The Buddha outlined Seven Factors of Awakening, that when present and activated can support the practice of meditation leading to a greater sense of ease with life. It occurred to me on a retreat in early 2021 how these factors could be a guide for leaders to use to foster an engaged and awake presence –individually and in groups. This insight was inspired by the poem, Jenta, in the book, The First Free Women by Matty Weingast in which he adapts the factors of awakening into seven friends on the spiritual path. Using the poem as a canvas, I explore seven key ingredients for successful work below, with reference to a common English translation of the original “factor of awakening” in parentheses.
1. Be Present. (Mindfulness): In work, as in meditation, it all starts with showing up, with being as present as possible. There are many distractions at work–and you can’ always blame technology. There are the competing external demands from your manager, your peers, your clients, and so on. There are the life demands from family, your health, your pets all of which place constraints around your work. There are the internal demands of your emotional reactions, the excitement of new ideas, the weight of self-criticism, as well as boredom, fatigue, hunger etc. In fact, these unpleasant internal states are what research show are the true sources of our distraction, and is well explained by Nyr Eyal’s book Indistractable:
“Without understanding and tackling root causes, we’re stuck being helpless victims in a tragedy of our own creation. The distractions in our lives are the result of the same forces—they are proximate causes that we think are to blame, while the root causes stay hidden. We tend to blame things like television, junk food, social media, cigarettes, and video games—but these are all proximate causes of our distraction. […]Distraction, it turns out, isn’t about the distraction itself; rather, it’s about how we respond to it.[…] Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality.” And that reality is almost always some unpleasant reaction to something in our internal or external environment. (I wrote more about these “feeling tones” in this post.)
So how can you respond and be more aware of the root causes of our distraction? One beneficial tool is to cultivate a mental anchor that returns you to the present moment. It could be a mindfulness practice, or any other practice that works for you, as long as it can bring you back to this moment, time and time again, throughout your work day, so that you can be in closer relationship with your work, your colleagues, and the problems you are trying to solve. But being present, is an important not solely sufficient first step. Where can be accomplished with this presence?
2. Be Curious. (Investigation): The next factor, once there is presence, is to maintain an attitude of curiosity. What is going on right now with my work? This questions has at least three dimensions in terms of how it drives engagement.
First, what’s happening for me right now, in this moment? Once you become present, it’s possible to touch into your cognitive and emotional state of mind and match the task to the moment. Are you ready to start on a new project which will require lots of dedicated mental focus, or is this a good time to chat with colleagues instead, or maybe you only have enough energy complete your expense report?
Second, become curious about those around you. What’s happening with their mental and emotional states? Are they present, engaged, energized? Is there a sense of conflict, or resistance? Is there something you can do to shift the mood or energy level of the group?
Third, what are the important questions behind the work right now? What are we learning from customers and clients, competitors? Is there new and relevant research in this field? in an adjacent field? Are our work processes well-tuned or is something out of sync? Maintaining an active process of questioning keeps the environment fresh.
Walter Isaacson noted in his podcast interview with Shane Parrish, that across almost of his biography subjects; it was curiosity that fueled their work, ” I started looking at: what are the clues to creativity and innovation? And whether it’s Leonard DaVinci or Ben Franklin or Steve Jobs, these are people who love to see patterns across nature. They were interested in everything you could know. By seeing those patterns, they made mental leaps that others didn’t do.” And we can do that too according to Shane Parrish, “One thing I like about DaVinci at least, or I took away from (Isaacon’s) work, is it doesn’t appear he has a mind like Newton that just has so much more horsepower than we have and could do things that we could never do. It seems like the stuff that (DaVinci) did was within our reach and it was driven by almost just pure curiosity.
3. Have Courage. (Energy): In his poem, Jenta, Matty Weingast used “courage” as the translation of the word viriya, the third factor of awakening, as opposed to the more traditional translation, “energy.” I prefer that interpretation as well in this context. Doing work that matters, whether individually or collectively, requires more than just the energy to get through the work day, or to string enough days together to complete a project. It requires that you bring your life’s energy to it–and that requires courage.
