A four hour layover.  What an inconvenience.

Pico Iyer admitted this was his response to a short layover in Japan on his way back home to New York City when he was 26 years old.  Iyer kicked off SAP’s Month of Inclusion, a month long employee engagement initiative focused on aligning our employees’ values with their work, career path, and the greater good SAP is accomplishing.  Iyer shared his insight on movement and stillness in the age of technology.  He was the first in the 2015 TED Speaker Series, which brings remarkable speakers to our offices across Silicon Valley.

We’ve all felt this way.  All had to do something we thought would be a waste of our time – could be a layover, could be a project we didn’t want to do, a conversation we didn’t want to have.

So we disengage.  We numb ourselves.  We sleep walk day in and day out.

But Iyer tried something else.  He chose to make the most of those four hours in Japan.  He gave himself an assignment.  Immediately something mysterious happened.  As soon as he gave himself a mission, he felt awake.  He looked more deeply and paid closer attention.  He felt this inconvenience suddenly turn into an engaging conversation.  You have a few short hours to get to know the most beautiful, interesting person you’ve ever met, and you don’t want to waste a second.  With fresh eyes, Iyer explored this new city, and he fell in love.  Looking at the snow falling on the paper doors and the rows of slippers, he had the sense that he wanted to move here.  After his trip, he started working toward making that dream a reality and moved shortly thereafter.  He later met his wife there and has lived in Japan for 28 years.  Iyer took an inconvenience inflicted upon him and actively turned it into a positive experience that changed his life for the better.

The more you hear

Technology gives us unlimited and on-demand access to new worlds.  And yet, it seems that the more we hear about a country, the less we know about it.  We assume our reality is universal.  The minute we get off the plane in a new country, we realize how rich and diverse the world is.  And also the great similarities that connect us all.  Second hand, we do not experience the smells and the tastes of a new culture.  We also lose the complexity, the contradictions, and the ambiguity when we consume only snippets on our screens.  We do not grasp the full story of a dissident, who still very much loves her country or the devout Muslim, who nonetheless does not want to live in an Islamic country.

Iyer emphasizes the importance of traveling for oneself.  He reminds us that many people cannot afford to travel, do not have the time, or are not allowed to do so.  Those who are subsisting and do not have the means have a valid excuse for not knowing anything about us.  We do not.  The journey does not need to be far; there is plenty to surprise us within a few miles of our own homes.

Finding stillness: Observe the Sabbath

The internet Sabbath.  Iyer commented that although Silicon Valley is a hotbed of technology and productivity, he senses more of a balance here than in many other places.  He points to the “internet Sabbath” as one practical example: Many people spend at least one day disconnected from their devices.  Creative work requires some distance from the hustle and bustle of daily life.  Not a disengaged indifference, but rather time and space to let the brain process and create.  He suggested a few other examples of how to find stillness in our busy lives:

  • Avoid all screens on flights, which provide a rare opportunity to disconnect.  Take the time to sit quietly and reflect, read, write, or simply let your mind rest.
  • Avoid screens at the health club so you can be present and pay attention to your body.

Technology is remarkable and provides us with many answers.  The one thing technology cannot teach us is how to use it wisely.  This responsibility lies with us: We must choose for ourselves how to employ it for good rather than to our detriment.

To find stillness during conflict, Iyer reminds us to take time to get some distance from feelings of anger and rash reactions.  By stepping away and seeing the situation in the broader context, we can bring compassion to the situation.  We can stop ourselves from reacting on the same level and engage in a constructive dialogue rather than escalating the issue.

The next time you find yourself feeling bored or inconvenienced, bring your awareness back to the present.  Resist the temptation to reach for your phone.  In a distraction filled world, full attention is the richest luxury.  What you find might surprise you.

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