Interview with Jeremy Hunter
Switching things up a bit I thought it would be fun to change the language to English and to do my very first podcast. The reason for this is that I had the opportunity to talk to Jeremy Hunter who has been teaching mindfulness for over a decade at the Peter Drucker School of Management.
I first learned about Jeremy’s work through a webinar he gave, and that I also wrote a post about here on the blog (in Swedish). Of course I was delighted when he agreed to do this interview and share his insights with all the readers of the blog. So without further ado I give you the interview:
(Oh, and by the way. If you are interested in information about the Mindfulness in Business conference mentioned at the end of the interview, please send an email to m-i-b [at] potentialproject [dot] com).
Martin: I’m joined today by Jeremy Hunter from the Peter Drucker School of Management. And for those of you who don’t know Jeremy he’s an assistant professor of practice and he has for over a decade taught executives mindfulness practice to help them become better leaders. He was voted professor of the year three times and he holds degrees from Harvard University and the University of Chicago. So, welcome Jeremy.
Jeremy: Well thank you Martin, it’s really a pleasure to talk to you.
Martin: It’s certainly a pleasure to be able to do this interview. So I thought just to start thing off maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background and how did you come to teach mindfulness at one of the world’s most prestigious business schools?
Jeremy: Right… Well, first I should say that Peter Drucker who’s considered to be the founding father of the discipline of management, who wrote a great deal about the notion that managers should manage themselves first before they can manage anything else. And that was a core element of his work and writing for more than 50 years. So it fits nicely within an existing framework of how we understand what management is about.
In the late nineteen nineties when I was a graduate student at the university of Chicago we were working with, we were collaborating with two other institutions and we were given a grant to study what where the effects of mindfulness practice, or how did mindfulness practice relate to the lives of working professionals. And we were examining people who were successful knowledge workers of one stripe or another. Fortune 500 CEO:s and movie directors, architects, writers, journalists, scientists, who had had a dedicated mindfulness practice.
We were asking them questions about what their lives were like and what did they think their lives would be like if they didn’t have this practice and one of the things that kept coming up over and over again no matter who we spoke with was a line that echoed the idea that their lives were so complex that they were being pulled in so many directions at once that if they didn’t have these practices to help them feel present and centered they think they would be dead. And often times they meant it quite literally. They’d show me medical records of their heart disease or something or they had failed relationships, one thing or another. Something about their lives wasn’t working. By learning to train their attention to become more aware, to be able to make different and better choices over time they often times radically transformed themselves and were better able to deal with the complexities of working in this world of ours. That was a signal to me that this was really important to people and that it wasn’t just some strange esoteric, Asian mysticism, but something that really helped, that spoke to people in this post-modern condition that was truly applicatious.
And in my own experience I was 20 years old and a sophomore at a wonderful private liberal arts college in Ohio named Wittenberg University and on a fluke was at the health fair one day and found that I had high blood pressure. One thing led to another and I discovered that I was suffering from an auto-immune disease for which there was no cure, or any real effective treatment and that the disease was affecting my kidneys and that the prognosis was that there was a 90 percent chance of organ failure within five years of diagnosis. That was in 1992. Because the treatments at that time that were available were often times worse than the disease I didn’t really see that there were a lot of traditional medical choices available to me. A professor of mine Eugene Swanger gives me a book called The Three Pillars of Zen, which was in English one of the first books to teach a westerner how you actually do Zen and their kind of very basic meditation instructions. So quite regularly I did this practice over and over again for years, every night before going to bed. One year led to another year and I found myself in graduate school in Boston and found myself with a new doctor and we redid all of the tests from my original diagnosis and I’d come back for the checkup and he says ”I don’t know what happened but somehow this disease process is changed and it’s slowed down and you have more time.”
Fast forward… that’s in 1994… fast forward a few years and talking to all these people who were saying ”If I didn’t have these practices I’d think I’d be dead” and in my own case if I didn’t have this practice I knew I’d be dead. At the same time you have Peter Drucker writing about the importance of managing oneself. It occurred to me, a colleague of mine Jean Lipman-Blumen and I were talking and she said ”You know Jeremy, we train managers to manage anything but themselves.” And it was one of those magic, crystallizing moments were I realized that that’s what we should be doing and that mindfulness could be the basis of an executive education that it wasn’t religion, it wasn’t spirituality, it wasn’t therapy. It was a set of systematic frameworks and tools that when understood and practiced could help you manage all the stuff that happens inside that we don’t get management tools for, you know, primarily our management and leadership education is focused on externals and we’re rarely given tools to manage the internal. That was the kind of first moment and then from there it took about a year or so to develop a class that would speak the language of management, that would speak to management about their lives and the complexity of those lives.
I piloted a seven week class and got what’s probably double the number of enrollment that we’re used to in the executive program and the class was a big hit. And people changed. It was kind of interesting to walk in… it was more than interesting, it was chocking actually when I walked into class maybe the third or fourth week and I saw that people looked younger. It was something that has happened regularly since then but what I think happens is that people with time and practice start to realize that they can make different choices about how they handle themselves and how they handle their own minds and in relationship to one another and we learn how to drop the stress we have. Of course mindfulness is much more than just stress reduction but that is certainly a significant part of it.
