Engage - Claremont Lincoln University

Help Wanted: Seeking Purpose (with Leah Weiss) [Podcast]

Leah Weiss, PhD has trained thousands of students, veterans, and Silicon Valley elite in the practice of mindfulness. All of us seek meaningful lives—at home, and in the workplace. Why does finding purpose seem to elude so many of us? In this episode, Dr. Leah Weiss shares insight from her new book How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind. The boundaries between “work,” “family,” and “personal” seem to be overwhelming us. Surely there are ways to live with greater meaning, and be fully present for all parts of our rich and busy lives. Learn how it’s possible, and start today with tools you already have.

Episode Transcription

Stephanie:       You’re listening to In Times Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. Leah Weiss has trained thousands of executives, students, and veterans in mindfulness, purpose, and compassion. Her first book, How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind, is coming out March 18th, 2018. I’m so excited about this book and this interview. In this conversation we talked together about how difficult it is to balance work, life, parenting, conflict, self-doubt, compassion, all of the messy stuff of being human in the real world.

Leah:                Thank you so much for having me, Stephanie. It’s such a total pleasure to spend time with you. I’m Leah Weiss, and this book that I’m really looking forward to discussing with you today, How We Work, is really an outflow of the teaching that I’ve been doing at the Stanford Business School combined with my own life in the last seven years, having three children and working full-time and being a person trying to make sense of having spent the decade before having children doing a lot of immersive retreat experiences 100 days, six months, and then trying to bring all this together to understand like, how can I draw from these ideas? How can I make them applicable in the lives of my students and the organizations I work with? So really, the simplest way to explain is this book was a deep dive into what I needed to practice and know and do, and an opportunity to get really current with how practice and research and just practicality map on to one another.

Stephanie:       Tell me about your students and the people that you work with when you’re helping. Who are you helping explore mindfulness? What does that look like when you’re teaching?

Leah:                I’ve had a class at the Stanford Business School for five years now and it’s become one of the most popular courses. Long wait lists, and it’s primarily MBA students, but there’s also a lot of mid-career students who come in for a one-year intensive program who are looking to maybe pivot in their jobs or to do something that gives an opportunity to pause, learn some new skills, reflect, and then go back out into their work, so that’s the context of the Business School class. Then I also do work in a variety of organizations, so healthcare, a lot of time doing work with physicians and clinicians who have these epidemic rates of burnout and all kinds of issues that are related. I do work in startup organizations and in big innovator organizations that are trying to understand how to get the best possible work environments, the best team environments, and the best cultures for their employees. Then I also do work in social impact settings, so a lot of foundations and non-profits in education.

Leah:                So really people who are trying to not only perform well in their work, but really feel like their work matters. One of the things I always think about is that moment of where you’re in the morning on our way to our jobs, how we feel about our jobs, how we feel as we’re leaving our loved ones and spending more time with our coworkers than we do with our family members. It makes a huge difference and the research definitely echoes this point that not only our mental wellbeing, but our physical wellbeing is highly impacted by our sense of purpose and social connection at work.

Stephanie:       Wow. Okay, so I’m thinking about the ordinary person, a worker. Help us define mindfulness and help us understand from your expertise both what mindfulness means sort of to people who are scholars and who know a lot about mindfulness and then connect that to what it usually means at first brush for an ordinary person.

Leah:                One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness is actually the very simple one: the intentional use of attention. You’ll see this in research papers, but I also find it highly practical and one of the things I really like about that definition is that there’s nothing in it that says, “Eyes closed, meditate, don’t think,” all the sort of preconceptions people bring to the table when they hear the term “mindfulness.” To me, this really speaks to the heart of why mindfulness matters to ordinary people who are looking to feel like their lives are more meaningful or to meet behavioral goals or productivity or better relationships.

Leah:                All of these goals, and this is where the research comes in, are supported by our ability to increase our intentional use of attention, and we have amazing research at this point about the impact that this has on our bodies right down to the genetic expression, right down to the way our patterns of neural networking or our brains operate. There’s all kinds of impact, implications that having this ability to store our attention has for our bodies and our minds.

Stephanie:       What do you think is going on currently that has many of us craving a sense of purpose?

Leah:                There’s some really interesting research showing that people … there’s somewhere between 30 and 50% of people can answer the question what their organization does and what their role in the organization is, so that means somewhere between 50 and 70% of people aren’t really that clear on what their work is about and how it fits into the organization. I think that gap between knowing that what I do matters isn’t sort of nice to have. We are meaning making creatures and we need to understand that our work matters, who it impacts, how it impacts them.

