Two weeks ago, I took the 2.5-day “Search Inside Yourself” (SIY) course offered at Google, one of the many hundreds of free courses that range from coding to public speaking to salsa dancing. SIY was an incredible journey of complete selfishness that I often don’t get to treat myself to. I won’t pretend I discovered Nirvana or some hidden side of myself… that wasn’t what I expected. Just like everyone else, I go through the motions most days and I’m not beating myself up for that. But SIY did help provide a lot of focus and clarity to parts of my life that I blissfully allow to remain fuzzy.
One cardinal rule of SIY was not to preach, no passing judgment on others. So here’s my Disclaimer: these are my very personal takeaways from this phenomenal class, but they are by no means the same for everyone. Everyone in the class had different “aha” moments, so these are mine that I’d like to share!
My co-worker highly recommended the course to me, and I signed up because it was a well-timed check-in on where I’m at in life. I’ve been at Google for 4 years, in the Bay Area for 11 (!) years, and been single for 13 months now after a 4-year relationship. I gained incredible insights about my relationships, my goals, and the neuroscience of it all, and I’m excited to put my learnings into practice.
My Top 3 Takeaways:
- When empathizing with a loved one, avoid saying “at least…” To be a truly good friend/sister/daughter/partner, you gotta be vulnerable and meet them wherever they’re at.
- If you’re attempting to answer very direct questions like “What’s important to me?”, sometimes the best way to solicit answers is through indirect exercises. See exercise below.
- The 5-year plan is hard. But I got a lot more clarity by writing as my present self on August 16, 2022. This way, it felt way less aspirational and more real.
- Bonus, work-related: In large cross-functional meetings when opinions are flying at lightning speed, I plan to now respond with “What I heard you say was…”
SIY Background: Chade Meng-Tan is a former distinguished engineer at Google, who left after 15 years to focus more exclusively on the mindfulness practice. During Meng’s tenure, his teachings gained international renown, prompting meetings with every president in modern history, as well as admiring Google employees. He created this course, Search Inside Yourself, which is now available in book-form and has become a standalone Institute designed to change the world. It’s a powerful combo of neuroscience, mindfulness and emotional intelligence that has been… dare I say, life-changing?
The Course: SIY was broken down by the five parts of Emotional Intelligence over 2.5 days:
Day 1, morning: Self-awareness
Day 1, afternoon: Self-management
Day 2, morning: Motivation
Day 2, afternoon: Empathy
Day 3, morning: Integration
I generally think of myself as a pretty self-aware person, to a fault sometimes. I psychoanalyze myself and come down too hard on certain characteristics because I try to optimize myself to be the “best person I can be.” But the Self-awareness portion wasn’t so much about “discovering” myself. I know who I am and what I stand for. It was about observing our behaviors in certain situations.
For example, Mindful listening: I know I can be a chatty Cathy sometimes, but I saw this on full display during one of our first exercises. Person A had to chat for 2 minutes straight, no interruptions, about one of the following prompts:
- Describe a time when you overcame obstacles to be very successful/happy
- Something that your journal-ed about
- Anything else you want to talk about
Purely listening for 2 minutes straight, without so much as an “uh huh” or “definitely” or “sure” was incredibly challenging. I’m going to blame this knee-jerk reaction to interrupt on my “desire to empathize with people” ;) Keeping my mouth shut was not a piece of cake.
Conversely, I had no problem talking for 2 minutes straight. Is anyone surprised? There were definitely moments of discomfort where I was seeking my partner’s affirmation that he was listening to me. But it truly was nice to share my thoughts without worry of being cut-off.
I definitely will apply this to my 1–1 conversations with friends. Applying this to the workplace may be more challenging. I struggle with large cross-functional meetings — not because I don’t vocalize my opinions or successfully converse with my teammates, but because I question the efficacy of this type of large meeting communication. In a setting where people are talking over videoconference, with its lags, echoes and fuzzy screens, it’s difficult to ensure actual listening. In a videoconference with multiple impassioned, strongly-opinionated people, I worry that true listening takes a backseat to vocalizing half-baked opinions just to be heard. I’m definitely guilty of that sometimes. In trying to squeeze in a question or thought, what tumbles out of my mouth isn’t always the most profound articulation I’ve ever had.