So that first class led to a second class and then a third class and a fourth class so now at the Drucker school there’s 28 weeks of mindfulness-based programming that an executive can come and take as part of their degree program. We examine the role of attention in work, we examine how you manage emotional reactions, we explore how you manage transition both personally and organizationally. A lot of the work is around speaking to these fundamental experiences everyone has but we don’t have necessarily tools to deal with it.
I think that’s a kind of long answer to your question but in the process of this I should say that my kidneys actually failed after seventeen years after this original diagnosis. I realized that actually that my course had been impactful when the hospital called me and told me that they were sending away donor volunteers because too many people had called and they weren’t able to process the number of these donors and they weren’t able to process other patients donors because all these people were calling on my behalf for whatever reason. After some questioning I found out that about thirteen of the twenty-five people that came forward were my former students. I realized that, wow, these classes must have really had a deep impact on them. I’m alive because of… and actually I had a kidney transplant at the end of 2008 and my student was in fact my donor and she’s doing great and I’m doing great and here we are.
Martin: Wow that’s a… well that’s a step up from being voted professor of the year I guess.
Jeremy: Yeah! It was a wonderful experience to live through, that’s for sure.
Martin: That’s really inspiring just to hear how you came to do this. You have incorporated mindfulness training into the executive program and the MBA programs, if I…
Jeremy: Yeah, that’s correct.
Martin: So can you just say a little bit about how that’s been received by the students, but also by the rest of the faculty. I imagine that there might have been some skepticism initially.
Jeremy: With anything that has to do with people insides that can often feel strange and it seems strange and weird right, and certainly a lot of strange and weird things have been done. I think what has really helped is that there is this enormous and growing body of research that shows what actually happens to people when they do these practices, you know. Now we have fairly well established findings that not only does the brain change as a result of experience but that we can self-initiate and direct the change and understanding that that’s possible. I don’t know about you but when I was going through grad school it was taught that human beings are born basically kind of immature and that it takes 18-20 years for the brain to mature and then once it matured it stopped changing in any radical way and you kind of had this slow glide into senility. But now the story about that is totally different. We know that the brain changes across the lifespan and that the brain changes in response to the experiences that we have and that we can self-direct those changes. So we have a totally different understanding about what’s possible about being human.
I think that body of work which is growing every day holds a lot of promise about not only how we live together but how we work together. This year’s Academy of Management will be one of the first panels on the relevance of mindfulness to the work place. So there’s certainly a head of steam building around this area.
Martin: You come from a background of research and science and do you think that there… like you said there is a large and growing body of evidence for the effects of mindfulness training, but do you think that there is enough scientific evidence in the field of business and the business context. What kind of studies do you think would be good to see in the future?
Jeremy: I think it is growing. It is starting to happen now. Let me back up and say a little about why I think this is so important. So there is certainly the aspect of reducing stress but I think there is something that is much more fundamental about this. It has to do with the fact that many of us now work as knowledge workers and fewer of us work, say, as industrial workers on a factory line. This was also a big theme of Drucker’s; how do you make knowledge workers productive. How we make a knowledge worker productive is different than how we traditionally made an industrial worker productive and yet since most of us have grown up in institutions informed by industrialism we haven’t yet really figured out how to be truly productive in a knowledge economy. One of my core assumptions or core ideas is that in… Drucker wrote that in industrial economy the fundamental driver of productivity was the machine. As much work as the machine could do you could be productive. But in a knowledge economy the machines aren’t the basis for creating value, the people are. It’s the people who develop the new product, it’s the people who do the research, it’s the people who analyze the data. The work is a process or a product of their own mind. The other thing is that it’s not their mind in isolation, but it’s their mind working with other minds.
The quality of mind that we bring to our work and then the quality of the relationships that we have with the other people that we work with is now from my point of view the fundamental driver of economic creation and productivity. But where do we learn how to use our mind? We can learn to focus or we can learn to strategize and think and analyse and all of that which is important and good, but we don’t get an education on how do we focus in an age that seems to be hell-bent on distracting us. Even as I’m talking to you there is somebody sending me a text message and three emails have come in to my mailbox demanding my attention and there is Facebook over there and I wonder what’s going on. There are all these demands, distractions for our attention and yet we know attention is necessary to get any kind of work done. If we are to have a quality conversation you and I both have to be present for that. Or if I need to work on a difficult problem I need to be able to concentrate. Or if we’re having some kind of collaboration, how do we manage conflict or how do we manage the difficult emotions that can often arise in working life.
I think mindfulness is now central to how we actually get work done. It’s not some kind of superfluous, feel-good thing, but actually I think a fundamental skill in being productive and satisfied with our work today.
Martin: I can certainly relate to what your saying. When I talk to managers and executives they often times they express this very idea that mindfulness training it’s this feelgood thing that you might… you throw it in to make employees happy. Kind of like you’re offering a free massage or something like that. But what you’re actually saying is that this has also an effect on the bottom line. Could you elaborate a little bit more about the relationship between someone’s ability to direct their attention and the ability to be productive and effective?
