Why Harvard Business School Should Teach Mindfulness

Technology promised to make our lives easier, faster and simpler.  And it has.  Yet it has also made our world vastly more frenetic and complex.  Smartphones and laptops mean that there is no division between work and home.  Email and social media deluge our lives with information, and interrupt our most precious commodity: focus.  And the further we advance in our careers, the worse this phenomena becomes.  

Everyone knows that to compete in this world, you need more skills and education than previous generations.  But what no one is talking about is the extraordinary demands that this connected world is putting on our inner resources to handle this complexity.  

Business schools, like my alma mater Harvard, teach skills in functional areas like finance, operations and marketing.  And as necessary as it is to master these skills in business, getting an MBA won't necessarily change your capacity to handle the increased pace or complexity of today’s business environment.  After I graduated from Harvard Business School, I was still the same person, just with a few more tools in my belt.  My business school experience developed me horizontally, and only gave me approaches to cope with the challenges.   

In the past, it was sufficient for leaders to set goals, establish sensible norms and cultivate alignment around them.  And horizontal development was sufficient to meet this kind of challenge.  But horizontal development isn’t enough anymore.   What is needed to meet today’s challenge is a radical shift in mindset, and a quantum leap in our capacity to handle greater complexity so that we can make sense of this rapidly changing and uncertain world.  We need leaders who are vertically developed enough to remain self-aware, independent thinkers comfortable with competing viewpoints in the storm of every day work life. 

Sounds great, but how do we vertically develop ourselves?  

The most systematic way I know to build ourselves vertically is through mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness is the ancient science and practice of cultivating the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now, without getting carried away by it.  Having this awareness allows us to consciously decide how we’ll respond. 

I initially came to mindfulness practice trying to find a way to address the mounting stress in my life.  My days were filled horizontally — with more and more things to do, and less and less time.  As hard as I might drive myself to work, the demands competing for my attention never ended.  The overachiever in me was constantly feeling like I was perpetually underperforming. 

My stress came to a head when it started to manifest as persistent hives.  My body was simply on fire with stress.  Faced with the prospect of permanently living on anti-inflammatory drugs, I started looking for sustainable alternatives. 

After exploring a number of avenues, the only approach that consistently hit the reset button for me was mindfulness. 

I started studying mindfulness deeply, and even traveled across India and Asia to study Eastern wisdom traditions.  The more I practiced, the more I came to realize that mindfulness wasn’t just helping me to cope with my work, but was actually building a different kind of capacity — I was becoming a person that could better handle situations with growing clarity and discernment.  Rather than simply reacting to stressful situations that seemed to come at me from all directions, I was developing the presence to see what was truly important in any situation and stand calm in the midst of it.  

Mindfulness has an enormous body of scientific research backing up its benefits. Not least of which is that we can build a better brain through mindfulness meditation.  A recent Harvard MRI study showed that in just 8 weeks, new meditators had more gray matter.  And a Yale brain imaging study showed that meditators are able to use their brains in ways that others can’t (e.g., to be more focused and tune out distractions).  

My hypothesis is that mindfulness is the next big thing, on par with where fitness was several decades ago.  As journalist Dan Harris is fond of saying, “Fifty years ago, if you went jogging down the street, you’d be asked ‘Who’s chasing you’?”  But today, we all know that we need to exercise our bodies, and thanks to the growing body of neuroscience research, we’ll come to see that we also need mindfulness to exercise our minds.

And mindfulness isn’t just a way to keep our brains in optimum health.  It’s also a path to greater professional success.  Hedge Fund titan Ray Dalio has said “Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient of whatever success I’ve had.”

So when will you join the elite subculture of high performers* who are already meditating? 

And @HBS, when are you going to start teaching mindfulness?  Management education needs mindfulness to stay relevant to the leadership challenges of today.  


If you’re looking to learn more about mindfulness and start meditating, I am launching a 28 Day Meditation Challenge for leaders on Feb 1, 2015.  Sign up here: http://www.seachangecoaching.co/sign-up/ 

* Among the 6 million meditators in the US today, they already include Arianna Huffington, Marc Benioff (Salesforce CEO), Bill Ford (Chairman of Ford), Russell Simmons, Congressman Tim Ryan, Anderson Cooper, the Seattle Seahawks, and even the US Marines.