t really control that. But they’re happy and they don’t think like we’re not constantly torturing themselves about like, how do I get to something else? Because I don’t think that’s sustainable. 

Mathilde Collin Yeah. So one thing that I’ve realized is that there is a lot of people talking about how they can be more happy, how they can find meaning. And I don’t think there is a lot that’s written about what companies can do to provide this happiness and meaning to their employees. And so you mention that at a chair and one of the things you do is helping people find their zone of genius, make sure that they leave inside this genius. Is there any other thing that you do to provide this meaning and for people to understand why they’re working on what they’re working on and why it matters? 

Justin Kan Yeah, I think that it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s the same things that you have it any well functioning companies. So it’s what are the core corporate values like? What are the things that you guys value as a group? The second thing is having a mission like we’re going towards the third thing is having goals. That’s really important that you have short term goals that people rallied around so that they know that they’re making progress towards something and they can measure whether their work product contributes towards that goal. Yeah, those are probably the main things that are there. How do you make sure that everyone at the company knows about the mission will repeat it at every all hands, repeat all the values, repeat the mission, repeat our yearly objectives and we repeat our quarterly objectives right at every all hands, which happens every two weeks. 

Mathilde Collin Great. What about what do you do as a company to help people be happier? So I know that there is a ton of things that you’ve done and that you’ve written about. Meditation is one of them. Having less notifications on your phone is another one having a therapist, exercising diets, many others. So what are the things that you try to share with your employees on how to be happier as an individual? 

Justin Kan Yeah. So the first thing is we really are trying to roll out conscious leadership at our company. So this book called The Fifteen Commitments of Conscious Leadership, and it effectively describes a set of values for how to operate a company in a way that is coming from a place of love instead of fear. And don’t go too deep into what those are. But they really resonated with me. You know, the top three are kind of the first three are take 100 percent responsibility for what’s going on around you approaching everything and it opening. It’s mind set and then being able to bring your whole emotional self to work. Yeah. And so we do a lot of things to implement that culture in our company. All of our management operations team. That’s the kind of each our team internally and atrium has been trained as coaches. They did a coaches training to help coach the managers. We do a mandatory manager training. We’re rolling out like all company trainings for conscious leadership. 

Justin Kan I do a book club every month about, you know, about the book. Yeah. And so we do a lot of things to implement conscious leadership at the company. And then the second thing is, I really try to be an example of the type of I try to talk about the things that have really made a big impact for me. So I talk about meditation all the time. You know, we start meetings now with like conscious breathing or yoga stretch. I tried to model talking about my emotions and being able to name my emotions, which is a big kind of a meaningful step for me to become more comfortable with whatever was going on, you know, whatever emotions I was feeling. 

Justin Kan So I tried to model that in meetings and in conversations for people. We have a therapy benefit for a team. Talk openly about how their therapy has been helpful to me. So those are some of the some of the things we try to do. 

Mathilde Collin Nice. What do you have examples where you’ve named an emotion? 

Justin Kan Yeah. At work. Definitely. There are a lot, you know. So one example that sticks out to mind was we had like a monthly business review meeting a couple months ago and I was feeling bored, boredoms and promotion. It’s kind of a form of anger. And it said, you know, normally in a professional setting, you might think, oh, you should not say that. 

Justin Kan Right. If you say I’m bored, it’s gonna be, you know, throw people off. I don’t feel attacked there. It’s gonna be not constructive. It’s unprofessional. That’s probably what I would have done. The passage is like not said I was bored and just kind of zoned out instead. Here I said, you know, I decide one of the commitments in this particular book is that is candor, not withholding. So I was like, okay, I’m just gonna say it. And I said, hey, I raise my hand. 

Justin Kan You know, I want to tell you I’m bored right now. And then everybody’s first and second. They were like, shocked. Oh, my God. CEOs bored like this is terrible. Right. And I said, look, look, no, it’s not that you guys are doing anything wrong. You’re doing your jobs. I think you’re doing a great job. I think that my boredom is reflective of something is wrong in this meeting, that we’re actually reviewing the wrong things. I think we’re stuck in the tactical when we haven’t really addressed the strategic goals here for over six months. And we should actually go back. And, you know, YouTube, the leaders of this group should actually think about what the strategic goals are here and then come back next month. And then we can figure out how to use this brain trust of executives to figure out how to make to help you be more successful, your strategic goals. 

Justin Kan And so everybody left at that point. And, you know, the next day, one of the leaders came to me and said, hey, that was, you know, actually that helped us have a really productive conversation. The point is, like everybody knew that I was bored. I’m not very good at hiding my emotions. And other people were like on their phones and shit. 

Justin Kan Yeah. And so, you know, people knew that something was wrong, but it was kind of like nobody was saying it now. And so by being able to name it in your book, your emotions are signal. Right. And if you’re listening to that signal, they’re able to say it in a nonviolent, non confrontational way that doesn’t put blame on somebody else for creating those emotions in you. Then you’re able to actually have a productive conversation about the underlying problems that may exist. Whereas, you know, in the I’m ignoring my emotions state, which is most of how professional business works in the world, you’re just throwing out that signal and you may never address the underlying issues. 

Mathilde Collin Yeah, well, I’m re-inspired by all you’re saying, and I think it’s great because fuel as a term can see the benefit of it. I care. It’s also about making sure that we have a culture where people are happy to find meaning. How do you think it can not be the two of us, but every company in the world can obsess over this stuff. 

Justin Kan For me, what brought me to this is learning from other people’s example. So learning from coaches, you know, learning from math, learning from other experiences that I had. And I really think, you know, you can read it in a book, but it doesn’t really resonate until you actually see examples in action. Yeah. So for me, the way that I think about it is how can I build my company up and be successful and build it to a large organization and with these values so that all the people who work at Atrium will be models for this behavior and his way of like leadership in the future, whether they’re inside of each room or outside, you know, people go on and do great things. I want to I want them to be able to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. 

Mathilde Collin Well, thank you so much, Justin. I personally learned that I think companies can learn a lot from everything that was said specifically. You know, I think reading the 15 commitments of conscious leadership and then training your team and conscious leadership, too, is helping people find there is enough genius. Number three is just always caring about your. Personal happiness and all the tips that we’ve given, you can also read the feeling good program of just again that saves a lot of ideas on how to be happy. 

Mathilde Collin I will see you soon. Thank you so much again for being here. I hope you enjoyed it since you like naming your emotions. What’s your emotion right now, Justin? 

Justin Kan I feel very happy. It’s always a joy to see you, Mathilde. 

Mathilde Collin Great. It’s always a joy to see you, too, Justin. Thank you. 

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