Matt Tenney discusses how mindfulness vastly improves the way we lead and relate with others.
- How an emphasis on goals hurts your leadership
- A monastic practice that improves engagement
- Why mindfulness is the ultimate success habit
Matt Tenney is a social entrepreneur and the author of Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom. He is also an international keynote speaker, a trainer, and a consultant with the prestigious Perth Leadership Institute, whose clients include numerous Fortune 500 companies. He works with companies, associations, universities, and non-profits to develop highly effective leaders who achieve lasting success by focusing on serving and inspiring greatness in the people around them. Matt envisions a world where the vast majority of people realize that effectively serving others is the key to true greatness. When he’s not traveling for speaking engagements, he can often be found in Nashville, TN.
- Matt’s book: Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom
- Matt’s book: The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule with Tim Gard
- Matt’s website: MattTenney.com
Resources mentioned in the show:
- Study: “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior” by John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson
- Personality: Richard Davidson
- Book: Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
- Book: Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
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Matt, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
My pleasure, Pete. Thanks for having me.
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of your good stuff from servant leadership and mindfulness and more. And in the subtitle of your book Serve to Be Great, you mentioned there’s some leadership lessons from a prison and a monastery. So, I love a good story. So, what are the cool stories coming from the prison and the monastery?
Well, there’s a lot.The summary here is that I’m pretty hardwired, I would say I’m 100% hardwired to be just a Type A, goal-driven, pretty selfish person, and I think we all have certain ways that we’re wired, and that’s certainly me.
But this certainly reached its peak when I was, this is 2001, that was about 18 years or so ago. When I was 24, I tried to take a shortcut to success and attempted a fraud against the government and, as a result of being both dishonest and stupid, I ended up spending five and a half years confined to prison. And, at first, of course, this was just the worst thing that had ever happened in my life and I was suicidal for a while.
Then, as everybody does, I think when you’re in a really difficult situation, whether it’s one you put yourself in like I did, or one that just kind of happens to you, you gradually adjust. And about a year into it though, I started learning about the practice of mindfulness and this actually made that experience of being confined, it transformed it into the most meaningful experience of my life.
Because I’m Type A, when I started learning about it, I went at it 100%. And within about six months of starting the practice, I was making the effort to be mindful, just about every waking moment of the day, during all of my daily activities. And it was around that time when it just hit me one day that, “Holy cow, I’m actually happier here that I’d ever been in my life.” And I don’t know anything, and I’m not achieving anything, I’m just being, and there’s no fun per se.
So, that inspired me to go as deep as I could in the practice and I ended up essentially ordaining and training as almost identically to how monks train in monasteries for the last three and a half years.
I found the monastic ideal to be extremely noble because the core of it is you’re making love the top priority. Instead of making your own selfish ambition or your own goals the top priority, you’re making, contributing to the wellbeing of others your top priority.
And that turned my time of confinement into the most meaningful experience of my life, so much so that that experience inspired me so much so that, after leaving, I went to live “real” monastery and almost ordained to become a monk the rest of my life, but then realized for me that would be like trying to take another shortcut because it was really easy for me.
I’m an introvert, I like having lots of quiet time, so I realized if I really want to be able to serve on a large scale and be most helpful to people, I need to go out in the real world and do stuff, and earn a living, and probably have a family, which I do now with two small kids, so people can relate better to what we’re talking about.
I would imagine if a monk came into the average company and said, “Here’s the way to be more at peace and more successful,” everything that person said is going to be taken with a grain of salt because you’re thinking, “Dude, all you do is sit around and meditate and do the dishes. Like, what do you have to worry about?” So, that was why I ended up not ordaining. But I’ve tried to live as close to the monastic ideal as possible for the last 17-18 years on my journey from prisoner to monk to social entrepreneur.
Well, that’s fascinating and there’s so much to dig into there. All right. So, let’s talk about some of the nitty-gritties of mindfulness and practice a little bit later.
