Using Mindfulness to Crush Your Enemies and Win at Capitalism
The thought of mixing mindfulness with business is seen as blasphemy to many. Capitalism itself may be a key engine in driving the personal issues we require mindfulness to solve in the first place. Bringing the two together feels gross and unnatural.
At times, capitalism seems the furthest thing from the beautiful equilibrium that mindfulness offers. Indeed it certainly may be. A system that extolls the benefits of constant striving, growing, and consuming doesn’t interface well with a practice rooted in not doing any of those things.
There is, however, an interesting paradox about the practice: it can be adapted for almost any problem, including finding “success” (however you choose to define that). Now, while my title may be a tongue-in-cheek joke, this post is not a bait-and-switch. As contrary as it might sound, I legitimately think there is a spot for mindfulness at the boardroom table.
We live in a capitalist society. It’s a system beautifully designed to achieve a set of goals, such as prosperity, resource gathering, and growth. Note the curious absence of happiness and fulfillment. That’s not a knock on the system; I’m merely pointing out many of us go in search of those things within a system that was never designed to deliver them (and in many ways, designed to run counter to them).
Capitalism also isn’t going away. Generations of people have been shaped by it, who in turn shaped you and will continue to shape those you leave behind. Not applying a tool as powerful as mindfulness to such an ever-present force in our lives feels almost foolhardy. The world is changing faster and faster with each passing year, and the landscape of work changes along with it. The previous three years have seen such tectonic shifts as remote work, working from home, and quiet quitting. The following ten will bring incalculable change as computers make their mark. Things will change so quickly we likely won’t be able to anticipate, let alone adapt. If ever there was a challenge that requires mindfulness, we’re about to face it.
The system has been optimized in a way to make us prosperous in some ways while very poor in others. There’s a debate to be had around changing it, but anybody hanging around waiting for that change is in for a very long and disappointing sit. It’s always a wise strategy to assess what you have direct control over; in this scenario, that will be your reaction to this system.
If you have a standard job, you spend 1/3 of your day working (and probably a bit more thinking about it). To not bring proven ancient wisdom to this corner of your life is to deny yourself critical tools.
Let’s dig into this ancient wisdom hiding in plain sight all this time to better play this game we’ve created. They no doubt have many lessons to teach.
Embrace the curious and sometimes infuriating world of paradoxes
Mindfulness loves a paradox. Whether it’s a koan such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping” (pretty sure it’s a finger snap) or the realization that to change we must first embrace total acceptance, mindfulness is littered with riddles.
Roll your eyes at them if you must, but their effectiveness is difficult to ignore. I used to think The Beach Boys’ implicit direction to get to Kokomo faster by taking it slow was the stupidest lyric in music history. I may not have fully understood physics as a seven-year-old, but I knew enough not to trust anything those weirdos had to say. I may have misjudged them.
Have you ever looked with despair at a clock in the middle of the night while trying in vain to fall asleep? The concern over a soon-to-be-ruined day is enough to fuel another hour of being a twisted mess of bedsheets and wide-eyed frustration.
What is the solution? In many cases, it’s to give up the fight and stop trying. Your mind is not unlike an obnoxious child or unhelpful friend. Sometimes to get it to do what you want, you have to use its defiance to your benefit. So go ahead and demand something of your mind (“stay awake” for example), and you might feel a curious resistance within moments.
Have you ever tried an eyes-open meditation? They’re my white whale. If I attempted an eyes-open meditation on cocaine while skydiving through fireworks, my eyelids would spontaneously close after 15 seconds. I’d probably hit the earth at terminal velocity while simultaneously entering REM sleep. The simple act of demanding my eyes remain open for any amount of time turns my mind into a 13-year-old being forced to wear a winter coat.
It feels like ridiculous advice for business, but when it comes to getting what you want, what if you didn’t try so damn hard? I’m not advocating laziness or sitting around waiting for the universe to serve success on a platter, but rather taking a moment to see if there’s an alternate path to where you want to be.
There are plenty of business stories with examples of companies that seemed to find success while focusing elsewhere. Sometimes all you need to do is focus on some processes adjacent to success, and then allow success to arrive as a consequence.
In September of 2022, (former) reluctant billionaire Yvon Chouinard, owner of Patagonia, relinquished control of his company to a specially designed trust and non-profit organization aimed at protecting the planet. His unique anti-money approach has proven to be quite an impressive way to make tons of it. He has a history of anti-capitalist moves, once taking out a Black Friday ad in The New York Times using the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” But, judging by the 3 billion dollars Mr. Chouinard has given away, people didn’t seem to listen.
