Quickie Reviews of Two Books to Help With Mindfulness at Work (and Elsewhere)

When you are mindful…You become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on “autopilot”…By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around you, you are freed from your normal tendency to react to them.

— A Guide to Practicing and Understanding Mindfulness

One of the things I regret most about my younger self is my extreme fear of failure and the way it drove many unhealthy behaviors. Sure, it had its uses. For example, I often used that fear to drive me to work harder, read more, learn more and generally stand out from the average. However, it also made me a very difficult boss in the early days of my company as I drove everyone as hard as I drove myself and rarely but too often yelled at my employees for simple mistakes. I’m ashamed to say that this made me a very poor leader at times. When the chips were down, when the going got rough, I worked harder than anyone and so did my team but they did so often in fear of the slightest stumble. My ugly behavior extended into my personal life too where my fear and doubt sometimes made me quick to anger and cost way too many personal relationships.

To this day, I can’t say for sure where my deep fears come from. Western therapy gave me some theories but never really helped much. Instead, I learned how to see my fears for what they were and took away their power to control me through lessons I learned from Buddhist practices and Eastern philosophies. The simple ability to recognize the blooming of an emotion, how it changes the way my body feels and being able to choose in that moment instead of reacting had a very powerful impact on my life. It helped me grow my business and build a far stronger team of happier employees. It lead me into a great marriage with an extradorinaiy woman. After I sold my company, it helped me find a home at Blinds.com along with a role I love. Although I still have a long way to go, I certainly feel like I’m better off today than I was those many years ago mainly because I better understand what’s going on inside my head and my heart at least most of the time.

Lately, I’ve noticed that mindfulness is making its way into the business mainstream.  Companies like Google are actively training employees in mindfulness practices because it improves the quality of communications, helps people get more done by enhancing their focus and generally improves the happiness and satisfaction of their employees. To that end, here are two books that can help get you and your company get started.

“Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning Into the Unknown” by Pema Chodron is nothing more than a commencement speech and an interview and nothing less than a brilliant and gentle lesson about the importance of facing up to your failures with compassion and understanding. It only runs about an hour and a half so I was able to listen to the Audible version while walking one afternoon. Something about the combination of walking 7 miles and the lessons in the book left me with tears my eyes. Often, it felt like the author was talking directly to me and my struggles.  Yes, I often took refuge in blaming others when I was involved in failures. Yes, even more often I judged myself unforgivably responsible for every failure. The secret, as she says, is to learn to sit quietly with the feeling instead of pushing it off quickly with blaming others or self. Use failure to become stronger, more compassionate and more able to make your way through life.  She tells a story of a man who walks through the surf to swim out to sea. A large wave comes and knock him down.  As he lays at the bottom with sand in his mouth and in his eyes he thinks of two choices: get up or, well, die. He gets up and walks further. He gets knocked down again, lays at the bottom and gets up again. Each time he gets knocked down, it becomes easier to get back up because of the habit. Easier said than done, of course, but there’s far more nuance to it and she does talk about it a bit more as the book goes along. The commencement address that opens the book is full of humor and good will even as it challenges the new graduates in the audience (and the reader) to go out into a world full of unknowns and many, many opportunities for failure.  Check it out at Amazon.

“Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)” by Chade-Meng Tan is a straight-forward guide to the mindfulness course the author helped to assemble and now brings to people throughout Google. Tan is one of Google’s earliest engineers and brings an engineer’s mindset to mindfulness. He provides plenty of scientific evidence for the benefits of mindfulness training, which makes the seemingly squishy ideas behind things like meditation much more approachable for highly analytical types. His enthusiasm for the subject and his infectious joy come through page after page. There’s no doubt that the title on his business card is accurate: “For he’s a jolly-good fellow, which nobody can deny”. I would highly recommend getting this one in print or Kindle form so you can easily go back to the practical exercises.