Episode 3: Finding your Zone of Genius with Justin Kan

Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin is on a quest to understand how companies can help their employees find meaning in their work. In this episode, Mathilde sat down with Justin Kan, co-founder of Twitch and CEO of Atrium. They chat about how to identify what brings you energy at work and how leaders can guide their employees to find what they find meaningful.


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 try to understand better what companies can do to make their employees more happy and help them 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 I'm very happy to have Justin Kan today.

Justin is 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 gotten 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. Justin, thank you so much for being here.

JUSTIN KAN: Thanks for having me. I'm super excited.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Great. The first topic I want to talk about is this concept of meaningful work. 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 your 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. I wanted to have a big company or I wanted to be a famous startup founder, so I had to do all of these things I didn't like to do.


JUSTIN KAN: The concept that really opened up my job and turn it into the best job I've ever had was the concept of living in your zone of genius, aka the things that you love to do that really give you energy.

Most people, founders and really everyone else ended 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 in.

And even CEOs end up there whether they're in a spot where they're like I have to do all these things cause my company won't survive without it. I have to do the sales, I have to manage the 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.

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 do these things and have like true 100% 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? Why didn't you do that in your previous jobs and what's made it special in this specific opportunity?

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah, well I spent 15 years not doing that. I really learned it because of an outside coach, a CEO coach named Matt Mochary, and this zone of genius concept is from Matt. 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. I went through my past three weeks calendar together with him and he was like, what was this meeting? Did it give you energy or did it drain you? And then I had just circled everything that gave me energy.

In blue and everything that took away energy and red. And then I tried to figure out how to not do any of the red things.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah. What was the percentage of green? I did the same exercise, so I'm curious.

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah, I think it was probably like 50, 50 roughly.

MATHILDE COLLIN: And what is it now?

JUSTIN KAN: Well, 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% blue now. I didn't have green pen, so.

MATHILDE COLLIN: One thing that's I find interesting is you're in this position where you're a CEO and so you get the opportunity to meet with Matt Mochary, which is great. And I did, the opportunity's 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's also happening for their employees. Do you think that employees at Atrium find their job meaningful?

JUSTIN KAN: I think some of them do. And some of them probably don't.

I would say yet, right? I think that Atrium started off as pretty normal company from an employee, culture and workplace happiness standpoint. Let's say two years. We're two years old. Two years ago.

And I think we have been investing a lot in it in the past year and so it's gone. 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 coach, right?

I have this outside coach, a lot of outside resources, training etcetera. 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 kind of everybody else in the company to get that same kind of training. That's really what I'm doing for the company. I actually went and went through all my executives. We went through their AORs and we said, what's in your zone of genius? What's not?

And then how do you with your team, right. Because each of these executives are 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.

And we're going through that process now and I think it's already been very freeing for those team members. And my goal is really to bring that culture and that mindset all the way down the organization.

And I think that you might think that for someone very junior like IC or Individual Contributor Role who have just started in the company they're like doing customer support. Right. Something where they don't have a lot of control over how they do their job.

Maybe. I think you can still let do that zone of genius exercise and they can really, if they're being honest with themselves, think it might do I love this job? Do I love the things that I'm doing? Do they give me energy or not? And if the answers they're not now maybe the job can't really be adapted 100% for them because it's a job you need maybe like a thousand CSR or something like that right.

But maybe it's not a good fit for them, right?

And if they're being truly honest with themselves, I think that will make people be very free.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Right, if I understand correctly one thing that you says that you've done in order to find what your zone of genius, then you have your execs do it.

Did they all print their calendar and highlighted in green what gave them energy and red what didn't give them energy?

JUSTIN KAN: Yes, we did the calendar exercise. And the second thing we do is explicitly write out, we do a collaborative like areas of responsibility. Or AOR. Our executive team will say what's the areas of responsibility for the CTO?

And everyone in a document will type out what they think the areas of responsibility for the CTO. We'll aggregate it and then I would go through with the CTO and say, "hey, do you like doing this? Do you love doing this? Does it give you energy? Yes. Okay, it's your responsibility. No. Okay, we need to find someone else to do it".

Then all the way down through the list.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Again, what happens when you're at the bottom of the list and there are still 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 reality, which is the work needs to be done.

Then everyone should accept some percentage of their job not being their zone genius.

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah I think reality is, it's very hard to live at 100%. Do it today, but what do I want to figure out how to not do tomorrow?

There's many ways that can happen. 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. I really asked myself, why do I not feel energized by this meeting? And figured out that there were some structural changes.

Some work that we could shift to the pre-meeting part. That would make it be much more productive for me. And so that's a way to like both do it but also change it so that it's like more high energy.

Or maybe you're saying I need to do these sets 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 tomorrow.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yes, makes sense. Now a topic we may disagree on, I don't know yet, is as I was thinking about meaning in your work. I've found that there is a difference between finding your job meaningful and being happy doing your job. An example of this would be, let's say you're a doctor in a war zone. Like you might find your job 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. The first question would be, do you think there is a difference between finding your job meaningful and being happy doing your job?

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah, absolutely.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Great. Now some people make the trade off, they give up some happiness for meaning. Do you think that it's so key sometimes to give up some happiness for meaning?

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah, of course.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Do you do that?

