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The Mindfulness Debate: What Does “Performance” Mean to You?

By: Joe Burton
Published: Jan 1, 2017
Woman with skull cap swimming in lake
Last updated March 13, 2024

There’s a heated debate happening in the world of mindfulness. This is being driven by one of the many consumer apps encouraging people to meditate to improve their performance by “crushing it,” “not freaking out,” etc.

The debate has taken on a life of it’s own. It has quickly gone down the rabbit hole of focusing on people and events. In this case, a monk that dropped out of school, a junior ad guy and his agency and some folks on the spiritual end of the pool feeling the need to protect ancient meditation practices. Not exactly a steel cage match, but people are getting fired up.

Full disclosure, I’m an investor in one of the companies in the eye of this storm. I don’t agree with the type of consumer advertising that’s being done. And I own a company providing digital stress resiliency and mindfulness training to companies, universities and healthcare systems.

Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Let’s move to ideas…

If we agree that we live in the age of disruption, we can probably agree that stress is bad and getting worse for a lot of people. Research from the American Psychological Association supports this; as does conversation with just about anyone.

Having spent twenty years running global ad agencies, I expect consumer advertising to do what it’s intended to do:

  • get attention
  • borrow from the zeitgeist
  • create conversation

Nothing new here. Players gonna play. Haters gonna hate.

The more interesting concept at the center of this debate is this: When it comes to mindfulness, what does “performance” mean to you?

Companies want employees to be better at a range of things. And normal people want to be better in many areas of life. It’s an age-old friction point. And one that modern living is affecting in a major way.

Good companies tend to provide expectations and their own definitions of “performance.” This requires them to make big assumptions for their employees. For example, assuming that:

  • people are looking to advance
  • they want to qualify for rewards (pay increases, bonuses, recognition, etc.)
  • their corporate culture is enjoyable enough for people to continue working under those norms

We did a survey of 150 large organizations. Here’s what we heard re: stress, disruption and performance:

Stress is a global crisis

Organizations of all sizes are looking for solutions to help people cope (presumably, so they can perform at their best). And there’s universal acknowledgment that the average person’s stress is expected to get worse in the next 10-15 years.

“Doing more with less” is the language of business

Whether we like it or not, every business has to compete in the global economy. Doing more with less is necessary. It’s table stakes. If you look at the P&L as the usual report card, companies are struggling with rising costs and declining productivity. Much of this relates to:

  • rising healthcare costs
  • growing employee absenteeism
  • increasing turnover rates (now at 3.8% annually in the U.S.)

As an employee, if I understand that “faster, cheaper” is the way of the world, I may be open to the idea that my company didn’t create the “do more with less” game. But they do have to play in it. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is.

Innovation and productivity expectations aren’t going away

Companies have to run to keep up with the pace of modern business. Just about every corporate conference in 2016 had the words disruption, transformation or innovation in the title. The “performance” required to just keep up with the Joneses is taking on a new meaning both in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

The World Economic Forum estimates 5 million jobs will disappear in the next five years from robotics. Just robotics. These trends will continue. They rightfully make employees worry. And that impacts performance.

Companies do care

I’ve never met a company that didn’t want their employees to be happier and healthier. Most companies also see that stress is a growing crisis that is negatively impacting their cultures and driving up their turnover; they need help for the good of both the company and the employees. And culture has a big impact on individual performance.

What does performance mean to you?

There are many reasons that people practice mindfulness. Just about everyone wants to be better at something.

The vast majority of individuals that I speak to are interested in personal “performance;” getting more out of life. They want to:

  • stress less
  • reduce back pain
  • improve their sleep
  • be a better parent
  • savor their hobbies and down time

And yes, most people would like to be better at their jobs too. It’s all performance. It all helps people get more out of life. The best companies (most mindful, even) understand that company performance starts with taking care of individual employees.

Following are the most selected goals (performance areas in this context) that people set when using our training products:

Relax and Stress Less

For many of us, stress impacts every aspect of our lives. Science suggests that our brains are actually wired to remember bad things more than good. Worse, over time we make up stories that reinforce just how bad things are. People want to be better at focusing on the present more and worrying about the future and the past less.

Sleep Better and Feel Rested

All that worrying follows us to bed. So many of us run fast. And often, we prefer to be distracted. When things are quite, bad things can happen in our mind: We may:

  • worry
  • start judging ourselves
  • start judging others
  • etc.

We make our brains highly efficient at the things we process most. Laying your head on the pillow is the perfect way to trigger the mind that it’s time to lay there and worry because we practice that. All. The. Time.

Parent Mindfully

For those of us with kids, it’s easy to let our relationships be impacted by:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • lack of sleep
  • general anger

It’s also easy to pass all of those skills onto our children. Research on millennials suggests that the last generation has performed incredibly well in passing on stress and anxiety to their kids.

Be a Better Athlete

For those of us that are lucky enough to be committed to our health, it’s fun to compete. Almost any type of exercise has similar benefits to mindfulness; calming and focusing the mind, easing the central nervous system and improving the cardiovascular and immune systems. And getting better at our passions is incredibly fulfilling.

Balancing Business and Individual Performance

Society has the interesting challenge of balancing the performance needs of business with the performance interests of individuals. Some of those goals mesh well. Some may have competing agendas. That ain’t going away.

At the end of the day, we’re all looking to “perform” better. And it’s okay that my definition of performance is different than yours. And those definitions will change based on the individual and the context of their lives.

In my experience, whether you’re looking to be a better athlete or artist, parent or partner, executive or employee, mindfulness can help. Anyone who practices with the intention of improving their “performance” will generally find a more open, curious and compassionate approach to life. And that impacts every aspect of performance.

Bottom line is you should feel good in doing what’s right for you if you’re looking to:

  • “crush it”
  • “kill it”
  • “not freak out”
  • etc.

Just don’t hurt anyone. Also, you might like the 1987 movie Wall Street. I think you’ll love the catchphrases.

In the meantime, we’re all in this together. Let’s shift the debate away from dropout monks and cheesy ads and back to what’s most important: wellbeing.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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