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The Magic of Tranquility

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The Magic of Tranquility

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One in every four Taiwanese suffers from anxiety, depression or other mental disorders. The more turmoil we face, the more we need tranquility for clearer thinking.

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The Magic of Tranquility

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 516 )

At his practice in New Taipei City's Sindian District, psychiatrist Tom T. T. Yang faces a never-ending line of patients day in and day out. Yang sees dozens of patients with mood disorders every day. In the evenings, he indulges in a half-hour of quiet time for himself, which he spends writing his diary and recovering his energy.

"Taiwanese society is unable to calm down. It's becoming more and more fretful, as if we've been hit a mental tsunami," notes Yang, who also serves as the convener of the mental health index workgroup at the Mental Health Foundation.

Over the past ten years, Yang has conducted eight surveys on the mental health of Taiwanese. His laptop computer holds a vast array of mental health indices. In his most recent survey, a lower percentage of Taiwanese agreed with the statements "I am not agitated or worried" and "I am mentally stable" than two years ago.

Andrew Tai-ann Cheng, distinguished research fellow at the Academia Sinica's Institute of Biomedical Sciences, announced that the prevalence of mental illnesses in Taiwan has doubled over the past two decades. About one in every four persons suffers from anxiety, depression or other mental disorders.

"When you are unable to quiet down, you pay with autonomic dysfunction," explains Yang pointing at the data on his laptop screen. Taiwanese take so many sleeping pills and tranquilizers every year – 1.3 billion – that the Bureau of National Health Insurance last year began to rein in prescriptions for such drugs.

Yang, who has rich clinical experience, observes that the root of insomnia is anxiety and the inability to calm down.

Faced with the current economic slump and the chaos of political change, Taiwan particularly needs tranquility.

Quietude also has a lot to do with good decision-making. The greater the ruckus, the more we need quiet to ponder our decisions.

Ou Chin-der, chairman of the Taiwan High Speed Railway Corporation (THSRC), has hung a calligraphy scroll on his office wall. It reads "Calmly observing the vicissitudes of time." As Ou reminisces about his decades-long career, he relates that he has made the most crucial decisions in his life after a period of thinking in a state of inner stillness.

When Ou returned from the United States in the 1980s, his first job was planning national highways No. 1 and No. 3. At the time he came under fire for allegedly enriching the wealthy.

Instead of hurriedly attempting to explain himself, Ou did the planning that he deemed important for the nation's long-term development with quiet dedication.

Poor Response Clouds Vision of the Future

Ou went on to become CEO of THSRC, and he did not shy away from taking over the chairman's position from Nita Ing in September 2009 when the private consortium was saddled with losses of more than 70 billion and the two major political camps were constantly bickering over its future.

In his trademark low-key manner, Ou negotiated a syndicated loan, established an operational management system and gradually completed the high-speed railway's tasks at each stage. In 2011 the bullet train finally turned a profit for the first time. Several foreign railway operators have shown interest in its unique automated ticket-verification system or are even emulating it.

"When everything is in chaos and turmoil, and you are constantly scrambling to react, then you are doing someone else's bidding instead of discerning the future," notes Ou in describing his own experience. When you think about the future, you need to let things sink in. It takes stillness to map out a stable direction.

It is the magic of tranquility that has enabled Ou to become a top bureaucrat who gets things done and a leader with a clear sense of direction. In the United States, business circles have come to appreciate the positive effects of calmness.

Last year, the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking soared to fourth place on the New York Times bestseller list immediately after hitting bookstores.

Author Susan Cain has been working as a business consultant for many years. She has observed that our capitalist system values extroversion, boldness, sociability and eloquence. But as various research has found, introversion is an underestimated character trait that might come in handy in our increasingly complex, changeable and competitive world. Quiet people are often profound thinkers who pay attention to detail and have the patience that it often takes to solve complicated problems.

In a study two years ago, Adam Grant, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, found that corporate success depends on the right combination of leader and staff. Outgoing and talkative corporate executives can be a liability for a company's performance when paired with proactive employees, whereas introverted leaders are more likely to listen to and process the ideas of an eager team.

"The fact that they are more receptive is due primarily to their ability and willingness to listen carefully to what others have to say without being threatened," the researchers state in their article "Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity."

In the business world, leaders who listen quietly to employees' ideas often prove more effective with regard to reaching corporate goals than extroverted leaders who do most of the talking themselves.

John Hei, managing director at Dale Carnegie Training Greater China, shares a story about the power of listening.

Hei's second son served as physician at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Before he was even forty, the board of directors appointed him associate medical director, which meant he became the supervisor of his own teacher and several other senior physicians.

The board told him he was selected because he always listened in meetings to what the others had to say and drew conclusions by considering all participants' opinions.

"Success does not necessarily rely on eloquence – being able to listen is more important," Hei points out.

Group Decisions Can Undermine Effectiveness

When it comes to stimulating creative thinking, the quiet, meditative approach is not inferior to group brainstorming.

Based on many years of research, Cain calls into question the myth of "group discussions." She warns that group brainstorming and collective decision-making, two popular approaches in the business world, could in fact reduce work effectiveness.

