How to Use Meditation for Success

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "10% Happier" by Dan Harris. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you believe the myth that meditation can hinder your success? Is there a way to use meditation for success?

In his book 10% Happier, former meditation skeptic Dan Harris said that he used to believe that mindfulness and ambition could not coexist. He thought that if he took up mindfulness meditation, he would need to sacrifice his career. As it turns out, he was able to find a balance between the two.

Here’s how you can make your meditation practice work with your career.

Mindfulness Won’t Make You Less Successful

Early in his career, Dan Harris was proud of his ambition and found meaning in his work performance. However, he was unable to balance his ambition with mindfulness. Eventually, he was able to find that balance and use meditation for success. We’ll explain how to find a balance between mindfulness and ambition, accept failure that’s out of your control, and change what you can control.

Create a Balance Between Mindfulness and Ambition

As part of his mindfulness journey, Harris strived to find a balance between wanting to be more mindful while still keeping his edge in his career. He describes having difficulty reconciling his new mindful approach with his career aspirations. Harris realized that while he’d focused on being more mindful, he’d become comfortable in his position at work, settling into a role as a co-host on “Good Morning America.” But he’d let the quality of his work suffer. Initially, he didn’t address the decline in his work performance and air time, choosing to accept it under the guise of mindfulness. But he couldn’t ignore his dissatisfaction.

Harris decided to talk to Epstein about his issues at work, and Epstein taught Harris three common mistakes of mindfulness:

  • Submission: This is the tendency to be timid. Some meditators and Buddhists take this to the extreme by not expressing themselves or their desires. (Shortform note: In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explains that a cornerstone of Buddhist belief is that the striving for status and possessions will leave you spiritually unfulfilled and, ultimately, joyless. And it’s true that we often feel hollow and unfulfilled even after we get the things that we want (or, at least, that we think we want). But the self-denying philosophy of Buddhism gets some things wrong about human psychology. It turns out that some things are worth striving for. Haidt advises, then, that the key is not to eliminate desire; it’s to start desiring the right things. He argues that happiness lies in finding moderation between feeding our desires and denying them.)
  • Apathy: This is the tendency to use the space mindfulness creates between you and a stimulus as a method against feeling any emotion. (Shortform note: In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins calls this avoidance, which can make us miss out on meaningful experiences. He also discusses two more disempowering ways people handle emotions. One method is denial, when we refuse to accept that we’re feeling a certain emotion. But if you try to suppress your emotions, they become increasingly intense until you finally acknowledge them. The other method is internalization, where we make negative emotions part of our identity. If being unhappy is part of your identity, then it feels like you can’t become happy without losing your sense of self.)
  • Cynicism: Harris refers to this mistake as “nihilism.” This is the tendency to be pessimistic and not to care about anything, since everything is impermanent. (Shortform note: In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson offers a different, more beneficial way to use feelings of nihilism. Manson urges you to realize that true fulfillment comes from questioning yourself and choosing your own values—choosing what to give a f*ck about. He believes confronting the reality of death teaches you to prioritize what’s important, and to stop chasing or worrying about trivial things.)   

Harris realized he’d succumbed to these three mistakes, and he needed to balance mindfulness and ambition. If you had too much mindfulness, you’d never accomplish anything, leading you to perpetual feelings of dissatisfaction. If you had too much ambition, you’d turn into an egotistical jerk. Harris suggests portraying a tough exterior and to use it as armor against your competition, while actually being mindful and calm underneath it.  

After scheduling a meeting with his boss to discuss his work performance, Harris decided to revamp his efforts, taking any story assignment he could and working on his on-screen charisma. He quickly noticed improvements and got positive feedback from his boss.

Mindfulness and Career

Like Harris did before he started meditating, we often think of career success and mindfulness as mutually exclusive, and that one kills the other. Sometimes we assume that mindfulness might prevent the kind of competitive behavior that underpins success in the workplace. However, many experts agree that meditation can actually be a major benefit to your career. 

Many prominent CEOs and celebrities are advocates of meditation and its benefits. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Rogan, Arianna Huffington, Jeff Weiner, and Jerry Seinfeld all practice meditation as a way to be less stressed, more creative, and more productive.

Research supports these celebrities’ instincts. Studies have found that meditating can lead to a 30% decrease in stress-related symptoms that can result in serious illness, making meditation an attractive solution for the 83% of American professionals who report being stressed at work. Also, by developing a coping mechanism that better regulates stress and emotions, meditation helps people make better decisions

Accept Failures That Are Beyond Your Control

Harris began to think about success at work—or acceptance of failure—like meditation: a process of refocusing on what’s important. Just like it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to have a completely clear mind while you meditate, it’s unrealistic for you to expect perfection at work. In your career, your goal is to focus on the quality of your work or a project. But inevitably, a project will fail. 

Harris believes that some things, including some reasons for failure, are out of your control. For example, imagine you’re a therapist and you have a potential client. You offer him a free phone consultation and give a great explanation of your services and techniques. But he winds up choosing a different therapist. This may seem like a failure, but his decision was out of your control.

Therefore he advises that if you’re unhappy about things you can’t change, accept them—otherwise you’re wasting mental energy. At work, this means that you should focus on all of the parts of the project you can control, do those things to the best of your ability, and accept whatever the outcome is.

