Dan Harris spent the day prior to our conversation with his meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein. It was ideal timing, given our intention to explore how Harris utilizes the principles he’s learned as cofounder and CEO of Ten Percent—A platform to learn to meditate from world-renowned mindfulness teachers—to lead a collaborative and compassionate team.
I was curious about his team’s answer to a question Goldstein, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, posed on Ten Percent Happier, Harris’ podcast. He shared that the “blueprint to live happily and effectively” is to ask: “What kind of actions bring peace to yourself and others?” Harris’ response stemmed back to his tattoo—FTBOAB—an acronym for the Buddhist expression, “For the benefit of all beings.”
Dan Harris [Photo: courtesy of Dan Harris]
“It’s a little earnest for my taste, but it’s great to have right next to my watch to remind me, and hopefully for me to remind others, that the goal of everything my team does is to help people,” he says. “It’s easy to lose sight of that when I’m thinking about metrics and outcomes.”
“If you can wake up throughout the day and serially dedicate everything you’re doing to the benefit of your family, customers, teammates—everybody, everywhere—it imbues your life with meaning and purpose,” he continues. “Some of this stuff is forced and saccharine, but it’s exercise for your brain. This is the mechanism by which we change.”
A self-proclaimed skeptic, Harris turned to meditation after having a panic attack on ABC News in 2004—where he was coanchor of Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America—and experienced a transformative impact. Here, he shares a range of tools—from reflective listening to practicing “healthy embarrassment” and even the Socratic method—that help foster a mindful culture.
[Photo: Ten Percent Happier]
Let’s start with you in your typical role. Through the lens of your mindfulness journey, what are the most important questions you’ve asked to become more collaborative and compassionate with your team and community?
There’s a great question from executive coach Jerry Colonna, which is to the effect of: “How are you complicit in creating the conditions you say you don’t want?” For me, if everything is feeling rushed, fueled by anxiety, and laden with conflict—and I’m complaining about it—what is my role in creating those conditions? I’ve worked with Jerry as a client for a long time. He helped me see that it was my own unexamined stuff that was creating those conditions.
Furthering that, it was helpful when Joseph and you explored that understanding how our mind works reveals both the causes of our suffering and paths to alleviate it. What is a source of suffering you freed yourself from that enabled you to show up more fully?
Joseph recently shared that he has a suspicion that when it comes to professional stuff—and he’s absolutely correct—there’s a lot of fear-based clinging, which can lead to me over committing, then being stressed and unpleasant. So, seeing this delusion—that in order to be safe, I need to have 10,000 things going on—is helpful for me to let go and not say yes to things that I shouldn’t be saying yes to.
Our team talks about being sanely ambitious. We love brainstorming big ideas, but then we step back and ask: “How can we do this without overloading the team?” It has to come from me. If I’m in a mode of fear-based acquisitiveness, over-committing, and rushing, that’s going to affect everybody. So, I try to repeatedly say: “Sanely ambitious. Yes, we have big goals, but let’s put them in order and not burn everybody out.”
Your willingness to grow is admirably apparent in your extensive 360 reviews, which you even include your family in, and in openly sharing the areas you’re focused on improving with your team and community. Let’s say you and I are working together. How might you create that dynamic with me and how does it accelerate our collective growth?
I try, but don’t always succeed, to regularly be open with my team about what I’m struggling with. So, they feel comfortable talking about what they’re struggling with. And we normalize the basics of the human condition. It creates a sense of psychological safety, which is so important for highly functioning teams. I believe that you want to create an environment where even the lowest person in the hierarchy feels genuinely safe to say what they think. One great route to that is creating an incentive system where when the team speaks up—even if it’s uncomfortable for them to say and for me to hear—they’re rewarded for it.
I reached out to the executive in charge of my podcast because I was anxious about our recent performance numbers. Then, I beat myself up about it. I was probably derailing her day because my anxiety was going to be contagious. It led to a helpful conversation where we went back and forth about our mutual triggers and gave each other operating manuals for the other person. I said: “We need a shorthand for when I’m freaking out. What can I say that doesn’t derail your day?” It seems like a healthy way to operate, as opposed to what I used to do, which was exert my power in ways that were oblivious to the fact that I even had any power.
How did you get comfortable being so honest?
First, it’s not easy and takes practice. Second, there’s an expression that my friend, meditation teacher Sebene Selassie, references: “It’s better to teach from scars, not wounds.” So, to the extent that I share publicly, even with my team, I try to share things that I either have some distance from or that I’m sanely working on, as opposed to: “I just got shot in the chest. Here it is.”
There’s a phrase from another great friend, meditation teacher Koshin Paley Ellison: “Healthy embarrassment.” If we can develop a sense of healthy embarrassment about our stuff, it opens up a whole new world, where instead of protecting it, we’re unburdening ourselves. It doesn’t mean telling everybody every little thing that’s going on for you. But, when something is relevant to the working dynamics of the group, if you can take a risk and share something you’re embarrassed about in a healthy way, it can often change the entire dynamic.
In your conversation with Robert Waldinger, who leads the longest scientific study on happiness, you explored the concept of empathic accuracy, our ability to successfully gauge how someone is feeling, which you alluded to in the story with your executive producer. What practices help you cultivate it and respond to what you’re intuiting?
People have their own lives and minds. Your ability to understand them is limited. You want to be clear about that so you can understand and work with it. Reflective listening is one of the greatest tools I’ve picked up for this, from communication coaches Mudita Nisker and Dan Clurman, who I’ve worked with for five years. It’s very simple. When somebody says a paragraph or two to you, can you repeat the essence of what they said?
You might discuss your nerves with me about a big event you’re throwing. I could say: “This sounds like a high stakes event for you. You really want it to go well.” I’m reflecting back what you said, with bonus points for reflecting what you’re hoping for. Then, the person gets to say: “Yes,” “No,” or “Yes, but.”
Over time, you’re giving people the primordial pleasure of being heard and understood, which is what everybody wants. You’re also being a journalist by understanding what is going on for them. It’s one route to develop a sense of empathic accuracy and, on top of your intuition, to confirm what is actually happening for people.
You’ve shared that meditation reveals our delusions. How do you harness your practice to reveal yours and what is the impact of that newfound clarity?
I heard Tamar Szabó Gendler, who is a Yale professor and the dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, say that we should live like Socrates. The Socratic method is asking question after question after question. Maria Popova, who writes The Marginalian, also said, and I agree with this, that we live in the midst of a pandemic of certainty—that’s deadening because you don’t see any possibility.
If you can learn instead to be Socratic—to constantly question your own assumptions and open your mind—then the world starts to open up for you. It’s been argued that when you can do that—and this is a little grandiose and out of character for me—you start to fall in love with the world, because there’s room for surprise and delight, even in people you had written off.
You often share mantras as recentering tools. We’d love for you to leave us with a few that are helpful for you.
Joseph has been counseling me on a conflict that I’ve been dealing with for a while. He’s given me two helpful mantras. When I notice myself ruminating on this long-running business dispute, the first mantra is: “Dead end.” All I’m going to do if I ruminate is make myself unhappy and probably take it out on others. So, dead end. Turn the car around.
The second is—and again this is off brand for me and a little cheesy—but: “Love no matter what.”
It doesn’t mean that you invite people you disagree with over for dinner, give them a hug, and endorse everything they’re doing. It just means that you understand that everybody has their own causes and conditions. If you endured those causes and conditions, you’d probably be doing the same thing you disagree with.
Love doesn’t have to be “you complete me” coming out of Tom Cruise’s mouth with music swelling under it. Love is understanding and having a degree of friendliness toward your fellow human beings.