Navigating the Continuous Stream of Stimuli

Excerpt from "Wisdom 2.0: The Digital World Connects," by Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, July 2011: 

Changing the world is a tall order, so most people start with their immediate surroundings. In the tech world—where work and play and life are so tightly intermingled—the obvious place to start is the workplace. The best-known program in high tech for promoting wisdom practices is Google’s Search Inside Yourself (See “Google Searches,” Shambhala Sun, September 2009), which was spearheaded by Chade-Meng Tan. Meng, as he is known, is already a veteran spokesperson for the Wisdom 2.0 movement. His core belief is that if you can reach people at their workplace, you can change how they are, and ultimately change the world. It’s becoming a kind of article of faith for the Wisdom 2.0 crowd. For [Digg.com founder] Kevin Rose, it includes things as simple as providing people at work with high quality loose tea, so they have to “at least interrupt their momentum long enough to properly make a good cup of tea,” which they may then take the time to enjoy rather than simply gulp down.

Human resources departments at major technology companies are committed to providing access to practices that not only help their employees deal with stress, but to be more curious and strategic about how they go about their jobs. “We are very interested in the long-term well-being of the people we’ve invested in, particularly the managers,” says Stuart Crabb, head of learning at Facebook. “We want them to be role models for being present. The education system rewards people for being supersmart, but it doesn’t really develop wisdom. That’s sorely lacking.” Crabb notes that the “continuous stream of stimuli” that is the daily reality for tech workers, not to say the population at large, is a dangerous drug. “It looks like it’s very powerful and enabling but it also has the possibility of permanently derailing someone.”

Over the past year, Facebook has been adding about one hundred employees a month. Twitter has more than doubled its workforce. In this kind of growth environment, says Crabb, “Everyone needs to know the difference between sprinting and pausing. It’s very hard to talk about work–life balance to the generation of people who make up our workforce. It’s a big blur for them. That’s how it is for our founder. It doesn’t resonate if you try to tell them that they’re running a marathon, not a sprint, because at this rate they’ll be sprinting for a while. What we can teach them is the value of the pause. They have to break up their sprint into sprints.”

Facebook leaders don’t dictate how long an employee’s work sprint should be, or their corresponding pause, or when and how it should happen. They know employees are the best judges of what they need. “People who end the year without having taken a vacation are not heroes here,” Crabb says. “If you take time to figure out what the pause looks like for you and you take it, you will come back more refreshed and ready for the next sprint. And there will be one. If you don’t take the time to pause, you’re going to burn out and we’re going to lose you before we’ve got the best of who you are.”

Rich Fernandez, head of learning and organizational development at eBay, sees mindfulness practice as the best way for people to recognize the value of pausing and regulating themselves so they can make the best decisions. He talks about it as a form of “positive disruption,” because it interrupts “our default mechanism of doing more, more, more. We think there’s a linear relationship between time spent working and results, but so often the time away, the stop to rest, the long cup of tea, following our breath, replenishes us and brings insight. That’s what the neuroscience is telling us too. Yet our paradigms for leadership usually reinforce the linear approach—it’s about there and then, where you’re going, rather than how you are being. We are a values-based company, and our first value is to keep it human. When we get away from that, we need to positively disrupt the paradigm.”

Fernandez has been pleasantly surprised by how workers, when given a chance, take to having a real pause, and the company supports that. “When we do mindfulness talks, we pull employees away from the line for an hour and a half at a time. I saw 250 employees at an internet company sitting still for a talk for almost ninety minutes and then doing ten minutes of mindfulness practice. No one got up and left.”

Longer excerpt here...

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