Silicon Valley is no stranger to buzz word job titles. Happiness Engineer, Security Princess and Software Ninjaneer are some real working examples. But with this slew of ultra cool job titles, it would seem they have missed the most important one: a Chief Healing Officer.
Over the last 5 years I have met with many CEOs and leaders in Silicon Valley both on and off the record. In 2017, we did a BBC series and interviewed CEOs from HP, Box, Slack, Udacity and others. Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, was one of the CEOs who spoke more openly about Silicon Valley’s lack of soft skills. Here is what he had to say:
“CEOs need a myriad of skills. They are really janitors who clear up the mess. “Silicon Valley is not known for soft skills and it’s a key point that needs addressing over the coming decade. We need a powerful combination of tools to get people to adapt to how businesses are changing with these skills”.
It has me thinking that if Silicon Valley lacks the emotional soft skills and is the epicenter for changing the world, then how do we change the world without healing and feeling?
Despite the ongoing evidence that emotional intelligence allows us to have greater awareness and control over what we do, make better decisions and create closer and more satisfying relationships, it would seem the simplistic, yet difficult need to develop these skills are an inconvenience to the abstract, rational thinking that Silicon Valley prides itself on.
In the absence of these emotional skills, we have seen a large proportion of people in Silicon Valley not able to connect to their feelings, or the feelings of others, and what this has meant in terms of mental health. Silicon Valley is no stranger to its perils. The teen suicides in Palo Alto were captured in the documentary Unmasked which shared stories of the unrelenting pressures faced by teens. There was also the compelling series; Mostly Human: Silicon Valley Secret on CNN: a deep dive into the reality of depression and mental health, and the consequences that life in Silicon Valley was having on entrepreneurs.
We recently interviewed a faculty member at Singularity, a university focused on preparing global leaders for the future and well known for its ideas in exponential thinking. After a one hour interview on a range of radical topics, I threw in the curve ball question.
“What do you think about the undercurrent of mental health concerns in Silicon Valley, and do you think that exponential thinking can come at a human cost?”
“Well mental health is not something that is really talked about in Silicon Valley, it is still very much a stigma”
It was a sharp, one sentence answer. He was thrown off, and when the interview finished, he approached me and asked;
“What made you ask about mental health?
“It’s an important question, and one I don’t think Silicon Valley has been brave enough to face yet” I responded.
With a sidetracking discomfort he replied “Have you heard of the book Stealing Fire? It’s what most people are talking about at the moment”
Stealing Fire is your classic high performance mindset read, centered around the idea of reaching ‘ecstasis’, a transcendental mental state of flow. Ecstasis is anecdotally supported by stories of extreme human experiences ranging from psychedelics to dance parties, and mentions some of Silicon Valley’s most successful billionaires Elon Musk and Larry Ellison. An honest review of Stealing fire in Quartz called it the ‘intersection between self-help empowerment fantasies and superhero empowerment fantasies’.
The book is perfectly targeted to the Silicon Valley club of mind bending, peak performing, transcendentalists seeking out profound and superhuman experiences. It also has tremendous appeal to those with mania, a symptom of bi-polar disorder and a psychological condition common, and often undiagnosed in Silicon Valley. Achieving ‘ecstasis’ can be very easily disguised with achieving a state of manic psychosis, a potentially harmful state of delusion which separates one from reality.
The irony of the experience at Singularity is that Silicon Valley’s answer to mental health pointed me directly to its problem. So where does this leave Silicon Valley today and where is it on it’s own healing journey? The New York Times article Silicon Valley Goes to Therapy explored the new startup scene around psychology tech, landing in Silicon Valley after its cry for help in mental health.
“Silicon Valley is approaching its anxiety the way it knows best. So now there is on-demand therapy. Therapy metrics. Therapy R.O.I. Matching therapists with clients using the tools of online dating…… The language the companies use is aggressive for something quiet and personal like therapy. But in the Bay Area, founders see little virtue in applying a measured response to a market opportunity”
This new combination of technology and psychology lends itself to a fast, disruptive tech driven solution for the slow, painful and deeply connected work required in therapy. Once again, it points out the irony of the problem. Because if tech therapy is matching therapists like dates on Tinder, then we can also expect similar outcomes for the user; long addictive hours trying to find the ideal therapist to meet immediate needs for self gratification.
Supercharged tech psychology, transcendental mindsets, it would seem that Silicon Valley is missing the point, and has failed to recognize the simplicity and value of emotional skill building and human connection. And judging from all the people I have spoken to, it is not an emotional risk many are willing to take. But if Silicon Valley is serious about pioneering the new frontier for humanity, it’s going to need to become more human itself, and start to deal with the slow and unsexy process of building its capacity for emotional intelligence.
As the world begins to heal post COVID-19 and realizes the importance of human empathy to build a more meaningful and purpose led work culture, then Silicon Valley runs the risk of not having the emotional diversity needed to propel and drive the big ideas. I often think the talent not available in Silicon Valley is the talent not interested in being there.
Building the emotional capacity needed to support a strong character is the most important work for companies today. If we take the great work of Shakespeare which many humanities experts believe is the greatest handbook in leadership, the road to character is found in creative and balanced dialogue, using power constructively and finding meaning in the struggle of one’s own humanity. When it comes to Silicon Valley, it would seem it is somewhere on the road to character, but not entirely connected to the journey. And global talent with a deeper sense of character and empathy may not necessarily want to jump on the bandwagon.
As for the role of Chief Healing Officer and how companies embrace this new buzz word, well it has to start with the CEO. It is a commitment that goes beyond downloading a healing app and doing 20 minutes of healing a day. It is also recognizing that a high performance mindset starts first and foremost with an emotionally connected body and mind.
Because of COVID-19, the healing journey has already begun and CEOs now have the opportunity to embrace it as both morally and strategically. Here is what they can start to focus on:
- Enhance the human experience at work and embed the practice of emotional skill building in the culture.
- Have real, truthful and difficult conversations from a place of compassion more regularly with teams
- Create safe spaces for people to express emotion and build trust and resilience
- Make art, comedy and anything that requires human improvisation a therapeutic and creative new way to work
- Recognize that the journey of healing can inspire innovation in teams around a more human centered experience for products and customers
- When it comes to talent, make character strengths, life experience and emotional capacity as equally important to education and work experience
- Advance the conversation and intervention around mental health and make healthy body and minds the greatest asset
Whatever the healing strategy, it will be the foundation for good business, and has the potential to create new value for companies. But most importantly, it’s the ethical and right thing to do.
Developing the emotional capacity will be a critical part of the healing process and will allow CEOs and their companies to benefit from a more creative, diverse and meaningfully driven workplace. It can also give organizations a new humanistic edge, and guide the road to character for Silicon Valley and its CEOs, to help pioneer the new world post COVID-19.
But it is important to acknowledge that emotional skill building is hard work. It requires courage and a commitment to personal growth and most importantly, it takes time.