Steve Lee of Aura Health: “Find purpose in your work ”

Find purpose in your work — We spend the majority of our waking hours working, and this can be beautiful or disastrous based on your perspective. Not finding purpose in your work, or seeing work only as means to make money, will eventually lead you to destruction. Once you start to find meaning, you will spend your […]

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Find purpose in your work — We spend the majority of our waking hours working, and this can be beautiful or disastrous based on your perspective. Not finding purpose in your work, or seeing work only as means to make money, will eventually lead you to destruction. Once you start to find meaning, you will spend your working hours experiencing the joy of serving others, contributing to society, and challenging yourself to become better.
 — Shortly after becoming an entrepreneur, but before founding Aura, I realized the line of work I had chosen was far more challenging and mentally taxing than I could have guessed. My love for work turned into a never-ending grind that led to burnout. I had to take a step back, revisit my purpose, and rethink the way I view work. Then I was able to fall in love with work (and life) all over again.


As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Lee.

Steve is the Co-founder & CEO of Aura Health. Aura is an Apple award-winning, all-in-one app for emotional health & sleep that is serving over 5 million people. As a technical CEO, Steve oversees growth, product, and engineering at Aura.

Prior to Aura, he helped startups such as LaunchPad Central (Steve Blank’s Lean Startup software for enterprises) and Gauss Surgical (computer vision for surgical blood loss measurement, a Stanford StartX startup) grow. He also built three healthcare non-profit organizations starting at age 19. Steve holds a Master of Translational Medicine degree from UCSF and UC Berkeley, where he studied healthcare entrepreneurship & engineering.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I became an entrepreneur simply by following my passion and calling. The most important step was finding a mission I wanted to devote my life to.

I’ve always been passionate about health due to my own childhood struggles and spent most of my life studying to be a physician to help others who were sick like me. Over time, I realized that mental health is one of the most pressing, under-served problems that we all face. When I was in middle school, I witnessed my own mother struggle with her mental health after a destructive divorce with my father. Many of my closest friends have also struggled with their mental health since they were very young. But there are so many barriers to building and maintaining mental health today — stigma, cost, access, and more.

One day during a family vacation, my brother Daniel and I were discussing how software could change the way we approach and improve mental health, and transform our culture. Software creates powerful communities and intelligent content recommendations change the way we think and behave. What if this power is used to heal people instead of getting us addicted to our phones? At the time, mindfulness was gaining traction and support from the scientific community, and we witnessed firsthand how powerful it could be — even just practicing through pre-recorded audio files. There were also a few mindfulness apps gaining popularity, but the numerous people we talked to felt like these apps were too one-size-fits all and limiting. We saw an opportunity to create a new digital ecosystem focused on mental wellness and leverage machine learning to make self-care more personalized and effective.

When we launched Aura, I was in the final months of the Master of Translational Medicine program at UCSF & Berkeley studying healthcare entrepreneurship and spending time with various startups. Daniel was still in college. He ended up deciding to drop out so we could become entrepreneurs together.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When Daniel, my younger brother and co-founder, and I first started Aura with no funding, we lived together and worked together — we actually shared a tiny room in an apartment in SOMA (San Francisco) and worked in our living room. He designed and I coded, and as we started to grow, we listened to our users, iterated on Aura, and moved at an unbelievable speed — getting to 1M dollars in ARR with just the two of us at home.

To this day, we continue to keep the team small so we can be nimble, and user focused.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My brother and I owe everything to growing up with our incredible single mother, who taught us the importance of helping others and staying positive in the face of adversity. Professionally, we’re grateful for other founders and investors who believed in our mission early on, and communities such as Reforge and Praxis. Reforge taught us how to grow a company via their cohort-based program and by pairing us with incredible growth executives through their Reforge Partners program. Praxis taught us how to create a truly mission-driven organization.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Most founders or those who work at startups have a growth mindset and a never-ending drive. It’s critical to balance that drive with getting comfortable doing nothing and simply savoring life every now and again. Form a weekly ritual to “play,” experience life, and most importantly rest.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

This is a big question — align the team on a common mission, create a culture that gets them truly excited about their impact, provide a safe environment for them to take risks, and help them grow.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

  1. Find purpose in your work — We spend the majority of our waking hours working, and this can be beautiful or disastrous based on your perspective. Not finding purpose in your work, or seeing work only as means to make money, will eventually lead you to destruction. Once you start to find meaning, you will spend your working hours experiencing the joy of serving others, contributing to society, and challenging yourself to become better.
     — Shortly after becoming an entrepreneur, but before founding Aura, I realized the line of work I had chosen was far more challenging and mentally taxing than I could have guessed. My love for work turned into a never-ending grind that led to burnout. I had to take a step back, revisit my purpose, and rethink the way I view work. Then I was able to fall in love with work (and life) all over again.
  2. Spend time in silence, meditation, and prayer — We live in a noisy world that pulls you in thousands of directions every day. Spending time in silence helps you listen and understand yourself and your purpose in the world. It helps remove distractions and desires, and focuses you on what is important and right. It also helps you learn to find peace in the midst of whatever challenges you may be facing.
     — Silence, meditation and prayer are my go-to tools for both making critical decisions and maintaining wellbeing on a daily basis. And at Aura, we make it easy for anyone to find peace in silence through audio guidance created by coaches and therapists from around the world, making this ritual even more personalized and meaningful.
  3. Create a daily and weekly rhythm for rest and recovery — Every day should be spent on a rhythm that you control, instead of ‘pushing through’ at all times. This rhythm should include concerted efforts for rest and recovery. This is really hard to do right in today’s world.
     — Find what rejuvenates you and replenishes your soul, schedule it into your routine (even in the middle of workday), and protect them. These activities don’t have to be time-consuming or extensive; it can be as simple as stepping outside to feel the sun on your face.
  4. Play — I learned about the concept of “play” from the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Play is something that you do purely for enjoyment and not related to work — something that gives you joy, empowers you, and enables creativity.
    – After much experimentation, I found my favorite play activity to be soccer. Soccer is challenging, team-oriented, and also artful. It creates communities — you can connect with anyone playing soccer. Soccer, as opposed to some other forms of play, also pushes you to be better through external validation — you actually get better against other people and others see it. There is no limit to how good you can get. I recently picked up soccer again after an 8-year break, and rekindling my love for the sport has been a major source of joy. Play helps you remember that life is beautiful!
  5. Take it easy — It’s so simple, yet so elusive. Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves. We want to do it all, but we just get rushed and stressed, and end up missing the mark on what we set out to do in the first place.
     — We have to remember to take it easy. Many times, this opens up our creativity and things start falling into place.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Although many books have had a transformative impact on me, one that is less well known is The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr.

In the field of competitive athletics, the cycle of muscle strain followed by rest and recovery fuels growth in physical performance. The same is true for mental performance, yet most of us do not rest and recover enough — we push, push and push until we flame out. This book introduces the concept of “energy management” — meaning energy, not time, is the “fundamental currency of high performance.”

There are four pillars to maintaining and strengthening your energy and wellbeing: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. Understanding this concept and framework allowed me to continuously test and optimize my weekly habits and become stronger (both physically and mentally) and more productive over time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to see our hyper-modern world value and embody spirituality again. For some, it might be spending time in silence and meditation or deepening their faith in religion and finding the truth. For others, it might be through spending time in nature and realizing how small we are. Through spirituality, we can connect at a deeper level, break the stigma, and heal.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Please follow me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/skleest/) where I post frequently and on Twitter (@steveleesf). And please check out Aura (www.aurahealth.io) if you or someone you know could benefit from a personalized self-care app that they love.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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