These executives say psychedelics like LSD and MDMA made them better managers — and transformed how they think about fulfilling work

These executives say psychedelics like LSD and MDMA made them better managers — and transformed how they think about fulfilling work
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Sarah Rose Siskind in a black turtle neck holding a purple-tipped psychedelic mushroom.
When Sarah Rose Siskind needed inspiration after buying her cofounder out of Hello SciCom, she turned to a psychedelic sound bath.

  • Sarah Rose Siskind had a revelation during a psychedelic sound bath in Manhattan. 
  • It changed her approach to running her business and strengthened her relationship with colleagues.
  • We spoke to business execs and scientists to understand how to harness psychedelics’ powerful effects.

Sarah Rose Siskind was feeling anxious about work. After months of tense negotiations, she’d just bought her cofounder out of Hello SciCom, a science-comedy consulting firm in New York City.

“I had just paid more money than I’d ever paid for anything in my life,” she said. Now she had to determine the company’s strategy as chief operating executive.

For inspiration, she turned to a psychedelic sound bath.

Siskind is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs and executives seeking out psychedelics — including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and MDMA — for work-related inspiration and guidance.

This trend certainly isn’t new: Psychedelics have been seeping into Silicon Valley workplaces for decades. Steve Jobs, for example, once said LSD helped him prioritize quality over revenue.

What is new, though, is the number of professionals openly talking about their psychedelic use in the news, on social media, and in conversations with peers and friends. Now, business leaders of all sorts are turning to mind-altering drugs for inspiration.

Some professionals pay thousands of dollars for exclusive retreats in Peru or Mexico, while others take a more do-it-yourself approach.

NYC-based Siskind didn’t have to travel far.

A Manhattan psychedelic sound bath

Sarah Rose Siskind in a blue t-shirt and beanie pointing to a white board with red writing during a meeting with work colleagues.
Sarah Rose Siskind says one year after her psychedelic-induced revelation, work is going better than ever.

In an apartment in Noho, Manhattan, Siskind took a combination of MDMA and magic mushrooms and then sat in the dark with other attendees, listening in silence to live music performed with gongs, singing bowls, and a guitar.

It was the gong that got her.

As the drugs took effect, Siskind felt increasingly agitated by its incessant ringing. “I almost got up to ask him to stop,” she said. She didn’t, though, and when the ringing finally ended, she felt “an energetic state of clarity.”

Through that clarity, she realized her personal values were essential to her professional success and happiness. When Siskind arrived at work on Monday, she called a staff meeting to share the company’s new value-oriented direction.

A year later, she said, work is going better than ever, and her relationship with her coworkers has never been stronger.

Others have reported similar benefits.

The CEO of a clean energy technology company in the Bay Area, who asked to remain anonymous, said he has found psychedelics to be helpful tools for changing his frame of reference when thinking about challenging or complicated work-related problems.

“Seeing things from other perspectives is very useful in the creative process,” he said.

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In a 2022 paper, researchers documented over a dozen top-level professionals — from scientists to architects — who likewise credited psychedelics with major work-related insights. Breakthroughs pertained to subjects as varied as quantum mechanics and neuroscience.

Across professional fields, psychedelics seem to open people up to “those ah-ha moments of insight,” said study co-author David Luke, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Greenwich in London.

He added that during a trip, people are, “able to inspect their vast accumulation of knowledge in a new way, sometimes giving rise to a new solution.”

Be cautious when discussing psychedelics

Henrik Zillmer outside Pisac, on the way up to Huchuy Qosqo, an Incan archaeological site in Peru.
Henrik Zillmer experienced his drug-induced revelation at an ayahuasca retreat in Peru, which is where this photo was taken.

Those in leadership positions need to be cautious when discussing their experiences with psychedelics among coworkers, said Henrik Zillmer, founder of AirHelp, a Berlin-based company.

“If you’re in a position of power and authority and you’re introducing this subject to colleagues or employees, they might feel pressured to do psychedelics, too.”

“It’s an individual journey and people need to decide for themselves if they want to try them out,” Zillmer added.

It’s also possible that that journey will not produce the desired results. “There’s no guarantee if you take a psychedelic you’ll get interesting insights, but it’s more likely than if you just stay home and watch TV,” said John Gilmore, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned advocate for more relaxed drug policy after his personal experiences with illegal substances, including psychedelics.

Gilmore tried LSD shortly before becoming the fifth employee of Sun Microsystems in 1981. He said that before he took LSD he had “a very rationalist point of view about things” and a tendency to think his way of doing things was the best way.

LSD showed him that there are radically different ways of seeing the world and that all can be equally valid, he said.

This realization had practical value for his role as a manager. He stopped correcting employees who took different problem-solving approaches from him and focused more on whether those approaches resulted in a solution.

