broadsideblog

“I failed!” How Google teaches its staffers to breathe deep — and cope

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, Technology, work on April 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm
This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Go...

This is one of the huge welcoming signs for Google plex in the silicon valley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a story you won’t read anywhere else in the world — my exclusive interview with Chade-Meng Tan, employee number 107 at Google, whose new book “Search Inside Yourself”  was released this week. The story is in Sunday’s New York Times, on the front page of the business section. It’s now up on their website.

It’s about a super-popular course there, which Meng created and has taught since 2005, in mindfulness and meditation. In an environment that drives employees hard to achieve all the time, all the while remaining “Googly” — friendly and collegial — anything to help control stress, frustration and emotion is a helpful tool.

I sat in on one of the SIY classes and learned a lot about myself!

Here’s an excerpt:

One exercise asks everyone to name, and share with a partner, three core values. “It centers you,” one man says afterward. “You can go through life forgetting what they are.”

There’s lots of easy laughter. People prop up their feet on the backs of seats and lean in to whisper to their partners — people from a variety of departments they otherwise might have never met. (Students are asked to pair up with a buddy for the duration of the course.)

In one seven-minute exercise, participants are asked to write, nonstop, how they envision their lives in five years. Mr. Tan ends it by tapping a Tibetan brass singing bowl.

They discuss what it means to succeed, and to fail. “Success and failure are emotional and physiological experiences,” Mr. Tan says. “We need to deal with them in a way that is present and calm.”

Then Mr. Lesser asks the entire room to shout in unison: “I failed!”

“We need to see failure in a kind, gentle and generous way,” he says. “Let’s see if we can explore these emotions without grasping.”

Talking about failure?

Sharing feelings?

Sitting quietly for long, unproductive minutes?

At Google?

I snagged this story when I met a woman who had worked on the class with Meng and who told me about him. Immediately intrigued, I stayed in touch with her and discovered he was going to publish this book. In December 2011 I negotiated an exclusive with his publisher.

I flew from my home in New York to Mountain View, where all the tech firms are based, including Google — about an hour from San Francisco. I spent two days on campus in the Googleplex, which offered me an intimate glimpse into a company most of us know primarily as a verb, whose logo appears on our computer screens worldwide.

The campus is almost unimaginably lush, with every conceivable amenity. There are primary-colored bicycles available and at the entrance to each building are bike helmets hanging on the wall. There are umbrellas for those who prefer to walk. There are 30 cafes offering free food. Heated toilet seats. Apiaries. Swimming pool. Volleyball court. Ping pong tables.

The basic idea, as those of you who follow tech firms know, is to keep all those bright ambitious employees working without distraction — so there are on-site laundry rooms and the day I arrived even a large van containing a mobile hair salon.

While it knows a great deal about all of us who use it, Google, as a corporate entity is not chatty, so the level of access I was granted was unusual. I spent two full days and interviewed employees from different departments. It was interesting to see the contrast between the lovely, spotless physical spaces inside and out — including labeled grapevines and a community garden — and to hear how much Google expects/demands of its staffers, typically hired after an intense and grueling interview process.

The single most compelling memory? It’s not in my story.

Sitting on one of those Japanese heated toilet seats — and seeing a plastic folder on the wall beside me, with a (copyrighted) one-sheet lesson in it, part of their program called Learning on the Loo. Yes, really.

The photos, which are fantastic, are by San Francisco based freelancer, and a friend, Peter DaSilva. I loved having the chance to watch him at work.

The photo editor was Jose R. Lopez — my husband.

Great story and lots of fun to report and write. I hope you enjoy it and spread the word!

Here’s a 54 minute video from Google of Meng talking about his book.

  1. Excellent article Caitlin – Congratulations.

  2. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Great article…what an intense experience and atmosphere in which to work! Your article captured the Google environment. When I see their logo I will think of your article.

  4. What a great compliment. Thank you!

  5. your blog is always interesting. i mean always. and i think i have a decently interesting blog, so from me that’s a high compliment. i loved this piece. i also loved the piece you did on the canadian publication’s article written about an ‘ordinary woman’. i loved it so much that i read the entire thing to my other half on a long car road from a hockey game. just thought you should know. and i hope you visit my blog sometime soon. all the best, sm

  6. Thanks…If I had almost 6,000 followers I’d be screaming at the top of my lungs. Good lord! Lucky (hardworking) you.

  7. Great article. The one thing we always hear is how great a place Google is to work because it has EVERYTHING an employee could want. So many of the large businesses are trying to become another Google. What we never hear about is the toll this has on people, much like Microsoft back in its hey day (although I’ve no idea if this still stands today). Loving the insight into the human facet of this massive operation. Was also a bit tickled to discover halfway that Meng is from the motherland. I read his comments about Singapore and wanted to hi-five someone (Singapore too, wants to become a Google).

  8. Thanks! I only have ever spoken to two people from Singapore…you and Meng! It sounds like quite an odd, driven place.

    I really was fairly stunned by the contrast between all the toys and playgrounds on campus (literally) and the pace that every single person I spoke to attested to. These were all driven, ambitious people, some of whom who were clearly burning out. Oy.

  9. From my perspective this is a really interesting story, having just returned from a business trip to Cambodia, a Buddhist country whose people have absorbed its lessons for a few centuries now. What they are now absorbing is Western competitiveness, consumerism and work ethic. Not to oversimplify a very complex global interaction, it’s almost like the process you are describing in reverse.

    • Fascinating! I spoke about this today to my Dad who found the notion of using Buddhist ideas within such a consumer/corporate culture very odd, as you point out. What would Buddha say if he walked into Google? he asked me.

