Chade-Meng Tan

Tech companies find their inner Zen

Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld: A software engineer walks down a hallway at Intel, not thinking about the emails he needs to send or that he has a meeting later in the day about a new project.

Instead, he’s focusing his thoughts on his breathing and how the light feels as it comes through the windows in the hallway. His cellphone isn’t in his pocket. It’s back on his desk.

When he meets with colleagues to work on a critical software problem, he has pushed away any distractions, his mind is clear and still, and he’s focused solely on the problem in front of him …

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Noah Shachtman, Wired: Chade-Meng Tan is perched on a chair, his lanky body folded into a half-lotus position. “Close your eyes,” he says. His voice is a hypnotic baritone, slow and rhythmic, seductive and gentle. “Allow your attention to rest on your breath: The in-breath, the out-breath, and the spaces in between.” We feel our lungs fill and release. As we focus on the smallest details of our respiration, other thoughts—of work, of family, of money—begin to recede, leaving us alone with the rise and fall of our chests. For thousands of years, these techniques have helped put practitioners into meditative states…

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Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan

The cover of Search Inside Yourself is a clever riff on Google’s famous multicolored logo, and this is appropriate given that the author is a long-term Google employee and that the material is based on a course developed for Google’s staff.

Meng, as he is called, is a long-term meditator. Quite how long I’m not sure, but he refers to meditating before he joined Google (which was in 1999). Google’s workers are allowed to spend 20% of their time on personal projects, and so Meng and some of his colleagues spent that time developing a personal-development course which had meditation and mindfulness at its core.The course was jokingly called Search Inside Yourself, and the name stuck. This book is the result. SIY (the course) has been taught at Google since 2007, and has been taken by hundreds of people.

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Search Inside Yourself is in some ways an odd book, no doubt because it’s written by an eccentric person. Meng seems irrepressibly jokey. (His Google business card describes his job title as “Jolly Good Fellow.”) The book is peppered with goofy cartoons and constant quips. At times these provoked chuckles, but mostly I found it all a little wearying. Quite literally I found my energy to be drained by Meng’s jokes, which I think is to do with the jokes taking my attention away from Meng’s more serious points, and thus requiring me to have to re-engage. I’ve had a similar sense of weariness overcome me at times when talking with people who can’t stop joking.

Which is not to say that the book is not valuable — in many ways it is, and I’ll come to that shortly. But at one point I almost put the book down for good. One of Meng’s traits is constant name-dropping and a lack of modesty that some might find refreshing but which to me is distasteful. Here is the point at while I nearly abandoned my reading:

[E]ven though I am very shy, I find myself able to project a quiet but unmistakable self-confidence, whether I am meeting world leaders like Barack Obama, speaking to a large audience, or dealing with a traffic police officer. I watched the video of myself speaking at the United Nations, and I was amazed how confident I appeared.

In the very next paragraph Meng mentions “interacting” with Natalie Portman and Bill Clinton. It was several days after reading that particular passage before I could persuade myself to pick up SIY again.

What kind of book is this? It’s a guide to achieving success and happiness, according to the subtitle. Inside we learn that we do this by developing greater emotional intelligence. It’s therefore not just a meditation book. Meditation here is just one tool to develop emotional intelligence. As the book went on I became increasingly enthusiastic and interested in Meng’s approach. The later material is more connected with empathy, lovingkindness, and compassion, which is for me inherently more interesting than the earlier material on mindfulness.

Who is the book aimed at? At times it seems that the target market consists of managers and CEOs, and often it’s reminiscent of Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — and in fact Covey’s book had a big influence on me. But some may find the recurring references to the corporate world a little off-putting if that’s not part of their experience.

I present what I didn’t like first, because my experience of reading the book was of being tripped up on the way to reading about an interesting program of personal development. And there is a lot of useful material in the book, and Meng has a number of strengths as a guide.

