Wisdom Traditions in the Workplace?

I (foolishly) missed the Wisdom 2.0 conference in SF in May (next one is Feb ’11), but I watched some of the videos with fascination here. I think the explosion in current neuroscience research is going to show that the ability to sink into a state of focused attention (aka “flow”) at work yields great results, and meditation might be one of the vehicles that helps get people there. Tonight there was a meetup of a handful of the Wisdom 2.0 folks at Samovar in SF, so I set out into the fog…

Soren Gordhamer (@soreng) from the Fetzer Institute led the conversation, and it was a lively mix of people from Fetzer, the SF Zen Center (@latrippi), SFSU (@jonathanrood), CIIS, and a handful of independent folks that did everything from ethics consulting (@k8ethics) to programming.  Fetzer’s stated mission is “to help bring the power of love, forgiveness, and compassion to the center of community life” and the Wisdom 2.0 conference brings together technology leaders and people from wisdom traditions, to explore the intersection of the two.

Tonight’s conversation was about how wisdom and mindfulness can play a role in the business world, and how the avalanche of ever-changing technology causing endless distractions can coexist with practices like mindfulness meditation.

People were interested in research on how mindfulness/wisdom practices could be put to good use in the workplace, both by individuals, and by organizations, and in what ways those might be measurable.  In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the coaching profession 20-30 years ago – even though it was producing results that people felt good about, it wasn’t being measured in terms of ROI. Now there have been numerous studies on the ROI of coaching, it’s a provable win, and as a result, over 70% of the fortune 500 utilizes coaching for top performers. Will mindfulness follow the same path, initial brought in my early adopters who “know” it’s the right thing, but eventually the topic of whitepapers and research that prove its ROI to the skeptical COO’s who have to justify spending money on company-wide programs?

Another interesting topic was: do we introduce mindfulness practice into the workplace with a sort of “melting pot of wisdom traditions” background, including contemplative practices in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhist, Sufism, etc, or do we go the “vanilla” route of just saying it’s useful, and quoting all of the neuroscience literature, and leave the roots of these traditions behind in the workplace? When we brought yoga teachers to Critical Path in 1998 (before it was a must-have at tech startups), we screened for teachers who were less likely to talk about “exploring spirituality through yoga” and more likely to talk about “stretching your body to feel great,” and it worked just fine. A big victory was getting the folks from BizDev to come to the classes with the Development team. Some of us went on to explore the spiritual side of yoga once they got the moves down; I trained as a yoga teacher in 2002.

Finally, we talked about the ever-increasing level of interruption caused by Twitter, FB, mobile phones, and all of the other electronics that are becoming de rigeur (and I admit I took two phonecalls during the meetup, just to offer an example of the always-connected life). We wondered if Fetzer could play a role in aggregating the current studies about neuroscience and how brains, productivity, and happiness are affected by varying levels of connectedness. I’d like to see this done without making value judgements (at least not initially) about what level of connectedness is “best”, but rather how they generate differing abilities to focus, and to be proactive vs. reactive (or whatever else they are causing our brains to do).

All in all, a super-interesting evening. Looking forward to the next meetup at the end of August. Thanks to Fetzer Institute for buying us tea and snackies, and hosting a great conversation!

Author: Marcy Swenson

Marcy Swenson is an executive coach who works with tech startup founders and leaders. She writes about about entrepreneurs, leadership, and startup culture on her blog at StartupHappiness.com. She is studying what factors contribute (or detract) to creating a happy startup culture. Prior to becoming a coach, Marcy was a co-founder with two successful exits; at CPTH (Nasdaq), she built the tech team that led to IPO. Forbes names CPTH the fastest-growing high-tech company in the world in 1999. CPTH grew to 3000 employees in 4 years; for comparison, Google grew to 3000 employees in 6 years.