Leah:                I think definitely other pieces of this are as the rates of working over 55 hours a week are skyrocketing, as people are experiencing much less of a boundary between their work and the rest of their lives, there becomes more of a sense of ongoing overload and chronic stress. It impacts our relationships, so I think this just getting back to understanding how our attention works, how our sense of purpose can be supported, these become critical issues when we’re feeling, as a society when we’re feeling overwhelmed by how much work and the expectations on us to live in these sort of chronic stress environments.

Stephanie:       I’ll ask you more specifically about courage in a few moments, but I’m thinking to myself that yes, I experience these anxieties and puzzling around purpose and boundaries. The recommendation that you’re making to be intentional about paying attention is simple and elegant, but that seems harder to me than doing something like buying one of the adult stress relieving coloring books or making a vision board for my office or going to the container store and buying an organizing outfit for my pantry. It seems like when I look at all of the options I have, many of them are things that I can consume and purchase, and there’s a seduction around, “If I get this thing, if I do this journaling, if I buy this horse, then I will feel purposeful and then I will feel connected maybe to others.”

Stephanie:       What you’re describing is free and it requires no extra things. I don’t have to purchase something really beautiful to do it with, and yet when I think about where I turn my attention during the day, turning my attention to self-awareness and self-compassion and compassion to others, that feels a little shakier. I’m a little scared to do that, and so this is a human question, but what’s the hesitancy that many of us when we think about doing this work?

Leah:                Yeah. I think part of it is that we’re not necessarily in the habit. You know, our days are busy. There’s not much white space on many of our calendars, and I know when I look at my calendar for this week I don’t have increments of time that are going to show up from someone else inviting to a meeting to reflect on my purpose or to reflect on how I’m spending my time, so it requires a building in a routine, a ritual that we are making this a part of the way that we do work in life. I think part of what’s challenging about … I mean, it’s the kind of new year’s resolution dynamic that it’s a lot easier to get the short-term motivation and to see a compelling fix, but what that doesn’t often account for is that we have mixed motivations and we have habits that move in the opposite direction of our goals.

Leah:                It’s complicated because some of those habits, we’ve earned them because they’ve functioned for us, even if they’re not aligned with where we want to go in our lives. If we’re in the habit of eating ice cream at night to de-stress, I can sign up for Weight Watchers on January 1st, but then by January 17th I have to really know that I have both the desire to change how I’m relating to my body and also the desire to have the dopamine hit of whatever the habit that I’ve already been doing has worn that right into my behavior, so it’s hard, but I think we’re smart. We know that there’s good reasons why we’ve developed some of the habits that we’re not the most fond it with how we spend our time and emotions that are challenging to feel and all of these.

Leah:                When we talk about compassion, we want that social connection, but suffering is hard, right? We’re already so busy with our work and our families and our lives that the idea of taking a deep dive into more suffering can be a little daunting if we don’t have a clear how and why that we are going to keep having access to.

Stephanie:       Wow. Yes, absolutely. It really resonates the idea of, “I have these habits and ways of working and ways of relating that totally work for me.” Right? “I’m successful, I’m high achieving, and I have these patterns and rituals that have gotten me to where I am.” That’s a really helpful point and it allows me to be a little kind with my, “Oh, there’s a reason I’m working a certain way.” Talk more about … in the book you talk about rumination and these patterns in our brains that go, that run. Define that for us and describe what that is, and how that plays out in an unexamined life and then what your suggestion we could do instead.

Leah:                I love the term “rumination” in that it has a shared root with the idea of chewing cud, of a cow chewing cud. One of my students in a paper a few years ago used the term “recycling her thoughts,” that she was now chronically recycling the same set of thoughts over and over and over again, and her mindfulness practice was making her aware of that habit. I think the rumination can take different forms. For some people it can be like self-flagellation or excessive self-criticism, which again we could look at from the lens of as people who are high achievers, we care about our work. That may have begun as an adaptive habit that made sense that then just took over.

Leah:                There’s other forms of rumination. A lot of times rumination, like a sign that we’re ruminating is that we’re looking backwards and we’re rehashing, so it’s like a taped script that we’re just playing over and over again. There are some really interesting ways of approaching that, like if we trace the idea of where did these thoughts come from? Sometimes they come out of a family of origin dynamic, right? That like, the way that we learned to be accountable and we’ve internalized some parental or early life force, and that’s a script that’s playing over and over and over.