This is because most people dislike being criticized in front of others and therefore tend to go with what others say. Moreover, from a psychological perspective it is only when you are alone that you can engage in "deliberate practice" – the key to gaining true expertise.

The late Marvin Dunnette, an icon in industrial and organizational psychology, once explored the effectiveness of group brainstorming, posing problems to groups of four people, as well as to individuals.

The research found that individuals working alone produced more ideas of equal or higher quality than most of the groups.

The myth of collective decision-making is one of the reasons why our government performs so poorly.

When formulating new policies the government often calls large scale meetings. Development projects must be passed by an Environmental Impact Assessment Committee. To evaluate a policy or project, a panel of experts must be commissioned. However, in the end no one takes overall responsibility.

The ongoing controversy over the Meiliwan Resort development in Taidong and the difficulties in finding an acceptable chairperson for the Taiwan Public Television Service can all be attributed to committee-based decision-making.

Liao Yuan-hao, associate law professor at National Chengchi University, once opined in a CommonWealth Magazine column, "The Taiwanese government has so many committees, we've become a committocracy." Liao brands this as an irresponsible decision-making model.

Steve Wozniak, the legendary inventor of the Apple PC, notes in his memoir iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon, "I don't believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by a committee," and advises readers in search of creative stimulation: "Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team."

Vexations Are like Fallen Leaves

Hsu Chung-ren, the godfather of Taiwan's logistics industry and chairman of the Commerce Development Research Institute (CDRI), is a typical example of a quiet leader. At the tender age of three, Hsu was sent to a temple for his education, and learned to stay composed and independent from childhood on. Later on he practiced Zen meditation, which allowed him to thoroughly experience the power of levelheadedness and simplicity.

Hsu believes it takes composure to make complex things simple, and this disposition is what has enabled him to always develop creativity and selling power in the market.

"My attitude is kind of meditative. I don't get all worked up. I let many unhappy, annoying things just go away," Hsu explains. Vexation and anxiety are like fallen leaves that need to be consciously swept away all the time. If one wants to gain deep insights into market changes, then one must continually remain calm.

Even more composure is called for when one faces dramatic changes.

Grace Lo, dean of National Taiwan University's College of Life Sciences and winner of the 2012 Taiwan Outstanding Women in Science Award, relied on quiet determination to get through the most ferocious criticism in her life over her attempt to implement reforms.

Six years ago, when Lo had just been elected dean, she decided to requisition public space that had been illegally occupied in order to build a common technology platform for use by all faculty at the college. Her plans triggered severe controversy, with critics accusing her of building her own "private laboratory."

Lo took the lead in merging the Institute of Zoology with the College of Life Sciences. In the process she faced tough challenges, with opponents verbally attacking her at faculty meetings. Once an enraged participant even flung an official document at her, claiming that Lo had no idea how to even approve a document.

Lo took a deep breath and stood still for 30 seconds, silently picked up the file and then coolly asked the attacker, "Would you mind telling me where the document needs to be improved?"

"When I face confrontation, I become calm immediately, because whatever you say in the midst of emotional upheaval is likely to have loopholes," Lo remarks dispassionately.

Today the NTU College of Life Sciences steers in the direction set by Lo.

Alpha Waves Keep People Alert

From a medical viewpoint, calmness is beneficial for decision-making.

Tom Yang, the psychiatrist, observes that noise and worries cause the body to secrete cortisone which damages the brain's memory center, wreaks havoc on the human immune system, interferes with the cardiovascular system and the digestive tract, and causes stress ulcers.

But in a quiet state the brain generates alpha waves that indicate an individual is in a relaxed but alert state that includes awareness of one's surroundings.

Last year, a study at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), found that the cerebral cortices of people who had employed meditative practice for many years showed more folds and grooves than the average person. This means they are able to process information faster.

"In a quiet state people are more 'frontal lobe-oriented'," Yang explains. The frontal lobes control managerial skills and objective analysis. Tranquility does not mean passiveness, but is the opposite of being agitated. It is a state of mind that enables us to focus our energy on long-term goals.

Indeed, many years ago management guru Jim Collins contended that the best performing corporate executives are mostly introverts, quiet "level five leaders."

They stand out for a seemingly paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will. They are able to block out disturbing noises and work toward accomplishing the company's long-term goals with quiet dedication and perseverance.

Emptiness ahead of a Creative Burst

Taiwan-born star director Ang Lee is a shy and quiet person. Tranquility is the emptiness that he needs before creative bursts.

Many of his blockbuster movies are the fruits of a period of quietude. After finishing shooting his latest film "Life of Pi," Lee told CommonWealth Magazine that he is now in a state of emptiness.

"I won't get very anxious (to do something). Emptiness is a very necessary state. You can't always keep making films. You can't do without a life, without incubating ideas, without thinking," believes Lee, who currently enjoys his quiet downtime recharging his batteries for his next film.

The Lunar New Year is almost here. Let's all calm down after the firecrackers have gone off. Looking back on the past year and pondering the future, let's nurture our potential, and get ready for the next burst of creativity.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Keywords:

好友人數