In our connected world, it is easy to think that the more information we have the better our chances of success. While more information can be helpful for, say, logical problem-solving, it is often useless when it comes to innovation. It’s not how a game-changing device like Apple’s iPhone is born. Steve Jobs believed as much.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late technology mogul, Jobs said, “I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and logical analysis.” What he was essentially touching on was a different quality of knowing, one less based on external information, and more on harnessing an inner intelligence.
Certainly external information matters, but it’s this inner intelligence that is the most vital element for any creative person or company. It has already served as a key factor in the creation of modern successful companies, and it will continue to be a key factor in the great companies of the future.
Mindfulness in business, however, is not something that everyone knows how to achieve. But with a few pointers, it is within reach for anyone smart enough to know its value.
In the early days of Twitter, co-founder Evan Williams and others developed an internal document that included a set of principles to guide the company. One of the key sections in that document was titled Pay Attention.At a recent conference, Williams explained that this section essentially covered why “doing anything really well requires paying attention to what you are doing.”
Another way of saying this is “mindfulness.” That simply means bringing our full attention to the present moment. When hearing this, people often respond with, “Hold it, isn’t my attention always on the present moment?” No, not generally. In fact, our attention, which we can often notice most easily when going to sleep, is regularly immersed in the past and future. It’s almost anywhere but the present moment.
Steve Jobs realized this tendency early in his career, telling Isaacson, “If you just sit and observe, you see how restless your mind is.” As he learned to calm his mind through Zen practice, he remarked to Isaacson that he found he now had room to hear more subtle things – and this was when intuition blossomed.
The Impact of Mindfulness
More companies are beginning to see the ability to calm the mind and be present as essential to their business. Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Asana and Facebook, and his Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein, have gone so far as to say that, “companies who are not mindful lose their way, lose their best people, become complacent, and stop innovating.”
They believe that, in the same way that mindfulness and reflection help individuals with personal growth, these behaviors also help organizations evolve and find their full potential. The next creative companies of our era will likely put as much attention on the internal state of employees as they do on the products they create.
Doing Less Means Doing More
When mindfulness is lacking, a sense of constant distraction pervades a company, leading to greater conflicts, more stress, and little innovation. This shows up the most in meetings. Think about it. How often have you been at a meeting where everyone is juggling two conversations and a smartphone? We then experience what former Microsoft executive, Linda Stone, calls continual partial attention. Our attention is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
While it may appear we are quite effective in our constant multitasking, research suggests otherwise. According to David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, when people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up. The result is that it takes far longer to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially.
A study at Stanford basically tested this theory when they looked at 100 students who multitask. What they found was that the more people multitasked, the worse they performed.
Don’t Just Fill Your Mind, Empty it
To access our mindfulness, we need to be as skilled at emptying our mind as we are at filling it. When I asked Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco, how she keeps balance and focus amidst so much responsibility, she says she meditates for twenty minutes a day no matter where she is in the world. “This clears my mind, keeps me anchored, and calm while dealing with [the] multiple challenges of my hectic days,” she says.
In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer talked about how, when Pixar was designing their new building, Jobs and others wanted to place what was most important to their company in the center of the room. What did they put there? They actually left a big empty space where people could meet to develop ideas.
It is this empty space, both physical and mental, that is the very foundation for engagement and creativity. Still, it is often this inner dimension, which powerful entrepreneurs consider vital, that most people tend to overlook.
Those who can harness it, however, will see possibilities that others cannot, and they will be the trailblazers and leaders in the next wave of business.
*Soren Gordhamer is the organizer of the Wisdom 2.0 Conferences, which bring together staff from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Zynga along with Zen teachers and others to explore living with awareness and wisdom in our modern age. You can follow him at @SorenG.