How do I make tough decisions and solve issues at work?: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

How do I make tough decisions and solve issues at work?: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

Editor’s note: 

Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at, EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to ponder under this mini-article series.

TLDR: How often do we rush into making decisions and end up making more mistakes? Using the four noble truths and understanding the mental hindrances might be a useful framework for your next decision at work

Underlying the entire Buddhist practise is this principle: the most effective way to deal with reality, is to understand reality as it actually is (rather than the reality you deny or wish otherwise).

Using the Four Noble Truths as a framework

If you read the Four Noble Truths, it is basically a form of root cause analysis, with the aim of getting as close as possible to the underlying reality:

  1. What is the symptom? Suffering exists
  2. What’s the cause of the symptom? Wanting or craving causes suffering.
  3. What happens when the cause is removed? Suffering ceases aka perfect happiness exists
  4. How do you get there? Use an empirically proven solution (Eightfold Path) that removes the causes of wanting and suffering.

And this four-fold approach can be applied to many problems at the work. Say, you have a problem that your company is not iNNoVatIve (pronounced in as pretentious a way as possible) enough. 

Let me illustrate with a made-up example:

  1. What is the symptom? – We have no new products in the past.
  2. What’s the cause of the symptom? – We have no product innovation team. Nobody has time to work on new products. Everyone is overworked.
  3. What happens when the cause is removed? – After introducing a 4-day workweek, we now have a lot of new products.
  4. How do you get there? – Continue with the 4-day workweek.

In practice, steps 2, 3 and 4 will likely be iterative, as you work through and figure out which possible causes are really material or not. 

But the example above illustrates that the Four Truths framework can be applied to almost any problem, as a diagnostic framework.

Our tendency to dive in

When we look at issues and matters, we tend to dive into the issue and matter. However, besides the issues and matters, the other half of the equation is how are you looking at the matter, and how is your mind when you’re looking at it? 

You can think of it as a causal arrow: your mind <- five senses <- the issue and matter. Looking at our mental state is examining reality from the other end of this causal chain. And if your mind is affected, that affects the accuracy of one’s understanding of the information being transmitted and received.

Again, the Buddha has a set of similes that vividly describe how the mind is when defiled by the Five hindrances. When that happens, you’re not capable of looking at things as they truly are (full sutta here), much like a bowl of water has become unclear and un-still, and cannot accurately reflect a person’s reflection:

Suppose there was a bowl of water that was mixed with a dye such as red lac, turmeric, indigo, or rose madder. Even a person with good eyesight checking their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it….In the same way, when your heart is overcome and mired in sensual desire … Even hymns that are long-practiced don’t spring to mind, let alone those that are not practised…

Suppose there was a bowl of water that was heated by fire, boiling and bubbling. Even a person with good eyesight checking their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it…In the same way, when your heart is overcome and mired in ill will … Even long-practised hymns don’t spring to mind, let alone those that are not practised…

Suppose there was a bowl of water overgrown with moss and aquatic plants. Even a person with good eyesight checking their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it…In the same way, when your heart is overcome and mired in dullness and drowsiness… Even hymns that are long-practiced don’t spring to mind, let alone those that are not practised….

Suppose there was a bowl of water that was stirred by the wind, churning, swirling, and rippling. Even a person with good eyesight checking their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it. In the same way, when your heart is overcome and mired in restlessness and remorse… Even hymns that are long-practiced don’t spring to mind, let alone those that are not practised.

Suppose there was a bowl of water that was cloudy, murky, and muddy, hidden in the darkness. Even a person with good eyesight checking their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it…In the same way, when your heart is overcome and mired in doubt … Even hymns that are long-practiced don’t spring to mind, let alone those that are not practised.

Without your mind in the right state, it is very hard to “truly know it or see it“, whatever it may be. 

Check before you decide!

So it is important to check your mind for defilements before you decide. If one’s mind isn’t in the right mental state, then it is important to take steps to apply the necessary antidote, and have a clear mind before making any big decisions. 

Miss the first article on ‘Choosing your workplace’? Click here to check it out!


Wise Steps:

  • Know your mind, and be aware of the emotions or defilements that are present. How is your mind now: what defilements are present or absent? 
  • Try to apply the Four Noble Truths’ approach to diagnosing the root causes of tough situations. What is the symptom, the probable cause of the symptom? And what happens when the cause is removed? 
  • Check your mind state before deciding: it will reduce the probability of making bad decisions!
How often do we wisely choose our workplace?: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

How often do we wisely choose our workplace?: Applying Buddhist principles at the Workplace

Editor’s note: 

Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to think about, in this mini-article series.

