We’ve all experienced jitters the night before a big presentation, a crucial meeting, or important work event, when your inner dialogue takes over and conjures cataclysmic scenarios in which you blank on your lines or trip on the stage, only to end up broke in a ditch. And no, picturing the audience with no clothes on rarely does the trick.
Is it comforting to know that this is natural? And by natural, I mean a byproduct of natural selection—the powerful Darwinian forces that ensure the proliferation of our genes.
In his 1994 book The Moral Animal, author and journalist Robert Wright explored everyday life through the lens of evolutionary psychology, suggesting that work crises (including the ”powerpoint anxiety apocalypse”) and the accompanying fear and self-loathing are rooted in natural selection. Wright posits that this genetic wiring has outlived its utility in modern society, yet somehow our brains failed to get the memo. He argues that what’s missing—drumroll please—is more mindfulness. In his 2017 book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, Wright draws the link between evolutionary psychology and the Buddhist explanation for human dissatisfaction.
Wright recently sat down with Quartz At Work to talk about the ephemeral happiness of promotions, the trauma of public speaking, and the concern that too much mindfulness will cause workers to “lose their edge.” This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
You write about what you call the “Powerpoint Anxiety Apocalypse”—or more broadly, the anxiety of the workplace. How does that tie into the evolutionary framework?
There is the desire built into us to be highly regarded and to impress people. But, in the environment of human evolution, which is more or less a hunter-gatherer society, you didn’t find yourself in a situation where the people you were trying to impress was a room full of people that you didn’t know well (or at all). In the hunter-gatherer environment there’s never a case when anyone’s addressing 150 people that they’ve never met, or even five people they’ve never met. So it’s not surprising that when you take a natural anxiety about impressing people and put it in this bizarre environment, that it leads to wholly counterproductive forms of anxiety. And you get people with bizarre fears of projectile vomiting while speaking even though they’ve never done that.
Social anxiety is natural, evolutionary psychologists would say, because being held in high esteem seems to be correlated with genetic proliferation. The trauma of public speaking is a good example of how evolutionary psychology helps illuminate the problem.
This is the kind of thing you can treat with mindfulness. Sometimes you manage to look at the anxiety in a way that drains it of its energy. I once had to address several hundred people the next day at a high-pressure [event] and I sat up in bed and meditated and got to a point where I was observing the anxiety in my abdomen, and suddenly it looks like a piece of abstract art I was looking at in a museum. I was completely dispassionate, noticing its contours, draining it of its negative energy, and I kinda just went back to sleep.
You make a broader claim that feelings like fear, anxiety, and self-loathing are ultimately illusory. Can you say more about that?
In standard meditation practice there’s the idea that you shouldn’t take your feelings too seriously. The thoughts they give rise to should not be treated as necessarily true. Maybe some should, after you examine them, but the default reaction to feelings is that you should not take them too seriously. You should examine their underlying logic; sometimes they’re giving you good guidance, and other times not. And mindfulness meditation is a way to do that examination, to look at feelings and gain enough distance from them to let you decide whether or not are worthy guides.
But what about the concern that “I’m afraid I’ll get soft and I need to preserve my edge in the workplace. If I just dismiss my feelings, won’t I just get steamrolled by an enterprising colleague?”
It is in theory possible that you could get [so deep into a] meditative practice and get so drawn into the underlying philosophy and spend so much time in contemplation that your ambition would diminish significantly. That’s possible. As a practical matter, you don’t have to spend any time worrying about that because it’s not going to happen. One in 5,000 people will get so drawn into meditation that it significantly dampens their ambition. Deal with that problem when you get to it—because you almost certainly won’t, but if you do, you almost certainly won’t consider it a problem.
Is it more realistic that you could get a little less caught up in the rat race and decide “I’d like to spend a little bit more time with my family upon reflection.” Sure, that’s possible. My experience and the experience of almost everyone I’ve talked to about it is that in terms of the impact of meditation on your work, it leads you to spend less time wastefully. The impact on your work is that you spend less time counterproductively, and in meetings you’re more efficiently engaged.
You wrote that “natural selection doesn’t want us to be happy, just productive.” Can you elaborate?
I should step back and say that the heart of the Buddhist claim is that the reason we suffer and make other people suffer is that we don’t see the world clearly, a claim that is corroborated by evolutionary psychology. We’re designed to suffer in a sense. Natural selection also designed gratification to evaporate and designed us to keep pursuing it desperately after it evaporates. And to try to cling to it, even though that’s impossible. Because by pursuing this ever-elusive gratification and trying to hang onto it, we do natural selection’s bidding—we seek the things that in the past would have contributed to genetic proliferation. We seek status, sex, material resources, and more and more of all of these things. The evaporation of the gratification they bring is natural selection’s way of getting us to keep pursuing them.
According to Buddhism this pursuit involves the delusion that you can’t hang on to them, and that, too, is designed into us by natural selection. Whenever we’re looking forward to the next bit of gratification, [from] junk food or the next promotion, we are focusing on the gratification as if it would endure; we’re not thinking of the fact that the gratification will be pretty fleeting. The fact that we’re not designed to be happy, yet we’re designed to keep pursuing that happiness as if it were possible to hang onto it, is something that evolutionary psychology explains and meshes well with parts of the Buddhist message.
Does this tie to one of Buddhism’s noble truths that “desire is suffering”?
It explains why desire and thirst are such a persistent part of our experience. And unless we take pains to work on that … [it will lead] to suffering in the sense of recurring dissatisfaction. Evolutionary psychology explains why natural selection built into us this persistent dissatisfaction and the desire that sponsors it.
How about the situation in which I’m striving for a promotion, then get it, only to find myself three days later looking for the next promotion. Is this an instance of our evolutionary wiring that fails to serve us?
The dissatisfaction is a byproduct of natural selection’s design of the brain. But so is the fact that when you were lusting after the promotion, you weren’t thinking about the fact that the gratification would evaporate, nor were you thinking of the downside. Elevations of status and responsibility bring their own problems—more pressure, more things to deal with. You probably weren’t focused on that as you pursued the promotion. And that, too, is a byproduct of natural selection. It doesn’t mean that promotions aren’t worth having, but yes, but we do tend to pursue them with a certain amount of delusion of what they will (and won’t) bring and then, yes, the thrill fades.
What’s the minimum dosage of meditation?
My own view is if you really want to [experience its potential], you should really do a [1 week silent retreat]. But then again, I’m really a tough case. I’m not a really naturally good meditator, period. You’re not supposed to say things like that – a meditation teacher would be reprimanding me right now, but it’s true. For me, a two day retreat may have some benefit, but what really sold me on the practice was a full week at a center that takes the silence seriously and where you’re cut off from the outside world.
I meditate a half an hour every day, and [know that I] should do more. But that’s enough to have an impact. A lot of people say you should do forty minutes per day, but twenty helps.
What lessons can managers take from your book?
If you do enough meditation that impacts your work, a few things will happen. You’re less likely to lose your temper. You’re probably more likely to deal wisely with certain situations because you’re going to spend less time distracted by the way you’re reacting to them and more time evaluating them. You can spend a lot of time being super-annoyed by a subordinate, sometimes with good reason. But beyond a point, that’s not constructive. And look, sometimes you really have to lose your temper and lay down the law. But that should be done in a judicious and constructive way—and not because you had too much coffee that morning.