Leah:                So I think to your point about what does rumination look like in an examined and an unexamined life, I think the good and the bad news is that when we start becoming aware, when we’re mindful of these habits of thought, they get more clear, which is both good and bad news, because often people will have the experience that it feels like they’re ruminating more because this stuff was semiconscious in them and now all of a sudden they’re seeing it with great clarity, and so it can, for a period of time, seem even more overwhelming just how pervasive habits might be of negative self-talk or judging others or an anger response.

Leah:                These all can be just habits of thought we get stuck in, so the good news, and I like to use the metaphor of when you start working out and we get our assessment at the gym, we need to know where we’re strong, where we’re weak so that we can develop a plan of action that makes sense for our body, and that involves some like, discomfort and seeing like, “Wow, I really have gotten quite weak my core.” Or it means stepping on that scale and seeing the picture so that we understand what we’re working with. Similarly, the examined version of rumination means encountering our existing state of affairs so that we can then make choices about how to engage.

Leah:                I think conversely, the unexamined version of rumination, what tends to happen for people is when we’re under stress, it gets more and more acute. Often as we age, there’s habits that if we’re not looking at them, we’ve just practiced them so long that they can get more pronounced, and I think that there’s a lot of negative health outcomes that are associated with rumination. I think that that has to do with the fact that it’s hijacking so much of our mental resources. I’ve asked a number of researchers who do biomarker work, like looking at the caps of chromosomes and how they lengthen or shorten based on mindfulness practice, or asking Steve Cole who’s at UCLA and does research on genomics and how our genes are impacted by our mental, behavioral, and environmental inputs.

Leah:                It seems as though this ruminating, it’s like a mortgaging of our physical resources. It’s building these ruts so deeply that they then predict outcomes. Not just depression and anxiety, but actually chronic inflammation and reduced antiviral response, so there’s really, it anchors in our bodies as well as in our minds, taking us away from our ability to be creative and engaging with other people when we’re just stuck listening to this tape over and over and over.

Stephanie:       Wow. Okay. I was thinking briefly about purpose, and I am blessed, to use my own Christian language. I have a job that I love, right? I do interfaith work. I work with people. I work with ideas. I work for an organization that wants to make the world a better and more ethical place, so for me, to read the book, I think, “Oh, absolutely. These are places where I can apply this work.” What if that wasn’t the case? Right? What if I’m working as a CNA, I’m working in retail, I’ve got several side hustles, I’m exhausted, I’m working under the table? How can we find and connect a sense of purpose if I don’t like my job?

Leah:                I think one of the great things about purpose is when we get more clear on the dynamics of how it works, it becomes something we can do rather than something either we have or don’t have. Some of my favorite research in this space is the work of Amy Wrzesniewski, who is a professor of management at Yale in the business school there, and she focuses a lot of her research on how people construe purpose at work. She has basically three categories of how she talks about it. There’s jobs, there’s careers, and there’s callings. It sounds like for you with this larger than self sense of impact from your work, the sense of gratitude for how you’re spending your time, like what I hear and just knowing you before this conversation is that you’re somebody I perceive to have a calling.

Leah:                Somebody who has a job is paycheck-driven, so if they win the lottery tonight, they’re not going to show up at work tomorrow because it’s really a transactional relationship, and someone who has a career, they’re focused on what they’re getting and learning and contributed that’s setting themself up for the next thing, so there’s more of a long-term commitment, but it’s different than a sense that, “I make the world a better place through my work,” which would be a calling.

Leah:                So back to your point of nice to say like you and me, we get to work with ideas and intelligent people, and there’s a lot of choice that we have about how we spend our time, which is a luxury that a lot of people don’t have in their jobs. One of the studies that I love from Dr. Wrzesniewski is she interviews a number of janitors in hospitals and tries to understand their mindset about their work to get insight into this, because a janitor probably isn’t a job many people would pick as like the most flexible, high paying career, the most flexible, high paying work situation available.

Leah:                What she found when she interviewed people is actually there were a number of the hospital janitors who are in this calling category, because the way that they view their job is as an instrumental part of a care team that is saving lives by keeping the hospital environment clean and mitigating the risk of infection. If they don’t do their jobs well, it has a huge implication. People can die, and the people who have this calling mindset were the ones who were more likely to do what we call extra role behavior, so things like, if my mom is in the hospital in the middle of the night, and a janitor who’s cleaning her room and emptying her bins comes in and views herself to be a part of the care team, she’s going to talk to my mom if my mom is up and in pain and lonely, and ask some questions and develop a relationship.

