My Weekend at the Happiest Place on Earth (No, It Wasn't Disneyland)

This past weekend I went to Disneyland. Not the actual Disneyland, but my version of Disneyland. It was a conference called Wisdom 2.0, which is designed to address "the great challenge of our age: to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world."

Like a kid at "The Happiest Place on Earth," I wanted to go on every ride, eat every snack, go to every session and talk to every other speaker and everyone attending. And like many a Disney-fied kid, I was primed for a bad case of overstimulation leading to an eventual meltdown. Fortunately, given the nature of the conference, there were ample breaks for things like meditation, breathing exercises, yoga and healthy snacks. Which, of course, just left me that much more energized. I was in a mindfulness spiral!

The conference is in its third year, and its founder and host is Soren Gordhamer, who has dedicated himself to helping us find ways to tap into our inner wisdom even as we integrate more and more technology into our lives. This is also the topic of his book, Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected.

He also founded a non-profit called The Lineage Project, designed to help incarcerated and at-risk teens (I love the organization's slogan, "We go inside to keep them out").

We all know that technology is taking over practically every aspect of our lives -- mostly for the better. But there is also a growing awareness that our increasing dependence on technology puts us at risk of becoming disconnected from ourselves. The fact that this awareness, and the desire to do something about it, is no longer confined to the touchy-feely crowd was amply demonstrated in the conference's list of speakers, which drew from nearly every sector of society. They included:

  • Bill Ford, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company.
  • Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn.
  • Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's not only the first Hindu member of Congress, but, along with newly elected Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, one of the House's first female combat veterans.
  • Padmasree Warrior, Chief Technology and Strategy Officer of Cisco.
  • Jared Smyser, a Marine Corps veteran who, since leaving the military, has been working on a mindfulness project with the Marines at Camp Pendleton in California.
  • Congressman Tim Ryan, of Ohio.
  • Sherry Turkle, psychologist and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.
  • Thupten Jinpa, Buddhist scholar, writer, principal English translator for the Dalai Lama, and a visiting scholar at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford's School of Medicine.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and author of the mindfulness classic, Wherever You Go, There You Are.

This was not an anti-technology crowd. Indeed, many of the attendees and speakers were young enough to be digital natives, immersed in omnipresent technology for their entire lives. Most of them had already launched successful careers, and were at the stage where they're charging ahead and hitting their strides. Having spent a large part of their lives getting acquainted with the benefits of technology, they are now increasingly realizing the costs.

They're part of the growing awareness about the need for, well, growing awareness. Nobody is talking about going back to a pre-technology past, but there is plenty of talk about how many different ways there are to go forward. "We're done with this honeymoon phase and now we're in this phase that says, 'Wow, what have we done?'" said Soren Gordhamer. "It doesn't mean what we've done is bad. There's no blame. But there is a turning of the page."

"It's this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices," said Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who studies the science of self-control at Stanford's School of Medicine. "People feel not just addicted, but trapped."

And we respond accordingly. Here's how Mark Williams, clinical psychology professor at Oxford, puts it:

What we know from the neuroscience -- from looking at the brain scans of people that are always rushing around, who never taste their food, who are always going from one task to another without actually realizing what they're doing -- is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on high alert all the time ... So, when people think "I'm rushing around to get things done," it's almost like, biologically, they're rushing around just as if they were escaping from a predator. That's the part of the brain that's active. But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries.

I also love his definition of mindfulness, that it "cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we're doing them."

And the costs of living a frenetic life are devastating. Over the past 30 years, self-reported levels of stress have shot up 25 percent for men and 18 percent for women. According to Dr. Williams, if you look at stress levels over the decades, going back to the '50s, what you find is that by the '80s and '90s "the average level of anxiety was equivalent to clinical levels in the 1950s."

We also know that stress costs American businesses an estimated $300 billion per year. And that sleep deprivation alone costs businesses over $63 billion per year. It's no wonder that 75 percent of our health care spending is spent on treatment of chronic diseases like diabetes, which afflicts over 25 million Americans, and high blood pressure, which 67 million have suffered from.

So strategies that can counteract these trends aren't feel-good clichés, they're performance-enhancing tools. As Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, wrote recently, "a new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal -- including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations -- boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health."

At the same time, there is growing skepticism around the ability of Big Data -- the increasing use of heretofore unimaginable amounts of data -- to solve problems.

As Nassim Taleb writes, in a piece adapted from his new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, "Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information."

And even when the information is not false, the problem, as Taleb puts it, "is that the needle comes in an increasingly larger haystack."

In addition, as David Brooks writes, "There are many things big data does poorly." Like, for instance, helping guide social interaction and decision making about social relationships. These are core human functions, things we're driven to do and, in fact, things our brains are very good at -- when we allow them to be. For social decisions, Brooks writes, "it's foolish to swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk."

So, yes, for some things Big Data is great. But as it creates more and more noise, for our inner voice to be heard, what we need to go along with Big Data is Big Wisdom. Because while there are many areas in which more data will be useful, at the core of the really big problems we're facing, as we go from crisis to crisis -- many of them self-inflicted or manufactured (hello, sequester!) -- isn't lack of data. It's lack of wisdom.

At the end of my talk at Wisdom 2.0, Soren came on stage to interview me. Before we started, he said, "We're just gonna pause for a minute and let the audience digest some of what you just said... One of the things we try to do -- which isn't so easy at conferences -- is allow there to be some awesome content, but then allow there to be occasional pauses so that it can be digested." We're all so programmed to be constantly on the lookout for ways to become more productive and more efficient that we forget that none of this is very useful if we don't pause to digest it.

On Saturday night, we had a small chance to walk the conference talk. The speakers were supposed to meet for dinner at seven at a nearby Asian restaurant. What we hadn't considered was the parade for Lunar New Year that was blocking our path. We tried to cross it this way and that way. We unsuccessfully tried to go into a subway entrance and pop back up on the other side. It was eight o'clock, and we were still walking. Just the kind of wrinkle our daily lives are full of and that so often leads to frustration and stress. Instead we were talking, laughing, walking and making the best of it. It wasn't that big of a deal -- it wasn't real hardship, and nobody's life was in danger -- but it was one of those everyday irritations that can so easily throw us out of balance. We eventually broke through -- but not with the help of a miracle app on one of the many iPhones our group had deployed. It was through good old-fashioned human connection -- we begged a policeman to let us cross.

Sometimes the stakes will be small, like getting through a parade, but sometimes they'll be big. What's important is to find ways to step back, disconnect, reconnect with our own peace, strength, and wisdom -- and enjoy the unanticipated detours along the way.