Jeremy: Sure! Let me give you an example from one of my students who is a c-level executive in his company, which is a multibillion dollar company. We talked a lot about looking at attention, looking at his work through the landscape of attention or through the lens of attention.One of the things we talked about is multitasking. If the assumption holds that complex work can only get done through focused attention, then if we’re multitasking it’s very difficult to get that complex work done.
There’s a weekly meeting that he has with all his direct reports and he decided that they would ban having Blackberries or other devices in the meeting because he noticed that usually people are thumbing their Blackberry and only mildly participating in the conversation. They’re not really paying attention, the quality of conversation is low and frustrating and he says ”What the heck!” The next meeting he sticks out a box in front of the meeting room and he says that everybody’s Blackberry goes in here.
He said everybody got irritated and mad and angry. He said people were twitching like they were going through drug rehab. But then the next week he did the same thing. Everybody’s Blackberry got put in a box and over the course of time he realized that they were actually having conversations with one another and they were actually addressing the problems that they needed to address, and that they were walking away from those interactions feeling like good work had gotten done, that they’d established connection, that they’d come to agreement on the problems that they needed to deal with and were able to face them more effectively.
He said: ”Furthermore we didn’t have to schedule other meetings to deal with the problems that we didn’t solve in the last meeting because nobody was paying attention.” As this kind of played out the ninety minute meeting became a sixty minute meeting. As he implemented this throughout his calendar he suddenly had two to three hours of free time per day that he hadn’t had before. You can just even conservatively… that’s ten hours per week of a senior executive’s time that’s suddenly freed up to do other things. It’s not hard to see what the relationship between having focused attention and the bottom line is.
And that’s just with one particular skill. There are other things as well. How do we manage conflict? How do we actually solve the relational problems we have with one another? How do we talk about it in a way that’s neutral and not heated so that we can get beyond that to get our work done in an effective manner? There’s a lot of promise to learning these sort of skills.
Martin: It certainly seems like it’s at the core of everything that’s going on in work-life. It’s been really interesting to talk to you about this. Do you feel that this is something that is growing, this awareness about mindfulness in business?
Jeremy: Yes, I think so and partially that it’s stemming from the global economic crisis that we’re facing, that people are I think in some ways very fearful about what’s happening because it seems like we’re in waters than are not smooth. There’s a lot of stress, but there’s also a lot of fear about how is all this stuff going to play out? People know… I think leaders that are really intuned understand that there’s something that’s not working. But we don’t know necessarily what the solutions are. And yet your responsible for making those decisions or guiding those institutions and the internal experience of being the one responsible is quite difficult. People are looking for answers to learn how to better manage their own internal states so that they can more effectively address the collective problem that we’re all facing as a civilization.
Martin: Wow. That’s… that was really deep.
Jeremy: Yeah, it gets deep fast.
Martin: I guess it ties into… I mean people spend, what, 30 percent of their time at work so obviously it ties into everything in their lives and this skill becomes very important not only in work-life setting but just as a part of being a human being and handling the entirety of your life, I guess.
Jeremy: I think that there is… You know I don’t know if this was ever the case or not, but it certainly seems now more than ever the separation between the personal and the professional is… it may be to much to say not existent but there’s certainly much less boundary between those two things that I think there have been in the past. I think we’re looking for tools to know how to manage this experience better. We know from experience sampling studies people’s work life are often times more enjoyable than their home lives because at least at work there is some sort of structure and at home there isn’t necessarily that. But if work becomes stressful and home is still stressful where do we learn how to do something different? My students and other people I work with tell me one thing over and over again about what do you learn from these practices. Certainly I learn how to be less stressed, that’s one thing that comes up, but I think that the thing that is the larger theme and maybe the more important theme is that they say ”I learn how to make different choices. I learn how to make better choices. And because I make those different and better choices the results I get are different and better. And sometimes I get results that I couldn’t have imagined before because I was able to step out of some old way of seeing something or doing something and into something that I didn’t know was possible.”
I think what mindfulness does is fundamentally give us tools for creating choices. It gives us the internal stability to be able to see that there are other possibilities than the ones in front of us. Or the ones that we have in a way habitually defaulted to because that’s where we are comfortable.
Martin: Wow. One of the choices that you’ve made is to come to Stockholm on May 31st I believe it is to give a keynote presentation at the Mindfulness in Business conference. Will this be your first visit to Sweden?
Jeremy: It will indeed be my first visit to Sweden and it’s very exciting. And it says something about this growing global movement that is I think orienting itself towards tools like mindfulness. I think it’s going to be a watershed moment and it’s going to be very interesting and hopefully fun too.
Martin: Well… I’m looking forward to listen to you when you’re here in Sweden in May and I just want to thank you for sharing your story with us and talking about mindfulness. It certainly was… yeah it just gave me personally a lot of things to think about actually, it was very interesting. So thank you very much for joining us today.
Jeremy: Thank you, Martin. And thanks for having me, it’s very exciting.
Martin: Ok, thank you.
Jeremy: Thank you.