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Career Insights From SIYLI CEO and Zen Teacher Marc Lesser


Thu Sep 15 2016

Career Insights From SIYLI CEO and Zen Teacher Marc Lesser-8fa954207753503ca024ba016a20bff9fc3fab854bdffd6e22bbe58ad60c6803

In 1973, Marc Lesser took a one-year sabbatical from Rutgers University, where he had been majoring in psychology, and traveled to the San Francisco Zen Center. This one year turned into 10 years. He took various jobs during this period at the center, washing dishes, cooking, and even raising horses. During his 10th year, he was asked to be director of Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center. He realized his daily work activities at the center were primarily business related. He then earned an MBA degree and became CEO of a greeting card company called Brush Dance, founded in his garage. The company faced crisis during the recession, but he successfully turned the company around, turning it into a multimillion-dollar international company. Currently as CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), he seeks to bring mindfulness into the workplace.

Such a varied background naturally made me curious about Marc’s views on career development and the workplace. Interviewing Marc feels more like exploring life with a friend. Living his principle of accomplishing more by doing less, he generously shared his views on career development in just a few minutes. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


On Success: Life is very dynamic. Don’t hold on to success too much because success can change from moment to moment. 

I work with business executives to teach them listening skills. If they think they’re a good listener, but everyone around them says they’re not a good listener, they’re not a good listener. If it helps you to feel successful, then please feel successful. But don’t hold on to it too much. Hold your success close to your heart, but hold it lightly because you have the next moment to live in. You can feel very successful today, and you could be fired the next. Our life and our work are incredibly dynamic. Live in a state of wonder, effort, acceptance, and dynamism. Don’t get so caught up in success or failure.

On Your Best Career: For a great career, develop mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is cultivating and living with an attitude of curiosity and warmheartedness toward everything we do. Mindfulness is not neutral. It’s not just about focus or awareness. To me, the best career is to develop mindfulness practice, and then it doesn’t matter so much what your other career is as long as you develop your awareness, curiosity, and warmheartedness.

On Facing Career Challenges: Fight for changes and accept what is. 

I’m not always happy and I’m not always satisfied. Sometimes, I feel a great deal of stress. I’m a CEO of a growing organization with lots of challenges. There are many levels of unhappiness and difficult things in the world. People suffer great losses and they grief. People wake up one day and they don’t really like what they’re doing. Mindfulness is about learning to see as clearly as possible not only what’s working but also what’s not. In my latest book, Know Yourself, Forget Yourself, one of my favorite paradoxes is to “fight for changes and accept what is.” Accepting what is means not running away from what’s painful or difficult. Fighting for changes means looking at what you want to accomplish. It’s important to recognize those gaps—where you are and where you want to be in your work, relationships, and life.

On Real Conversations at Work: Spending energy protecting your back is a waste of time. 

If you are not building trust, you will get cynicism. People are pretty fragile; we all want to feel secure and loved, but we often feel threatened and unloved. The good news is that the more we can connect and build trust, the more productive, healthier, and successful we will be. In many companies, people believe they need to just do their jobs, not trust anyone, and protect their backs. I’ve noticed people often waste a good deal of time and energy protecting their back. Leaders and managers take a chance by being real, talking about what’s not working, and expressing your appreciation to people. Be a more transparent, authentic, and caring human being. If it’s not a safe environment, don’t wait for others to change it.

On Busyness: Spend time not on “what,” but on “how.” 

In our career, we tend to focus on “what,” but we should spend more time focusing on “how.” We should work in a way that is focused, engaged, and spacious. Spacious means paying attention to the small things in your day-to-day work. Pay attention. Make your little space even in the midst of a stressful day. Notice your own fingers. Feel you’re sitting in a chair. Take a breath. And then go on and be focused and engaged. Be careful about busyness. It doesn’t include feeling what's working or what’s not working, feeling what’s painful or difficult, and feeling appreciation. Busyness is flattening one's’ emotional life and pretending we are machines. Machines are busy. People should be more focused, engaged, and spacious. For more information on Mindfulness, register for a free webcast with Jenny Wang on September 23.


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