And, first, talk about sort of this mindset that when it comes to making love the ideal and serving others. So, you talk a lot about servant leadership. Can you share how exactly do you define that and how does that differ from the norm?
Well, the kind of the standard definition of servant leadership is if you imagine a pyramid and most organizations are structured with a C suite at the top of the pyramid and then below them are VPs, below them are directors, below them are mid-level managers, and then all of your frontline people fill out the base of the pyramid.
And the basic idea of servant leadership is that instead of viewing the hierarchy like that, where you’ve got these very senior people on the top and everyone in the organization is serving them and their agenda, it’s actually upside down. So, the senior people view their job as serving all the people that they lead.
And, counterintuitively, another way of putting this is the way that I like to put it is making love the top priority. In fact, I just did a TEDx Talk that that was the title, why the best leaders make love their top priority. And there’s an abundance of evidence demonstrating why this is so. But you can summarize it very, very simply. I mean, it’s kind of common sense.
The idea is if you make profit the top priority, you, as a leader, you’re either going to consciously or unconsciously neglect employees in a systematic way. And when employees are consistently neglected, they’re going to become increasingly disengaged over time and, as a result, customer service is going to decline, product quality is going to decline, and innovation is very unlikely to occur. In other words, the organization is eventually going to fail to serve the customer. In fact, they might be failing immediately.
Whereas, if you flip that, so to me a servant leader or someone who makes love the top priority, the filter that they use for every decision is, “How is this going to impact the long-term wellbeing of the people that I lead, that I take care of?” And if the answer is it’s going to have a negative impact, then it’s eliminated as an option.
And, counterintuitively, what happens when you do this is when people know that the leadership genuinely cares about them and is more concerned about their long-term wellbeing than they are on their next bonus, then what happens is people take very good care of their customers, right, through customer service, through better quality, through being more free to innovate because they’re not in a culture of fear. And, as a result, the customer is very well-served and, of course, the key to any organization, whether it’s for profit, non-profit, education, is having customers that are happy and loyal. And that’s the way that that’s achieved over the long term.
Okay. And so then, that filter is particularly applied from the employee perspective, like how all these affect their long-term wellbeing of those I lead. And so, those you lead, you’re thinking about employees as opposed to customers.
Exactly, yeah. If you take very good of the employees, they take good care of the customers. And that’s actually something that a lot of organizations get wrong, in my opinion, is that you hear a lot of organizations say, “We have this intense customer focus.” And so the problem with that is, it’s not that it’s wrong, and I’m sure everyone listening and knows a story that they can relate to about this, but if you have a customer that’s a real pain in your side, they’re a pain for all of the employees that serve that customer.
And if they’re demanding too much and it’s unrealistic, to continue to enable them to do that, what you’re ultimately doing is you’re degrading the wellbeing of your employees and their ability to serve not only that customer but other customers. Morale goes down, and it’s actually a net loss. Whereas, if you were to say, “Okay. Well, this customer is a real pain. We need to ask them to change their behavior or fire them,” in the short term that sounds really scary, right? You say, “Wait a second, but that’s a big source of revenue.” Well, revenue is nice but not at the expense of the morale and the wellbeing of your team members, because if that degrades, not only is that customer going to end up being failed to be served but others will be as well.
And this is actually one of the counterintuitive applications, I’m sure many of you have heard of the Pareto Principle, the 80-20 Rule, that many of the most successful entrepreneurs I’m aware of apply, is they realize that 20% of their customers are delivering 80% of their results and, usually, those 20% are really easy to work with. Many of that 80% of your customers that are only delivering 20% of the results, and oftentimes they’re the ones that complain the most, they create the most stress for employees. So, a good practice is to, as many of those as you can afford to do it, to refer them out to your competition. Let your competition serve them.
Okay, understood. So then, I’m thinking about zooming in a little bit in terms of, okay, so we’re making love the top priority and you’re filtering out based on that guideline. What are some of the everyday practices, behaviors, activities that really make this come to life?