TLDR: We spend more than a quarter of our adult lives at the workplace. Knowing how to choose your workplace can either build or destroy your character. Choosing the right people, and culture, and asking the right questions is crucial!

Principles in the financial world and the Dhamma

The term Dharma/dhamma is something that brings up the mental image of a Californian long-haired hippy with incense and drugs, spouting free-love, with flowers in their hair. 

In reality, the term Dhamma is simply a set of conditionality or principles: this can be seen from how they are described, which are usually sets of conditionality i.e. if A happens, that allows B to happen, etc. 

So that is why in my mind, “Applying Buddhist Principles at Work” is the same thing as “Applying the Dhamma at Work”. 

Ray Dalio, a famous hedge-fund manager, who wrote a best-selling book “Principles” gives us further insight into the workplace. His book is about the principles he used to grow Bridgewater Associates into one of the largest funds in the world: that is a kind of Dhamma for hedge funds (and decision-making), with many overlaps with Buddhist Dhamma. 

Instead of ‘lazily’ applying the Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths, I’m taking a first-principles approach to the Dhamma at Work, but without necessarily being MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive). These are decisions and actions that anybody probably needs to act on, at work. 

These are my personal views on the matter, so please feel free to look at it differently. 🙂 

I should also caveat that these Buddhist principles might not make you rich or conventionally successful. But you will probably sleep well at night, and probably suffer a lot less, and be happier! 

The following decisions need to be made by anybody with regard to any workplace.:

  1. Choosing a workplace
  2. How to look at issues and matters, and how to decide
  3. How to treat people at the workplace
  4. How to conduct oneself

This article will cover ‘Choosing a workplace’ with subsequent articles covering the other areas.

Choosing the place where you spend a quarter of your adult work life

A workplace is an environment where your mind will be in, for a substantial amount of your life. 

A week has 168 hours: a typical work week takes up anywhere from 42 to 120 of those hours, which is 25% or more of your total time. That’s where your mind will be at. 

What happens at work also spills over to the rest of your life, shaping your mental state for your week. Hence, I think choosing a workplace is perhaps the most important decision to make.

So how should we choose a workplace? I have a few factors to consider.

1. Choosing the people

The first factor to decide about a workplace is the people you’re going to be working with. You become the people around you

This was so important, that Ananda (who was the Buddha’s personal attendant) was rebuked  by the Buddha for saying that the good friendship was only half the Holy Life:

When a bhikkhu (monastic) has a good friend, a good companion, and a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path. 

SN 45.2 Half the Holy Life

The same consideration applies to choosing our colleagues. 

Why is it so important to choose your colleagues carefully? This is because of anatta, or non-self: if there truly is a self that was fully in control, then the environment wouldn’t impact any individual. 

But precisely because anatta or non-self is true, we humans are influenced easily by the people and environment around us. 

Choosing the workplace, especially choosing the people you work with thus helps shape our own minds and conditions. 

2. How do I know if the culture is right for me?

Related to this, is whether the culture of the team and workplace you’re joining is a good or bad culture. How do you know if it’s good or bad? And good or bad, with reference to what? 

Choose a workplace culture with reference to your state of mind, and your progress on the Eightfold Path. 

If you go to a workplace and you end up having a lot of strong desires, that’s probably not good. 

Nothing below a five-star hotel

When I was working with a previous employer in finance, an ex-boss said to me “You know, PJ, I can never stay in a hotel less than five stars, and on a plane less than business class.”

I was horrified and asked why. She said, “because I am so used to this, that anything less is really uncomfortable.” 

It was suffering for her, basically, because the financial industry had norms that were extremely expensive. And that’s when I realised that the industry was Super Samsara

That’s when I decided I had to leave because I also noticed that many of my colleagues and peers were not happy, not very healthy, and used their high pay to “buy happiness” outside of work, indulging in all kinds of expensive things. 

The layoffs happened

When we were laid off due to the financial crisis, I heard an ex-colleague had cash for only half a month’s worth of rent in her bank account, because she had spent all her income on spa packages, pedicure packages, gym packages, branded clothes, bags, drinks, expensive dinners, etc. 