Leah:                There were stories that were amazing that she uncovered of patients, families, and the janitors building these relationships that would last after the patient either resumed life at home or passed away, and the janitor would come and show up at the funeral to pay respect, so I think one of the things to recognize is that in any work situation there’s an opportunity to impact our own mindset. I’m not saying that’s easy and I’m not saying that we should demand it of other people. I look at this more as a, each person for themself; if they’re really struggling, you want to look at, “What can I impact that can improve my situation?” And how, if we look for the opportunities to recognize the value and the purpose of the work that we’re doing, and intentionally weave that into our time in our day, that can make a huge difference, so that’s one way of talking about that.

Stephanie:       It’s amazing how impactful the mind is. I was reminded there’s a study with hotel cleaners in Chicago, right? Hotel cleaners, it’s a very physically demanding job. The beds are heavy, the trash is heavy, the cart is heavy. They’re on their feet all day. They’re going up and down the stairs. Yet it’s primarily a lot of women are doing this work. A lot of them have precursors to diabetes. They’re struggling with healthy food and nutrition, and so this study, and I’ll look it up and I’ll post it with the blog, told some of the women, “The work that you’re doing is strength and conditioning, basically.” Right? It’s exercise.

Leah:                Yes. Yes.

Stephanie:       “The work that you’re doing is exercise.” They didn’t tell that to the other women, and what they saw was the actual bodies, physical bodies changed. The women who had the mindset of, “Wow, I’m strong. I’m moving. I’m walking. I’m taking 10,000 steps. I’m carrying things. I’m building muscle. This is me exercising,” their precursors to diabetes went down, like biologically in the cells, and that’s mindset.

Leah:                Yes. Yes, it’s mindset. This is Alia Crum’s work who’s at Stanford now.

Stephanie:       Yes.

Leah:                She did that when she was, that study you’re referring to, when she was at Harvard. It was such an important … putting on the map how much our mindset matters, and her whole interest around, we know the placebo effect exists, so what if we ask the question, “How can we leverage that by building in opportunities for us to frame our work and our lives in ways that lead to improved health and better relationships and more sense of purpose?” I love her work. It’s really fascinating.

Stephanie:       Yeah. That’s a great example, and I think about better health outcomes. When I was a first year school teacher in the city of St. Louis, teaching under very stressful circumstances, I had a couple of classes with 53 students and 24 desks. Right? I’m a first year teacher. It’s very challenging and demanding. What I found about public schools, especially public schools under pressure from things like No Child Left Behind, was that resources were diminishing, expectations are rising. I thought a lot about burnout, like the older teachers in the system, the younger teachers in the system, the young teachers who would cycle in and get burnout and leave, leave teaching forever.

Stephanie:       One of the things I happened to do, and this is because of my own spirituality and the spiritual mentor I had at the time, and the idea of praying for my students, which sounds problematic in some ways, but for me it was a way to connect vocation and calling to the really hard unrewarding work that I was doing. There were a lot of days that were violent, just violent violence and trauma. I had to clean the desks, and so every day I would clean the desks. What I discovered just serendipitously is one day I was … to clean the desk I had to actually get in the desk and sit down. I’m like, cleaning Emerald’s desk and I’m scrubbing. I noticed, because I’m sitting at her desk, that suddenly I see the classroom from her perspective. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is how Emerald sees the world when she’s in this classroom.”

Stephanie:       Then I’m like, “Okay. Well, I have to sit here and clean the desk. I might as well take a moment and think about Emerald and Emerald’s body as she sits here in this room in this tiny desk, in this cramped room.” So that became my practice, because I have clean the desk and it’s gross. I have to buy my own school supplies and it’s not … I mean, it’s not why I went into teaching, right? To scrub these gross desks with the gang signs and the penis drawings, but then every day now after school I’m sitting there. I’m taking the time to sit and think about every student. That became something that really nourished my teaching practice, something that at first would have made me roll my eyes and become resentful and become bitter about the money that I had to spend on cleaning supplies, and become very antagonistic toward the students who are destroying my property.

Stephanie:       It flipped just the way that I looked at it. Instead I saw it as … I would imagine that my relationships with the students changed. I mean, no one was observing me. Instead, I started to feel very nurturing towards them and I started to see how small they were, right? They were sitting in the desk and they really didn’t have any agency in the classroom. They’re actually bound in with this like, 1950s apparatus, so that was not just mindset, but that had the added benefit of being a physical posture, which is another thing that a lot of spiritual traditions have. A lot of times people ask me like, “What would you do to help support teachers that are in danger of burning out?” That’s something I say, right? You could find a way to look at something that you have to do, if you could find a way to see it as spiritually or ethically or point into a vocation, and that’s what you’re recommending. There’s a reason it worked for me, right? There’s a reason that worked.

Leah:                Yes, and I think that part of what can help motivate people who are listening to this is … it is work and it is artificial and it might seem sort of cheesy or who has time for this? But on the other hand, if we can find creative ways to do it like this example you just had, it’s work you have to do anyways, it’s time that’s already spent, so the only difference here is if we’re willing to do a thought experiment and try to construct our reaction in a different way, and we can know that it matters to our bodies. It’s worth our time to make that effort because we are constructing our world and we can reconstruct it by making these different habits with our reactions, and that will be an iterative process, you know?

Leah:                I know one of my mentors who I’ve worked closely with, with physician burnout, Jim Hallenbeck. He’s on the Stanford clinical faculty and he’s at the VA and he runs a big catchment of palliative care at the VA. He for years has been training residents who come in under him to … it used to be washing their hands and now it’s sanitizing their hands, but just these rituals in our day. The time we have to take anyways, you can use those as reminders. Okay, you’re doing that as you exit a patient’s room and as you enter another patient’s room, so that can be an opportunity, the time and the action you’re spending anyways, to close up the interaction with the patient you’re leaving, to ground yourself in your room and become mentally and physically available to meet the next patient.

Leah:                So I’m really a big fan, and I think this is all consistent with what we know of religious traditions and also like behavior change or habit research, that these small, frequent, repeated reminders can have a huge impact. It doesn’t have to be that all of a sudden we’re on a month-long retreat to contemplate our purpose in life, but if we can spend a minute here and a minute there remembering to ask ourselves like, “What am I here for and what am I passionate about in this teaching and what is the impact I want to have?” that goes a long way.

Stephanie:       Okay. Talk a little bit about compassion and self-compassion. You described the way that it flows both ways, right? Having compassion for myself and having compassion for specific people, not just people, but specific people, even people whom I might find really difficult to work with. How does this work and why is this important for me in my professional life?

Leah:                I think there’s a lot of really interesting research. As we’ve been talking about with purpose, there’s a lot of research about the health implications for us of being more compassionate, so I think that’s one angle in. I also think there’s just a very practical one when we think about, we go home at night after we’re working during the day, presumably, but as schedule that we’re working during the day and we get back; what are the things that stick with us? It’s like the difficult toxic relationship. What’s the thing we’re ruminating about? What’s the thing that’s keeping from being present to our loved ones and members of our community? It’s these interactions, and I think this is where, if we start noticing the downsides for ourselves of continuing in that way …

Leah:                You know, I’ve definitely had the experience of being in really challenging jobs and sort of obsessively never dropping some soap, and often this happens with people who are in purpose-driven work, right? It’s like there’s always more to do, it’s a demonstration of our commitment, but it’s not helpful for us. Our quality of work suffers, our relationships suffer, so I think spending some time and getting clear on what’s happening here, how does this map on to the person I want to be? Then it gets hard when we’re in a specific relationship. Every time I’m facing one of these challenges, these interpersonal challenges, there’s always a whole story behind why I’m right, the other person is wrong, this should be the exception to the compassion rule, because they’re wrong, you know? I want to prove that and I want to defend myself and tell everyone who will listen about it.

Leah:                This is human. This is part of what we do, but I think it becomes a question of like, what’s of service to ourselves and how do we want to model to our kids and how do we want to spend our time with our partners? And it makes sense. I feel like there’s a logic to the fact that when we develop the compassionate muscle, compassion researchers will talk about what happens to us when we get stuck in the threat or the drive systems, so we’re obsessing about these relationships or we’re worrying about work all the time, and we lose access to our soothing system. We forget how to chill out. We forget how to relax. We don’t sleep well.

Leah:                We have all of these just very basic things start to becoming challenging to us when we get stuck in threat or drive, so the soothing capacity of compassion for our own minds and bodies can be a good motivator. Then there’s just some very practical things that we can do to increase our compassion and that’s where I think it gets really fun. Like, what are the options there and how do we apply them? And then trying them out, and seeing what works and does not work.

Stephanie:       Right. One of the things I love about the book, and I wrote all over it, is that you end each section with some tools. I’m doing them. I’m doing them today. I’m doing them as soon as I started to read it. It’s very accessible. It’s very useful. You know, I had a very stressful weekend with lots of ups and downs, and I hated leaving my husband and my son because I felt kind of like tender around that. I felt [slendery 00:35:41], is the word we use in my family. I feel slendery and kind of shaky and dry. I got here and I’m going over the book, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s right. Here’s something I can do right now,” and so I’ve just been applying it. I picture like a buttercream that I’m stirring and stirring, and I’m like, “Oh, here’s another ingredient I can add into my actual day that’s going to work right now.” You also had in all of the footnotes, and as soon as people have the book, they’ll see what I’m talking about, lots more resources on your website.

Stephanie:       It’s really exciting. It’s really generous of you to frame these things that are so essential but feel huge. You know, feel sometimes a little bit out of reach in your everyday life when you’re caught up, so thank you for all of these tools and resources. I want you to talk a little bit about courage and why that’s such … wow, that’s like Alfred Lord Tennyson writing about Camelot, right? That’s something that I don’t think ordinary people think of themselves as being courageous, and so why is that something that comes into play here? You touched on it in the book, and if you could just talk about also in your own professional and practicing life, what about courage?

Leah:                Well, I think it comes back to where we started the conversation in the sense that if we recognize that some of the habits that are not serving us well or the relationships that aren’t functioning well, we’re bringing what we have to them, right? We’re trying even if it’s not the best … it wouldn’t be the option we would pick. It’s, we’re working with what we’ve got because we’ve been in pain, we’ve been hurt, we’re overwhelmed. There’s just all these human reasons why we develop habits that we wouldn’t choose if we had a list and we could check the box next to what do I want to do. Yes.

Stephanie:       The habits that I have right now, if I were making a list of the Stephanie that I want to be as partner, mom, teacher, worker … I don’t actually embody all of those attributes on a daily basis.

Leah:                Right.

Stephanie:       The things that I actually do sometimes are like much more broken and sour than the ones I would want for myself.

Leah:                Right. Right, so given that we’re all that way, then it takes courage for us to then face that gap between who we are and who we want to be, because that’s a really uncomfortable place and it also has history to it and trauma in it for many of us, so it means being willing to face what’s not working, why that’s been the habit we have formed, and to form a new habit we have to look at all of the stuff that gets in the way, so that takes, it demands a lot of ourselves. I think that we have to appreciate that we have that ability and to appreciate the small steps that we’re taking. Like, if we’re going to learn to change our relationships, that means we need to get familiar with difficult emotions that might be driving behavior in a way we don’t like, which means that we have to feel all the feels, which means we need to have some courage and we need to appreciate ourselves along the way both for trying and for inevitably slipping up and then starting again.

Stephanie:       I was just going to ask you, what if I fail? What if I do these things and I’m still the messy, sour, flailing … what then?

Leah:                You will and we will and everybody listening will. We’ll all do that and we’re all works in progress, and that’s what makes us all human. That’s something we all have in common and I love the fact that this is the basis of real compassion. If it was easy to just change our behavior or our habits, then the world would be a totally different place, right? But because I know, through my struggle of trying to change these things, it’s hard and I can appreciate when someone is rude to me that wasn’t the behavior they preselected. They’re doing the best with what they’ve got and all of these sort of, we got to reorient ourselves to our purpose, make a new plan, try again, reflect on what’s working and not working, and have humility and compassion for ourselves and each other.

Leah:                I feel like that’s part of the missing ingredient at least in my education. I think many of us who were raising on the self-esteem, we thought we were good if we succeeded. We thought we were good if we were better than everybody else, and so I think what we’re learning through social/emotion sort of development for our kids is we want them to feel good if they’re trying hard and if they’re learning, but many of us didn’t grow up that way, right? So it’s a risk and we’re asking our kids to take it. I think this is part of what needs to be bridged for many of us who have that practice in our parenting lives or the goal for ourselves. It’s just we’ve got to have a growth mindset towards our own personal development and know we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to fall short, and we just pick ourselves up, look at that with honesty and integrity, own it, and try again just like we tell our kids to do.

Stephanie:       I love it. I love it. You also point that out really lovingly in the book, to have that kind … Would you talk to a stranger on the bus the way that you’re talking to yourself right now inside? That’s super real and super applicable as well.

Leah:                Yeah. Most of us wouldn’t talk to our most hated enemy in the way that we talk to ourselves if we pay attention, and it’s really sobering how much … and recognizing that we have all this struggle inside our self and so does everyone else. I’ll talk to my own students about this at the Business School a couple of weeks into the mindfulness unit where they’re really seeing how deep habits of distraction or emotional overwhelm are or just the noise, right? And ask them to realize that that’s the experience of everybody else in this room that you’re working with, that you’re passing by. That’s the water we’re all swimming in, which should then bridge the mindfulness to the compassion in a really organic way.