That’s the secret right there, Pete. So, in my experience, I wrote Serve to Be Great I think in 2012 or something so that book has been out for seven years and I’ve spoken extensively on this subject, interacted with many leaders, many employees and organizations, and, almost invariably, everyone wants to do this.
There are very few people that get up and say, “You know, my recipe for success is I’m going to go into work today and be a selfish jerk. That’s my plan.” I’ve never met anyone like that. I’m sure they’re out there but they certainly don’t come out and proclaim that to you. Everyone that I’ve met wants to do this. But I think if you were to ask most people to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being you do this consistently 100% of the time, and 1 you never do it, most people aren’t anywhere near at 10. Most people would rate themselves at a 6 or 7, maybe an 8 at best.
So, the way I like to look at it is, well, let’s think about it as, “What’s stopping us from doing it?” because we all want to, right? What are the biggest blocks to doing this? And this kind of comes back to your original question about the subtitle of the book, “Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.” Interestingly, I think the three biggest blocks are resolved by living a little bit more like a monk.
By that, I don’t mean people need to go out and be monks. But I’ll give you the three big ideas and then you can dive in wherever you like and we can go as deep as you like.
All right. Good.
So, here’s the summary. So, the three big blocks, in my mind, are, one, is that because of our conditioning and the way society has programmed us, we don’t focus on making love the top priority. We focus on achieving goals. And not that there’s anything wrong with achieving goals. The problem is if we focus on achieving goals at the expense of our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us, that’s when that becomes problematic.
So, the first biggest block is that we just don’t focus enough on what we know in our heart of hearts is the most important thing not just in business but in life, which is to prioritize loving people over getting stuff or getting stuff done in a worldly sense. The second block is we’re busy. Have you noticed this, Pete?
People are busy. As I’m sure every listener listening to this knows that we’re all very busy. And there is science supporting, and we can talk about the study if you like. It’s actually both a hilarious and sad study at once demonstrating what, I think, we all know to be true, is that the busier you are, the less likely you are to serve the people around you, the more likely you are to be focused on your own self-interests and short-term gain.
And then the third one is we’re incredibly distracted, and not just distracted by things, but even by our own thinking, and this is where mindfulness training becomes absolutely key. So, that’s the summary, and then, yeah, wherever you’d like to dive in, I’d be happy to.
Well, so I am intrigued by, I think, the study you have in mind, the one about the seminarians who read the good Samaritan story.
It’s come up a couple of times, so I’ll let those who haven’t heard of it yet Google it and enjoy, but it’s a goody. It’s a goody.
So, let’s hear about we don’t focus on love, we focus on achieving goals. And you make a nice distinction between there’s being goals and there’s doing goals. And this has been kind of resonant for me lately because I’ve got a pretty crystal-clear picture on one page, like everything that I want to achieve in life, and I feel great. Like, that’s it. That’s everything, it’s on a page, we got clarity. Game on. But I don’t have as much crystal clarity on everything I want to be in life. And I’m working on that right now, I’m thinking about who I really admire, and what is it about them, but it’s a work in process for me at the moment, and so not yet at that level of clarity. So, lay it on us, how do we shift that focus?
Well, I think the first step that’s a very, very simple one, there are multiple steps of this, but the simple one that can be applied immediately and has immense benefit is to just simply shift our focus. Because if you think about what we’re focusing on, on a day-to-day basis, most of us reflect on that, there’s not a whole lot of time, especially if we’re in a really demanding work environment where we’re really focused on, “What am I doing to serve my teammates?” Or, if you’re in a leadership position, “What am I doing to serve my direct reports or my peers as leaders?” Where it’s just from one thing to the next, right? It’s like, “Well, I got this. I have got to take care of this. I have to take care…” and there’s pressure to achieve the goals, so we focus on that.
And where I think it can start most simply is just by simply changing your job description and using that as something that you review at least every day – to start, I would recommend multiple times a day – so that you start to refocus. In fact, at first, if you really feel like you’re just in a really demanding environment, you may want to read your job description once an hour, you know, take a five-minute break, go to the bathroom, come back and re-read this job description.
