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Chade-Meng Tan, Economist.com

“It was summer, I was taking a walk outside and it came to me, ‘OK, I’m going to dedicate my life to world peace’.”

Google was only two years old when Chade-Meng Tan, a Singapore-born software engineer, joined in 2000. He earned the nickname “Google’s Jolly Good Fellow” after becoming the unofficial greeter at its Mountain View headquarters in California, always photographed smiling alongside famous visitors. The nickname now adorns his business cards.

A committed Buddhist, Mr Tan used his 20% Time – the portion of working hours Google encourages employees to spend on tangential projects – to devise Search Inside Yourself (SIY), a meditation programme he has been teaching at the company since 2007. In a new book, called Search Inside Yourself, endorsed by the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra and packaged in Google colours and typeface, Mr Tan promises SIY will “increase productivity, creativity and happiness”.

The programme involves mastering one’s feelings to develop greater compassion, empathy and emotional intelligence. Mr Tan believes a world of SIY users will be a peaceful one, and he sees the book (with Google’s global ubiquity behind it) as a step towards achieving this.

Mr. Tan laughs a lot for a man of serious purpose. He spoke to The Economist between chuckles from his office, with its view of San Francisco Bay, on “another perfect day in paradise”.

How many people worked at Google when you joined?

About 100 and we were all friends. When you are small and unprofitable your mindset is different, there is a feeling of a closed tribe. You see each other in hallways, it’s easy to have random conversations, it’s productive.

Why all the photographs with famous visitors?

To impress my Mum. Al Gore was in the building, I had to get a picture to show Mum, right? Then Jimmy Carter visited. It became a tradition.

Is there an element of playing the clown and enjoying the limelight?

If it’s funny, it’s enough reason to do anything. Also I discovered that by doing that I had access to people, people would talk to me. It was quite useful.

How long have you wanted to create world peace?

In retrospect, my entire life. It became solid in 2003. It was summer, I was taking a walk outside and it came to me. “OK, I’m going to dedicate my life to world peace”. I never turned back.

Search Inside Yourself is geared towards corporate life. What about the billions on earth who don’t have the life choices the book implies?

A lot of things in Search Inside Yourself are universal. For example attention training, creating the conditions for inner calm. They have even tried [them] in prisons and it has done wonders for prisoners. But I geared it towards the rich, corporate world, and the reason is leverage. If I can turn the most powerful part of the world into a land of wisdom and compassion, it’s going to change the rest of the world.

The book explains how empathy and compassion can help your career. Doesn’t that taint the altruistic ideals behind such traits?

If you had to pick between being moral and successful, obviously I choose to be moral. However if you can choose both, will you choose both? I’d say definitely.

But you are talking about them as a means to success.

There is a selfish element, in salary and so on, but there is also a greater good component: I’m doing this for my team, for the world or whatever. Compassion is so pure I don’t think there is any way to taint it.

You are taking no money from this book. What will profits go on?

The first tranche is going to a non-profit body, SIYLI, pronounced ‘Silly’. SIYLI [ Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute] is going to bring emotional intelligence to the world. If I have money after that, which is unlikely, I want to create technologies to accelerate progress in [measuring] meditation. Beginners keep asking, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ They can’t look into my mind and compare. So an objective, quantifiable way of doing this, is going to help a lot.

Isn’t meditation about qualitative not quantitative results?

But it is also quantifiable. In people with high emotional intelligence the left prefrontal cortex [associated with positive emotions] is very active. Can we measure this without an FMRI scanner which costs millions of dollars? Person to person differences, can we adjust for that?

The book encourages people to pause and consider their emotions. Doesn’t that remove spontaneity and honest reactions from life?

I think it is the reverse. If a pond is disturbed, you throw a stone in, you see the ripples but they are not very clear, they are obscured by the other waves. If the pond is very calm, you throw a stone in, you can see the ripples very clearly. If the mind is calm, your spontaneity and honest thoughts appear. You become more spontaneous.

What is your role at Google now?

I’m semi retired. The joke, which is unfortunately true, is I only work 40 hours a week. I run a Search Inside Yourself class, I’m playing the role of village elder. A good analogy is Yoda, the old man who mostly says wise things, ungrammatical, shows you how to use the force.

What makes you angry?

Injustice. Evil.

How about dropping something on your foot?

They make me annoyed. Annoyed but laughing inside.

Does your constant cheerfulness ever get too much, for you or others?

Not yet. I’m not always cheerful. If people tell me what they are going through, I get very sad.

Do people at Google come to you with their problems?

Yes, a lot.

Can that be a burden?

It is an opportunity to serve. I’m just me, right? Wow, if I can help people, that’s the least I can do.

Do you ever think ‘I should have been a monk’?

I think I chose this life. We all have different ways of serving people. This niche had to be occupied and I’m the one, I guess.

August 2012

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