      Indeed!

  10. I too really enjoyed your article and will likely buy at least one copy of ” Search Inside Yourself.” I know you’ve been published many times and have several books to your credit, but I wonder if you still get a thrill seeing your name in the New York Times?

    • Thanks! Meng will be pleased.

      I’ve had 100+ pieces in the NYT since 1990 but this one hit it out of the park…I’d never gotten to the top of the homepage, where the story sat yesterday for three hours and I’ve never had a piece get such a great display or length, so that’s been a real pleasure. The real thrill was having an editor (on our first assignment together) have the confidence in me to send me to San Francisco and then to be able to work on it with three friends: my husband, the photographer and the art director to make the piece look so terrific. You often feel very out of the loop as a freelancer for them, but not on this one.

    • Thanks! Meng will be pleased.

      I’ve had 100+ pieces in the NYT since 1990 but this one hit it out of the park…I’d never gotten to the top of the homepage, where the story sat yesterday for three hours and I’ve never had a piece get such a great display or length, so that’s been a real pleasure. The real thrill was having an editor (on our first assignment together) have the confidence in me to send me to San Francisco and then to be able to work on it with three friends: my husband, the photographer and the art director to make the piece look so terrific. You often feel very out of the loop as a freelancer for them, but not on this one.

  11. Caitlin, what a well done piece. It’s no small thing landing this exclusive and getting such a prime spot in print, online, and with the multi-media components. Congratulations! Thanks for sharing here how you got the story and your favorite moment.

  12. I just had a look at the story – a compelling read. Great stuff – you’ve given us an extraordinary insight into both Google & Mr. Tan. Wonderful that NYT gave you the opportunity for such an in-depth piece. Thank you!

    • Thanks! It was an incredibly fun/tiring piece to work on. I had only two days at Google — with 30-minute IVs done back to back with two PR people in all the time taking notes (!) It was a blast to parachute in and try to make sense of it all.

      I wish all my assignments were this challenging, but they rarely are anymore. This is my favorite sort of story.

    • Thanks! It was an incredibly fun/tiring piece to work on. I had only two days at Google — with 30-minute IVs done back to back with two PR people in all the time taking notes (!) It was a blast to parachute in and try to make sense of it all.

      I wish all my assignments were this challenging, but they rarely are anymore. This is my favorite sort of story.

  13. oooh, I’m going back to the Sunday paper. I was so busy being excited that my first byline is appearing (Motherlode today) that I hardly read it. But your blog post is so on my topic….

  14. In this time-short life of ours (how did that happen when all this technology was supposed to help us create more time for ourselves?) perhaps it’s not too surprising that I enjoyed your post more than your article. Now, don’t get upset about that, but really, the feature filled in with lots of validations and background information, but really, I learned nothing I hadn’t gleaned from your blog piece, which was full of the spirit of the thing, not only that, the spirit of your excitement and interest in what you were doing. I suppose you’d better not tell the New York Times I said that:)

    • I’m glad you liked it! The standard newspaper format is, as you know fairly predictable…esp. at the Times where accuracy is THE most important issue, as it must be, above all.

      It was one of my best reporting adventures in many years. I may do more of this “backstory” stuff on pieces, as often the way I find and develop a story is as much fun (or more!) than the article.

      • I hope you do, because it was interesting, more than that: engaging, and far more revealing than the sanitised masthead piece. Having said that, I’m overjoyed for you that you got the exclusive and that it ran in the NYT. Good for you!

      • Thanks…and good to know that the backstory is interesting to people. I often think the chase is more fun than than the final piece…so much goes into getting some stories that by the time it runs you’re pooped.

        I’ve been writing for the NYT since 1990. Now working on another business story for them.

      • I can see how it could be. You said that once you’d eventually got the exclusive, and written the piece, it then had to be vetted and approved all over the place. I’d be over it by then, no matter how much fun I’d had chasing it up. It seems like a process of sanitation rather than astute editing, which is what ‘we’ imagine would happen next!

      • Hm. I’m not sure I’d be that harsh…in fact, this editor (which is blessed) left a lot of the flavor of my original writing and reporting IN the piece. I did used to write for one Canadian women’s magazine that always felt compelled to make it at least 30 per cent more boring. So depressing.

        But any story for the NYT, which prides itself on being the “newspaper of record” goes through an insane amount of editing and cross-checking, which I actually agree with. No matter how obscure the topic you cover, there is bound to be someone (or many people) who know EXACTLY how it should have been said or reported, so you spend a ton of time on the back-end trying to cross every T and dot every I before the outraged emails, calls and letters start arriving. One writer I know got 46 (!!!) emails on one error in one NYT story he produced. The paranoia is well-justified!

      • Hm. I’m not sure I’d be that harsh…in fact, this editor (which is blessed) left a lot of the flavor of my original writing and reporting IN the piece. I did used to write for one Canadian women’s magazine that always felt compelled to make it at least 30 per cent more boring. So depressing.

        But any story for the NYT, which prides itself on being the “newspaper of record” goes through an insane amount of editing and cross-checking, which I actually agree with. No matter how obscure the topic you cover, there is bound to be someone (or many people) who know EXACTLY how it should have been said or reported, so you spend a ton of time on the back-end trying to cross every T and dot every I before the outraged emails, calls and letters start arriving. One writer I know got 46 (!!!) emails on one error in one NYT story he produced. The paranoia is well-justified!

      • Ok – I got it. And can understand. I’m glad I was privy to your blog version though – I enjoyed hat immensely.

  15. Great article! I’ve ordered a copy of the book and can’t wait to read it. Google is a fascinating company and it’s nice to see how they help employees maintain balance.

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