On 18 November 2010, I delivered a TED talk at the United Nations. The theme of the event was “Creating a Compassionate World”. I titled my 15-minute talk, “Compassion for Fun and Profit”.
Compassion for Fun and Profit
Compassion is the greatest happiness
What does the happiest man in the world look like? He certainly doesn’t look like me. He looks like this. His name is Matthieu Ricard.
How do you get to become the happiest man in the world? There turns out to be a way to measure happiness in the brain, you do that by measuring the relative activation of your left pre-frontal cortex vs your right pre-frontal cortex. Matthieu’s happiness measure is off the charts. He is, by far, the happiest person ever measured by science.
Which leads us to a question. What was he thinking when he was measured? Something naughty, perhaps? Actually, he was meditating on compassion. Matthieu’s own first person experience is that compassion is the happiest state ever. And his brain scan backs that up.
Reading about Matthieu Ricard was one of the pivotal moments of my life. My dream is to create the conditions for world peace, and to do that by creating the conditions for inner peace and compassion on a global scale. Learning about Matthieu gave me a new angle for looking at my work.
Matthieu’s brain scan shows that compassion is not a chore. Compassion is something that creates happiness for the giver. Compassion is fun!
This mind-blowing insight changes the entire game. If compassion is a chore, nobody will do it, except maybe the Dalai Lama. But if compassion is fun, everybody is going to do it. Therefore, to create the conditions for global compassion, all we have to do is to re-frame compassion as something that is fun.
But fun is not enough. What if compassion is also profitable? If compassion is also good for business, then every boss in the world would want it.
THAT would create the condition for world peace.
Compassion in Google
So I started paying attention to what compassion looks like in a business setting. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far. What I was looking for was right in front of my eyes, in Google, my company. I know there are other compassionate companies in the world, but Google is the one I’m familiar with, so I use it as the case study.
Google is a company born of idealism, and thrives on idealism. And perhaps because of that, compassion is organic and widespread company-wide.
In Google, expressions of corporate compassion almost always follow the same pattern. It starts with a small group of Googlers taking the initiative to do something. They don’t usually ask for permission, they just go ahead and do it. Other Googlers join in. And sometimes, it gets big enough that it becomes official. In other words, it almost always start from bottom up.
For example, the largest annual community event where Googlers from all over the world donate their labor to local communities was initiated and organized by 3 mid-level employees before it became official.
Another example is when three Googlers, a chef, an engineer and a massage therapist learned about a region in India where 200,000 people live without a single medical facility, so they spontaneously decided to organize a fundraiser, raising enough money to build and equip the first medical center in the entire region.
During the Haiti earthquake, a number of engineers and product managers spontaneously came together and stayed up overnight to build a tool that allows earthquake victims to find their loved ones.
Expressions of grassroot compassion is also found in our international offices. In China, for example, one mid-level employee initiated a large social action competition involving more than 1000 schools working on issues such as education, poverty,and healthcare and the environment.
There is so much organic social action all around Google that the company decided to form a Social Responsibility team to support all the grassroot effort. This idea came again from the grassroot, from two Googlers, who wrote their own job descriptions and signed themselves up for the job. I find it fascinating that the SR team was not formed as part of some grand corporate strategy, but was formed by 2 ordinary Googlers to support all the social action that was already everywhere in the company.
Main benefits: highly effective leaders and an inspiring workforce
It turns out that Google is a compassionate company because Googlers found compassion to be fun.
But it’s not just fun, there are also real business benefits.
The first benefit of compassion is it creates highly effective business leaders. There are 3 components of compassion, the cognitive component (I understand you), the affective component (I feel for you), and the motivational component (I want to help you).
What has that to do with business leadership?
According to a very comprehensive study led by Jim Collins and documented in the book Good to Great, it takes a very special type of leader to bring a company from goodness to greatness. He calls them “Level 5” leaders. These are leaders who, in addition to being highly capable, also possess 2 important qualities: great ambition and personal humility. These leaders are highly ambitious for greater good, and because their attention is focused on greater good, they feel no need to inflate their own egos. That makes them highly effective and inspiring.
Looking at these qualities in the context of compassion, we find that the cognitive and affective components of compassion, understanding people and empathizing with them, tones down the excessive self-obsession within us and therefore, creates the conditions for humility. The motivational component of compassion, creates ambition for greater good.
In other words, compassion is the way to grow “Level 5” leaders. This is its first compelling business benefit.
The second compelling benefit of compassion is that it creates an inspiring workforce. Employees mutually inspire each other towards greater good. It creates a vibrant, energetic community where people admire and respects each other. I mean, you come to work in the morning and you work with people who just up and decide to build a medical center in India, you just cannot not be inspired by those co-workers. This mutual inspiration promotes collaboration, initiative and creativity. It makes us a highly effective company.
“Secret formula” for brewing compassion
The first ingredient is to create a culture of passionate concern for greater good. Always think about how your company and your job are serving the greater good, or can further serve the greater good. This awareness of serving greater good is very self-inspiring and creates fertile grounds for compassion to grow.
The second ingredient is autonomy. In Google, there is a lot of autonomy. One of our most popular managers joke that, “Google is a place where the inmates run the asylum”. If you already have a culture of compassion and idealism, and you let your people roam free, they will do the right thing in compassionate ways.
The third ingredient is to focus on inner development and personal growth. Leadership training in Google, for example, places a lot of emphasis on inner qualities such as self-awareness, self-mastery, empathy and compassion. We believe that leadership begins with character. We even created a 7-week curriculum for emotional intelligence which we jokingly call “Search Inside Yourself”. I’m an engineer by training but I am one of the creators and instructors of this course, which I think is quite funny. This company trusts an engineer like me to teach emotional intelligence. What a company!
“Search Inside Yourself” works in 3 steps:
Step 1: Attention training. Attention is the basis of all higher cognitive and emotional abilities. Therefore, any curriculum for training emotional intelligence has to begin with attention training. Idea: to train attention to create quality of mind that is calm and clear at the same time, and that create the foundation of emotional intelligence.
Step 2: Self-knowledge and self-mastery. Use super-charged attention to create high-resolution perception into cognitive and emotive processes. Become able to observe thought-stream and the process of emotion with high clarity, objectively from a 3rd person perspective. Once you can do that, you create the type of self-knowledge that enables self-mastery.
Step 3: Create new mental habits. Imagine whenever you meet anybody, your habitual, instinctive first thought is “I wish for this person to be happy”. Having such habits changes everything at work, because the sincere goodwill is picked up unconsciously by others, and there is trust. This also creates the conditions for compassion in the work place.
Someday, we hope to open-source “Search Inside Yourself” so that everybody in the corporate world can at least use it as a reference.
I like to end the same place I started. Happiness.
The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” I found this to be true both for individuals and entire companies. I hope that compassion will be fun and profitable for you too.
(UPDATE 4/6/2011: Added link to the video at ted.com.)