He was always a frugal man that cared far more for the planet than his bank account. In his youth, he’d travel around eating cat food and spending time in nature. Not exactly a chocolate fountain kind of guy. The thing about a company that celebrates the planet rather than bleed it dry is that it attracts a consumer with a similar mindset. By positioning values ahead of profits, they made a shit-ton of profit. Three billion dollars buys you a lot of cat food (until you give it away that is, then you have to buy your cans of dinner like the rest of us).
What’s your “enough”?
I can already tell the CEOs are beginning to itch as a stress response to this one. Go find your calm equilibrium in a spreadsheet and then come back. I promise it’ll be ok.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote the following for his newly deceased friend in the May 2005 edition of The New Yorker:
“True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Not bad indeed. When you look at people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, with their creepy/horny obsession with getting into space, one thing should become apparent: it will never be enough. With unbelievable effort and universe-bending levels of luck, you can climb to the very top of the capitalist ladder, but the evidence shows that you probably won’t be able to stop once you get there.
Many sacrifice their families (and even themselves) for a seat at the table of success, but upon close inspection, should we want to be there? Rare is the rich man who sits back and proclaims, “there we go; I’m going to stop now and enjoy this.” So it begs the question: what are you working towards, exactly? Are you literally killing yourself so that you can become some Tolkein-esque goblin creature, scurrying around a cave worried about someone taking your stuff?
The world is full of people who achieve incredible success only to blow past the moment they’ve been chasing all their lives in pursuit of the next goal. The drug of “more” is dangerous because not unlike traditional drugs, it leaves the addict more empty than they began.
Have you defined your success? Or have you fallen into the trap of believing it has a general definition? There is a certain freedom in realizing success can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a million dollars, but it can also be a day without back pain. It can be a new car, or it can be a hike in the woods. If you don’t define success, somebody else will, and I bet their definition will serve them more than you.
The fight-or-flight response is a brilliant adaptation that comes in handy during the sudden onset of intense danger, such as a traffic accident or a physical altercation. Beyond those infrequent circumstances, though, it’s not all that helpful. For this reason, we run into problems when we slip into this mode more often than is required. Life gives us ample opportunities to use our fight-or-flight response; unfortunately, many of us go with it.
This issue becomes apparent when we recognize that the fight or flight response is about keeping you alive, not making rational decisions. The response functions by enacting tunnel vision, giving you 100% focus on a given situation. It’s effective in a sliver of life’s events, but outside those few times you may have to dodge an axe swing, it does much more harm than good.
Unless somebody is going to remove your finger with a cigar cutter due to a business deal gone awry, it’s unlikely anything in the business realm will require your fight-or-flight response. A difficult client meeting will rarely end with you needing to toss a chair through a window and roll some dice with gravity (no matter how bad it may feel like a reasonable solution).
Most problems that crop up in work require far more nuance and consideration. We must observe alternate viewpoints, consider what we don’t know, and forecast as best we can. Of course, none of these things can happen in a state of panic because panic exists to solve one big problem at a time. Many people make problems infinitely worse by approaching them with the intensity of a bear attack. So how do we update our outdated hardware?
Recognize what you are
The question of what you are can be a mind-bender that we needn’t get into right now. For this post, we’ll key in on a couple of the biggies that you’re not: you are not your thoughts and emotions. This is simple to say when you’re enjoying a neutral moment, but when shit hits the fan, many of us become one giant fleshy appendage of fear, anger, shame, or distress.
Meditation becomes a great tool to view this separation between yourself and your emotions. For example, when speaking about meditating on intense feelings, comedian Pete Holmes will often slip into the third person, internally saying something along the lines of “just look at how depressed Pete is right now.” That’s not merely a dramatic moment of weirdness but more a tool to remind himself that while he is over here, the emotion is over there. If you can view them as two separate things, it can rob the emotion of its ability to turn you into a rage puppet.
Reconnect with the body
Early in my meditating practice, I became curious (and annoyed) by the constant insistence on following the breath. It’s not that I didn’t want to; I merely didn’t understand the point. Was it just a distraction to clear the mind? I thought distraction and mind-clearing were to be avoided.
I would come to understand (and am still working on) that focusing on the breath is reconnecting with the body. It’s how we recognize that (as Holmes demonstrates) we are here, and the thought is over there. The thought may be fiercely intense and unpleasant, but it doesn’t need to pull the strings and decide for us. There is a choice to be made, and we can make it independent of emotion.
In business, this can become a crucial differentiator found in successful people. Stressful situations are a default component of life, and the business world is no different. Those who can adapt and make decisions under duress will rise above those who slip into habitual patterns of totally losing their shit.
