Chade-Meng Tan was a Google engineer in 2007 when he started teaching his coworkers about mindfulness and emotional intelligence.
The course would eventually earn the name “Search Inside Yourself,” attract thousands of Tan’s coworkers, and spread across the globe.
But back then, it was just a project that Tan pursued in his “20% time,” or the time Google gives employees to pursue passions that are unrelated to their core responsibilities but that will benefit the company (whether employees still take advantage is up for debate).
Tan recruited a bunch of big names in the space to develop and teach the course, including Norman Fischer, Daniel Goleman, Philippe Goldin, and Mirabai Bush. In those early days, Tan recalled when we spoke recently, they’d meet at Google’s Mountain View headquarters and discuss their visions.
“Halfway during one of the first meetings,” Tan told me, “somebody asked: Is Google paying us for this? I was like, ‘How would I know? Why are you asking me?'”
(Tan clarified that Google did eventually pay the SIY instructors.)
Tan’s point here is that he didn’t consult all the higher-ups and meticulously plan the logistics of SIY. He felt that, if he could get the program off the ground, it would benefit Googlers — and so he went for it.
“The secret of my success in Google is to always do the right thing for Google and the world. And then I sit back and wait for them to fire me. So if they don’t fire me, I’ve done the right thing for Google and the world. If they do fire me, then I’m in the wrong company. So either way I win.”
He went on: “This is one of those situations where I just do the right thing and then, if it doesn’t work out, just ask for forgiveness.”
This advice won’t work for everyone in every situation, Tan said. But at the time, it helped fuel his success. In 2008, he was offered a job in Google’s people operations department so he could lead SIY full-time.
After 15 years at Google, Tan retired in 2015. He said he wasn’t sure what the culture is like today, but remembered that a lot of his coworkers “wanted to change the world. There was an element of idealism and energy and altruism.”
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