BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 4, 2012
“Even though I am still very shy, I find myself able to project a quiet but unmistakable self-confidence, whether I am meeting world leaders like Barack Obama, speaking to a large audience, or dealing with a traffic police officer. ... In most situations, when interacting with people, I let my ego become small, humble, and mostly irrelevant, while focusing on bringing kindness and benefit to whomever I am interacting with. ... I am amazed by how much my simple aspiration for world peace has resonated with so many people.” The man who wrote those words must be insufferable. I have never met him, but I have read his book. It is called Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), and he is Chade-Meng Tan, an engineer at Google, Employee Number 107, known officially as the “Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny),” whose job description is “enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.” My own heart his book has turned to stone. It is a work of the most obnoxious contentment, and a precious document of the sanctimony and the insularity of Silicon Valley. It is also an insidious example of what used to be known as industrial psychology, or the managerial promulgation of doctrines of the mind that will pacify workers and motivate them for “high performance.” In the case of Google’s in-house lama, the instrument of the corporate mind-fuck is Buddhism itself.
SEARCH INSIDE YOURSELF is a Zen-like curriculum in “emotional intelligence” that has been taught at Google University to Google employees since 2007. Its central concept is “mindfulness,” a kind of serenely focused attention, and it consists in a series of meditations and mind-body exercises—“wisdom practices in a corporate setting”—that are designed to enhance “stellar work performance, outstanding leadership, and the ability to create the conditions for happiness.” The irony of refining the attention of people whose business is to disperse and even destroy attention is of course lost on Meng, who soulfully includes a prescription for “mindful e-mailing” (“begin by taking one conscious breath ...”). Meng does a meditation “every time I walk from my office to the restroom and back.” The restroom, indeed. “Mindfulness,” he explains, “is the mind of just being. All you really need to do is to pay attention moment-to-moment without judging. It is that simple.” (The denial of significant complexity is inscribed in the book’s vrai-naïf style: “Difficult conversations are conversations that are hard to have.”) Owing to Meng’s course, employees at Google get promoted, come to work more often, and have fun. As an example of someone who grasps that “your work is something you do for fun,” he gives—in one of the many unself-aware passages in this manual of self-awareness—Warren Buffett. More than fun, “your work will become a source of your happiness.” And of the company’s happiness, too.
THERE ARE MANY THINGS wrong with all this. Take a conscious breath and consider them. “Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment” is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics. The serenity that Meng teaches is a go-along, get-along quietism, an organizational submissiveness—a technique of mental manipulation designed to strip the individual of any internal obstacle to the ungrumbling execution of his tasks. “Mindfulness can increase my happiness without changing anything else.” Good worker! Enlightened cog! Meng and his authorities—“happiness strategists,” “leadership scholars”—insist upon the “non-judgmental” character of the mindful ideal. This is one of the great American mistakes. Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge—but there is no circumstance or context in which the absence of judgment is not a judgment, specifically one of accommodation and acquiescence. Or in the words of an ancient Chinese master cited raptly by Meng, “just cease having preferences.” Could there be a less Google-like instruction? There is also the matter of the relationship of work to joy. Dissatisfaction with one’s job is a sorry fate, though a common one; but the promotion of the workplace into the site of the individual’s deepest happiness is a terrible illusion. Spiritual fulfillment should not be sought on a screen or in a number. Yet here is Meng, who tells a monk that “the reason he became a monk is because he could not join Google back in 1972,” spiritualizing the corporation. This is a cunning extension of its sway, and of its idea of success; and of the imperialism of the office, and the penetration of private life by professional life. “Just being” is possible only far away from the cold, quantified universe of productivity and achievement. “Just being” is a rebuke to it. As for the peace of the world, it is not, as the people of Syria and Congo and Sudan and Tibet will confirm, the peace of the individual. But Employee Number 107 says that “the way to create the conditions for world peace is to create a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum, perfect it within Google, and then give it away as one of Google’s gifts to the world.” Who do these people think they are?
THERE IS ALSO an empirical objection to this cultic propaganda. It is the Stakhanovite ethos at Mountain View. “When you get to a place like this, it can tear you apart,” a Google sales engineer told The New York Times, which reported on Meng’s business dharma. In “a culture of 80-hour workweeks,” the assault on the private sphere must be disguised by the transposition of its values to the sphere of labor, and alienation be remedied by a promise of salvation. Meng’s course, said the sales engineer, is “broadly applicable [because] everyone struggles. ‘Am I the smartest person in the room? What if I’m not?’” The poor souls of Google, perfect SAT scores and all, need help. Another Google employee, “an engineer in rockabilly spectacles who works in site reliability,” declared that “Business is a machine made out of people. If you have people, you have problems.” But until the advent of the singularity, when the wolf shall friend the lamb and the leopard text the kid, Google, with its “healthy disregard for the impossible,” will have to put up with the frailties of mortals. What a flaw in a business model. At least it will make some of them rich.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.