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“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.

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