Workplace happiness takes center stage at SXSW Interactive

It was day two at the recent SXSW Interactive Conference, and complaints from conference attendees were pervasive – about everything from waiting in insufferably long lines to get into popular seminars or getting shut out entirely. Sure, I expected throngs of people keen to see Mark Cuban, Michael Dell, Shaq, or Chelsea Clinton, who were among this year’s headliners. But I was floored to be turned away from an obscure and clearly ‘non-tech’ session titled “Make Yourself the Happiest Person on Earth.” Though I was disappointed to miss the session, as a flexible workplace consultant, it was encouraging to see the large crowd of professionals drawn to a seminar on happiness amid SXSW Interactive’s renowned programming on business leadership, innovation and technology.

Chade-Meng Tan led this surprisingly oversubscribed seminar on the unlikely topic of happiness at a technology conference designed to showcase new innovations, processes, and thought leadership. Admittedly, Mr. Tan is fairly well known in the tech world, as he’s a former Google engineer known for taking unique advantage of the company’s policy of allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to passion projects. His project of choice was working on world peace. Not wearable technology, not virtual reality, not self-driving cars but, yes, world peace. Not only did Google not try to dissuade him, but the course Mr. Tan designed on mindfulness, called “Search Inside Yourself,” became one of the most popular classes ever taught at Google University. Subsequently, he has written a book, done a TED Talk, and met the Dalai Lama. His current role entails teaching Googlers how to apply mindfulness techniques to their life and work in service of producing happier, healthier, and more creative employees.

This theme around happiness, employee well-being, and resultant business success popped up elsewhere in a variety of seminars from which I actually wasn’t turned away. For example, Stew Friedman, a long time Wharton MBA Professor and director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, was a participant on a panel entitled “Man Up: Gender & the Work-Life Balance Debate.” Friedman told us that he is now seeing some of his best and brightest students making career decisions that prioritize balance and non-extreme schedules over money and clout.

And speaking of clout, colorful venture capitalist and wine guru Gary Vaynerchuk gave some sage advice (with his obligatory expletive) to budding technologists, "When you stop prioritizing people's $#@%ing clout and act like a human being, you will win." This statement was made in the context of encouraging people to ‘pay it forward’ first as a way to get the most out of attending SXSW, i.e., what comes around goes around and you’ll be happier and more successful for it.

Then there was the key message of a session called “What’s the New Having It All?” In essence, today, more than ever, people want to have a job they love (at least most of the time), make some money and do some good in the world. You don’t have to read much between the lines to see that’s also about happiness, both personal and on a broader scale.

Most attendees at SXSW Interactive were there to pitch their ideas and connect to possible sources of funding – or to market products to those groups of people. However, the popularity of the happiness seminar and ubiquity of related themes of balance and fulfillment tells me that today’s generation of entrepreneurs may not be as willing to sacrifice every other aspect of life for their work as were their predecessors. And that gives me tremendous optimism about the workplace of the future.

Shani Magosky is an executive coach and owner of Vitesse Consulting.

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