So she was desperate to get another high-paying job as a banker, even though the market was flooded with retrenched bankers. 

My own state of mind back then was extremely unhealthy: strong desires, bad-tempered, and lacking sleep (I was working 90-120 hours a week). 

Even though it has taken ten years to get back to the base-level salary I earned in the investment bank, I still think it was the right decision to leave (or rather, to get laid off). 

The Buddha gave this advice on how to choose a place for a monastic: 

Buddha: Take another case of a mendicant who lives close by a jungle thicket. As they do so, their mindfulness becomes established, their mind becomes immersed in samādhi, their defilements come to an end, and they arrive at the supreme sanctuary. But the necessities of life that a renunciate requires—robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick—are hard to come by.
That mendicant should reflect: ‘…
I didn’t go forth from the lay life to homelessness for the sake of a robe, alms-food, lodgings, or medicines and supplies for the sick… they shouldn’t stay there.

– MN 17 Jungle Thickets

This advice isn’t just for monastics but is applicable to anyone who is intent on walking the Path. 

What’s perhaps most interesting is the subsequent instruction from the Buddha. When your meditation, mindfulness and practice aren’t good, due to your environment,

That mendicant should leave that jungle thicket that very time of night or day; they shouldn’t stay there.

That’s how important the Buddha placed the effect of a place on one’s mind. 

Asking the human mirrors you live with at home

How should you apply this learning, if you don’t really meditate nor keep precepts

A simple way is to ask the people who live with you: are you becoming more gentle, kinder, and compassionate? Or are you becoming more of a pain in the ass to live with? 

That will tell you how your mental cultivation is going. If your workplace is causing you to be more irritable, have strong sensual desires, and crave more material things, then you’re probably in the wrong place. 

And if you see that a workplace is full of people with big egos, anger, strong sensory desires and material things, those workplaces are probably the places to avoid.


Wise Steps:

  • Understand the impact of colleagues on your mind and choose them wisely. Which of your colleagues improve your mind, and which do not? 
  • Check-in with the people you live with if your character has improved or worsened since you joined your firm; this is one of the best indicators of whether you chose the right place. What do they say? 
#WW: ☄️ Chaos at the office and how we can work with it

#WW: ☄️ Chaos at the office and how we can work with it

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

The last public holiday felt like ages ago. The office space or your team feels chaotic. How can we work with chaos? How do astronauts cope with stress?

1. Astronauts, Heartbeat, and our unpleasant emails

2. Chaos at office! How to deal with it the Buddhist way

Astronauts, Heartbeat, and our unpleasant emails

blue and white cartoon character

What’s going on here & why we like it

Ryan Holiday, a famous stoic, shares how astronauts are chosen for their missions into space and how they keep regulated under stressful situations. We like how Ryan brings astronauts’ training into how we can train to deal with adversity even better!

“Often times, the way we respond to something makes it worse. We tell ourselves something is unfair.”

Wise Steps

How often do we prepare ourselves for hardship? Wanting things to be how we want them to be rather than the way things are? Running through scenarios of negativity that one might face in the day prepares one for the uncertainty that might lie ahead.

P.S. “Premeditatio malorum (“the pre-meditation of evils”) is a Stoic exercise of imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away from us. It helps us prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks and develop resilience in the face of uncertainty. “- Ryan Holiday

Check out the awesome Tiktok below!

Chaos at office! How to deal with it the Buddhist way

brown wooden house near green trees during daytime

What’s going on here & why we like it

Pema Chodron, a famous western Tibetan nun, shares how we can deal with chaos in the best way possible. She provides us with 3 ways we can deal with chaos such as going to places which scare us and using poison as a medicine.

“We breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame—it’s part of the human condition.”

Wise Steps

Pema Chodron introduces us to the Buddhist contemplation and meditation of Tonglen. Taking in the negative energy from ourselves and others and emitting the positive energy into the environment. Super cool and worth a short at visualisation/ contemplation

Check out the article!


#WW: ☁️Floating through zoom calls? It is okay to feel lost

#WW: ☁️Floating through zoom calls? It is okay to feel lost

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

These are uncertain times. With lay offs happening across industries especially in the tech sector, we might feel this creeping anxiety of being retrenched. For those of us who see our colleagues get retrenched, we might feel lost in our careers. That’s probably okay and human to feel that way. Here are 2 articles to get you through these tough times

1. It is okay to feel lost. We all do.

2. Prolonged Uncertainty is a pain. What can we do about it?

It is okay to feel lost. We all do.

