Nirvana (At Least Serenity) In the Workplace

© 2016, Richard McKnight

© 2016, Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

RECENTLY, when I was giving a talk to a group of Wharton Business School alumni entitled, “Winning Hearts and Minds in the Workplace,” someone in the audience told me he was there because he wanted to hear someone tell him how he could create Nirvana at work. I laughed, but afterwards found myself thinking about it. Could one create Nirvana in the workplace? And if so, what is it?

True to my bookish habits, I looked up the term and learned that Nirvana is regarded by many as the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Once one can accept suffering and do the other things called for by the Four Noble Truths, Nirvana is the result. Not all Buddhists achieve this, even the most devout.

It turns out that in the minds of many Buddhist teachers, Nirvana is not a once-and-done thing; one doesn’t topple over into it like it’s a place, forever after never to leave. Instead, it’s an experience, a way of being that, for most of us, at least, comes and goes. 

Even after my reading, I am still not entirely sure what Nirvana is, but it seems to be something like serenity. And I am happy to say I do feel serene most of the time.

This, of course, got me to thinking, “OK. So what is serenity?” For a week, I asked my friends and colleagues when having coffee with them or at the tail end of meetings. Here is what emerged. See how many you can say are true of you—not sort of true by resoundingly true:

  1. I am confident that I can realize most of my dreams.
  2. I bow to things I cannot change.
  3. My life has a meaning and purpose that lies well outside my own self-interests.
  4. I bounce back quickly when things go wrong.
  5. There are a number of people in my life whom I deeply trust and am loved by.
  6. I nndure emotional pain in a dignified way.
  7. I can learn and find value in the negative things that happen in my life.
  8. I believe my effort determines my success, not my inherent capabilities.
  9. I accept and even embrace the fact that life is difficult.
  10. I feel grateful for what I have.
  11.  I am free of financial stress.
  12.  I have the health and vitality required to do the things I want and need to do.

Of the twelve, I can say yes to nine of these. One I struggle with is #2, an unwillingness to “bow to things I cannot change.” Note that this is not just acceptance, it’s bowing before, even honoring one’s own limitations. My colleagues and I agreed that the “bowing before” things we cannot change ups the ante considerably over mere acceptance. This I find very hard to do and I get in touch with the challenge each and every time I get behind the wheel of a car.

I also struggle with #6, enduring pain in a dignified way. My wife would be the first to attest to this. I can come around to #7 and find value in pain, but not before I begin the cursing and ranting that she so hates.

Finally, #9, accepting and embracing life’s difficulties is what keeps me furthest away from the door of Nirvana. I’m willing to say there is value in suffering, but can’t I have less of it? Of course, the Buddha said that the wanting of less suffering is, in itself, a way of adding to your suffering. Yikes.

I do know this, however: if I employ the skills and attitudes of the Navigator, I get more serene, and these are skills that anyone can learn. Maybe this is not Nirvana, but I’ll take all the serenity I can get.

I still don't know about Nirvana in the workplace, but this much is clear to me: When more people in the workplace are calm, better decision making takes place and more gets done.