Balance in all things
When it comes to the working world, when we discuss balance, we’re usually talking about the pursuit of the elusive “work/live balance.” Many have a dangerous imbalance there, so it’s an endeavour worth exploring.
A common theme in mindfulness is the interconnectedness of all things. The idea that the entire planet (and beyond) is an ever-adjusting ecosystem that tirelessly works towards equilibrium is a phenomenon you can see in ancient works and science textbooks. When you begin to look for it, it becomes difficult to find a system that doesn’t play by these rules.
So it stands to reason that this untiring balance is also present in our work lives. The energy that goes into a career must come from energy previously reserved for family or the self, and this issue is the backbone of the work/life balance.
As anybody who’s explored this puzzle will tell you, the issue is that achieving an optimal work/life balance can be an exhausting endeavour in its own right. Achieving the balance almost becomes yet another task on the endless to-do list of life.
The idea that one day you’ll awaken to a sunny morning and a beautiful 33.33% split between work, family, and self is delightful to dream about but unrealistic as it gets. Address imbalances in your life absolutely, but spare yourself the thirst for the day it all falls into alignment.
At different times in our life, we will be required to throw things out of balance with purpose. Your work may require a period of crunch where you ignore the needs of everyone you hold dear. You may have a child, and suddenly that report that accounting has been bugging you to complete takes a backseat. Perhaps you suffer a terrible depression, and your focus needs to turn inward. Imbalance is not only sometimes necessary but inevitable.
If you care deeply about several things, by definition, the entire concept of balance falls apart. Perhaps we need to make space to admit that’s ok. Addressing imbalance when it’s harmful is essential, but striving for it at all costs is a burnout-inducing swim upstream.
Some people do passionate and pivotal work in business and ignore their families. Others find family is all they care about and leave the business world in their rear-view mirror. They feel fulfilled, and their efforts make the world a better place, yet they are the walking definition of imbalance.
Doing a singular thing with complete care and attention is beautiful and arguably a better path than doing many things half-assed. Permitting yourself to go all-in on what matters most to you can be liberating and lead to spectacular outcomes.
Mindfulness allows for the singular focus required to block distraction from your all-in thing, but it also provides the wisdom of knowing that your all-in thing will change over time. When it does, it will require attention to notice so you can act accordingly. This call to change gears may arrive as pleasantly as a jolt of inspiration or as painfully as a knot in your stomach at 3 am. The key is to be in tune with your bodymind well enough to recognize it.
But if all things across the globe (and universe) act with this balance in mind, is this lack of balance a problem? No, because it’s still there; we just need to zoom out a bit to see it. For all things, there is a season. You may have the season of career growth, the season of parenthood, the season of excellence, or the season of health. Day to day, you may seem singularly focused on one thing, but over months or years, the balance becomes more evident.
Anticipate and accept change
Of all the skills touted by business leaders worldwide, the ability to remain agile ranks highly. The essential quality that took Netflix from a DVD shipping business to a home streaming behemoth was to fearlessly pivot from one opportunity to the next. On the other side, an inability to pivot was the death knell that changed Blockbuster from being everybody’s favourite place on a Friday night for decades into your neighbourhood liquor store.
Mindfulness teaches us not only to recognize the ever-changing quality of all things but also to soften our fear of it. A fear of change might as well be a fear of clouds. So if you’re going to pick something to fear, perhaps try picking something less inevitable.
Cultivating an interest in change via mindfulness has always been a wise move in business, but there is a chance this skill will be more required than ever.
Without sounding like a crazy man digging a bunker in his backyard, we stand today on the precipice of what could become the most remarkable transformation the human species has experienced since the advent of fire. Ok, reading that back I may have failed in my attempt to not sound like a doomsday prepper. It was probably the fire bit. I see that now.
The fact remains, there is a high likelihood that the changes we will see in the world of work over the next 1-2 decades will be so aggressive, adaptability to change will stand as a core skill to those who prosper.
Cultivate a beginner’s mind
Once you’ve accepted and embraced the changing nature of all things, you’ll have a leg up on developing what is known in Buddhism as “shoshin,” or “beginner’s mind.” Of course, that brings you one step closer to the oh-so-not-Buddhist endeavour of absolutely crushing it financially.
“Beginner’s mind” is an approach to life rich in openness, curiosity, and a lack of preconceptions. It tasks the individual to approach all experiences as novel and interesting, free of the biases that arose after letting the world in. Think of it as approaching life with the inquisitive nature of a child.
The hope of cultivating a “beginner’s mind” is that you’ll be able to assess problems with a unique vision that could lead to a creative solution. In business, finding novel ways to solve problems is an incredible asset. Companies and employees that stand out don’t necessarily solve problems the same old way but rather explore alternative paths that can unlock new lessons or ways to do things.
