September 16, 2013 6:00 pm
By John Paul Rathbone
Every day, twice a day, for the past 20 years, the executive charged with investing tens of billions of dollars for Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund thinks of nothing. He does this by sitting silently and saying a word inside himself. After a few minutes, his breathing calms, his face muscles relax and the flutter behind his eyelids stills.
I know this because I am sitting opposite Peter Ng. Unlike the chief investment officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, however, I am a poor meditator. I know this because halfway through our 20-minute meditation session, I open my eyes after engaging with a thought: is meditation compatible with the cut-throat world of finance?
It is an apt reflection given that Mr Ng sits on a panel sponsored by CFA Institute, a standards-setting body for fund managers and financial analysts, pondering the “future of finance”.
Over the past decade or so, meditation – the practice of becoming aware and then letting go of the thoughts and emotions that make up our stream of consciousness – has spread gently from an esoteric practice into an activity nearly as ubiquitous as jogging or flossing teeth. That may be because – as the refrain goes and as many have quietly discovered – “meditation is not what you think”.
It has been quietly incorporated into corporate life: Google and General Mills encourage the secular practice of mindfulness to help make employees more productive.
Now meditation is penetrating the halls of high finance, too.
Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund with $150bn of assets under management, is unequivocal about its effects. “Meditation, more than anything else, is responsible for whatever success I have had,” he says. “When I meditate, I acquire an equanimity that allows me to see things from a higher-level perspective and that allows me to make sensible decisions.”
“I meditate about three times a week, but I don’t make it feel like an obligation. It helps me with the big things. I’ve noticed at board meetings, for example, that directors can often become obsessed with the smallest things”
– Lord Myners, former M&S chairman
Lord Myners, a former chairman of Marks and Spencer, is another executive who finds meditation helps him focus. “I get excited about things and meditation helps pull me back and see the bigger picture,” he says. “I am probably more effective for it, although I’m not going to say it makes me a better person – that’s awful!”
Backed by clinical trials and married with neuroscience, the idea that meditation can help anyone find a greater sense of equanimity is well established. Money managers such as Bill Gross, the founder and co-chief investment officer of Pimco, the world’s biggest fixed income investor, say it helps remove confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek information that confirms ego-driven preconceptions while remaining blind to valuable data that contradicts it.
CFA Institute is looking to offer meditation classes, and business schools increasingly offer courses for the “behavioural advantages” it brings.
“Do you need to be some kind of master to get anything out of meditation? You don’t need to be an Olympic swimmer to enjoy swimming”
– Peter Ng, CIO, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation
Next year, as part of its MBA program, Georgetown University will offer a credited course led by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk who heads the World Community for Christian Meditation. Although a proselytiser for that form of meditation’s benefits, Mr Freeman is also acutely aware that its spiritual component can turn many off. “Meditation is an aspect of both a universal and very old Christian tradition that can be shared with anyone and understood in a secular way,” he says. “For some people, its distance from formal religion provides a comfort zone.”
Still, many are sceptical that alpha-male executives could possibly set aside their egos while meditating. Some hard-nosed financiers still see it as a dubious “New Age” activity. Lord Leitch, chairman of Bupa, the private health provider, and a former insurance executive, says meditation can generate uncomfortable reactions. “Sometimes I get weird looks when I mention it in passing. Clearly it’s not for all. Still, I think we should be open to techniques that can help in life, and this is one of them.”
“My practice is not associated with any religion. I view it as a physiological exercise, a discipline with no issue of belief or God . . . I practise meditation in the same way I might exercise”
– Ray Dalio, founder, Bridgewater
A more acute problem is finding the time. “It’s the biggest challenge, and the biggest reason people stop,” says Mr Dalio, who has meditated since 1969 and says anyone who keeps at it for six months never looks back. “I can’t tell the difference between meditators and non-meditators but you can see changed behaviour in someone who starts and carries on.”
For Sean Hagan, chief legal counsel of the International Monetary Fund who began meditating 30 years ago while a junior lawyer at JPMorgan, it is a question of priorities. “You come into the office every morning and there is a host of things to do, which is overwhelming and can cause a sense of panic. But meditation helps you focus, which is a good skill, and it encourages a one-thing-at-a-time approach, which helps slow things down,” he says. “Therefore, it’s really straightforward for me. It gives me a lot of benefits, so I prioritise it.”
“In a world of screens, texts, cellphones, information all over you, spending 20 minutes purposefully not thinking of anything is a wonderful thing. It’s a pause which refreshes. In some ways in the financial world it is a must.”
– Philipp Hildebrand, BlackRock vice-chairman
Others, such as Philipp Hildebrand, vice-chairman of BlackRock and a former head of the Swiss National Bank, who has meditated for seven years, slot it into their schedules when they can – in aeroplanes or while being chauffeured between meetings. “In a world of screens, texts, cell phones, information all over you, spending 20 minutes purposefully not thinking of anything is a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s a pause that refreshes. In some ways in the financial world, it is a must.”
Quelling the mind can help managers conserve energy in daily work life. “Greater clarity makes you more orderly,” says Mr Ng. But it is especially useful during a crisis, when “volatile markets and their profit and loss implications can really throw you off-balance, even as people are mostly looking to you for direction”.
None of the highly practical men interviewed for this story suggested meditation was a ticket to nirvana or that something amazing happened by just sitting still and turning off the iPhone. “It is not a magic panacea,” says Lord Leitch.
“Meditation is not a magic bullet. But, for example, I’m about to give a speech on leadership, and I’m going to invert it. Instead of talking about leading others, I will talk about what leads you”
– Lord Leitch, Bupa chairman
Indeed, as odd as it may seem that financiers, often lambasted for their lack of ethics, are looking to meditation in the wake of the financial crisis, it may be precisely because of the crisis that more are turning to it.
“I’ve learnt from public office, especially in times of crisis, that people, particularly younger people, look to you not just for technical knowhow . . . What does it mean, for example, that Greece has 65 per cent youth unemployment?” says Mr Hildebrand, “There are always technical issues that need to be addressed. The financial crisis is forcing people to go deeper.”
Meditation may be one way to “go deeper”. Certainly, it seems to have increased the willingness of some to explore their interiority. Whether that will make a difference to the ethics of the financial world is an open question.