Mindfulness for Millennials – Interview with Dr Audrey Tang

Mindfulness is an increasingly popular buzzword in the university and business sphere. Although a relatively unexplored area; practising mindfulness in its various forms can improve our wellbeing and help us build resilience for day-to-day stresses, among other benefits. I had the pleasure of catching up with Dr Audrey Tang, author of the recently published ‘The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness’, and asked her a few questions about mindfulness and its importance for millennials. 

RG: What mindful advice would you give to university graduates at the precipice of their first job?

AT: Be aware of what this job is to you.  Is it a stop gap?  Is it something you’ve been aiming for?  Is it a rung on the ladder?  … And although you don’t need to plan your whole life, what is your next step? As our career progresses so does our life in that we get older, we start relationships, we make commitments such as buying houses – and then the career may change because other things are taking precedence.  As long as those changes are active, there is less chance of reaching the age of 40, being in the same job, just maybe with a bigger office and wondering what happened to the last 20 years.  Changes of priority are a part of life, but be in charge of them.

RG: Why is it especially important for leaders to practice mindfulness?

AT: Leadership comes with pressure –especially if you are good at it.  You’ll be making high level decisions quickly, managing a number of commitments,dealing with people, and progressing your role and your company.   It can be extremely helpful to take moments for yourself to check that you are still on the track you wanted.  Remembering whether your values and needs are still being met – and if they are not, creating the head-space to deal with that.

Too many people think that when someone finally thinks about what they “really want” – they will chuck everything in and travel the world – it’s really not like that.  You’ll probably realise that you “really want” many of the things you have (and remember to be grateful for them!), and identify the thing that is troubling – perhaps being able to work with others such as your family, to manage it.

RG: Your book title refers to the importance of ‘soft skills’ for leaders and managers. If you had to choose, which soft skills would you say are the most important?

AT: This is quite a $50m question!  For me I think it has to be communication.  So many problems could be solves more easily if we just communicated (often before they were a problem). We just don’t like “going there”. What I mean by communication is being clear of what you want as the general outcome, the best method of communicating, and in turn learning to listen/ask for clarification so the whole interaction is two way; remembering also that the communication is only as good as the message that is received!

RG: If you could go back and give your younger self one tip, what would it be?

AT: Honestly– this is a very very personal one.  I have always liked the telling my younger self “It’ll be okay” – but I suspect this would have made me work less hard! So I think it would be – no matter what, your difference is what will make you stronger.  Embrace it, value it, and respect it.  To put it in context, I’m “British Born” SE Asian, and on leaving London grew up in a predominantly Caucasian small seaside town.  It was hard and I dealt with it by trying to anglicize myself (everything except going blonde as my mum would never allow that!) – now I’m older, I wish I’d learned more about my heritage when my grandparents were alive to tell me. I have the chance to celebrate it now though as I’m holding a couple of book signings in Malaysia – where my parents are from, and the one in the Malacca Museum of History and Ethnography is particularly special as my mum’s family, descendent from the Peranakan/Baba-Nyonya settlers from China was well-known in the town as helping to fund the Sek Kia Eenh Temple, where my grandfather also taught Buddhism (practical Buddhism I might add!)

RG: Who or what inspired you to set up CLICK and to focus on interpersonal skills training?

AT: CLICK started as a community drama group, because I have always enjoyed the many benefits theatre can bring – confidence and achievement, teamwork, communication,technical and artistic skills.  I moved into training after my PhD at Brunel University when I realised that “forum theatre” was a learning tool.  Forum Theatre is Boal’s approach to exploration of issues – actors perform a scenario and the audience make suggestions as to how the action could proceed.  Through this, actors explore different elements of character and nuance that they may not otherwise have considered.  With my PhD research revealing that people felt “trained” yet unprepared to go out and DO the job, I could see applied theatre as a good method of bridging that gap. By creating a safe space to explore reaction, and using actors to be the various characters/clients/patients/students who may cause you difficulty in interaction, you can explore how you do react, get feedback and explore a number of other options.  The very act of getting up and doing it will also build confidence… something which can’t be“taught”.

RG: Which people or books have had the greatest influence on your growth and why? Who would you recommend millennials follow or read?

AT: Reading is something that gives me a lot of pleasure – so my advice would be if you enjoy it – just do it!  The first book that really made me think about taking a wider perspective to see the world was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I still remember the phrase that jumped out – “Praise genuinely”. I was about 18, and that is something that’s stayed with me ever since.  As soon as I read it I stopped being “nice” for the sake of it, and only praised when I had something genuine to praise.  This meant that I ended up noticing things like “You’ve worked really hard at that” rather than lying with“That’s amazing”, or I looked for less obvious things to identify because they were true and I wanted to recognise them! I guess that first experience of being able to change something I was doing, set me on the “lifelong learning” mindset.

There are a number of good books out there, I particularly like writers like Nick Taleb, Richard Wiseman, and Malcolm Gladwell. For a guilty pleasure I like Imogen Edward Jones who writes the“Babylon” series.  All of them in their own way make you question what you know – but I’m as much a believer in style as well as substance.  I can read the same thing from someone who says it differently and prefer it – so just because you may read one topic and not enjoy it, question if it’s the topic or the author that you don’t gel with.

RG: What two things must someone in your industry know? If you were starting in your industry now, what would you do differently?

AT: My first is to be able to think forwards. In any industry you need to be aware of where it is going and prepare for it.  If you are becoming more automated, then learn to programme the machines.  If you know one skill will be replaced, bring your training in line to put your team in the best possible place to keep growing. 

The second would be to remain humble yet confident in your choices.  You can always learn,but don’t get so wrapped up in what someone else is doing that you can no longer practice what you do well.  When you see something new, don’t immediately think “I have to be like that” – think about what elements work and would work with the way you do things.  I’ve always prided myself in being“different” in my talks – I use props and interaction a lot to supplement the teaching point and at the start of this year was brought into a conference for that reason… and so was a magician.  He was truly fabulous – and I had to follow him, and all the way through I was thinking “I’ll never match that for enjoyment” – but I stuck to my guns.  I delivered my session (which was in fact very different to the magician’s) with confidence and was pleased with how it was received with the reflections from the group being what I had hoped.  On speaking to the magician he said the one thing he always worries about is that people remember him for entertaining them and not for what he said. (He had worked hard to bring the educational side in). 

I think with the place that I am now, everything I have done has helped me learn and become who I am, and I don’t feel I wanted to be here any faster… so I’ll take the “do differently” more as “what have you learned?” if that’s okay.  I always need to be mindful of the difference between something I want to work because of what it is, and the thing I want to work because of what others will say if it fails.  Others’ judgements don’t always matter, on top of which they probably care less than we think!  Accountability is important, and as long as the reasons are reasons (rather than really, really good excuses) then I’ve learned to believe in my decisions as being right for me.

RG: What can we expect Dr Audrey Tang to do next?

AT: I love what I am doing and hope I can continue with my work at universities and conferences.  I would very much like to get another book out and I have an idea of where I’d like to go with it (so watch this space *laughs*), and I will pursue some of the other opportunities I have open to me.  I’d like to get more into the media work – my own show would be nice, but I might have to start small with a podcast! 

‘The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness’ is available now to purchase here. Dr Tang will be running launch workshops in Malaysia next week at the Melaka Museum and the University Bookshop in Kuala Lumpur, and early next year in London, UK.

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