One strength Meng has is that he is an engineer and likes to know what works and what’s the science behind what works. And so there’s a lot of scientific backing for the meditative methods he outlines. For a meditation geek like me this was a delight. He’s also keen on taking systems to pieces and putting the back together again. So he breaks down the skills of mindfulness, empathy, compassionate communication, motivation, etc., and presents them very clearly.

I found myself looking forward to the gray boxes that contained the actual exercises. These were very stimulating and sometimes suggested exercises that I’d never thought of, such as the “meditation circuit training” on page 73. There’s an exercise on dealing with memories of “success” and “failure” (pp. 149–151) that’s similar to exercises I’ve taught in dealing with painful memories generally, but never with regard to that particular topic. His lovingkindness meditation (pp. 169–170) is very brief, and very familiar, but laid out in a very clear and concise way.

(As an aside, talking of familiarity, Meng uses a diagram on page 36 of his book that’s almost identical to one I devised for my own teaching twenty years ago, and use on this site. He referenced this to researcher Philippe Goldin, who used the diagram in a lecture he gave at Google, and I’m intrigued to know whether Goldin read my book, saw this site, or maybe happened to come up with the same schema independently.)

Another of Meng’s strengths is that he is not shackled to a particular ideology. The very common, almost standard, mindfulness-based stress reduction model, for example, that tends to downplay lovingkindness and compassion meditation (although it integrates those qualities into the meditation it teaches). Meng is prepared to take whatever works and to go with it. And so his approach is refreshingly varied and creative, including mindfulness, compassion, tonglen, communication exercises, etc.

One of the other things I admire about Meng is that he is a big thinker. In discussing motivation and “higher purpose” he says,

If you find yourself inspired by your ideal future, I highly recommend talking about it a lot to other people. There are two important benefits. First, the more you talk about it, the more real it becomes to you … The second important benefit is the more you talk to people about your ideal future, the more likely you can find people to help you.

This is something practical I’ll certainly take away from Meng’s book, and for that teaching alone I felt deep gratitude for having spent time with his writings. I realized how much I keep my vision to myself, as I work on from day to day trying to bring the benefits of meditation to more people. How sad! And how limiting! I’ll be spending more time reflecting on this.

The conclusion to SIY is in fact an outline of how Meng plans to make meditation accessible to the world. He wants to get to the point where everybody knows as a matter of course that meditation is good for them (just as they know that exercise is good for them), where everyone who wants to meditate can find a way to learn it, where companies value meditation and encourage their employees to do it, and where, in short, meditation is taken for granted. Or as Meng says, people will get to the point where they think, “Of course you should meditate, duh.”

SIY (both the course and the book) is part of Meng’s strategy for achieving these goals. He wants to make the SIY course “open source,” and to “give it away as one of Google’s gifts to the world,” although it’s not clear what he means by this. The book itself is not free. Even the Google Books preview limits how many pages can be read, which is rather ironic. And given that the book is under traditional copyright, it’s not strictly legal for people to copy and possibly even teach verbatim the exercises in it without permission. I wonder if Meng could have published the book under a Creative Commons license rather than traditional copyright, making the material freely available on a non-commercial basis, so encouraging others to spread the word?

Still, I wish Meng well. He’s a crazy dreamer, but when has anyone but a crazy dreamer ever pulled off anything big?

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O.K., Google, take a deep breath

search inside yourself book cover

Maybe it’s no surprise that a yellow-brick road winds through the Googleplex.

Step onto Google’s campus here — with its indoor treehouse, volleyball court, apiaries, heated toilet seats and, yes, Oz-style road — and you might think you’ve just sailed over the rainbow.

But all the toys and perks belie the frenetic pace here, and many employees acknowledge that life at Google can be hard on fragile egos.

Sure, the amenities are seductive, says Blaise Pabon, an enterprise sales engineer, but “when you get to a place like this, it can tear you apart” if you don’t find a way to handle the …

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