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Hot-shot geeks at the world’s leading information company are taking a ground-breaking course called Search Inside Yourself. As BARRY BOYCE reports, it’s a new model for teaching mindfulness and emotional intelligence, and its creator is thinking big.
“For as long as I can remember, I have had a desire to do something big and important for humanity,” says Chade-Meng Tan. “In 2004, the door of opportunity opened up for me. One August day that year, I suddenly had real money.”
That was the day Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two graduate students on leave from Stanford, took their little start-up public. Raising $1.7 billion in capital in one day, Google became the largest internet IPO (Initial Public Offering) ever. Google—the noun, the verb, the company, the way of life they created—was about to make its early employees, those who’d taken stock options to compensate for the low pay and long hours, very rich.
One of the people whose lives changed on “IPO Day” was employee #107, Chade-Meng Tan, who is now bringing mindfulness to Google through a program known as Search Inside Yourself (SIY). Googlers—as employees there are known—operate with a lot of autonomy and are urged to be free spirits. For example, Meng just up and decided to call himself Google’s “Jolly Good Fellow” and had cards printed adding the phrase, “which nobody can deny.” As Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, Meng has become Google’s unofficial VIP greeter. Behind the reception desk in one of the main Google buildings is Meng’s Wall, a gallery of snapshots of Meng standing next to luminaries like Bill Clinton, the Dalai Lama, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nancy Pelosi, Muhammad Ali, and more than one hundred and fifty others—and counting.
Google employees like Meng spend one day in five working on whatever inspires them, regardless of profit potential. So he didn’t need to get rich to start a meditation program at Google. But achieving financial freedom somehow enabled Meng to think big about what he could do for the world—sadly not always the first thought of those who strike it rich. For Meng and the many collaborators he has brought together, SIY is more than a corporate meditation program. Just as Google’s founders saw their search engine as a way to influence how people work with information altogether, the SIY designers see it as a working model for how to bring mindfulness and peace to people while they are at work, a place where people spend vast amounts of time. If they develop mindfulness there, it will spill over into the rest of their lives and influence all those around them.
“Many people at Google spend 20 percent of their time on their own endeavors for saving the world through technology,” says Norman Fischer, founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation and one of the principal SIY teachers. “In some sense, that’s what Meng is doing. He wants to make the world a better place through the ‘technology’ of meditation. He’s starting at home, within Google. And it’s working. For the people who take the course, it makes a difference in how they operate, how they communicate. They learn that they don’t have to leave their emotions at the door when they come to work. That’s big. If Wall Street traders, for example, had had more emotional intelligence, they might have realized the crazy derivatives they created were wrong.”
According to Mirabai Bush, senior fellow at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, who helped to design the program and has taught within it, “It’s great when contemplative practice comes to any workplace, but it’s particularly meaningful for Google, a fount of countless creative ideas. In many ways, Google is a model place to work; Fortune named it the best place to work in America two years in a row. And Google has had a big influence on all of our working lives. If it works at Google, other employers take notice.”
“Let’s get a smoothie before we talk,” Meng says to me as we waited for one of the many meeting rooms in Building 43 to be vacated at our appointed time. Building 43 is where Google founders Brin and Page have their offices, including a rooftop workspace. It’s in a cluster of four buildings (40-43) that surround a green space, like a quads on a college campus. They are part of Googleplex, the large headquarters complex in Mountain View, California. Buildings 40-43 seem inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s lots of glass and curves and odd angles, and when you’re inside, you rarely feel disconnected from the outside. Building 43 contains a Mexican restaurant, a multiethnic cafeteria, a California nouvelle café (serving a delicate red snapper when I visited), and kitchenettes all around that fulfill the Google promise that you will never be more than one hundred feet from free food. Lest you gain weight, there are gyms, bikes to ride, volleyball courts, and lap pools in the open air.
In the smoothie bar over in Building 40, there are some people who might almost pass for corporate, but one googler is sprawled across a couch with his feet over the back and his head on the floor, his laptop held in front of him, fingers dexterously flying over keys and mouse pad. Meng and I carry our smoothies back across the quad to Building 43, and just in time for our meeting the team using the room rose and exited gracefully. While Google is very free and loose, with foosball, pool tables, and sleep pods in open view, it’s also quite precise in many ways. It’s an engineering company after all. And being respectful of others’ time and space is part of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy. Employees are given every amenity to make work enjoyable, healthy, and creative, and when you get a feel for the atmosphere, a meditation program seems not radical, but sensible. It could only start, though, once someone figured out just what kind of meditation program would appeal to the average googler.