How to harness psychedelics’ powerful effects

magic mushrooms
Psychedelics can have a powerful affect on the human psyche but only under the right circumstances.

In the past decade, a handful of investigators have started to pursue rigorous, scientific research into psychedelics’ profound effect on the human psyche — and if professionals and business leaders could harness these powerful revelations.

Gül Dölen, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, suspects, based on existing research, that psychedelic-induced eureka moments have to do with how these drugs return the rule-based adult brain to a more childlike state of openness, playfulness, and creativity.

When taken in the right setting, Dölen said, psychedelics could help the brain “break out of set, worn patterns, habits, and thoughts.” But therein lies the key: the person typically has to be in the right setting and in the right mindset to invite any meaningful revelation.

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Case in point, in a 2022 study, a team of scientists recruited a group of healthy individuals to take LSD in a lab setting to see how the drug influenced creativity. They found that across tasks, LSD increased the novelty of participants’ ideas. But those ideas weren’t about to win any awards or revolutionize industries.

For example, when asked to come up with a metaphor, one sober participant said, “My mother is as strong as a tiger,” while a person on LSD said, “The philosopher is a hole in the ocean.”

This radically different way of processing information is not practical on a daily basis. But, in some cases, the ability to break away from normal patterns of thinking could be key to “great discoveries,” said lead author Isabel Wiessner, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at the Federal University of Rio Grande de Norte in Brazil.

Sometimes, those discoveries exceed expectations. This was the case for Zillmer, whose revelation came during a 2016 ayahuasca retreat in Peru geared toward business leaders.

Zillmer went hoping to let go of some of the frustration that had built up inside him after years of struggling to make his company successful. The experience did that and more: it wound up changing his entire perspective on work and life.

Zillmer had always put the company first, but during his psychedelic experience, he realized he should instead be prioritizing the people who work for him. “It opened my eyes that if people are happy, we’ll make great products and services,” he said.

When he returned to work, he poured resources into revamping the bare-bones office space, creating a robust HR department, and introducing things for employees like satisfaction surveys, discussions about their long-term career goals and on- and off-boarding interviews. As a result, AirHelp began retaining employees for longer, Zillmer said, and happiness went up across the workforce.

Zillmer also reaped benefits beyond his role as an employer. For example, his inner relationship with himself vastly improved, he said. “And that, in the end, will also improve your satisfaction and performance at work, and your relationship with colleagues.”

While Zillmer’s breakthroughs came in Peru and with ayahuasca, these types of retreats for business professionals are popping up all over and with a variety of psychedelics.

Other CEOs, for instance, have found revelations at a leadership program in the Netherlands where facilitators legally administer psilocybin as part of a personal-growth program geared toward executives. Some of those executives recently participated in a pilot study, offering a glimpse of what’s happening behind closed doors.

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Beyond bottom lines

A red brick building with white trim and sky lights.
The location where Kiyumí Retreats will host a psychedelic retreat for business professionals later this year.

For the pilot study, researchers out of the University of Maryland recruited a group of 15 CEOs, founders, and other leaders from diverse backgrounds and countries who were already participating in the retreat, which is exclusively for people in leadership positions.

“One reason business leaders are an interesting population is because they have a great deal of economic, social, cultural, and political influence,” said Bennet Zelner, a business and public policy researcher co-leading the study. “They have the ability to act as force multipliers.”

The four-month program includes five two-hour group workshops and six individual executive coaching sessions in which participants discuss topics such as ethical decision-making and personal development and fulfillment. The online prep work culminates in a week-long, in-person retreat at which participants undertake guided psychedelic journeys.

After the pilot group completed their retreat, Zelner and his colleagues followed up one year later to see what, if anything, had changed.

One executive said they’d restructured their venture to be more aligned with purpose and resistant to financial pressure, including by exploring financing and governance structures that would reduce the company’s dependence on traditional profit-driven investors.

Others reported subtler changes, such as working better with colleagues and being clearer in their decision-making. On the other hand, one CEO had left their company to pursue something they felt was more in service to others.

Indeed, sometimes the primary value that psychedelics can bring for business leaders is revealing to them that it’s time to move on.

In 2020, for example, John Allison, the co-founder of Customer.io, a customer engagement platform, took MDMA at a friend’s house in Brooklyn.

It was supposed to be an evening of light fun, but Allison found himself spontaneously thinking about work. He had been feeling burnt out at the job, but had been too guilt-ridden about leaving to make any serious plans to do so.

At the party, Allison suddenly had to stop dancing and step outside “because I had this epiphany moment where I accepted that leaving was the right thing to do,” he recalled.

Several months later, he resigned as chief technology officer but remained on as a board member and advisor, which allowed him to maintain good relations with his former colleagues.

Quitting was “absolutely” the right decision, he said. “I probably already knew the answer unconsciously, but the MDMA resolved the internal struggle.”

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