But what I suggest is if you simply change your primary job description and then place everything else as a secondary responsibility, because if you look at most job descriptions, they’re just terrible and they’re not inspiring. Your average leader job description is, “Oh, you’re in charge of the strategic planning and the direction of the organization and working with stakeholders, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s, for one, is not inspiring. Two, it doesn’t really give you an idea of what you really need to be focused on as your primary goal in making love and serving the people around you that primary goal.
So, what I suggest is you just simply reword it. I’m not saying go to HR and say, “Hey, can you rewrite my job description for me?” But this is what I’ve done with every job I had until I started working for myself, and when I worked for myself, it’s very easy because our mission is just obvious and the vision is obvious, so it’s not really written per se as a job description, but you could just change your first line of your job description as, “My job is to help the people around me to thrive.”
And if you want to be more elaborate, “To do whatever I can to do good by the people around me, to contribute to their wellbeing and their growth. And that’s my primary job. Everything else in my job description is a secondary duty.” And if you just remind yourself of that, it’s amazing what happens to brain.
This is actually one of the keys of the transformative process of the monastic training is that you recite vows every single day, reminding yourself multiple times. At first, it was probably 20 or 30 times a day reciting this vow that, essentially, my job is to help all people to be happy and to be free from suffering, which is obviously a bit grandiose but it’s inspiring. It’s like, “This is why I wake up in the morning. I work on myself to make myself better so that I can be a benefit to others and help them to be happy and to, thereby, make a better impact in the people around them.” That’s the core of monastic training.
So, to give little examples of how this works, we’ll start with maybe a case study, and you can cut me off, Pete, if this one has come up a lot as well. But, years ago, and I think this might be close to 15 years or so ago, Disney was having problems with their custodial staff. Do you remember hearing about this?
Oh, no. Keep going.
Okay. So, the problem was, as I’m sure almost everyone knows, Disney pride themselves on an amazing guest experience. That’s what they want to deliver. They want everyone who comes there to have a magical experience as a guest. And what was happening was the custodial staff was getting all of these complaints about how they were being rude and they weren’t being helpful, and it just kind of degraded from the experience at Disney which, of course, was a huge problem for them.
So, they put a lot of energy into trying to resolve this. And what it turned out, they figured out what the problem ultimately was, was the job description. The job description read, “Your job is to keep the park clean. You need to keep the bathrooms clean. You need to keep the trash looking neat. You need to keep all the walkways clean and tidy.”
So, think about this, if that’s your job description, and you see guests walking around throwing trash all over the place, you view the guests as your enemy essentially, right? “This person is making my job really hard.” And so, when someone, when a guest who just threw trash on the ground came up and ask the custodian, “Hey, where is the Dumbo ride?” the custodian would say, “I don’t know. I’m just a janitor,” and that was their response.
So, they decided, “Well, they do more than that. They’re part of our team. They’re part of delivering happiness to our guests. Why don’t we let them know that?” And they changed the job description, they said, “Your job is to create happy guests, to contribute to the happiness of our guests. How do you do that? Well, you provide them with directions when they need it, you give a kind smiling face when they ask you questions. And, as a collateral duty, you pick up the trash, and you clean the bathrooms, and blah, blah, blah, blah.”
And guess what happened? All the complaints went away, janitors were motivated and inspired to come to work because they had a noble cause for coming to work, which is to serve people and bring happiness to people, which is something we all want to do, and the guest satisfaction scores went up, and the job satisfaction for the janitors went up. Everybody wins.
So, I don’t know if there’s any neuroscientist that can explain this perfectly, but I think what’s happening is, from my limited understanding of the neuroscientist friends in my circles, is that we have a portion of the brain, and a lot of people attribute this to the particular activating system or the particular formation that its job is to filter out that which we don’t think is important.