From Tiny Wisdom

What’s going on here & why we like it

Tiny Wisdom, a blog focused on short stories of wisdom, shares a deep comic strip about floating through zoom calls and wanting to be somewhere else. It might just be the comic strip that you need. It connects with us as readers as it is simple in its message and reminds us that it is okay to not ‘have it together’.

“I may not be able to be the person I want

But if I can’t be one thing,

That doesn’t mean I can’t be something.

Wise Steps

Remind yourself that while it is easy to think that you ‘are not the best’, it is important to acknowledge that you are trying your best too!

Read the article here.

Prolonged Uncertainty is a pain. What can we do about it?

Cr: estherperelofficial

What’s going on here & why we like it

Instead of lashing out or screaming ‘I am stressed’, what are some ways we can approach all the uncertainty swirling in our lives? Esther highlights 4 ways we can do better in prolonged uncertainty. We like it because it is very much aligned with Buddhist teachings of identifying emotions, removing obstacles, reflecting, and helping others

“Connecting with the past and tying it to the present can give perspective, and encourage us in times of struggle.”

Wise Steps

Pay attention to what you pay attention to! What we consume and how often we consume news, debates, and social media can negatively affect our anxiety about prolonged uncertainty.

Enjoy the advice below!


#WW:😪 It is mid-2022. Is this the best time to quit my job?

#WW:😪 It is mid-2022. Is this the best time to quit my job?

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

Great resignation. Middle of the year. A time for reflection on how we have done this year and how we can use the second half in the most meaningful way. Here are two stories!

1. Actively looking to avoid doing your work? This might be a sign to quit

2. You are burning out. What can you do? A Buddhist monk answers

Actively looking to avoid doing your work? This might be a sign to quit

Harvard Business Review Screenshot

What’s going on here

If you are looking for a sign to quit your job. Here are 6 to check out! Harvard Business Review shares 6 ways to find out if we should quit our job and move on to brighter things.

Why we like it

HBR is very candid on the signs to look out for. These signs have been seen in friends who faced bleak tunnels in their careers…they later left the job for greener pastures. It is supremely actionable!

“Have you been procrastinating more and more lately?”

Wise Steps

Have an honest sit down with yourself on what you want in your career and whether there is growth left in your career at your current job!

Check out this article below!

You are burning out. What can you do? A Buddhist monk answers

lit matchstick
Unsplash

What’s going on here

Venerable Nick, a Thai monk, shares why we are burning out and what we can do about it. The 22-min video is a nice walkthrough of examples of burnout and how we can manage that. He shares how the body falling sick is often a wake-up call for our mind when we are pushing too hard and how we need not wait for that to take action in our lives.

Why we like it

Venerable Nick touches on real-world positive examples of monks and local workers managing work, and how the need to do everything fast can blur the lines for us between work and rest.

“Of course we can do things faster but what is the point?…We try to do things with intentions and that intention is to use every activity to train our minds.”

Wise Steps

Find an activity that refreshes you. That slows you down from work and reminds you of the goodness of the world.

Enjoy the advice below!

Want to check out a book dealing with burnout? Click here!


“Burn out, anger, and a dying laptop”: 3 lessons I have learnt since I started my medical career.

“Burn out, anger, and a dying laptop”: 3 lessons I have learnt since I started my medical career.

TLDR: In the healthcare line, we often forget to care for ourselves before caring for others. The fear of making mistakes can cripple us. Diving deeper, Li Hui shares her experience as a first-year junior doctor

Since I started work as a first-year junior doctor, also known as (aka) ‘house officer’ or ‘HO’, I have gone through many highs and lows. It has been an enriching journey with pain and joy. These are 3 learning points I felt are useful for those starting work. May you take on what’s useful and discard what is not useful for you!

1. To care for yourself before you care for others

Ever since work started, I have become much more impatient than before. It is easier for small inconveniences to upset me especially when I am tired. For example when my laptop runs out of battery during my ward rounds or simply when the system takes a long time to load. 

Whenever I get angry at myself or others, I end up feeling guilty afterwards especially if I was unkind in my speech or actions. In times like this, I try to remind myself that these are only transient states that I have. 

Rather than ‘I am angry’, I tell myself, ‘There is anger’ These emotional states are like passing clouds in the sky and will eventually pass.  

