By Michael Levin
It’s hard to believe, but not that many years ago, Andy Puddicombe was teaching meditation to a group of exactly two people, one of whom was looking at his watch wondering when the whole thing would be over.
Fast-forward to today, and Puddicombe’s meditation app, Headspace, teaches calm, compassion, and, well, headspace, to hundreds of millions of people around the world. Quite a difference from a class of two, or more accurately, one-and-a-half interested parties.
“We wanted to reach 10 million to 100 million people when we started,” Puddicombe says, “which was very naïve. I mean, how can you realistically expect to reach a goal like that? But somehow, we did.”
Headspace has a headcount today of 350 people, which means that Puddicombe and his partner Rich Pierson have been managing a high-velocity startup, with all the attendant stresses and strains while teaching the world to keep calm.
Puddicombe’s personal story is fairly well known by now. An aspiring circus performer, Puddicombe witnessed a freak drunk driving accident outside a pub one night in which several bystanders lost their lives. Suddenly more curious about the meaning of life, Puddicombe left London for the Himalayas, where he trained as a Buddhist monk, and then spent four years in Moscow before returning to London. Somewhere along the way, the idea for a meditation app was hatched.
Puddicombe had been living in Venice, a Los Angeles neighborhood abutting the Pacific, raising his children, surfing, and going to the studio to record new guided meditations. His parents and those of his business partner, back in London, were in declining health. That factor, along with the desire to live closer to home, caused Puddicombe, Pierson, and their spouses and families to pick up and move to Portugal, where they live now.
“When you’re building a startup,” Puddicombe says, “obviously the hours are long. Now, I have the pleasure of driving my children to school, and being more of a stay at home dad. Living here in Portugal, the furthest point west on the map, there’s a wildness to the landscape and the beach is right here. So as a family, it feels like we have a lot more balance in our life now.”
Puddicombe, an inveterate traveler, can get back to London to see his family, or, as he says, travel four hours and be in a different European culture or countryside.
“L.A. was amazing,” he says, “but we are more European and British than American, so it makes sense to be here, recharging our batteries and getting ready for whatever’s next.”
So what’s next for Andy Puddicombe? Right now, Netflix is airing a Headspace meditation series, which will bring the Headspace brand of mindfulness to an even larger audience.
“It’ll be a way for people who already enjoy Headspace to share with their friends,” Puddicombe says. “It’s just easier to say to someone, ‘Just watch this on Netflix,’ and that way they see what we’re all about.”
And beyond that?
“This is really a time for recharging our batteries,” Puddicombe says. “Obviously, with the use of meditation, we did that every day during the ten years we built the company. But this period in my life is a deeper sense of recharging. After that, I’m sure there’s another mountain to climb. But I really don’t know what the contours are.”
Puddicombe thinks that it may well have to do with teaching mental health skills to children.
“We have an epidemic of every sort of mental health problem facing children today,” Puddicombe says. “This was true before the pandemic, and it’s considerably worse since then. If there was a way of giving young people the necessary skills to be more resilient in life, that would be incredibly exciting.”
But for now, there’s carpool, the surf, and continuing to record new guided meditations for Headspace.
And, just maybe, now that he’s left the wilds of Los Angeles for the comparative calm of the Portuguese coast, a little bit of extra headspace for him as well.