And we’ve all had the experience of you buy a new car or you meet a new friend with a unique name and then, all of a sudden, you start seeing that car everywhere, or you hear that name everywhere. And we know, intellectually, that car just didn’t magically multiply all over the place because we bought it, or that name just didn’t magically get slapped on everyone just because we heard it. What happened is our brain started telling us that it’s important so we start to see it everywhere this thing that we had never seen because our brain didn’t allow us to see it.
And my guess is this is what’s happening, is when you start to tell your brain, over and over and over again, “This is what’s really important to me,” you start to see opportunities to serve others and to love well. You start seeking out opportunities to improve in that area. You start to eliminate activities that degrade your ability to love well. Why? Because you’ve simply shifted your focus.
And, again, I think the easiest way to do that is to just change your job description and read it every day for a while until you really start feeling that, “Hey, I believe this. I believe that my core job description is to help the people around me to thrive.”
Okay. Cool. And so, then you naturally notice those opportunities because it’s built in there. And that’s a nice tip there is that it may take a couple dozen reps and the first days to get into that groove. Excellent. Thank you. So, a lot of stuff coming together here with regard to that creates satisfaction for your own self in terms of you’re enjoying the job more as well as for the folks that you’re leading, they think, “This person is great. I enjoy working with them.” So, a lot of good stuff happening here.
So, let’s talk then about mindfulness in particular. You’ve called it the ultimate success habit. First, why is that?
Well, I use that word very intentionally and very precisely because I think we kind of live in two worlds at once, right? So, we have this conventional world where stuff like getting a paycheck and being able to pay your bills really matters. And then there’s something more ultimate, which all of us have a sense of. I don’t think any of us really know intellectually, but we have this sense that there’s something much deeper about life. In the end, what really matters is, “Were we happy?” and, “Did we love well?” That’s what really ultimately things come down to.
So, the reason I call mindfulness the ultimate success habit is because it actually has benefit in both of those realms. So, the practice can be very instrumental in improving our effectiveness in the conventional realm where we’re more effective at our job, we’re more effective as leaders, we make better decisions, so on and so forth. But it was designed not for those purposes. It was actually designed for the ultimate, which is to be happy under any circumstance, so no matter what happens to you, you’re okay and you have peace.
And because of that, you have this tremendous capacity to love well and your ability to overcome our selfish conditioning that we’re all subject to, to some degree, we can gradually overcome that conditioning. That’s actually what the practice was designed to do and that’s why I call mindfulness the ultimate success habit because it contributes to success in the conventional realm as well as what really, really matters, ultimate success.
And so then, yeah, I’ve been playing around, reading some assorted studies on mindfulness and its benefits. I’d love it if, perhaps, you could share your favorite in terms of this result emerged from mindfulness practice, whatever sort of study is your favorite that has a big number that you find exciting.
The one that I’m most excited about is not necessarily a single study in particular, but it’s actually the work of a neuroscientist who’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin, named Richie Davidson, and he’s been doing this work for a long, long time.
And, in the ultimate sense, so we’ll skip some of the conventional things, and there are many benefits in the conventional sense, especially around decision-making and emotional intelligence. Those two benefits are fairly well-established in the scientific literature. But the one I’m most excited about is there seems to be very sound and replicated evidence for the fact that we can actually change traits with mindfulness, specifically traits like kindness and compassion.
And this isn’t like a flashy number or something that sounds super sexy, but I’d like you to think about this for a second. There a lot of things you can do to change your state, right? If you’re about to go give a speech in front of a group, you can do 20 pushups and then stand up and raise your arms over your head, like Amy Cuddy teaches in her TEDx Talk, and you’re going to go out there and be way more confident than you would have had you not done that.
But there are not too many things that we know of that literally rewire your brain so that you develop a new trait that becomes your baseline way of being in the world. And there’s very compelling evidence that Richie Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin had been putting together. In fact, he and Daniel Goleman wrote a book on it called Altered Traits.