Equal in importance to creativity is teamwork. Working efficiently with co-workers or clients is paramount to any successful venture, and bringing preconceived biases or undeserved ego to the table makes you a very shitty Jenga piece.
An attitude that you’re fully cooked is not only a detriment to business success but also a fast way to suck the meaning from life in general. Learning is beneficial to the brain at all ages and a source of continuous joy. To adopt a “beginner’s mind” is to embrace that you’re never done exploring and growing.
Listen to your gut
Our relationship with our feelings undergoes an aggressive reformation once we begin to notice that there is a world outside ourselves. As babies, we laugh with abandon, rip a strip off god at the slightest annoyance, and literally piss ourselves with excitement. Then one day, we learn how we express ourselves significantly impacts those around us. As a result, our feelings can suddenly become problematic and a barrier to achieving critical things like love, acceptance, and safety. Whether this realization comes from the society we happened to land in or the personal beliefs of our parents, the result is a kind of emotional deadening developed to keep us safe.
Examples of this are everywhere, but sticking to the theme, in business, the stereotypical male is taught to be cutthroat and ruthless (disconnecting from his nurturing, compassionate side). Meanwhile, the stereotypical female is trained to be calm and compassionate (disconnecting from her assertive side). Of course, these are gross oversimplifications, but it’s difficult to argue that many of us are taught that some of our emotions are very good while others are a barrier to being liked, accepted, or loved.
This bottling up of certain emotions has disastrous consequences across multiple realms, from personal relationships to finding peace within the self. It may have kept you safe within your family unit as a child, but its utility has long since turned sour. Given enough time and neglect, many of these emotions fail to register as feelings.
As mentioned earlier in the section on cultivating calm, the meditative practice of focusing on the breath or doing a body scan is not to distract you from unwanted thoughts or feelings. Instead, they exist to undo the disconnection between our body and mind by using one to listen to what the other has to say.
All day, our bodies send us messages, and should we be taught to ignore these messages, they have no choice but to get louder (often ending up in the form of illness). These “gut feelings” that we so effortlessly abandon have value.
How many times have we marvelled at a business leader at the top of their game for their peculiar “gut instinct” to follow an idea or take a risk that nobody else seemed to understand? Now, history is thick with leaders who have catastrophically tanked their companies based on their gut, but then that would be a vote for ensuring that your gut is refined and not driven by ego or bias.
Entrepreneur and current dick astronaut Jeff Bezos was able to listen to his gut over his detractors when he started up an online bookstore. Steve Jobs returned to a nearly dead Apple and immediately began cutting popular products to readjust focus. Of course, the latter also followed his gut and tried to treat his cancer by eating a lot of fruit, so nobody is saying it works all the time. His business gut was pretty refined though.
We’re all playing the game of capitalism. Love it or hate it, you’re thrashing madly within its open sea. As the lessons of paradox show us, though, sometimes the best way to play the game is not to play it at all. There are rules to this game that don’t hold up to scrutiny, and we can use mindfulness to identify them and decide how we want to proceed. What we may find in the end is a level of success as we define it, not as the system dictates.
You’re free to explore what your finish line looks like. Within a system that implores you to keep going and never slow down, you can define what “enough” is to you. Is it $100,000? $1,000,000? Coffee with a friend? Coaching your kid’s soccer team? There’s no wrong answer as long as it’s yours.
The frantic business person will struggle to succeed, while the one who can assess the situation and make decisions born of logic instead of emotion will flourish. Indeed, many will find success going head-first through walls at full speed, but that’s a temporary solution, so you may be better served looking for an alternate way through.
There is a balance in all things, but don’t be afraid to zoom out and recognize that balance is unreasonable at different stages of your life and your career, and our pursuit of it can be exhausting. There is room for a singular focus on something that inspires you–and as the paradoxes have shown us–if you give up the fight for balance, it may find you naturally in the end.
You can resist the tides of change as much as you’d like, but much like resisting the actual tides, if you try, you’ll probably have a bad time. In a business setting especially, prepare for sweeping changes to grow exponentially from this point onward. You’re welcome to be terrified or interested. The choice is up to you.
By approaching life with interest usually only seen in children, you can adapt to these changes much more rapidly than somebody who resists them. Moreover, relinquishing your ego or preconceived notions about people can leave you open to learning and excelling in all you do.
Capitalism is an author in many of our greatest successes and worst tragedies. It does not by default concern itself with your well-being, fulfilment, or happiness. That’s not to say those things can’t exist within your career, though. You might have to make them yourself.