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August 8, 2017

How I Nearly Torpedoed My Career with Meditation

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My heart was racing. My palms were sweaty. I was anything but relaxed as I sat facing a conference room table full of the media elite in 30 Rock. I was convinced that I had just committed career suicide.

“Let’s take a moment to get centered before we start,” I heard myself saying. “Get comfortable in your chair and focus your attention on your breathing.”

Yup, I had definitely gone off the reservation.

I had decided to start this team meeting with a minute or two of mindfulness to see whether it could improve the quality of our work, instead of the usual abrupt jump into the business at hand as people distracted themselves with their Blackberries or one of the many TV monitors playing in the background.

Well, It Sure Seemed Like a Good Idea

It didn’t seem like such a radical idea in the weeks leading up to my unprecedented leap into hippiedom. After all, there is plenty of research showing that mindfulness can improve focus and personal connection. Hell, one of the guys at Google even wrote an entire book about it. And our competitive landscape was so intense that I figured even a tiny improvement in meeting effectiveness would be important. Plus, most meetings desperately need something to make them more tolerable. We could certainly spare a couple of minutes to get centered.

Still, it just wasn’t something that we did at 30 Rock. Our culture was pretty hard-edged, no-bullshit and deeply concerned with being professional. The vegetarian option in the company cafeteria was about as woo-woo as we got.

Tips for Mindful Meetings

But I plowed ahead and got through two minutes of very un-mindful (for me) presencing to start that meeting. And I kept at it for many meetings that followed, trying different ways to get people focused and connected so we could bring all of our considerable intellectual firepower to the table.

After a few months, I learned some things:

  1. If you called the meeting, you could do pretty much whatever you want.
  2. Many people actually enjoyed the opportunity to relax and get oriented to the meeting, especially after rushing about to get there in the first place.
  3. It helps to ask people to silence (or better yet, turn off completely) their mobile devices. And, for god’s sake, turn off the TV’s, too.
  4. Leading people through four deep breaths of about 4 seconds in and four seconds out takes only 32 seconds.
  5. You can take it to the next level by asking people to check in with a one-word description of how they are feeling. You can go even further by asking them to name a physical sensation and emotion they are feeling in the moment.
  6. Ending the meeting with a round of appreciation is a great way to build team cohesion.

What I noticed was that starting meetings this way allowed people to actually “land” in the meeting and engage in a more meaningful way. It also seemed to improve personal connection, evoke more thoughtful contributions, and dampen bureaucratic posturing. And, yes, some people did think it was weird.

How I Got the Last Laugh

Years after I left NBC News (no, I was not fired for violating the taboo against meditation in meetings), I got the last laugh when a colleague told me about a high-level meeting between the NBC brass and some Google folks: they were meeting in that same executive conference room where I was certain I had torpedoed my career with a moment of reflection. Before they dove into the business at hand, the Google people asked that they start the meeting with a few minutes of meditation. My besuited colleagues followed along in awkward silence.

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