Harris realized that despite his renewed efforts at work, he couldn’t control whether some stories were assigned to him or not, even if he felt like he deserved them. Instead of becoming bitter or resigned, Harris decided to accept that this was something beyond his control and that he should still keep trying his best. 

(Shortform note: A familiar Buddhist teaching is that attachment causes suffering and detachment brings peace of mind. But what does this detachment mean? Sports psychologist Jerry Lynch says that, in sports and in life, the goal isn’t to detach from caring about your efforts—it’s about detaching from the results. He believes that if you’re attached to the outcome, this causes you to tense up and doubt your efforts. He advises not to get caught up in the need to win. If you can relax your approach, your performance will naturally improve.)

But mindfully accepting the outcomes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be passionate about a project. Instead of being passionate about the results, Harris encouraged you to be passionate about the process and unattached to the results. When you “fail” on a project or career skill, the key is to come back to your goals and focus on the things you can control, just like when you return to your breath when your mind wanders while meditating. 

For example, Patricia is a musician and a composer. She arranges an original piece of classical music for an orchestra. Using Harris’s ideas on failure and mindfulness, Patricia focuses all of her energy on the things she can control: composing her music and working with a local orchestra that will perform her piece. However, the piece doesn’t gain much attention or renown. Although this may seem like failure, it might have “failed” because there isn’t much of a market or interest in classical music at the moment. In reality, her music might be a masterpiece, but due to factors beyond Patricia’s control, her piece didn’t do well. Patricia should accept this outcome and take solace in the fact that she did everything she could to compose a beautiful piece.

Failure Resilience 

In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown echoes Harris’s idea that failure shouldn’t be a setback for future endeavors. She discusses failure resilience, or the ability to recover quickly after failure. She argues this is a critical skill to have, because it will prevent both individuals and teams from fearing failure, blaming others, or striving for unrealistic ideals of perfection. 

To develop failure resilience, Brown says the first step is to recognize your emotional response. (Harris does this by using mindfulness and the RAIN technique.) Recognizing your emotional response allows you to think logically, rather than reacting emotionally or according to your ego.

Once you’ve identified that you’re having an emotional response, the next step is to understand the story that you’ve built around the failure or setback. Brown explains that this is the narrative you’ve told yourself about what happened and why it went wrong. Ask yourself if the elements of your story are actually true. What do you actually know about the situation? Describe this story out loud to yourself. Often, this is a quick way to notice where your mind and tendency to worry has leapt to conclusions. 

Change What You Can Control

However, Harris advises that if you’re unhappy about things you can change, don’t accept them—change them. Harris says that by using mindfulness to discern what you can and can’t control, you’ll develop the ability to determine what you should focus on. 

For example, by taking a more mindful approach to his career, Harris was able to re-evaluate his work and set goals for himself to take on more assignments and work on his on-screen charisma. Harris notes that he quickly saw results from his efforts, receiving positive feedback from his boss. Eventually, he was offered a position as a co-anchor on “Nightline.” 

Like Harris, rather than criticizing yourself for failure, you’ll actually become more resilient and productive when you can use mindfulness to examine your setbacks without harsh self-criticism. You’ll also be more accepting of feedback from others, because you won’t take comments personally. 

Harris explains that once you take an honest look at the quality of your work, you can create goals and actionables that will address any problems you found with the project, instead of wasting time and energy worrying about the fact it has problems to begin with.

For example, John wants to be a successful lawyer, and he also practices mindfulness. He uses his improved focus (thanks to meditation) to work on lawsuits and build strong cases for his clients. However, one of his arguments fails in court, and he loses the case. He acknowledges that his witness was tired and didn’t do a good job of recounting what happened. John accepts that this was out of his control. But he also realizes he skipped over an important detail when presenting his case to the judge. Instead of criticizing himself for missing an important point in his argument, John decides to color code his notes and dedicate extra time to practicing his presentation before his next case. With these actionables in mind, he can approach his next case with confidence and a plan to do better.

Embrace Uncertainty on Your Journey to Change

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson encourages us to find our mistakes to help us grow, as Harris did. He advises us to look for ways we’re wrong, instead of trying to prove that we’re right.

Manson believes you’re already making choices about what to give a f*ck about. Change is a matter of choosing to give a f*ck about something different. Although it sounds simple, there are temporarily uncomfortable side-effects to change:

-Feeling uncertain: Changing long-held values is disorienting. You’ll question whether you’re doing the right thing. 
-Feeling like a failure: When you try to apply new values and standards, the old ones will keep coming to mind in each situation. You’ll feel like a failure for discarding them.
-Facing objections: Your relationships are built on your values, so when you change your values your relationships change. You’ll get pushback.

Feeling uncertain is the most prevalent reaction when you decide to stop giving a f*ck about certain things, and to care about other things instead. Manson encourages us to embrace uncertainty as a way to accept that both good and bad things will happen. Either way, you’ll deal with each situation as it comes, which can be liberating when deciding to make a change.
How to Use Meditation for Success

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Here's what you'll find in our full 10% Happier summary :

  • A skeptic’s journey through the world of self-help
  • How to control your anxiety, manage your ego, and become more compassionate
  • How you can improve your life and career—even by just 10%

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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