To take risks with your ideas, your passion, your career requires that you muster a certain amount of courage–and that you sustain that courageous energy over time. There are many factors that can undermine this courage: criticism from peers, managers, and the market; slow adoption of new ideas; financial pressures; unexpected crises; not to mention your own self-doubt and self-judgment. Finding, nurturing and accessing a sustainable source of courage in these moments can help you to see difficult projects to completion and fight off burnout and cynicism.
Charles Eisenstein found the words to describe this energy well in his blog post, “The Rehearsal is Over.” “Bravery (courage) means doing what is yours to do, when it is time to do it. Denying that knowing locks your heart in a box. Life becomes a chore. Despair descends like a fog, turning everything gray. Hope withers, leaving behind the dry empty husk called wishful thinking. And you face the dread of living the rest of life knowing, “I did not do what I was here to do, when the moment came and it counted.””
4. Find the Joy. (Joy): Joy is the flywheel that keeps it all turning. Unless the work is fun, at some level, you won’t be able to sustain it. Eyal explores the role of fun in his book by referencing work from Ian Bogost. He turns fun on its head; encouraging us to dig deeper and take our work more seriously, not less.
“We’ve all heard Mary Poppins’s advice to add “a spoonful of sugar” to turn a job into a game, yes? Well, Ian Bogost believes Poppins was wrong. He claims her approach “recommends covering over drudgery.” As he writes, “We fail to have fun because we don’t take things seriously enough, NOT because we take them so seriously that we’d have to cut their bitter taste with sugar. Fun is not a feeling so much as an exhaust produced when (someone) can treat something with dignity.”
Ian Bogost explains this concept in more detail in an interview with The Atlantic: (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/how-to-use-fun-to-find-meaning-in-life/499805/) “But if you think about the contexts in which we talk about things being fun, often there’s a certain kind of misery or effort that’s involved with it. The difficulty of travel, getting all your bags packed and your work done and navigating the airports and all that. That sort of struggle. With sports and games, you have fun despite working very hard, even despite failing repeatedly. Even the fun of a night out, you have to get somewhere and do all the conversational, social work of being out. There’s effort involved. But then when you’re finished, you can conclude, “Actually there was something gratifying about the hardship that I just encountered.” That discovery of novelty is where the molten core of fun is.”
So, the invitation here is to go deeper, really find something that you can work out in some detail; this type of work is often referred to by entrepreneurs as “falling in love with the problem.” Much like Da Vinci, Franklin and Jobs.
Taking a step back and looking at the first four factors, we can also start to see now how these factors come together and generate some continuity of engagement and energy. We are present. And, by being present, we can start to get curious about what is going on. We can investigate a problem more deeply. This curiosity generates insights–but it takes courage to act on those insights, to generate something creative with your work, your team, your company. But when we do, joy arises; the work may not be easy, but there is a sense of momentum, satisfaction or gratification from the effort.
5. Work from the Still Point. (Tranquility): And yet, you don’t want to get lost in the energy of it all. There will always be moments of uncertainty. There will be conflict among team members. There will be opportunities for making decisions. In these moments, it’s important to be able to still the mind, to quiet all the internal and external voices in order to see and choose the appropriate next step.
The increase of always-on technology in the workplace and the increase in societal and economic disruption affecting more sectors of the economy, creates more pressure to work at warp speed; to react quickly, else we get left behind. As a result, decision making cycles increase in number, as well in their velocity. This results in what many describe as decision fatigue.
So, being able to to create space and time for quiet and to use that quiet to actively cultivate some sense of tranquility–ideally on a daily basis–is critical to be able to sustain the higher pace. It is difficult, if not possible, to immediately drop into the still point amidst a crisis, without the prior practice to build the skills that help you cultivate your sense of tranquility; your own personal still point.
6. Gather Attention (Collectedness/Concentration): Reframing concentration, away from deeply focusing on one specific concept at a time, to collecting and gathering our attention, opens up quite meaningful implications for us in our work, both individually, and with others.
