My response to the fad of meditation

First published in the Financial Times on 13th May 2014.

Better self-discipline and high energy than empty self indulgent hokum

Last week the Daily Mail asked me to write a feature on mindfulness in business. Fortunately I was too busy to carry out the task: because, in truth, I think the concept is a bad one – at least for those who want to get ahead in their career.

Mindfulness is a fairly new buzz word used to sell lots of books and courses. As usual, the fad appears to have come from America – the home of so many self-indulgent fashions. They are a nation of almost naive early adopters – which means they embrace progress such as technology swiftly. But they also have a tendency to fall for psychobabble.

At the heart of mindfulness is the notion of living for the moment, and the use of meditation to relieve anxiety and depression. The idea of living for the present seems marvellous – it’s what my four-year-old son does. Such a carefree existence!

However, adults who do too much of that mostly lead chaotic lives: they are unwilling to defer rewards or plan, or suffer short-term sacrifice for longer-term gain. More or less everything significant – acquiring skills and gaining qualifications, bringing up a well-adjusted family, owning a home, building a business, writing a book and so forth – requires considerable effort in advance and an element of delayed gratification.

Typically, Google has provided a mindfulness course for more than 1,000 of its staff . The company is one of the prime targets of Dave Eggers’s brilliant novel The Circle , which mocks the bogus and hypocritical philosophies of Silicon Valley. Google has helped give the world attention deficit disorder while destroying privacy, undermining the creative industries and omitting to pay its fair share of taxes. Is that promoting mindfulness? I wonder if the company needs to meditate to expunge the guilt.

Throughout history, those who have championed the future are the strivers, rather than escapists who find constant refuge by seeking inner peace. As the playwright Tennessee Williams wrote: “Once you fully apprehend the vacuity of life without struggle, you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.”

The hard truth is that a large proportion of successful individuals are tough and selfish. By nature, most entrepreneurs are impatient, competitive individuals who thrive under pressure. Without challenges they become bored. I’ve known a number of high-achieving men who retired too young, thinking a tranquil, relaxing life would make them happy. After a time they either realised their mistake and re-entered the fray; or died early, having lost their purpose and zest for action.

Steve Jobs was a proponent of eastern mysticism and meditation. He was also a ruthless capitalist and a bully. According to a childhood friend quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography, Jobs became “really serious, self-important and just generally unbearable”. This remark hints that a better antidote to the stress of a demanding job might be self-deprecation and a sense of humour.

Those seeking peace in a frantic world are probably better off becoming horticulturists than corporate executives. Business involves a fair amount of greed, rivalry, workaholism, pettiness and failure. But profit motive and the invisible hand have rid the world of more want and disease than would have seemed conceivable just 100 years ago. Our base desires for money, power and fame can have positive side effects.

Rather than Buddhism, for those who find the rough and tumble of the commercial world draining, I suggest the intellectual succour of the Stoics, and in particular Marcus Aurelius.

He could almost have been talking about a day at the office when he wrote: “Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men . . . I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together.”

I am all for pragmatic self-help initiatives. But beware popular trends and quackery. As one publisher once said of the self-help genre: “What you’re looking for is to publish on conditions that are chronic and incurable.”

Better self-discipline and high energy than empty hokum such as mindfulness.