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Beyond the Elevator Speech

The intersection between professional fulfillment and mindfulness can’t be fully unpacked between floors one and seven. MICHAEL CARROLL offers a deeper exploration of his own elevator pitch.

In the workplace, it helps to have an elevator speech or two—messages that last as long as it takes to share an elevator ride. In an elevator speech we step out from behind the torrent of tweets, emails, Skypes, and phone calls and deliver a face-to-face, short, compelling message with passion and clarity.

The beauty of delivering an elevator speech is that we force ourselves to simplify and communicate clearly about even the most complex topic. Maybe we are asked, “Hey, what’s this quantum mechanics thing all about?” Or maybe, “I thought you left the company—why are you still working here?” And right there without a misstep we deliver a short, focused speech that simplifies and clarifies while connecting with another human being on the spot. It’s an indispensible skill in today’s workplace.

One of the elevator speeches I’m often invited to give is: “How can mindfulness meditation help me at work?” In my experience, people often seem to expect a catalogue of benefits: how mindfulness meditation can repair our damaged immune system, cultivate self-awareness, reduce stress, lower absenteeism, and improve productivity. And though such an elevator speech can no doubt be helpful, I choose a different approach:

Mindfulness at work starts with synchronizing with our experience.

Then we can address our primary responsibility: seeing clearly.

By appreciating our circumstances in such a way, we can more skillfully contribute to our world.

And in the end, live a confident, decent life at work.

The thing about elevator speeches is that there is always a hidden hope that when the elevator reaches its destination our colleague will say something like, “Wow, that’s fascinating stuff. Why don’t you come over to my office for a cup of coffee so we can discuss this further?”

So, here we are. For those who would like to explore this topic further, please read on. For all the others, thanks for listening—and this is your floor.

Mindfulness at work starts with synchronizing with our experience

Being mindful at work is not simply a matter of being alert to the present moment, as if we were intently sightseeing or inspecting our experience. Rather, mindfulness introduces us to the reality that we are fully immersed—utterly harmonized 360 degrees—in the circumstances we find ourselves in. We instinctively take a panoramic view and become emotionally and physically in tune with our experience.

Let’s take a simple example. One of the classic missteps at work is firing off an email in response to a perceived insult or criticism. We’ve arrived at work a bit late and are rushing to make a meeting in fifteen minutes when we notice an email in our inbox from the IT department. The subject line says, “Project over budget, late, being reconsidered.” We know the author, we’ve received these broadsides before, and frankly we’re a bit fed up.

We open the email, glance quickly over familiar criticisms: “...we have some concerns about your estimates…,” “…there has been no follow-up…,” “…meetings have been missed…” Heated up, we fire off a curt response in bold caps: “PLEASE STOP SENDING THESE EMAILS. IN THE FUTURE, JUST CALL.”

We’re feeling pretty good as we leave for the meeting, when we pause. A little flutter in our stomach tells us we may have missed something, that we ought to check one last detail. Reopening the offending email, we find to our surprise that we are not the intended recipient. The email was addressed to a colleague, copied to several senior managers, and we were blind copied as a courtesy.

Such missteps often cause lasting damage at work, and at times end careers. When we’re mindfully synchronized with our workplace, however, our instincts inhibit such missteps because we are naturally alert to the full picture. We know that the stage is as important as the actors. We recognize an organization to be a web of lively relationships, not a series of isolated transactions “about me.” When we train our minds in mindfulness, we become more and more aware that no matter what we do or say—whether in an email or in the boardroom; in the cafeteria or at a press briefing—there is always a greater context to consider. Narrowly focusing on our agenda, our insult, our needs, simply makes no sense when we are fully synchronized with our workplace.

Then we can address our primary responsibility: seeing clearly

At work we are all very interested in doing stuff—performing, achieving, executing, and accomplishing. Whether we are on a construction site, in a hospital setting, the corporate world, or academia, we regularly confront standard questions: “What do you do for a living?” “What do I do next?” “Do they have enough to do?” Work is all about doing—meeting goals and getting stuff done.

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