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Mindful : June 2015
One thrillingly sunny day, I traveled down Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean shimmering on my right, to the headquarters of outdoor apparel maker Patagonia, just north of Los Angeles. While corporations like General Mills are teaching meditation in the office, and some, like Facebook, are weaving compassion into their products, I wanted to visit some of the executives committed to using their organizations as vehicles to put mindfulness, broadly defined, into action. Over the years, Patagonia has done a very good job of minimizing its environmental impact. It pio- neered the technique of using recycled soda bottles to make fleece jackets, and ma ny of its products use more recycled material tha n those of its competi- tors. What’s more, it oversees a robust after-market for used Patagonia products. A few years ago, Chouinard made the decision that to best prepare for the future, Patagonia needed a younger, more business-sav v y steward. So he tapped as CEO his long time protégée Casey Sheahan, who had done stints at Nike and Merrell Footwear. Sheahan has since retired, but he remembers the initial shock of transitioning from Nike, a notoriously hard-edged corporation, to Patagonia, whose pri- orities transcend the bottom line. At one of his first board meetings, Sheahan was outlining his growth plan for the coming quarter and explaining how he would hit his numbers, when Chouinard stopped him. “He said, ‘Don’t focus on the actual outcome or the number,’” Sheahan said. “’ What are you going to do to improve the company to get there? Are you going to be focused on the best quality product? Are you going to make sure we’re always leading?’” So instead of chasing qua rterly goals, Sheaha n doubled down on the environment-first approach developed by Chouinard. It wasn’t easy to let go of the focus on finances that made him a star at Nike, but for Sheahan, a meditator, the focus on intention came natura lly. But his resolve would be tested. In the depths of the 2008 fina ncial crisis, sales plum- meted, and by his math, he would need to lay off 150 employees. Patagonia hadn’t let a nyone go since 1991, and this would be a n inauspicious way to start his tenure. He came home one night, torn up over the decision before him. His wife Tara asked him a simple question: Are you making this decision from a place of fear, or from a place of love? “ Fea r, of course,” he said. “ What would happen if you made a decision from a place of love?” she asked. “ Patagonia is my fa mily,” he said. “ We’d find a Founded in the 1960s by a French mountain climber named Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia origi- nally made pitons—the spikes climbers drive into the rock face to secure their lines—and other climbing gear for the pioneers navigating the steep rock faces of Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan. Chouinard, however, was more than just another hippie living out of his van. The elfin Frenchman had a deep spir- itual connection to the land, and developed a quiet meditation practice that has informed his business choices for the last 50 years. His breakthrough came when, while climbing, he saw that the pitons were fracturing the rock and making it unstable. Choui- nard developed a new class of pitons that didn’t harm the rock, and Patagonia was born. For Chouinard, mindfulness has found its truest expression in physical activity. Besides climbing, he spends his time fly-fishing, whitewater kayaking, and hiking trails around the globe. “ I’ve learned a lot of lessons from doing these sports,” Chouinard told me. Though he is now chairman, having handed over CEO duties to a succession of execs, Chouinard is still a regula r presence on campus, overseeing new product development and steering the com- pany ’s direction. As we sat in an office overlooking an organic garden and the solar panels on adjacent buildings, Chouinard told me how he employed a sort of mindful intuition to excel in the water. An accomplished kayaker, he had lea rned early on how to roll his boat without a paddle. So one day, he decided to navigate an entire stretch of rapids on Wyoming ’s Upper Gros Ventre and made it down unscathed, without a paddle. “ Replace stuff with knowledge, experience,” he says. “The more you know the less you need.” David Gelles is a staff writer for The New York Times and its business blog, DealBook. A meditation practitioner for over a decade, he is the author of Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out, from which this feature is adapted. Previous page: Patagonia founder and former CEO Yvon Chouinard enjoys a favorite pastime, fly-fishing, with actor Ken Watanabe. 60 mindful June 2015 business