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Steve Kettmann

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Book Review: The Google Way to be Calmer, Happier and a Better Listener

Posted: 03/27/2012 6:35 pm

Longtime Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan's new book Search Inside Yourself, with the subtitle, "The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (And World Peace)," is based on a program of the same name the author helped implement at Google.

The concept sounds simple, but is actually quite radical: What if businesses made a serious effort to find ways to make their employees not only better compensated, and more satisfied with their work situation, but happier and healthier and more deeply content with all aspects of their lives?

I'm sure there are limits to this approach. As the classic HBO series Six Feet Under explored, for example, probably it's always going to be at least a little depressing working at a funeral home.

But Meng's book offers an intriguing glimpse into how a work culture devoted to peace of mind and mental balance truly might yield more productive workers and therefore more profits -- a classic win-win situation of workers being happier and bosses being happier.

Meng is not so much the guru type, as he is a sponge: He talks to a lot of wise people and absorbs what he can, then passes tidbits on to others. His words carry the added authority of someone who pulled off advancing at Google from early engineer to "Jolly Good Fellow," his actual job title, in which his duties involve mostly such tasks as working for world peace.

"Like many others wiser than me, I believe world peace can and must be created from the inside out," Meng writes. "And if we can create a world where most people are happy, at peace, and compassionate, we can create the foundation for world peace."

What does this mean in practice? Meng starts by walking you to the restroom -- that is, he starts by showing a new way to walk to the restroom. Meditation can mean different things to different people and can involve hours of deep focus -- or it can simply involve emptying your mind and focusing on something as simple as your own breathing for a few minutes at a time, for example as you walk from your desk at work to the restroom. This is what Meng does. He practices walking meditation on his way to the Google men's room.

You have to start somewhere. Meng himself went from being a person whose disposition was to be "naturally very unhappy. If nothing good happened, then by default, I was unhappy. Right now, it is the reverse: If nothing bad happens, then by default, I am happy. I have become so naturally jolly that it even became part of my job title at Google: jolly good fellow. "

The approaches Meng advocates, from placing an emphasis on developing -- and valuing -- emotional intelligence to mindfulness training, are not startlingly new -- but his book contains enough wisdom and enough charm to break through the barriers that keep us from making positive changes in our lives. I read the book several weeks ago and found myself referring back to it often, for example, practicing the breathing techniques Meng explains in order to calm myself and empty the mind of overloaded worry and stress.

Meng offers pointers on being a better listener that we could all benefit from and that some of us -- you know who you are -- could really benefit from. As with most things that matter in life, we have to work at being an emotionally alert and responsive listener. He offers a whole program, all culled from the "Search Inside Yourself" program he developed for Google people.

One of the more intriguing sections explores the idea that "My Emotions Are Not Me" and leads to some valuable reflections on the nature of pain. Mostly, it's not the pain that hurts -- not really. It's the idea of the pain.

"The first important opportunity is the possibility of experiencing pain without suffering," Meng writes. "The theory is that aversion, not the pain itself, is the actual cause of suffering; the pain is just a sensation which creates that aversion. Hence, if the mind recognizes this and then becomes able to let go of aversion, then the experience of pain may lead to greatly reduced suffering -- perhaps no suffering at all."

It's only a "perhaps." Still, powerful stuff. As an engineer with a love of science and data, Meng summons empirical evidence whenever he can, often to great effect, sometimes more in an engineers-talking-to-engineers kind of way. Sometimes he can go a little overboard wtth his friendly, conversational style, too, and I say that as someone who is a big advocate of conversational writing in books. All in all, this is a book I'd recommend to anyone.

 

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