Can meditation impact entrepreneurship and the world? Google’s happiness guru thinks so
July 9, 2012 by Terence LEE
Chade-Meng Tan, Google employee #107, smiled the moment he spotted the SGE team at the lobby of Orchard Parksuites, a stately service residence located in the heart of Orchard Road in Singapore.
Although here on holiday to visit family and friends, the jovial “zen master of Google” had been giving talks about his latest book, “Search Inside Yourself”, which he hopes will bring about the conditions for world peace.
Wearing a slightly faded Google Earth T-shirt, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) alumnus seemed at ease while talking in an odd mix of Singlish and American twang. He explained the intricate workings of the brain, shared stories about Buddha to illustrate insights, and cracked jokes whenever he could.
Meng is an atypical Singaporean. When Google went public, he became multi-millionaire rich. His official job title, Jolly Good Fellow, started as a joke. But he stayed on at the company, transitioning from an engineer into the Head of Personal Growth at GoogleEDU, the search giant’s workforce development program.
He also began classes in Google that taught emotional intelligence to employees, infusing meditation exercises with neuroscience research and Buddhist philosophy. The classes have been turned into a book.
In brief, the book claims that meditation can lead to emotional self-awareness, which allows people to manage their emotional states. Greater self-mastery leads to self-confidence and inner happiness, which then enables empathy and compassion. And that brings the world on a path to world peace.
Yes, meditation can benefit entrepreneurs and investors
Painfully aware that simply talking about world peace makes him sound silly, the book suggests that people with great empathy and confidence make better leaders at work, citing research as the basis. It’s a tactic that Meng hopes will make meditation mainstream.
“A couple of interesting data points,” he said during the interview, “those people in Google who after taking my class moved to another team, they became a lot happier.”
For entrepreneurs, knowing what feeds their own motivation and excitement is an important trait. By discovering what is important to them, they will be able to take the necessary risks to achieve their goals.
Meng also believes that his course develops resilience. Reflecting his love for wise sayings, he quoted from real estate mogul Feng Lun (whom he had tea with recently), who once said: ”Entrepreneurs like to challenge the impossible.”
In the entrepreneur’s pursuit of the unattainable, being mindful — or self-aware — allows them to be calm in all situations. Once they are able to perceive their emotions with “high-resolution” clarity and vividness, they would be able to manage an undesirable emotion just when it arises
So, by learning to deal with the emotions that come with failure, an entrepreneur will retain a sense of optimism. This creates resiliency.
“Even brave men experience fear. I can’t remember who said that. Could be Jesus,” he mused.
I asked him if there is a trait that the book doesn’t train. Meng ponders for a moment, then said that he couldn’t think of an example.
“I can be funny and say sexiness, but even that isn’t true… I can’t even make a joke about sexiness, because if you are charismatic, you are sexy.”
Doing the exercises train three qualities: Presence, warmth, and confidence. And according to him, research has shown that these three qualities are experienced as charisma.
Meng mulled for a while longer, then gives another answer.
“I know it doesn’t train good looks,” he said, pointing to his face.
While Meng loves to self-deprecate, he is serious about his book’s potential to change the way entrepreneurship and investments are done.
In fact, Meng the Jolly Good Investor believes in it so much that he had asked his portfolio companies to read the book to protect his investments. Singapore-based financial education startup PlayMoolah is one of them. One of its co-founders, Lee Min Xuan, is an avid follower of meditation and mindfulness, and that was actually one of the reasons why he invested in the company.
Aside from it having the potential to save the world and make a billion dollars, of course.
Sounds good, but why aren’t more people picking it up?
Meng hopes that his ideas will shape how investors evaluate startups, but he’s aware it won’t be easy. He shared the story of how the corporate culture and best practices of Toyota, which were responsible for its annihilation of the Western competition, weren’t adopted by General Motors despite a concerted attempt by the Japanese car company to spread its ideas for the sake of the industry.
Only when General Motors was on the verge of collapse did they start to turn things around.
This story illustrates his point about how the cycle of death and revival is crucial to spark change and innovation.
By that standard, Silicon Valley is the perfect petri dish for his ideas on mindfulness. Eventually, he hopes to see a small number of highly successful people, be it from the Valley or elsewhere, become meditation practitioners.
Ray Dalio is a prototype: The founder of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, who has a net worth of US$10B, attributes his success to Transcendental Meditation. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, picked up meditation from Catholic meditation teacher Laurence Freeman.
While Meng doesn’t have a problem connecting with successful people (the Dalai Lama, former US president Jimmy Carter, and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt have endorsed his book), he acknowledged that getting the point-one-percent to put meditation into their busy schedules is hard.
Startup founders too may prefer burning weekends to develop their products than spend 20 minutes on a what appears to be a wishy-washy, new-age exercise with no tangible benefits.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” he admitted, likening meditation to Google’s gym programs where the same few people always turn up. But for someone who is doing the impossible, “I don’t know” is a fair response.
Like all good engineers, he sees science and technology as the answer to mass adoption. One of the reasons why he has picked spreading inner happiness and compassion over other altruistic endeavors is because these ideas are underserved by the scientific community.
Besides, many people who are “much richer, smarter, and better looking” than him are already working on the problem of global poverty, the other condition for world peace.
The science behind meditation and its link to compassion is still young, and a lot of avenues remain unexplored. This led him to become the founding patron of The Center of Compassion at Stanford University, which is creating a community of scholars who are studying compassion.
Meng’s goal in funding research is to eventually “take the magic out of the practice”. He also wants to invest in technology that could quantify meditative states and accelerate the progress in meditation.
For example, he’d like to see inventions that can tell people when they have attained a basic state of alertness and relaxation, or time how long it takes for people to achieve a calm mind. Having clear metrics on progress allow people to help one another grow in the practice.
Happiness is the default state of mind
At a public talk held at the National Library later in the day, Meng drew a diverse crowd consisting of social entrepreneurs, academics, mindfulness practitioners, and personal coaches.
Joining him on stage was Colin Goh, a well-known Singaporean cartoonist and his personal friend who did the illustrations for the book.
“Put down your Twilight and Hunger Games books and join us for this talk,” Colin beckons over the microphone to visitors in the library.
Meng then launches into a speech that, by now, must have been given at least a hundred times. Yet he still says with conviction that the book is life-changing.
He doesn’t just utter these words to sell his book (which neither he nor Google earn a single cent from. All proceeds go to the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, or SIYLI, which is pronounced “silly”, another one of his jokes that stuck).
Meng speaks from experience. Faced with an unhappy childhood, he would be depressed if nothing good happens. Now, he is delighted if nothing bad happens.
Happiness to him is a default state of mind, an idea summed up in the Sanskrit word ‘sukha’, which translates into ‘non-energetic joy’.
He stumbled upon this state of mind while meditating, and describes it as happiness enveloping his entire being inside and out. It’s a form of happiness that is subtle and accessible by a trained mind. It is sustainable because it doesn’t require much energy to evoke.
But does his personal experience apply to everyone? Not really, Meng said. Neurological differences in individuals may account for slightly different experiences, and the best way to figure out if something works is to try it.
“If it doesn’t work, its bullshit,” he said.
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About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE