Yes, you need some hard-core skills to succeed in IT. You learn many necessary and valuable skills with long hours at your keyboard, armed with a reference, some good examples, a few virtual machines (for infrastructure nerds like me), and, of course, patience. But I’ve found some qualities and skills that are exceptionally helpful that you can’t acquire from a book. mindfulness
For example, curiosity.
I’ve always wanted to know how things work. As a kid, while my other friends were playing with their toys, I would take my toys apart to see how they worked. As you can imagine, the secrets revealed did not always merit the destruction of my playthings, but even parental intervention did not dampen my curiosity.
But my curiosity for how things work was not limited to mechanical toys, operating systems, and TCP/IP. I mean, after all, if studying these things is interesting, how much more interesting would it be to learn about the most complex operating system of all – the human mind.
I am deeply interested in the mechanics of how people work. How do we become who we are? Why do some people thrive under pressure and others collapse? How can really smart people do really stupid things? Why do teams of smart people fail? These are important questions.
To get under the hood of these processes, I sought out the best teachers I could find in the fields of somatic psychology, meditation, mindfulness, group dynamics, and communications. I spent years studying, practicing, and learning about how people function or don’t as the case may be. Along the way, I learned some remarkable lessons and I wanted to share a bit about them and how they can help you in an IT career. It certainly helped me immensely.
It helps to think of your neurology like an operating system. For example, when you step on something painful or walk into a room on fire, that’s a priority interrupt. An event of this sort fires circuits in your brain so that no matter what else is going on, your attention becomes riveted. You can’t prevent it. It’s a pri0, Ring 0, physical layer thing. Every resource you have is suddenly brought to bear to manage it.
This kind of circuitry developed in humans to keep from being eaten. Pretty useful circuitry.
You also have short and long-term memory, hard-wired circuits (reflexes), monitoring systems, internal clocks, programs, and many more parallels. In many ways, we are a very sophisticated computer. Since your neural architecture governs how you experience and interact with the world. It would be wise, one might think, to know something about it.
But it’s one thing to study a computer or a network; it’s another to explore within yourself. Studying yourself is a specialized kind of process. For example, one part of the brain lets you read a textbook on anger, but it’s another part of the brain that enables you to notice when you feel angry. You have to study yourself experientially to get a handle on how things work in you in practice. And that’s where things get fuzzy. People have this thing you’ve probably heard of called “thoughts” that can get in the way of studying yourself.
That might sound a bit odd, so let me explain.
The Problem with Studying Oneself
The practice of mindfulness is, at its core, an exercise in bringing your attention to what’s going on in your immediate experience. You could say it’s a very high-level system monitor. The part of your brain that can do this impressive feat is the pre-frontal cortex. This part of your brain is responsible for very high-level thinking like sorting out conflicting ideas, working on defined goals, judgments, and other important stuff that pretty much makes life interesting. This part of the brain is also involved with impulse suppression.
So, my question to you is this, “would having more capacity to do high-level thinking help you in an IT career or life in general?” I’m not talking about IQ, but rather your ability to function gracefully in a complex world, both personally and professionally. Would you benefit from being less reactive, more open, and more able to stand in your authority in a relaxed yet substantial way? Would your IT career have better prospects if you could navigate complex, significant relationships with greater ease and clarity, be engaging, have greater empathy, and command more resilience – all while being less stressed and more engaged in life?
If only there were a free, easy, low-barrier, dogma-free, accessible way to increase the size of the brain matter that would help you achieve these godlike qualities.
The good news is, the science is in. For the low, low price of 10-15 minutes of practice a day, you can add this capacity to your operating system (search for “neuroplasticity”). Eight weeks later, you have a new grey matter, are calmer and more resilient.
How? Start a mindfulness practice.
Default Setting = Automatic
Between stimulus and response, there is space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
– attributed to Victor Frankl, Austrian Neurologist
The difficulty is that, for most of us, we’re on automatic. Given any particular stimulus, your experience and what you do as a result is neurologically determined. A collection of associated neurons forms a neural network, and the easiest one to “fire” is the one you experience in response to a given stimulus. So, for example, if someone says to you, “that assembly you loaded into the build was crap,” and you fire back without thinking, “that’s BS, it’s your crappy deployment system,” then you are on automatic mode. Welcome to the human race. The key identifier here is “without thinking.”
One of the key objectives in the practice of mindfulness is to create the capacity to not be on automatic. To develop the neural ability to inject a pause between stimulus and response (as stated above by Victor Frankl). This one skill gives you an immense opportunity – “the power to choose.” Choosing a reply instead of just saying what comes out automatically gives you a much better chance at a better outcome. That’s how you can engage the world more authentically, powerfully, and intentionally. Imagine what that skill can do for you in every aspect of your life!
In our example, instead of firing back with your judgment about the problem – you take a breath. You inject space. You pause. You notice your in the moment experience.
You’re feeling threatened, and you urgently want to defend your brilliancy. But instead, because you have practiced mindfulness, you’re paying attention to not only you but other people as well. You notice how upset the person is that challenged you. In this mindful moment, that you created out of thin air, rather than react, you say, “You seem pretty upset; tell me what’s going on?”
In this way, you show real intelligence and leadership. You consciously choose to contact the emotional component of the exchange and get more factual data. That’s brilliance in action. The outcome may still not be great, but it will have its best chance at better if you are not reactive.
How do you acquire these capabilities? In two parts. Part 1 is practicing creating the spaciousness you need to consider (mindfulness) instead of being automatic. The second part is knowing what to say (mindful communications).
The Basic Practice
The basic mindfulness practice is pretty simple. Simple, but awesomely powerful.
First, you sit down in a quiet place, and for 10 minutes at least, you permit yourself to do nothing. That’s simple to say, but for most of us, actually quite hard to do. Literally, tell yourself, “For the next 10 minutes, I don’t have to do anything, no problems to solve, nothing to figure out – nothing at all.”
Next, your intent during this time is to pay attention in a very refined way to what’s going on inside you.
For many, the best practice during this time is to focus on breathing. Pay close attention to what it feels like to breathe. Imagine a wine connoisseur tasting a wine—that kind of sensitivity. Notice your breath as you inhale. Where does your body expand? Chest? Stomach? What is the temperature of the air? Do you feel constricted in your chest? Just notice. It may feel weird or stupid. Do it anyway.
Continue to focus on your breathing until you notice that you’ve stopped.
“Monkey mind” (as it is often called) will assert itself. You’ll start to think about something else AND, interestingly, you won’t notice that you lost focus. The fuel you have that drives focused attention is a limited resource. Once you run out of it, you drift off to think about something else. You don’t notice it because your “attention” fuel has dissipated.
You will have daydreams, thoughts, feelings, other sensations, or emotions. When you realize that is happening, just notice them. “I’m having the thought that this is boring as hell,” “I’m having the thought that I don’t know what I’m doing,” “I’m feeling very uncomfortable,” or “this is great, I need to do this more.”
Super important point here – when noticing and naming what’s happening in your in-the-moment experience, there is no right or wrong. The task is to just notice and don’t judge. (More on that later). Then, gently go back to paying attention to your breath.
The moment you realize you are not focusing on your breath, that you have wandered off into a daydream, worry, or memory – that moment – that precise moment, is the moment you become mindful.
That moment is gold.
Your mission is to have more of those mindful moments. Every time you do, you wire up the neural circuitry that makes it easier to do it again. Your brain gets the message, “If she’s going to insist on this kind of neural activity, I better build some more neurons to help.”
You’re learning, but more importantly, you’re learning in a particular way – on purpose, in the moment, and non-judgmentally.
In fact, the definition of mindfulness, as put forward by Jon Kabat-Zinn (who is considered by many to be the godfather of mindfulness in the west), is: “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” (https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/).
Can Mindfulness Help an IT Career?
There’s a great deal of science on the benefits of mindfulness, so I won’t go into those details, but is it helpful in an IT career?
Google, Amazon, and Microsoft (among others) all have mindfulness programs. The Search Inside Yourself program (get it?) created by Google is quite famous and is now a stand-alone business. There is lots of research to show that mindfulness helps people be happier, more resilient, healthier, and less reactive, which benefits the companies we work for, not to mention our personal relationships.
I often say to executives (and anyone else that will listen), “remember that IT is, above all, a people business.” People create technology to serve people. This is easy to forget when complex agendas mix with the heat of deadlines and limited resources. And, as you know, it’s common for people to succeed in business who completely ignore studying how their minds work, how to be better communicators or how to show up as an effective group leader. But times are changing. There is less tolerance for success at the cost of humanity.
I think a new, more compassionate, connected, and authentic way of being in business and showing up for work is becoming the norm. Besides, no matter the outcome professionally, a mindfulness practice helps people be happier, healthier, and more resilient. A worthy goal.
In closing, remember these key points:
– If you want to be mindful and gracious under stress, you have to practice when you’re not under stress.
– Frequency of practice is more important than duration.
– When starting a mindfulness practice, it’s normal to find it hard or not notice much improvement for a while. Persevere.
There’s no doubt that mindfulness has helped me in my career as a speaker, trainer, author, technical evangelist for Microsoft, Riverbed, and others. Mindfulness has helped me immensely in navigating conversations with angry customers, million-dollar meetings in Executive Briefing Centers, countless team meetings, 1:1 discussions, and even landing job interviews.
How do you begin? You can easily find resources for getting started with a mindfulness practice, including some of mine. Many people enjoy the well-researched and widely available Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. You can also find lots of practical tips in my Language of Mindfulness Podcast.
If you feel you can’t meditate, there are still choices. Probably best to do some coaching around that. Also, special consideration is needed when traumatic issues surface when you attempt to meditate. The bottom line is this – if you do the basic mindfulness meditation and you feel worse, stop doing it. (Not just annoyed or frustrated, but triggered or notably worse.)
It’s hard to overstate how vital a mindfulness practice can be to enhance the quality of your life personally and professionally. Your days are better, so your career is better. Research suggests that mindful engineers are better at thinking outside the box to come up with original ideas. When you practice mindfulness, you are likely to see opportunities, solutions, and possibilities you did not see before. Perhaps your insights will lead to important solutions for your project, your company or inspire you to start your own business. But in any event, the world needs more mindful people. Be one of them and gain a superpower that will serve you, and those around you, for years to come.