HOW GOOGLERS AVOID BURNOUT (AND SECRETLY BOOST CREATIVITY)
A story from Wired.
Adam, is an engineer on Google’s self-driving car project (now its own division, called Waymo). He says the daily pace of work borders on fanatical. When he’s in the lab, the outside world disappears—we know this because he tells us so, and also because our text messages and emails to him almost always go unanswered. Adam works full tilt, wholly immersing himself in the brains and guts of a car that, if Google gets it right, will be a total game-changer. Adam, however, would never say that. He knows that he and his team must first figure out, among many other things, how to teach an inanimate object moving at 70 miles per hour to differentiate between a stray plastic bag and a stray deer. Talk about a just-manageable challenge.
Google is built upon projects like the self-driving car: endeavors that push at the point of resistance for growth, where struggle and productive failure aren’t consequences of the work, but rather the driving forces behind it. The company attracts the cream of the crop, top-notch creative thinkers who are passionate about what they do. Add to the mix the tight deadlines and the colleagues who aren’t scared to push the envelope, and it’s easy to see why employees like Adam become so absorbed in their work. Google has nailed the recipe for stress. But the company understands that’s only half the battle. Without rest, Google wouldn’t end up with innovation. Instead, it’d end up with a workforce that is broken down and burnt out.
Burnout is undoubtedly one of Google’s gravest threats, and holding back passionate employees is often a far more formidable challenge than pushing them ahead. Fortunately, Google has brought the same innovative mindset to this dilemma as the company has to all its other projects. But unlike just about everything else that Google does, the company isn’t helping its employees rest by looking ahead to cutting-edge technologies. Rather, Google nails rest by looking back to an ancient Eastern practice.
In the early days of Google, employee #107, Chade-Meng Tan, observed that while he and his colleagues had no problem “turning it on,” they struggled mightily to “turn it off.” Taking short breaks, let alone disconnecting from work in the evenings and on weekends, was impossible. Even if early Googlers wanted to rest, the pace and thrill of their work made it hard to do. Google was growing fast, but Tan had the wisdom to realize that this style of work—stress without rest—was unsustainable.
At Google, Tan was a software engineer. Outside of work, he was an avid practitioner of mindfulness meditation, a Buddhist style of sitting meditation in which the practitioner focuses solely on the breath. Tan’s mindfulness practice helped him to transition from the stress of intense work to a more restful state. He also found that it opened his mind to otherwise hidden insights. Mindfulness, Tan decided, was exactly what Google needed.
So, in 2007, Tan launched Search Inside Yourself, a 7-week mindfulness meditation course for Google employees. At first, his colleagues were reluctant. They questioned what, if anything, a mystical, new-age, candlelit, deep-chanting practice could do for them. But it wasn’t long before Tan’s colleagues learned that mindfulness—which of course is none of the things we just mentioned—had the power to change the way they worked and lived. Soon, Googlers who went through Tan’s class were raving about its benefits. They felt calmer, clear-headed, and more focused. They were able to unplug at the end of the day and even detach enough so that weekends and vacations became truly rejuvenating. Word spread quickly through the halls of Google about Search Inside Yourself, and it wasn’t long before demand for the course surpassed Tan’s ability to teach it, something he was doing in addition to his engineering job. Google’s leadership team couldn’t help but notice the benefits of Search Inside Yourself, either. Their employees were healthier, happier, ...