Stephanie:       Right. Right. Yeah, that awareness. That’s something physical. I just went … when you remember that we’re all experiencing that same flailing and that same sense of not-enough-ness. That is the bridge. I want to ask you briefly, a lot of us are aware that it can be problematic to borrow from contemplative traditions, and I think some people might especially be like, “Oh, for businesses. Those people want to make a profit,” why is it okay for them to have these beautiful spiritual traditions? Speak to that, because I know that you’re very thoughtful and will help us understand that in a good way.

Leah:                [inaudible 00:43:22] that it’s a good question now, that I’m thoughtful. I realize that sounds really weird.

Stephanie:       Yes, I can answer that.

Leah:                Yes, of course I can. You know, it’s something that I started out very wary of, myself. Like, what does it mean to take these old traditions and are we watering them down? And all of these other concerns. I’m writing a case study now for the Stanford-Harvard databases about mindfulness in organizations, which is really focusing on what are the unintended consequences, the downsides? What are all the blind spots? Because there are many. I think where I’m at today with it is that I’ve seen there are mixed motivations and some negative motivations in organizations. Some want to do this as propaganda or the latest perk. I think there are some leaders who really see that and organizations that really see that taking the long view and recognizing the human aspect of employees is good business and good humanity.

Leah:                I think there’s a huge range in the quality of programs that exist, and some of them I feel like are what we joke about people who do this work, sneaky Buddhism, and some of them are really thoughtful, have great impact. I think nothing works for everybody. I’m very wary of programs that don’t have really thoughtful training. I know one of the roles I play is running the Stanford compassion training programs teacher training, and I over and over and over talk to our teachers as they’re training that, “You need to recognize that each of the people that you are teaching courses or in organizations or wherever you are, they’re coming from a variety of religious backgrounds, or they’re secular humanists, and you need to have a great deal of knowledge about and respect for the complexity of creating a space that is safe and respectful, knowing that you have your own vantage point about what is your practice and what’s best for you and your family.”

Leah:                At the same time, I think ultimately I just so believe in the vision of the need for secular ethics now more than ever, and I think the Dalai Lama for decades has really been outspoken about the fact that we can’t just neglect to have education and shared norms and ethics and public space, so we need to have ways that we can talk about things like compassion, and not just talk about them but train in them, have accountability for them, for our businesses, for our politicians, for ourselves. I think that that’s such an important mission. That’s why I am intent on working on it, but it’s far from simple, so I think it’s important to constantly be asking these questions.

Stephanie:       Did you learn anything in the writing of this book that surprised you or that made you want to do another project? Like, what didn’t fit in the book that you’re still really interested in?

Leah:                Ritual is something that I just continue to be really compelled by and I think that this is a place where the little things we do, like we were talking about on this conversation, the little things we do in our day, that bringing in an anchoring to our deepest values and the practices that we have in our workplace and our homes, I’m really interested in continuing to explore that and raising up how from a … All the wisdom traditions have ritual practices and what can we learn from putting these side by side, looking at current habit research? There’s a lot of this in the book, but I think it’s something that I continue to be … I want to learn a lot more.

Stephanie:       Okay, so one last question as I’m looking at the title of the book, How We Work, but what you’re talking about in the book is purpose and why we work, right? How did you come to that title? Why the difference in … why not Why We Work or When We Work or Should We Work? Do we have to work?

Leah:                Yes. I think for me, coming back to this looking at our ability to influence what we’re bringing to our work, so the why we work I think it can get at the purpose, but then for a lot of people they’re also like, “Well, I work for money. That’s a nonstarter question.” I think really that it’s about … I feel like I want to take this again.

Stephanie:       Yeah, start from the top. Like, why? Why is the title How We Work?

Leah:                The title is How We Work because it comes back to the need for us to continually revisit this question every day, every week, every year. What are my habits? Are they serving me? Can I change them? So I think that highest level like, “How am I approaching this?” question gets at the heart of finding our purpose and implementing it. Not just having the capital be purpose, but making sure it maps on to all the stuff I’m actually doing in my over-busy calendar.

Stephanie:       Right. It’s like the shorthand, because when we see each other we say, “Oh, how are you doing? How’s work going?” Right? The how is not just what I accomplish today. It’s this continuous iterative embodiment of how it’s going, how I’m working, how we’re working. The reflection, the application, the revisiting.

