What I’m Reading Now: Search Inside Yourself – Chade-Meng Tan

Google is a quintessential Gen X company, much less fettered by the beliefs of the industrial age organizations that define how to be successful, and even what is success.  They have provided a number of new standards and ideas for those who want to thrive in the 21st century.  Many of the companies started by Gen X-ers follow different rules and embrace different values – Google is one that is so successful that people take notice.

One such practice that is being talked about is mindfulness.  Usually the talk is quiet, as is the practice!  Among the Baby Boomers it is embraced by the new age types, and by some more traditional executives that have had near-death experiences and decided to make some life changes so they could continue to work at supersonic levels without dropping dead in their 50’s.  Among the younger set, it just seems to fit naturally with work – taking care of yourself by exercising and eating well is a given, and taking care of your mental health is as natural as playing sports for many.  Thirty years ago people who went to the gym every day were narcissists and oddballs; today those who don’t work out are the weird ones.  So the idea that one of the most popular classes at Google is on emotional intelligence and teaches meditation techniques is not really a big surprise.  It seems like a good idea in a culture known for keeping people at work for half again or more of the hours of the traditional 40 hour work week.

One of the benefits of mindfulness is the increased ability to focus.  Considering the ADD world we live in with continuous distractions of IMs and tweets, our ability to immerse in something and go into the flow state is more challenging than ever.  In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr laments that the internet may actually be draining our intelligence, reducing our ability to focus as we are no longer required to practice that skill.  If so, that will be a big problem in an ever more complex world that demands more creativity and innovation than ever before.  Mindfulness is the opposite – the practice of sitting quietly and observing your own thoughts in the present moment.  Recent research has shown how extreme practitioners (usually monastics) have changed brain function, giving scientific evidence to the observation of practitioners (and those around them) that meditation practices provide some tangible benefits to us by improving our ability to think and manage our thoughts and thereby our emotions and behaviors.

Another benefit I have noticed about mindfulness is how it increases one’s ability to communicate effectively.  Real communication requires both parties to be fully attentive and empathetic, which means that both people must be in the here and now, which we call presence.  Most of the time we are thinking about the past or the future, what offenses we experienced yesterday or what we  plan to do later, but real communication requires we abandon all of that and be fully present with the other person in the conversation.  You may recognize this as one aspect of emotional intelligence – feeling heard is one of the most common things observed by people when asked to describe the attributes of the greatest leaders they have encountered.  Mindfulness is a critical step to increasing emotional intelligence – it enables us to identify and manage our own feelings by creating the space Victor Frankl refers to “between stimulus and response,” and that same space enables us to check in with our mirror neurons so we can empathize and determine how to connect with and influence others.  I have noticed in myself that there is a wide variance in my abilities to listen, persuade and behave when I am in a mindful state and when I am not.

Although the style of this book may be too chirpy for those who are not aware of the benefits of positive psychology and optimism, it has an excellent set of concepts and practices for those who are busy or need to discover the proof for themselves.  Tan has adapted the mindfulness practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and one of the world’s most preeminent meditation teachers, to a series of manageable and effective exercises.   The irony is that Tan is a self-described geeky engineer, with all the requisite skepticism and compulsive pragmatism you’d expect from one of the leaders of the world’s foremost search engine.  He isn’t someone Google brought into the training department to counter-balance the left brained focus, he is one of the original engineers within the organization.  This is a great book for those who are beginners to mindfulness practices, are skeptical, or are really interested but busy and not sure about taking on another commitment.  Taking on a meditation practice often feels like a “waste of precious time,” but most people find that somehow the day goes more smoothly when they adopt a regular practice.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tan’s ultimate goal – his higher purpose (more on that and its relationship to happiness in the book) – which is to attain world peace one person at a time by promoting inner peace.  It is an audacious goal, one he pursues with the support of the Dali Lama and many other preeminent leaders.  It makes sense – world peace will only exist when everyone in the world finds peace within themselves.   Although it seems like an impossibly large goal, it is comforting to know someone has taken it on.  Even if only you find that level of inner peace, it is a win.