So, if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend that book. They go through all of the ups and downs and the shortcomings and the pluses of the research, and then kind of really focused in on this stuff that there’s consensus in the scientific community that this is actually fact and not just theory. And that’s where they seem to come to consensus, is that with prolonged training, although you can receive some benefit immediately, if you really make the effort to focus here on this type of training, you can change your traits so that you become the person that we all aspire to be, which is somebody who’s not just effective at their job, and earns a good living, and has friends, and so on and so forth, but we become a person who exemplifies kindness and compassion in all of our interactions.
And I know everyone listening, is somewhere inside that immediately resonates with them. Why? Because this is ultimately what we’re here for. We’re all in this together and we all know that being kind and compassionate and doing what we can to be of benefit to the people around us is what really makes life rich. And I’ve never met a person who there just isn’t some glimpse of aspiration to live that way. This is something that just, it seems to me like this is just why we’re here.
So, that’s why I’m most excited about that, is the idea that this doesn’t have to just be a high-minded ideal, “Yes, I’m inspired by someone like Martin Luther King, or Herb Kelleher at Southwest, or Gandhi, or someone like that,” and think, “I could never be like that.” Actually, that’s not true. We can be like that. We can rewire our brains in ways that allow us to embody the traits of the people we most admire in the world.
Intriguing. And so, these traits are in the realm of service and generosity. But I imagine, it’s fair to say that, I guess, is it like any virtue that we can grab – courage, patience, fill in the blank – it’s within your reach via these approaches?
I think, immediately, people become skeptical, and think, “Oh, this can do everything?” Well, it’s not that it can do everything, but I think you’re right, Pete, it can help us to develop most of the qualities that we’re most interested in.
And just to give a brief explanation as to why, is that I think if we really look at what prevents us from having those qualities, it’s this tricky little thing that lives between our ears called the ego, right? It’s that little voice in our heads that’s always telling us that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not beautiful enough, we don’t have enough stuff, we haven’t achieved enough goals, we need to be somebody, get something, do something. It’s just never satisfied.
And what mindfulness training, at its core, is all about is learning to recognize that that voice is just simply not who we are. It’s something that we can actually listen to, with third person objectivity, just as though we’re listening to a podcast. And that’s not a theory, that’s not something you have to believe, that’s something you can realize directly just by doing the practice, because that’s what the practice is.
The practice is to learn to wake up and, instead of being in your thoughts all the time as though you are your thoughts, to just wake up and realize, “Oh, I can observe these images going through my mind as though I’m watching a television screen. I can listen to this voice in my head just as though I was listening to a podcast. And when I do that, something really special happens. There’s a little bit of space between what I feel I truly am and that voice.” And the degree there was some space there is the degree to which we’re free from that voice.
And so, now that voice can say whatever it wants and it doesn’t affect what we actually do or how we actually behave in the world. It’s just something else. It’s like if you’re watching a television program, here’s a really interesting way of looking at this. So, let’s imagine that you’re watching a movie or a television program from start to finish, and you’re about halfway in, and there’s a really emotional scene, and it draws you in, and you can feel the emotion of the actors on the stage, and you’re just in it like it’s real, right? We can all relate to this.
Now, let’s imagine that you were in the kitchen getting a slice of pizza, and you came in, you haven’t watched any of this thing, and you just look at the TV screen. It’s just some actors doing stuff, right? You might laugh at somebody who’s at a funeral thinking, “Oh, that’s really bad acting.” Whereas the person on the couch is just in tears because the star just lost their beloved one and it’s really sad.
And so, this is what tends to happen. Everyone that I’ve ever worked with that practices mindfulness consistently, it’s more and more of this drama in our heads become something that’s like, “Oh, that’s just like programming. It’s just like a TV,” and it has less and less of effect on how we actually show up. So, if the thoughts are skillful, we engage them and we follow them. If they’re not, they can be allowed to just arise and pass away as though it was a television screen across the room while we’re eating a piece of pizza.
Okay. Cool. And so then, when you are doing mindfulness or engaging in a mindfulness practice, what does that mean in terms of what’s happening? Like, I sit down, and then what?
