Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen

Dan Harris turned to meditation after a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.

In the back of his excellent book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, he writes a section that he wanted to call “The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen” but ended up calling The Way of the Worrier.

1. Don’t Be a Jerk
2. (And/ But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen
3. Meditate
4. The Price of Security Is Insecurity— Until It’s Not Useful
5. Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity
6. Don’t Force It
7. Humility Prevents Humiliation
8. Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod
9. Nonattachment to Results
10. What Matters Most?

Don’t Be a Jerk

It is, of course, common for people to succeed while occasionally being nasty. I met a lot of characters like this during the course of my career, but they never really seemed very happy to me. It is sometimes assumed that success in a competitive business requires the opposite of compassion. In my experience, though, that only reduced my clarity and effectiveness, leading to rash decisions. The virtuous cycle that Joseph described (more metta, better decisions, more happiness, and so on) is real. To boot, compassion has the strategic benefit of winning you allies. And then there’s the small matter of the fact that it makes you a vastly more fulfilled person.

(And/ But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen Be nice, but don’t be a palooka.

Even though I’d achieved a degree of freedom from the ego, I still had to operate in a tough professional context. Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.

Meditate

Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits— from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm— but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. We live our life propelled by desire and aversion. In meditation, instead of succumbing to these deeply rooted habits of mind, you are simply watching what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally. For me, doing this drill over and over again had massive off-the-cushion benefits, allowing me—at least 10% of the time— to shut down the ego with a Reaganesque “There you go again.”

The Price of Security Is Insecurity— Until It’s Not Useful

Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals— these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful. I compared myself to Joseph, Mark, and Sharon, and it made me happier. I compared myself to Bianca and it made me nicer. I compared myself to Bill Weir, David Muir, Chris Cuomo, David Wright, et al., and it upped my game. In my view, Buddhists underplay the utility of constructive anguish. In one of his dharma talks, I heard Joseph quote a monk who said something like, “There’s no point in being unhappy about things you can’t change, and no point being unhappy about things you can.” To me, this gave short shrift to the broad gray area where it pays to wring your hands at least a little bit.

Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity

Being happier did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie. This myth runs deep, all the way back to Aristotle, who said, “All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics . . . had a melancholic habitus.” I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive— and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them. Jon Kabat-Zinn has theorized that science may someday show that mindfulness actually makes people more creative, by clearing out the routinized rumination and unhelpful assumptions, making room for new and different thoughts. On retreat, for example, I would be flooded with ideas, filling notebooks with them, scribbling them down on the little sheets of paper between sitting and walking. So, who knows, maybe Van Gogh would have been an even better painter if he hadn’t been so miserable that he sliced off his ear?

Don’t Force It

It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. A slight relaxation served me well on the set of GMA, in interpersonal interactions, and when I was writing scripts. I came to see the benefits of purposeful pauses, and the embracing of ambiguity. It didn’t work every time, mind you, but it was better than my old technique of bulldozing my way to an answer.

Humility Prevents Humiliation

We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way. For me humility was a relief, the opposite of humiliation. It sanded the edges off of the comparing mind. Of course, striking the right balance is delicate; it is possible to take this too far and become a pushover. (See precept number two, regarding hiding the Zen.)

Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod

As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. People trained in self-compassion meditation are more likely to quit smoking and stick to a diet. They are better able to bounce back from missteps. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.

Nonattachment to Results

Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way. This, I came to believe, is what T. S. Eliot meant when he talked about learning “to care and not to care.”

What Matters Most?

One day, I was having brunch with Mark and Joseph, forcing them to help me think about the balance between ambition and equanimity for the umpteenth time. After the entrées and before dessert, Joseph got up to hit the bathroom. He came back smiling and pronounced, “I’ve figured it out. A useful mantra in those moments is ‘What matters most?’ ” At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure. What I really wanted was aptly summed up during an interview I once did with Robert Schneider, the self-described “spastic” lead singer for the psych-pop group, Apples in Stereo. He was one of the happiest-seeming people I’d ever met: constantly chatting, perpetually in motion— he just radiated curiosity and enthusiasm. Toward the end of our interview, he said, “The most important thing to me is probably, like, being kind and also trying to do something awesome.”

If you think you’re on the verge of losing your way in life, I highly recommend Dan’s book.