Let’s face it, for far too long capitalism has been the chief protagonist in creating the problems the earth now desperately needs to solve. But, because of the vast economic power tied up in private enterprise, a redefined, more conscious way of doing business can and needs to be part of the solution.
As part of that solution, something that has been written off as self-indulgent navel gazing can help it get there. Mindfulness has escaped its Eastern roots and is revolutionizing the lives of millions in the West. Meditation has made the cover of Time magazine; Arianna Huffington swears by it, so too did Steve Jobs. We’ve seen it endorsed by Google, Harvard Business School and Target, among many other powerful organisations.
Which is a good thing because the World Health Organization has identified that mental ill-health will create the biggest burden of disease in developed countries by 2030. By now, a staggering amount of scientific research has proven the benefits of mindfulness for treating stress, anxiety and depression. Its positive effects include boosting focus, effectiveness and creative problem solving. Regular meditation can even physically rewire our brains, creating “changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking” that are visible to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
With my co-founder, Jane Martino, I’m responsible for the creation of Smiling Mind, a free mindfulness app that to date has had over 1.3 million downloads. Smiling Mind is much more than an app though; our not-for-profit organization aims to have mindfulness included as a core part of the Australian educational curriculum by 2020 (already, more than 13,000 teachers use our app to improve the lives of around 600,000 students).
Despite this, and despite all the positive evidence I offer above, I believe mindfulness has a long way to go before its benefits are fully realized in the mainstream.
Here’s why. Even where we have seen meditation programs brought into offices and workplaces, it has been viewed as a tool for personal wellbeing. This is a great place to start but I strongly believe mindfulness can go much further, to radically change the ways we practice business at a social or structural level – which is exactly what its critics say it fails to do.
Too often, mindfulness has been treated as a personal tool, one to help overworked office rats cope with situations that are stressful or even emotionally toxic. So-called McMindfulness, divorced from the ethical components of its original religious grounding, is even accused of being complicit in making individuals responsible for meditating their way out of the unhappiness caused by working conditions they have little control over.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In this context, we cannot separate mindfulness, and the mindful leadership which I will turn to in just a second, from the search for a more purpose-driven approach to business. At the Plato Project, a new business school I’ve founded with my co-directors Omar de Silva and Mark McCoach, we braid together three beliefs – purpose-driven business, entrepreneurship and mindful leadership.
These go together because the world’s business-as-usual model of doing business is broken – our earth is beset by urgent problems and we need a new, purposeful approach, one that puts positive social and environmental benefits in the bottom line along with profit. Because of the massive proportion of economic power tied up in private enterprise, a more conscious capitalism must play its part in bringing about change.
If I can offer a small example from my own life, as an entrepreneur I am a director of Neometro, a residential developer and certified B Corp that works hard to provide wider social benefit to the communities it operates within, while addressing urgent issues through the provision of design-focused, medium-density housing. My city, Melbourne in Australia, is regularly voted the world’s “most liveable”, yet it is beset by sprawl (contributing to some of the worst per capita carbon emissions in the world) and, with its large houses, affordability is a real issue for those trying to find their first homes. High-quality medium-density residential offerings are of utmost importance to solving these problems. I’m well aware that “property developer” is not a title most people would associate with purpose-driven business, but that’s my point – industries that have been part of the problem can be part of the solution.
Employees and intrapreneurs can, of course, connect with purpose and at the Plato Project we aim to help them connect with values and purpose to make a positive difference in the lives of their organizations, communities and society as a whole. Entrepreneurs, however, have the agency to create purpose-driven businesses from the ground up, and hence are one focus of our educational offering. In my experience, entrepreneurship has been incredibly positive, not only in a wealth building capacity but also in terms of personal nourishment and joy, creativity and self-identity. Through the Plato Project, we are trying to extend this to as many people as possible.
Turning to the third of our philosophical pillars, mindful leadership is the application of mindfulness to the sphere of leadership, necessary if we are to bring others along on this journey towards purpose. Here though we need to make a distinction between mindfulness as a practice of mediation and its wider application, which – as a practice of awareness – embraces interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the influential pioneer who has pursued a scientific approach to mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts since the late 1970s, describes mindfulness as something much larger than the practice of sitting and observing your breath (though this simple technique is all you need to get started).
In my own experience, the intention is to build up our ability to be mindful in all areas of our lives, so we might meditate in the morning but then try to be mindful of our thought patterns, body language, speech and interpersonal interactions throughout the day. In cultivating mindfulness, meditation is hugely beneficial but it is just one of the aspects in the tool kit.
Let me tie this back to the argument I was making about mindfulness as an agent of social or structural change. Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, has rightly suggested that mindfulness is a way of connecting with our values and purpose, even when immediate pressures might make it appealing to do otherwise. We need to balance our short-term financial metrics with “more important but less easily quantified measures of personal success”.
“When you are mindful,” George says, “you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.”
This is where personal development connects to social change. Millions of individuals are beginning to realize the power of purpose in their lives; millions of people are connecting with values that until now they have been led to think there was no room for in the profit-driven workplace. When it comes to pressing issues, like global warming for example, millions of ordinary people, of all political persuasions, are embracing the idea of a more mindful way of doing business.
At the Plato Project we are excited to be spearheading this movement and, when it comes to purpose-driven business, mindful leadership and entrepreneurship, every piece of education that we build is with the idea that you cannot trade these things off any longer.