Finding Calm in Chaos

min read

There is a surprising trend under way. It's a movement in business also gaining momentum in higher education: the rise of mindfulness for the workplace. Corporations including Target, Apple, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, and Ford (among others) have established programs to teach mindfulness, including meditation, to their employees. New York University Stern School of Business recently launched courses teaching mindfulness to better prepare students for leadership roles. Centers for mindfulness are thriving at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Stanford University, UCLA, and more.

What is mindfulness, and why is it gaining in popularity? It's placing your attention on the present moment. Like meditation, mindfulness requires that you quiet the "chatter" (the many thoughts) in your mind, so that you're max-alert to the moment at hand. Scientific studies document benefits from mindfulness in health (increasing immune function), productivity (increasing memory), and happiness (decreasing stress), among other areas. Businesses seeking to decrease healthcare costs and increase productivity are boarding the mindfulness train.

My interest in mindfulness goes back about a decade. Initially, I was an "emergency meditator" — meditating when I felt super stressed or got stuck on a game-changing decision. These days, I meditate daily. OK, almost every day. When I miss my early-morning meditation at home, you can be sure I cut the lights in my office, close my eyes, and sit silently at my desk for ten minutes to meditate, especially before an important meeting or decision. Without a doubt, this practice is the key component of my success. Over my nineteen years at The George Washington University, weathering seven changes in administration (whew!) and step-by-step promotions to my current post as Senior Associate Dean for Academic Innovation & Chief Academic Technology Officer, the "aha" moments derived from meditation have provided major insights for critical meetings, key presentations, and tough budget decisions. It's a bit hard to describe the effect of mindfulness, but I can say that when I am in a state of moment-to-moment awareness, my thinking is ultra-clear. I more accurately assess (and thus overcome) obstacles, tune into political agendas, and recognize strengths and weaknesses of staff members, therefore assigning optimal tasks. In my additional roles as chair of the CHECS (Center for Higher Education, Chief Information Officer Studies) Advisory Board, faculty member in the EDUCAUSE Management Institute, and chair of the EDUCAUSE Recognition Committee, meditation fine-tunes goals, vision, and execution strategies, including building and leading highly productive teams. While I invest time and energy in varied self-care activities to reduce stress, protect my health, and boost performance (including activities such as eating well, exercising, getting outside, and going sailing), meditation creates my most valuable competitive edge.

Co-workers and staff sense presence. They have my attention (most of the time!). In the increasingly hectic day-to-day routine, truly "being there" in a meeting or in a one-on-one chat creates a strong network of authentic relationships that ultimately boost workplace community and productivity.

While worldwide travel has informed many aspects of my self-development, a journey to Burma and Thailand last year encouraged my mindfulness practice. As we (my sister and I) ascended the beautiful mountains of Burma, I was astonished by monks who, residing in remote monasteries, have literally nothing. They are barefoot, wear orange robes, and beg for every meal in their small villages with only a rice bowl that hangs around their neck to put their food in. Anyone would recognize their happiness and deeply peaceful demeanor; they are as calm and serene as a vast, still lake. Seeing these monks had a dramatic impact on me.

When I returned to Washington, D.C., and my job, the strong contrast of my stressful workday underscored the importance of my meditation practice. The message was crystal clear: if I didn't devote myself to mindfulness, the stress in my life would create burnout and, ultimately, failure—an ironic and tragic outcome to my decades-long devotion and hard work and an outcome I could not tolerate.

At last year's EDUCAUSE Management Institute program, attendees in my session seemed especially stressed. Life in the "tech lane" is intensely demanding these days, and few people are immune to the pressures and pace. (I can see you all nodding in agreement to that.) I had a hunch. You know the feeling: a deep-rooted idea rising up. Putting aside my carefully planned lecture notes for a few moments, I instructed attendees to breathe—deeply and slowly—and then I guided a ten-minute meditation. The effect was most positive. The group became calm, focused, and able to absorb, as well as integrate, the information I subsequently shared. Later, throughout the week, many of the attendees thanked me profusely for acknowledging the "elephant in the room"—the seemingly insurmountable stress in our industry—and for providing helpful tools for self-management. Due to the success of this impromptu meditation primer, I've created a similar short introduction for my classes this summer at the Institute's conference in Austin. I hope to see you there!

I'm in good company turning to meditation to reduce stress and boost performance. I recently read a list of business leaders who meditate: Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company; Arianna Huffington, President & Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post Media Group; Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco Systems; Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce; Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn; Larry Brilliant, former director of Google; and Oprah—just to name a few. Leaders face constant challenges, so it's no surprise they seek ways to master setbacks or difficulties. Concentrating on one thing at a time, by quieting the barrage of thoughts, results in problems more easily and effectively solved. I like to phrase it as "Finding calm in chaos." Staying focused and composed amid change is paramount to success.

What does it mean to be a successful leader? The measure of success is different for everyone. Over the years, mostly as a result of my meditation practice, my definition is increasingly determined by what I find value in doing and what others find value in my doing. In any kind of weather, you'll find me walking across the GWU campus, not just fitting in mid-day exercise but also reconnecting to what I love about what I do. I might peek into a new active learning teaching space I helped design and now support and catch a glimpse of students totally engaged in an interactive assignment, or I might talk with a faculty member who "took a leap of faith" and trusted me to pilot a new instructional technology that I assured them would enhance their course, or I might see a student I mentored and get the gift of her big smile. Whatever decisions I'm facing that day are then grounded in service to learning and innovation—the primary and rewarding goals of my job, easily buried beneath myriad distractions and details. My role is to continually uncover what's important and to serve those goals. Or, putting it another way, to find calm in chaos.

P. B. Garrett is senior associate dean for academic innovation and chief academic technology officer for George Washington University.

© 2016 P. B. Garrett