This is very counter to our (American) culture, where the loudest voice can be perceived as the smartest. In business school, your performance is often scored on how frequently you speak out loud in class. Having taken a Stanford business school course before, I can attest that there were multiple occasions where certain students really didn’t need to share their opinions at that moment ;P
While I don’t have a perfect solution, one technique we practiced was to respond with “What I heard you say was…” This ensures that I fully understand the point my colleague was communicating, and so that I am clear on the next steps.
Motivation: We all have our routines down pat. So this course was helpful in pausing, taking a deep breath and reflecting on what motivates us to continue this routine. I have a pretty long list of convictions and principles. But one exercise helped me focus on the traits that really mattered most to me. Rather than simply write them all down, we had to list all the people we admire in the world, and list their most admirable characteristics. I was probably thinking of you, dear reader! After this stream of consciousness, we had to group the similar traits in the people we admire. My top 4 were:
- Active (as in an activist)
And all the wonderful people in my life who embody these traits inspire me every day. So thank you, friends :)
Perhaps my favorite exercise in the course was the “5-year” exercise with the prompt, “If everything in my life, starting today, meets or exceeds my most optimistic expectations, what will my life be like in 5 years?”
Because the prompt took such an optimistic tone, I was able to journal confidently without stopping. After reviewing my stream of consciousness, I eagerly looked back at what I wrote:
- I am living in Asia, working for Google or a US company
- I am fighting to advance girls’ education and a free press around the world
- I have the same great relationships with friends and family, but also new friends who come from vastly different backgrounds and are passionate about the causes I care about
- I may or may not be in a romantic relationship (not a priority)
- I feel strong and independent
Sympathizing is easy. Empathy is much harder. It’s easier to see a friend in a dark hole and throw them a lifeline. It’s much more difficult to climb down in that dark hole and meet your friend. (Here’s a great 3-minute animation of Brene Brown’s talk on this where you can see cartoon animals literally climbing down holes. It’s fun)
Another thing they teach is to avoid is the phrase “at least” when you’re trying to console a loved one. Don’t try to add a silver lining to their situation. Sometimes it’s ok to be sad or upset or frustrated in the moment. We don’t always need to “fix” things and Polleyanna our way through life.
Takeaway: So if you’re feeling down, watch out, friends and family! There better be room in that dark hole for two cause I’m coming in. And I promise — no silver linings.
Show compassion: We did an incredibly powerful exercise, where we sat in a chair and closed our eyes. We were told to imagine a loved one sitting in a chair opposite us, and just wish them well. Wish them happiness, a healthy life, any well meaning, and I was overwhelmed by this simple practice. I imagined my sister, Ashlie, with whom I have a fantastic relationship, and I tell her I love her face-to-face or over the phone on a regular basis. But this practice of isolating my thoughts and channeling all this compassion to just the thought of her was so powerful. Another participant felt the same way about his wife. He said he felt even closer to her — his own wife! — just by doing this practice.
Takeaway: We go through our daily lives wishing our friends well, “Have a great day!” or “Enjoy your trip”, and quite casually saying “I love you.” But simply thinking about our friends and family can really strengthen a bond. I will try to be better at writing birthday cards to friends. I think this small simple gesture helps encapsulate my gratitude for the relationship and explicitly communicates to them why I love them so much.
1,3,5,10: As with all good courses, there was a very clear action plan for how to build up our mindfulness practice. It starts with baby steps, and I mean baaaby steps. 60 seconds a day of mindfulness practice for one week is totally do-able. Then Week 2 is 3 minutes, Week 3 is 5 minutes, and Week 4 is 10 minutes. And if 3 minutes is still too intense by Week 2, dial it back to 60 seconds. I love the “no judgment” rule.
A week in, I successful practiced mindfulness for 60 seconds every day of Week 1. It was no joke. I couldn’t keep my mind clear for probably more than 3 seconds. Week 2 has been hard — 3 minutes is far more challenging. But if I don’t do it, 60 seconds is better than nothing.
Overall, this class has had a profound impact on my outlook and way of thinking. I’ve even bitten my tongue a few times the past week to not interrupt my family and friends. And I’ve written a birthday card to a friend already. Hopefully, you may even notice a difference in your interactions with me :)