I remind myself not to only focus on my flaws as I am not perfect and that we are all trying our best wherever we are. 

Being kind to myself is as simple as just acknowledging whatever I am feeling whether it is good or bad. 

When there is anger, fear or anxiety, I calm myself down by putting my palm to the centre of my chest and tuning in with myself just for that moment. The warm sensation in my chest diverts my attention away from all the overwhelming emotions in the mind but brings attention to my heart. 

One mindfulness teacher once taught us that this practice is called the hand of compassion. And this hand of compassion can be readily available to you anytime you need it. 

Kindness to self and others is important in the workplace precisely because of how stressful and tiring work can be. 

We are all trying our best for our patients, however, we have to remember that we have to first care for ourselves before we can care for our patients.  

2. It’s okay to make mistakes! 

I am someone who is generally very harsh on myself. 

When other people make mistakes, I can forgive others very easily. But when I make a mistake, it is almost as if I don’t deserve forgiveness. Perhaps this mindset could be due to the way we were brought up in our education system, in an environment that emphasises the importance of striving and achieving

I have always tried my best to push myself to be the best I can be. In this process, it is easy to forget that this body of mine is not a machine for me to force it to do whatever I want it to do. I forget that my body and mind need to be cared for and needs to be loved. Part of self-love is also about accepting and forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we have made. 

One way I learn to cope with mistakes is to share my encounters with my colleagues and peers so that they would not commit the same mistakes that I’ve made, to protect them and also our future patients. 

I always try to tell myself that what is done cannot be undone and there is no point in being upset about it. I still struggle with letting go of my mistakes from time to time. 

One of my seniors from the Medical Dharma Circle shared that sometimes when we sit down and meditate after a long day of work, there is a lot of garbage that comes into our minds. There are a lot of thoughts and conversations from the day that surface and we find it hard to settle down on our breath. 

And this is expected because this is the state of the unenlightened mind. However, we suffer when we expect our minds to be silent and calm when it is not. It is through this gap between expectation and reality that we find suffering.

Similarly, we make mistakes partly due to our habitual tendencies from the past and our defilements. We are bound to make mistakes because we are still unenlightened and we still have defilements. The best we can do is to accept our mistakes and learn from them. Making the determination to not make the same mistake again can be strengthened by reminding ourselves of the consequences.

3. One step at a time

I first started trekking with my friends when I was still a medical student and I fell in love with it! 

I loved the beauty, the peace and the quiet that I experienced during the trek.

Trekking was also about taking one step at a time and your mind being nowhere else but right here in the present, with nothing to think about at all.  It was a beautiful experience. 

There’s a Chinese saying that goes ‘ A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. Housemanship has truly been a difficult year thus far. I am chronically tired. Perhaps the fatigue was carried over from medical school, or maybe because of my social commitments and poor sleep hygiene. 

But amidst the fatigue and stressors and when work gets overwhelming, I try my best to take it one day at a time, one task at a time. 

Sometimes I take deep breaths while waiting for the system to load. So that instead of being caught up in the impatience or anger at wanting things to be done as fast as possible, my attention shifts to my breath and I forget to be angry. 

Sometimes I pay attention to the sensation of my feet when I am walking from one place to another instead of being consumed in my thoughts. 

I think it is important for us as healthcare workers to find all these coping mechanisms because we need to look after ourselves well to be able to look after others. Our line of work puts us in a very privileged position to care for those in need and all the more this requires us to be kind and gentle to our patients and their family members. 

Looking back at work once more

It is difficult to be kind to others when we are burnt out and fatigued. I am extremely grateful to be in this line of work and surrounded by people who have dedicated their lives to serving others too.

Every individual in the hospital plays an important role in patient care. 

There is a saying that goes, ‘ To cure sometimes, to relieve often and to comfort always’. I hope to remember that the least I can do is to listen to my patients and their families and encourage them wherever possible. 

I hope that wherever you are in your career, you find time for yourself and the things that matter to you. 


Wise Steps:

  • We can’t care for others if we don’t have enough time for ourselves. Ensure you have moments to recharge and reestablish mindfulness with tools like ‘hand of compassion’
  • We are human. Making mistakes is fine! Just find ways to allow yourself to learn through reflection or peer sharing
  • One step at a time. This can prevent us from being overwhelmed when there are too many things that need to be done or when the journey ahead seems too difficult to continue.

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