Leah:                Yeah, and how are you approaching it? What are we bringing to the party at our jobs and in our lives? In my mind the how we work is really getting back to, that we can take much more ownership over our mindset than we often realize in our busy life, so it’s asking the question, “How am I approaching this?” over and over as a reflective point, asking each other on our teams, asking the people who report to us that. I want this to be a conversation that is seen as instrumental to the workplace, not just like a once a year offsite question.

Stephanie:       Right. It’s a kind question, too, or it’s a kind description because the question, if the board of my university were to say, “Stephanie, why are you here? What is the purpose your department?” I will have to either get into a formal voice and think of some really lofty goals, but like, “How are you doing? How is that project going?” is a much kinder entry point, because maybe your day is not going well at all, but giving me the chance to reflect on that and maybe apply some of my new knowledge or apply a new practice feels much more humane.

Leah:                Yes. I think that that’s right. I think that it’s really meant to acknowledge that the process of working really matters, and I think this is the takeaway of many of the leadership and management programs. I often hear people talking about, “I know I can get the technical skills, and by the way, when I master this technical skill it’s going to be outdated a year from now,” but the how I’m learning and the how I’m showing up to relationships and the how I’m constructing purpose, these are the things that we’re going to need to have so that we have somewhere to return to in all the constantly shifting dynamics of our work world.

Stephanie:       And how we’re being human, right? That’s the long-term messy endeavor.

Leah:                Yes.

Stephanie:       Many rich resources on mindfulness, meditation practices, rituals, and ways for you to live with purpose at home and at work are available on Leah’s website, leahweissphd.com, and her new book, How We Work, available now by pre-order on Amazon, and on the Claremont Lincoln blog, Engage. Thank you so much for being here. Be mindful. Thanks for listening to In Times Like These, where we explore issues of politics and faith, and learn from one another how to navigate difference for maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.


About Today’s Guest: Leah Weiss, Ph.D.

Leah Weiss, Ph.D. is a lecturer, researcher, writer, and author. She’s trained thousands of executives, team leaders, students, veterans, and Silicon Valley’s best and brightest in mindfulness, purpose, and compassion. In her first book, HOW WE WORK: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim your Sanity and Embrace the Daily Grind (HarperWave, 3/13/18), Dr. Weiss helps us understand and bring our whole self to work with the latest research and neuroscience, as well as ancient Buddhist practices. With this holistic approach, she helps us improve our experience of the workplace. Her book has been endorsed by Kelly McGonigal, Abraham Verghese, Thupten Jinpa, and The Dalai Lama.


Ways to listen to this episode:

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to connect our greater sense of calling with even the most mundane or unappealing tasks
  • What to do when negative rumination takes over our mental processes
  • Why any work situation is an opportunity to impact our own mindset (negatively, or positively)
  • How to begin living more purposefully—at work, and at home
  • Daily rituals that can help us live and work more mindfully

Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:

1. “We are constructing our world and we can reconstruct it.”

Nearly all of what we experience, even biologically, is related to how we perceive the world mentally. Our health outcomes, our emotions, and our interactions with loved ones and coworkers can be greatly impacted just by shifting our mindset. It sounds improbable, but genetics and biology show us how mindfulness and purpose change who we are. Who do you want to be?

'We are constructing our world and we can reconstruct it.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

2. “How do we develop the compassion muscle?”

Compassion practice goes both ways. We can start by practicing self-compassion, and find that it makes us feel more open to others. Or, we can start by seeking to be more compassionate to others, and end up having kinder self-talk for ourselves. It’s easy to see why those we disagree with us are wrong, but that may not be the healthiest—or most sustainable—way to live and work.

'How do we develop the compassion muscle?' Listen now: Click To Tweet

3. “A sense of purpose can be something we do, not something we have.”

“I hate my job. My job is taking over my life. I have no work-life balance.” For many of us, our work is a place of stress. And yet, most of us spend more waking hours at work than we do with family or friends. How do we find purpose in every aspect of our lives? Can we really change our mindset about how we go about our daily work? And what can we do, right now, to impact our health, work, and well-being?

'A sense of purpose can be something we do, not something we have.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

Mentioned on the episode:

Sometimes it seems like our thoughts run away without us! We worry, we plan, we overthink, we get caught up in negative self-tapes. But it doesn’t actually do us any good— it’s the mental equivalent of chewing the cud. The good news is: we can learn to think with greater purpose. See the above graphic for a great visual representation on one of the takeaways from this episode.

How to connect with Leah and with us:

You can find Leah on Twitter @LeahWeissPHD, on Facebook here, and on LinkedIn here.

You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes. And you can always connect with us at CLU on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts linked here.

Like the show? Help us spread the word by giving us a rating and review on iTunes!

About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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