Well, there’s a common misconception I’d like to clear up, Pete, I hope it’s okay with you.
Okay. Take it away.
It’s that I think that’s exactly what most people think of, is, “If I’m going to practice mindfulness, that means I need to go sit down and do nothing and engage in some type of special practice.” And there’s great benefit to sitting still and just being, and I highly recommend it. However, mindfulness can be practiced at any time in any situation. And so, how I recommend people start, especially if this is something that seems foreign or it’s just you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s one more thing I need to add to my schedule,” I recommend looking at this as like you don’t have to add anything to your schedule. What I recommend is just change the way that you do things that you’re going to do anyhow.
So, for the average person, if you were to make a list of all the things that you do in a day in relative solitude that you’re going to do anyhow, things like rolling out of bed, going to the toilet to go pee, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, commuting to work, sitting and waiting for a meeting to begin, standing in line waiting for something, if you were to add it all up, I think for the average person it’s probably right around two hours per day.
Make a list of all those things that you do every single day that you’re going to do anyhow, and for the first week just pick one of them. Let’s say it’s washing the hands, for instance, and unless you’re driving, listening to this podcast, you could actually play along with us while we do this.
So, if you think about what washing the hands is like most of the time, if we’re honest, we’re thinking about everything in the world other than washing the hands. Would you agree with me, Pete, that when you wash your hands?
Oh, sure, yeah.
So, we’re thinking about, “Hey, the dog just crapped on the floor. I’ve got a report due for my work tomorrow.” Whatever. We’re thinking about all types of stuff. We’re not really present with washing the hands.
You’re going to wash your hands again after cleaning up after the dog.
Yeah, yeah, you wash your hands then you go, “Oh, man, I forgot about the crap on the floor.” You go clean that up and come back and wash again, yeah. So, this is what’s happening when we live our lives this way, is that we’re reinforcing this identification with thinking and we’re constantly distracted by our thinking, and this is taking us in the opposite direction of being free from that voice in our heads and from our thoughts.
So, the idea is to make it a practice of being free. It’s not like you have to get somewhere or achieve something. Like, just be free right now. So, when you’re going to wash your hands, just take a half a second and just remind yourself, “I’m washing the hands now.” And then that little reminder is a wakeup call to just be really curious about the experience of washing the hands. And if thoughts arise, it’s perfectly fine, they probably will. But the idea is just you’re curious about the thoughts, “Oh, there’s a thought about this or that. Okay, what else is going on? Oh, yeah, there’s this wonderful sensation.”
So, why don’t you try this for a second, those of you who are not driving? Just pretend like you just started washing your hands, you’ve got soap and water on your hands, just rub them together. And what I’d like you to do is just be intensely curious like you’ve never washed your hands before. And just notice, “What is it actually like to wash my hands? What does the skin feel like as it’s being massaged by the other hand? What do the muscles feel like that are making the arms and the hands move? Are there any thoughts happening?” If not, it doesn’t matter. Either way it’s not important. Just be curious about what is it like.
Now, every time I’ve done this exercise with any group, 100% of the time, unless people just didn’t raise their hands, people say that washing their hands like that is diametrically opposite of how they normally wash their hands. So, this is a very different experience, right? And some people even get anxious because what we’re so used to doing is washing the hands as fast as we can so we can get onto what’s important, right?
What we’re doing now is realizing that, “Well, if I want to have clean hands, I need to wash them for 30 seconds anyhow, so why not be here for that experience?” And what happens is there’s this, as silly as this might sound just with these little activities, of just being aware of the body, aware of the mind, aware of what it’s actually like to wash the hands during that experience, what’s happening is we’re creating what I think may be the most interesting paradigm shift that we can consider. Because if we think back to how we normally do it, what we’re doing is we’re rushing through it to get it over with so we can get onto what’s next, oftentimes either it’s partially or completely distracted by our thinking, so as a result three negative things are happening.
