Chade-Meng Tan, the search engine giant’s ‘Jolly Good Fellow’, on meditation, acceptance and the power of positive business
Chade-Meng Tan’s job description would never get past most companies’ human resources departments. As the head of mindfulness training at Google, his role is to enlighten minds, open hearts and create world peace.
But he hopes that one day, his role will become commonplace. A growing awareness of the importance of our emotional fitness, he says, is mirroring the same journey of acceptance that physical exercise took in the last century. And he believes that scientific evidence of the benefits of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness will be instrumental into catapulting it into the very heart of the business world.
Tan, who is officially known as the search engine giant’s Jolly Good Fellow, likes to live up to his image of joking around and points out that mindfulness is moving away from its association with mysticism – or with people from San Francisco.
“If you are a company leader who says employees should be encouraged to exercise, nobody looks at you funny,” Tan says. “The same thing is happening to meditation and mindfulness, because now that it’s become scientific, it has been demystified. It’s going to be seen as fitness for the mind.”
A Fitbit for the mind
Through the development of apps and other software, tech companies such as Google will have a major part to play in mainstreaming mindfulness, he predicts. In the same way that the pedometer has influenced exercise, these apps could similarly popularise mindfulness, Tan says.
He speaks, for example, of devices that will be able to show how meditation impacts brain waves, potentially creating a whole industry of professional trainers. “Just imagine setting a goal like ‘a year from now, I want to be able to calm my mind in 40% of the time it takes me now’ and my personal trainer is accountable to that target,” he says.
Tan says that mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness, which is at the heart of business success.
“In many situations, goodness is good for business,” he says. “If you, as the boss, are nice to your employees, they are happy, they treat their customers well, the customers are happy to spend more money, so everybody wins.
“Also if you treat everybody with kindness, they’ll like you even if they don’t really know why. And if they like you, they want to help you succeed. So it’s good for your soul and it’s good for your career.”
But if that is so obvious, why is it so difficult for companies to practice altruism? Tan points to the fixation with the short-term which rewards those managers who drive profits at any cost, even if it eventually leads to a loss of talent and productivity.
He suggests the other main reason is that employees often fall into the psychological trap of engaging in destructive behaviour by acting out their unconscious judgments.
“If you don’t have the foundation of peace, joy and kindness it is very hard, day to day, to always do the right thing,” he says. “If somebody says something negative, your first thought is ‘that guy is an asshole’ and you want to defeat that guy. So it takes a certain amount of practice to say ‘Wait a minute, that guy’s just doing his job. He’s a good person and so I have to work with him by understanding why he’s doing that, and then help him succeed.'”
Tan says it takes some effort to fight the instinct to just do something destructive and get to that win-win mentality.
“Anger is fuelled by fear, and in Buddhism there is a difference between anger and indignation,” he says. “Anger is destructive; indignation is a state where you do feel the pain yourself, but you’re out there to change the world because it’s the right thing to do. The difference between the two is power. Anger arises from powerlessness; indignation arises from power. So it’s about how we help people reduce fear and increase positive power?”
For those who worry that mindfulness takes years to have any impact, Tan insists that it can create a measurable change in 100 minutes. For those who want a more fundamental impact that can change their lives, this can be achieved in 52 hours, although Tan says there are innumerable depths that mindfulness can help you to uncover.
He jokes that he would like to think mindfulness has made him “less of an asshole than I used to be”. But on a more serious note, he says that mindfulness has helped him develop “an ability to calm my mind on demand, and that by itself is huge. With calmness comes inner joy that is independent of your senses’ pleasure or the ego’s pleasure.”
So far, around 2,000 Google employees have been through its Search Inside Yourself mindfulness course, the most popular of the company’s training programmes. Tan says research on long-term impacts hasn’t yet been done, and he has only anecdotal evidence of the program’s success.
But the main barrier to expanding the programme is a lack of experienced trainers, whom Tan insists need to have completed at least 2,000 hours of meditation practice. That’s because “when you’re in front of a class, they don’t remember what you say, they don’t remember what you do; what they remember is how they feel, and that comes from how the trainer personifies the practice, even if they just sit there and say nothing.”
Could this work in finance?
Google and other technology companies in Silicon Valley are receptive to mindfulness because they believe in being at the vanguard of change and innovation, Tan believes. So what approach would he take if he were suddenly transported to the altogether different culture of a Wall Street finance house?
“I always align the qualities of peace, joy, compassion with success and profits,” he says. “It’s starting from where people want to start and helping people succeed in the way they want to succeed.
“And I would say that if you want to try it, you’re free to try it and if you don’t try it and Joe does, Joe’s going to make more money than you and you’re free to come and try this any other time.”
While Tan has grand ambitions, such as training one million mindfulness teachers, he also aims to refine his own practice.
His great wish is to enter Sotāpanna, Sanskrit for the stream of life, with the accompanying realization that there has never been an object called the self and suffering is therefore reduced from an ocean to a teardrop.
“The current view of practice has been you have to work so hard to gain these states,” he says. “I would like in my lifetime to reframe the whole practice, not as a sacrifice but as a doorway, as a path along which every step is joyful. If I can do that, then the practice becomes far more accessible, and then I can die.”