As we have already seen, the world, including our inner world, provides an endless stream of potential distractions, and our work is no exception. We already saw how recent research on distraction suggests that the primary way that we become distracted is from an inner unpleasant feeling, or a lack of ease. This mind state makes us more susceptible to external distractors: email, Slack, a web search, a snack, seeking a conversation with someone else etc. Distractors can also include well-intentioned activities such as frequent emails about our financials, client requests for products we don’t have, information about competitive threats, the ongoing deluge of posts, articles, podcasts all trying to convince to do something new, something else.
Greg McKeown, in his book Essentialism, ties together how we can use the factors of curiosity and tranquility to gather our attention for better decisions and outputs, “The way of the Essentialist is to explore and evaluate a broad set of options at first before committing to any. (Be Curious)[..] (And), to discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen…” (Work from the Still Point.)
The more important challenge in terms of keeping a team or organization on track is gathering and sustaining that attention across a string of moments, days, and weeks. You have a mission, a set of annual or multi-year objectives, a budget, and probably some sort of project plan or to do list. But often do these documents guide your team’s daily work; and keep that work aligned. So, your ability to consistently gather our individual and collective attention differentiates higher performing organizations from distracted, underperforming ones. This is the core principle behind “The Hedgehog” concept that Jim Collins described in Good to Great, and summarized at jimcollins.com: ” A simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic or resource engine. Transformations from good to great come about by a series of good decisions made consistently with a Hedgehog Concept, supremely well executed, accumulating one upon another, over a long period of time.”
Executing at this level requires that you limit the number of projects and activities around which you are gathering your team’s attention. This gathering of attention, over time, enables more consistent focus, higher quality output, more momentum around the projects that matter–and that generates more joy. As Collins writes in Good to Great, “When you get your Hedgehog Concept right, it has the quiet ping of truth, like a single, clear, perfectly struck note hanging in the air in the hushed silence of a full auditorium at the end of a quiet movement of a Mozart piano concert.”
7. Have Perspective. (Equanimity/Perspective): Lastly, everything changes and (almost) everything is out of your complete control. So much has been written about the 2020-21 pandemic and how none of us saw it coming–and this is true. Meanwhile your work was, is, and will always be, buffeted by big and small changes every day. Your web site is down, your key employee is out sick, a new client wants to start tomorrow, your best client just went with a competitor, someone criticized you on Twitter, and on and on. Not only does this steady flow of changes create lots of opportunity for distraction; it also can burn a lot of emotional and mental energy when each change is met with resistance, or frustration, or even an overly positive reaction and response.
A recognition that these changes are happening, are part of the work and the business, and will be replaced with a new set of changes regardless of how you respond, creates a bit more space and a bit more perspective. This perspective reduces the emotional draw on your energy and the energy of your team and organization. Yes, you respond, when appropriate; you adjust your plans and adapt our decisions. You do so, however, with a recognition that while you are doing the best we can, the outcomes of your actions and decisions is not something you can completely control.
Scott Belsky writes about how this plays out in an organization, after the thrill of starting something fades, in his book, The Messy Middle, “You can stretch your potential only by enduring the volatility of the journey (tranquility), by getting curious about the bumps (curiosity), and by optimizing every aspect of your product, team, and self (attention). “
In other words, no matter what we do, we will be faced with a new set of challenges and opportunities as quickly as the current ones fade away. So by having perspective, you get to choose. You may even decide, as a result, that not everything requires a response; that some things are better off left just where they are.
The next time you are feeling stuck, or irritable, or unsure about what to do next at work and with your team, draw on these seven factors. First, be present, ground yourself in the moment and then become curious and assess which of the factors you need to call on at this moment: more courage to follow through? digging deeper into your work to find a new source of joy? Re-focusing your attention on the core? With more tranquility, your next choice will become clearer…and with perspective, you will be able to accept that you did your best, no matter what the outcome.