One, we’re reinforcing this bad habit of being identified with our thoughts. Two, we are creating a little bit more anxiety because we’re not there, we’re rushing through it. That’s going to make us less effective at whatever we do next. And, third, and perhaps most important, is we’re not actually living that moment of our life. We’re rushing through it to get onto whatever is next. And, sadly, there may not be a next. The person that you’re with right now, and what you’re doing right now, is the most important. And we don’t know, tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.
And when we start making, allowing mindfulness to permeate our daily activities, those three negatives are transformed into three amazing positives. So, first, you’re training yourself to be mindfully self-aware, and self-awareness is arguably the most important professional skill that we can develop. So, you’re creating a very positive habit of being mindfully self-aware.
Two, your anxiety, you’ll find, as I’m sure you noticed when you wash your hands like that, it’s pretty relaxing. Did you notice that, Pete? Did you actually wash your hands with me?
Well, in my mind’s eye, yes. No faucets in the…
Okay. I’m sure you’ve got things you’re working on there with the podcast, yeah. When you actually do it, what you’ll notice is, “Oh, that’s actually relaxing to just be fully present with the sensations of washing the hands.” So, your anxiety goes down a little bit, making you more effective at whatever you’re going to do next.
And then, of course, most important, is you’re actually living that moment of your life and you’re developing this new habit of actually living the moments of your life so that when you come home from work, and you greet your child, you’re actually there for him or her. And you come home from work and greet your spouse, or your dog, or whoever, you’re actually there for them instead of reliving everything that happened at work in your head.
And, as grandiose as that might sound, it’s not going to happen overnight, but it does happen little by little if we just start integrating mindfulness into our daily life. So, coming back to the list, we start with just washing the hands for week one. Then, for week two, continue with washing the hands and add a second activity, brushing the teeth, let’s say. And you can see where this is going, right? Each week you just add another activity.
After 12 weeks, you’re going to have 12 anchors that, if nothing else, you know you’ve got 12 30-second to 60-second activities where you’re breaking the habit of constantly being identified with and distracted by thinking, and instead being free.
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. And so then, in practice then, the difference is, one, you’re sort of noting what’s happening here, “I’m washing my hands now.” Two, you’re getting curious about each of these, I guess, the finer details of the experience, like, “Oh, that’s pretty warm. Oh, that’s pretty slippery. Okay, that’s pretty relaxing as they go together. I can hear the sound. I could maybe see some steam rising up a little bit. I could smell, perhaps, the soap.”
And so then, in so doing, you are there as opposed to elsewhere in terms of, “I better hurry up and reply to that email.” And so, there you have it. Okay. So, that’s really cool. All right. Well, thank you for that, Matt. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Nothing comes to mind immediately, Pete, other than just I have said it a couple of times, so I apologize if this is redundant, but I would just ask people to, as they’re finishing up listening to this podcast, to remember to just be kind.
Okay. And now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
A favorite quote. Yes. I apologize if this might be paraphrasing, but Martin Luther King said something that actually inspired the title of Serve to Be Great, which is, “You don’t need to have a Ph.D. to serve. Anyone can serve. And because anyone can serve, anyone can be great.”
And how about a favorite book?
I think my all-time favorite book is actually a book by Thich Nhat Hanh called Peace Is Every Step.
Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
Well, I think Google Calendar is pretty magical believe it or not, so, yeah.
Oh, sure. I can buy it. And how about a favorite habit?
Mindfulness, by far, is my favorite habit.
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they repeat it back to you?
What I hear probably most often is just, “Yes, I want to be a leader who serves and loves well.”
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Well, I guess you could go to MattTenney.com and that can direct you to anything else that you might be interested in.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Absolutely. I would, please, encourage anyone listening who stuck with us here to the end to please go ahead and create that list of all the things that you do every day anyhow, and see if you can incorporate those activities into your day in a more mindful way, just one activity at a time. And I think that simple exercise, you’ll find has some incredible benefit in your life.
All right. Matt, thank you. This has been a treat. And keep up the great work.
Thank you, Pete. Thanks so much for having me.