8 June 2018 Rufus Pollock
We know that the bottom line of business is profit. But to profit means “to benefit from.” … there’s nothing wrong with making money. It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us. To do this, we need to be free from the pursuit of power, wealth, fame, and sex. … it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness, both to other people and to us.
Thich Nhat Hanh. “The Art of Power”
This piece talks to the desire of individuals and companies in the digital sector to find better, more mindful ways of operating. It argues that with the current structure of the digital economy, it will be hard, if not impossible, to create and sustain truly mindful culture in tech companies.
This is because core aspects of the digital economy create an environment that is anti-mindful in key ways: stressed, obsessed with achievement and money, ego-oriented, and short-term. These pressures are not simply cultural, they flow from the basic structures of the current digital economy. For example, the winner-takes-all dynamic that make it necessary to raise large sums from investors and to target breakneck growth (“grow or die”).
Thus, to have a weller, more mindful culture in the digital sector requres a change the way the digital economy works. Conversely, the more mindful and aware of these issues we are the easier it will be to create these changes in the economy. Thus, the “transformation of being” and “transformation of production” need to go together (cf Sketches of a Future Society - Part II).
Within the digital technology sector there is a growing interest in more mindful ways of operating. Companies such as Salesforce, Google and Facebook amongst many others offer mindfulness programs. Salesforce, in particular, has gone even further. It has a 1-1-1 program where 1% of tech, people and resources are dedicated to philanthropic purposes. It also has an a strong and longstanding support for mindfulness and meditation originating with its CEO and it is creating mindfulness pods in all its new offices.
Note: Salesforce will be used frequently as an example because it of its prominent commitment to mindfulness from its CEO and because it is highly successful. However, the points here apply here irrespective of the scale or level of mindfulness of the business.
These companies operate within a digital sector that is highly competitive. Furthermore, this sector is itself located with a wider economy and society culturally oriented towards competition, ambition and success.1 Pressure, stress and anxiety are omnipresent – exemplified in a mentality of “win or die trying” and “kill or be killed”. For example, the title of Intel CEO Andy Grove memoir was “Only the Paranoid Survive”.
This can make it hard to develop and sustain a mindful culture and way of being. Adoption of mindful practices may be shallow – framed within a mindset of “return on investment” where mindfulness is used to make “fitter, happier, more productive” employees.
For example, at Salesforce annual dreamforce there are sessions organized by the Wisdom Labs Chief Science Officer described as “hacks” to quickly get your energy back: “Overworked? Not enough sleep? In this session, Dr. Pal will show you a mindful hack to quickly rejuvenate and re-energize yourself during your busy workday.”
Digital products like software are at base simply information. Information is costlessly copyable – unlike traditional physical things like bread or cars. At the same time, making the first copy of a piece of information like a software application has large fixed costs.
Large fixed costs combined with costless copying mean huge economies of scale. Along with network/platform effects, this makes information markets a winner-takes-all proposition – they are like the Olympic hundred metres races with only one winner and many hundreds who have struggled in vain for glory.
Contrast this with the life of a baker – there can be many bakers, even in a single town. If you are reasonable baker you will always have a living. You do not need to worry that another baker hundreds of miles away can supply your customers and by inventing a cheaper way to make bread and can suddely take away your business and your liveliood.
Digital competition though is like that. It is both exciting and stressful. In many ways it resembles a casino: many enter hopeful, but most leave empty-handed and poorer whilst a lucky few become fabulously rich.
However, unlike a traditional casino, the winners cannot leave but are forced to keep betting time after time. As a result, the CEOs – and staff – of these enterprises face a situation much like the legendary King Damocles. Damocles was rich and powerful but his life was full of anxiety and suffering. This was because he lived with the constant threat of usurption and violent death – whether through assassination or war. One day, a guest remarked enviously on his royal position so that night at supper Damocles placed the guest at dinner underneath a sword suspended by a single thread. “This”, King Damocles said to the guest, “Is what my whole life is really like”.
Obviously, modern CEOs do not face actual death like King Damocles. However, they have to live with the ever present risk of being supplanted by competitors inside or outside their firms. Because of its winner takes all structure, digital competition is particularly tough, ruthless and stressful – especially at the high-end.2
The situation and the challenge lead us to the following question:
(How) can digital companies create deeply well, mindful cultures and thrive as businesses?
This leads to the bigger question:
How can we create an economy and society in which it is possible to have thriving businesses that are profoundly mindful and well?
Summary: transformation of being requires a transformation of the material systems – and vice-versa. Transformation of the “economy” of being requires the transformation of the economy of making. Put conversely: it will be next to impossible to create a deep mindful culture in digital companies if the digital economy around it remains untransformed.
This does not meaning giving up. Rather it means expanding the vision of transformation beyond doing mindfulness in a single company to a transformation of the broader economy.
However, it does mean the immediate answer to the first question is a negative:
How can digital companies create a deeply mindful and well culture and thrive as a business?