JUSTIN KAN: I think optimizing for your own happiness is just one axis. Of something you could do in your life. Do I do that? Have I sacrificed my happiness for meaning? Yeah, definitely. I think that any sort of startup, but Atrium especially Atrium is taking on the legal industry, it's a huge industry and it's a really complex problem. And there are a lot of, I think easier companies to start. With less moving pieces. But I'm interested in the complexity and interested in making big dent. And so I think that tackling this problem is meaningful to me. But it is more complicated, which means there's more problems. And more things to coordinate, more things that can go wrong. Which is potentially a short term blow to your happiness.

Although I actually think that for me 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.

I think that a lot of the tools for being happier in whatever situation you're in and not being attached to a certain outcome 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 in companies is to provide any meaning and or do you think their responsibility is also to help them as individuals be happy or not?

JUSTIN KAN: I think, well I can only really speak for myself.

I feel that I have the responsibility to do both. The meaning is like why you should care. And work hard and put an effort right. Why do you actually care about solving this problem? The happiness is like, why is this going to be a sustainable situation for you?

I'm not interested in building a company in the traditional Silicon Valley way, where people do a two year tour duty and then they burn out. And they 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 to get opportunities to learn and they're happy.

They might not be the most happiest people in the world and I can't really control that, but they're happy and they don't think they're not constantly torturing themselves about how do I go do something else?

Because I don't think that's sustainable.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah. 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 mentioned that at Atrium one of the things you do is helping people find their zone of genius and making sure that they live inside these zone of genius. Is there any other things that you do to provide this meaning and for people to understand why they're working on what they're working on in white matters?

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah, I think that it's nothing revolutionary. It's the same things that you have at any well-functioning companies. 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 where are we going towards. The third thing is having goals. It's really important that you have short term goals that people are 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.

MATHILDE COLLIN: How do you make sure that everyone at the company knows about the mission?

JUSTIN KAN: We'll repeat it at every All-Hands. We repeat all the values, repeat the mission, repeat our yearly objectives and we repeat our quarterly objectives. 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? I know that there is a ton of thing 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. What are the things that you try to share with your employees on how to be happier as an individual?

JUSTIN KAN: Yeah. The first thing is, we really are trying to roll out conscious leadership at our company. There's book called The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership and it effectively describes a set of values for how to operate a company in a way that it's coming from a place of love instead of fear.

And I won't go too deep what those are, but they really resonated with me. The top three are kind of the first three are taking a hundred percent responsibility for what's going on around you, approaching everything in an open and curious mindset and then being able to bring your whole emotional self to work.

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 HR team internally at Atrium has been trained as coaches. They did a coaches training, they help coach the managers. We do a mandatory manager training. We're rolling out like all company trainings for conscious leadership. I do a book club every month about the book.

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 talk about the things that have really made a big impact for me. I talk about meditation all the time. We start meetings now with like conscious breathing or yoga stretch. I try 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, whatever emotions I was feeling. I try to model that in meetings and in conversations.

For people. We have a therapy benefit for our team. Talk openly about how therapy has been helpful to me. Those are some of the things we try to do.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Nice. Do you have examples where you've named an emotion?

JUSTIN KAN: Definitely, there are a lot. One example that sticks out to mind was, we had like a monthly business review meeting a couple of months ago and I was feeling bored. Boredom as an emotion, it's kind of a form of anger and normally in a professional setting you might think, Oh, you should not say that, right?

If you say I'm bored, it's going to throw people off, they're going to feel attacked, it's going to be not constructive, it's not professional. That's probably what I would've done in the past is just like not said I was bored and just kind of zoned out.

Instead, here I decided one of the commitments in this 15 commitments book is that, is candor not withholding. I was like, okay, I'm just going to say it. And I said, hey, I raised my hand. I want to tell you I'm bored right now. And then everybody's first instinct, they were shocked "Oh my God, CEO's bored this is terrible right". And I said, 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 a reflective of something that's wrong in this meeting.

Like 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 too 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 help you be more successful at your strategic goals.

And so everybody laughed at that point and the next day one of the leaders came to me and said, "hey, actually that helped us have a really productive conversation". Because 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.

And people knew that something was wrong, but it was kind of like nobody was saying it.

And so by being able to name it and your emotions are signal right. And if you're listening to that signal, you're able to say it in a non-violent, 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 in the, I'm ignoring my emotional state, which is most of how professional business works in the world, you are just throwing out that signal and you may never address the underlying issues.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Yeah, well I'm very inspired by all you're saying and I think it's great because people at Atrium can see the benefit of it. I care a ton also about making sure that we have a culture where people are happy find meaning. How do you think it can not be the two of us, but every company in the world can obsess over these topics?

JUSTIN KAN: For me, what brought me to this is learning from other people's examples. Learning from coaches, learning from Matt, learning from other experiences that I had and I really think you can read it in a book but it doesn't really resonate until you actually see examples in action. 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 larger organization and with these values so that all the people who work at Atrium will be models for this behavior and this way of like leadership in the future, whether they're inside of Atrium or outside. People go on and they do great things and I want them to be able to carry this with them for the rest of their lives.

MATHILDE COLLIN: Wow. Thank you so much Justin. I personally learned a lot and I think companies can learn a lot from everything that was said, specifically, I think reading The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership and then training your team on conscious leadership. Number two is helping people find their zone 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 Justin Kan that states a lot of ideas on how to be happy. 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.