The New York Times ran a story over the weekend about Google’s efforts to increase mindfulness among its employees. The story, Ok, Google, Take a Deep Breath, featured Chade-Meng Tan (Meng), an engineer at Google and the creator of the Google team course, “Search Inside Yourself.” I clicked the link to watch a sample class on YouTube and I was both disappointed and annoyed.
Meng explains that he wanted to see a dramatic shift in world towards peace. Given the company’s policy to let all employees work on personal areas of research for a certain percentage of their work hours, Meng decided that the best investment of his time would come from figuring out how to generate world peace. It’s an insightful idea. What I hated about it was his conclusion that to get individuals and companies to care about world peace, we have to help them understand what’s in it for them. Meng went on to explain that no one is going to create peace just because it’s a good thing for society. They have to get something out of it on a personal level before they care about peace. We need to tap into people’s individual needs that make the objective of world peace an inevitable by-product.
I hate that conclusion. Is that what we’ve amounted to? A collection of 6 billion bodies who only care about themselves? I stewed on that as I ate my lunch, determined to prove that though Meng may be a very bright engineer, his conclusion on how to bring about peace was unfounded.
I couldn’t. I got more annoyed.
Thankfully, my post from yesterday on the value of having our personal philosophies unsettled was still top of mind. Why did Meng’s conclusion, one that I had a hard time refuting, bother me so much and what could I learn from it? Could I apply it to my own work? Was I already subconsciously already applying it to my own work?
A New York Times column that Thomas Friedman wrote for after 9/11. In it he explained that, “If you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you. “ In other words, get out there and do something that’s good for you and good for others. The trick we have to benefit individually as much as we do collectively in order to get community efforts and acts of goodwill to be sustainable.
Environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility really took off when companies realized they could benefit financially and in terms of customer and employee loyalty. In these efforts, the win-win is what tipped the scales. We are beginning to see these same seeds planted in healthcare. Our current healthcare system is no longer sustainable, so we are beginning to see more emphasis on preventative health measures that give people a way to be well before they ever get sick. The same is true in education. We are beginning to see a proliferation of new channels for learning because entrepreneurs realized that they could profit from disrupting the traditional education system.
In all these examples, the answer to the question “what’s in it for me?” came into balance with the answer to the question “why is this good for society?” We need both side of the equation to really make an impact. Thanks, Meng, for stating the cold, hard facts, for not letting us let ourselves off the hook, and for showing us that we can make a positive impact on humanity by truly understanding humanity.
Incidentally, Fast Company ran an article this week with a similar conclusion, stated a little bit more diplomatically. Another solid, if philosophically unsettling, read. 3 Tips for Making an Abstract Idea Relatable to Everyone, Not Just Geeks.