Stressed-Out MBAs Turn to Meditation as a Career Aid

Images of a hippie, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, and an American soldier, each cross-legged and serene, flashed across a projection screen in a New York University lecture hall Monday night during a talk on meditation hosted by the university’s Stern School of Business.

Second-year MBA Francisco Restrepo, one of roughly 100 people in attendance, tried to pay attention despite the distractions of his workload. “I have so many things on my plate that something has to give, and I think I’ve been looking and searching to find what might be the holy grail to try to fix that,” said Restrepo.

The occasion for the event was the launch of Stern’s “Mindfulness in Business Initiative,” a loosely planned program on meditation for MBAs. It featured a lecture by Nightline co-anchor Dan Harris, who compared the unwieldy title of his new book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story with a Fiona Apple album. The group giggled regularly as Harris described his unlikely path to Buddhism and how the elusive concept of “mindfulness” might be good for business.

“At first I thought it was unbelievable bullshit,” said Harris of the Buddhist principles he learned from a spiritual guru he interviewed for ABC. Still, the possibility of managing his anxiety, rather than just swimming in it, hooked him.

Regular meditation helped him cope with scenarios that might have once pushed him to the brink.

“You’re on line at Starbucks, somebody cuts you off,” he said. “You automatically think to yourself, ‘I’m angry.’ And then what happens? You reflexively, instinctually inhabit that thought. You actually become angry.”

Mindfulness—paying attention to your thoughts and feelings—can be a buffer between frustration and the wrongheaded things it might inspire you to do, Harris said.

Deep breaths and mantras have been shown to aid decision-making, which is why corporations—“your future employers,” Harris told the students—have begun to embrace meditation. General Mills has an entire room devoted to the practice at its headquarters, and Wall Street titans such as Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank have offered meditation classes for their stressed analysts.

Not everyone was convinced. One student told Harris that a Stern class had taught him taking risks without hesitation would make him a better salesman. (Harris suggested that meditation might not work for in this particular realm of finance.)

Restrepo thought negative connotations around treating stress would keep meditation from becoming widespread at Stern.

“Mental health in general has a huge stigma,” says Restrepo. “Especially in such an aggressive or competitive environment like an MBA [program], it’s probably not something that will get everyone excited.”

Harris, by contrast, sees meditation going the way of online dating: It will become so ubiquitous that no one will remember what was embarrassing about it in the first place.

“I think meditation is the next big public health revolution,” said Harris. “When you see people as diverse as the Marines and 50 Cent and the Seahawks and NYU Stern Business School embracing it, something’s happening.”

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