In the current digital economy, it is next to impossible. The dog-eat-dog world, the pressure from investors to maintain inflated valuations, the “war for talent”, the general cultural focus on the “next big thing”, “getting rich” and “techno-solutionism” all serve to create an environment that is anti-mindful in key ways: stressed, obsessed with achievement and money, ego-oriented, and short-term.
These pressures are not simply cultural, they flow from the basic structures of the current digital economy. For example, the winner-takes-all dynamic makes it necessary to raise large sums from investors and to target breakneck growth (“grow or die”).3
We can see these pressures and their results concretely today.
Take the example of Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual event. Substantial efforts have been made to introduce mindfulness. Whole teams of monks and nuns are flown in and space dedicated to their activities.
These efforts are valuable: hundreds of people during the week get a space to calm down and reflect. However they remain an add-on, an additional entertainment – and one in basic conflict with the tenor and purpose of the whole event. Directly outside the meditation spaces music blares away and thousands of people jostle past heading to their next meeting. Wherever you go, visual and auditory noise invade your senses. People are rushed and harried. The organizers are no doubt stressed and anxious as each year needs to get bigger than the last.
Most participants will have no experience of mindful practice and are there to sell and network. Success matters more than wellbeing. In these circumstances, mindfulness – with its tent of monks and nuns – will never be anything more than a sideshow. Not worthless but never transformative – and possibly even a distraction, like a painkiller that soothes us too much and makes us neglect the real source of the problem.
Trying to build a mindful culture on these foundations is like trying to build a cathedral on sand: doomed to failure.
If this approach is impossible, what should we do instead?
First, we need to get deeply present to the previous point. It is potentially highly dissonant: we want to believe we can have both our material success in the current system and spiritual satisfaction at the same time – have our cake and eat it too. It can be disconcerting to see that something must change and that the current basis of our own material success is an obstacle to deeper progress.
We desperately seek our way out of these contradictions. We fall into techno-solutionism whether it is new blockchain based democracy or an EEG headset to make Buddhas overnight. Or, we turn to simple self-justification: no it isn’t so bad and we can change things later.
We must see the need to do something different – even if we personally continue to operate within the old system.
So can we find a different, better way?
Yes we can and it is a form of new middle way: a path between the rat-race and the monastery. It combines joy with purpose, engagement with non-attachment. Transformation of both the economy and of the spirit. There is little entirely new in the ideas – like most good ideas, they are already tried and tested.
To find this middle way requires a transformation. This transformation has two “arms” that complement and reinforce each other:
Transformation of being: deep mindfulness – this is the route for the transformation of being.
Transformation of the economy: the current move to an information economy brings both peril and opportunity. Costless, infinite copying combined could be an incredible blessing allowing us to share the wealth of knowledge broadly and accelerate learning and innovation. But to achieve this requires openness: making information freely and openly available to all – and moving away from our current model of exclusive, proprietary control. To make openness possible needs a new funding model that can rewards innovation and creativity without limiting access to their fruits with monopolies. More broadly, we need to strike a new balance between fairness and recognition, between work and leisure to see that our incredible material prosperity and creativty is broadly shared and sustained.
Fundamentally, we need to create a new culture, founded on values that go beyond simply “more”. We need to recognize that the the culture of capitalism has passed its sell-by date – if not capitalism itself. We should recognize that, for example, tolerating greed because of its stimulative effect on our productive efforts is no longer justified or needed – it was never good, and has now, finally, passed beyond even the justification of expediency.
We also emphasize the primacy of being. That is the primacy of the first point above (transformation of being) over the second (transformation of the economy). Both points are important but there is an important sense in which point one has primacy: it takes precedence over the second.
It is important because without a focus on being – being well and whole – it is easy to start trading ends for means: “it is so important what we are doing that we must work fourteen hours days”. “Why can’t people see what we are doing is so important? They must be stupid/angry/wrong …”.
Humans are masters of self-deception and sophistic justification. Leisure becomes laziness, rightness becomes rightheousness, strength becomes stubborness. Without this primacy, success would rapidly be put before wellness and a spiral of compromise would lead, ultimately, to a collapse of the entire effort as we forget ourselves and our true purpose.
What can we do to implement the above? We suggest concentrating corporate and personal philanthropy on specific efforts to develop new economic and cultural structures. Specifically:
Power is good for one thing only: to increase our happiness and the happiness of others. Being peaceful and happy is the most important thing in our lives and yet most of the time we suffer, we run after our cravings, and we look to the past or the future for our happiness.
We know that the bottom line of business is profit. But to profit means “to benefit from.” There are many ways one can benefit from being a bodhisattva. If our work brings about well-being, there’s nothing wrong with making money. It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us. To do this, we need to be free from the pursuit of power, wealth, fame, and sex. These four go together. If you don’t practice mindfulness, you’ll be the victim of these four lures. Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness, both to other people and to us. When we’re doing something for the benefit of all humankind and the environment, our work has meaning. Even if it’s also making money, it has meaning, because it can bring well-being to the world.
Excerpt From: Thich Nhat Hanh. “The Art of Power” Chapter Four
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