Chade-Meng Tan, it occurs to me after spending an hour talking to the man, is a fool.
Not a fool in the dunderhead sense, as he has an IQ of 156 – which makes him more like a genius. But Google employee #107, who joined the search engine company as an engineer in its start-up days, has become a corporate version of the Shakespearean fool, a jester and a truth-teller.
When I call him, he is sitting in his office with a fine view over San Francisco Bay. “It’s another perfect day in paradise,” he says and gives a little laugh. “Heh, heh, heh.”
Meng’s job title is “Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)” and his duties include greeting every dignitary who comes to the Googleplex and having his picture taken with them. This being Google, the dignitaries come thick and fast and are of the finest quality. Once you get through the security barriers, there is a wall covered with hundreds of photos. Of Meng with Barack Obama. Meng with Bill Clinton. Meng with Natalie Portman. Meng with Eddie Izzard.
In each picture (also on Meng’s website), a slight man of Chinese origin is grinning fit to bust and – this is the odd thing – so too is the celebrity.
Another of his duties is to help Google’s employees find inner peace. To this end, he has developed a new search engine that, instead of scanning the web, scans the human mind. Called Search Inside Yourself, SIY is a training course much loved by Google workers, and now turned into a book with glowing endorsements from almost everyone you have ever heard of, from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt to former US president Jimmy Carter to the Dalai Lama.
The book is part Buddhism and part nerdy scientific analysis with a central idea drawn from Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: compassion is good for business as compassionate people make better leaders. Meng’s contribution is to extend the idea even further to argue that SIY, if adopted everywhere, would create the conditions for world peace.
There is a snag with all this. Such ideas can’t help but stick in the gullet coming from Google, a huge and increasingly unpopular corporation that far from creating world peace is at war with regulators for alleged monopolistic behaviour. When I put this to him, for the only time during our chat, he stops laughing. “Ah. We are a very big company. We are very diverse. On one side of the company are good people. On another side, they make mistakes.”
Instead of enumerating these, he swiftly returns to the party line. “Knowing Larry Page personally, he actually does literally spend his time thinking about how to benefit the world.”
Whether or not this is true of Mr Page, Google co-founder, it does seem to be true of Meng. When I ask which he cares more about, world peace or Google, he does not hesitate. “World peace. Definitely. Heh, heh.”
I point out that it’s quite a long step from this corporate course to world peace.
“Hmm,” he pauses. “Hmm. Let me see. I’m trying to understand why it’s a long step.”
On further pushing he agrees that poverty needs to be solved too, but that SIY will help that.
For Google, I can see it makes sense to have this sincere Buddhist on the payroll preaching mindfulness and posing with Mr Obama. Like the best fools in Shakespeare tragedies, he is a welcome distraction from the central corporate drama. But what if other employees started spending all their time pursuing peace at the expense of their work, might not that cause problems?
Not at all, he says. Most Google people are committed to their day jobs, and doing the other good stuff – staff engage in all sorts of things including building a hospital in India – makes them more so.
“They say: ‘Oh my God, my company wants me to do that.’ So it’s a motivation and morale benefit. They don’t want to leave.”
I’m also worried that inner peace may be bad for business if it makes people less inclined to slog their guts out. Mr Page famously urged staff to “have a healthy disregard of the impossible”, which does not sound compatible with SIY. “Heh heh. Not really,” Meng replies. “We don’t want people to work as hard as possible. We want them to do outstanding work.”
Has Mr Page done the course? “Not yet.” Further laughter. “He’s too busy, but he already does yoga.”
Sergey Brin, the other Google founder? No, he’s too busy too. Mr Schmidt? Ditto.
It seems only Meng himself is slacking off. “I’m semi-retired, so I only work 40 hours a week,” he says and laughs some more.
For this part-time job he would rather not be paid at all, indeed he doesn’t need any money, having made a killing when Google floated.
“I made three requests to have my salary cut to one dollar a year. But it is against regulations. Blah blah blah. So I give all my salary away,” he says.
Later that day he is taking tea with a Tibetan monk. Then various Google employees have requested a meeting with him, either to discuss their personal problems, or because they too fancy changing the world.
He is also meeting another president, with whom he will pose for a picture.
There is a contradiction in these photos, too. The man who loves compassion above all seems to have a slightly unhealthy interest in celebrity. “To me it’s very funny” he says, laughing.
He explains that it started by accident in the early days when Al Gore visited. Meng had a picture taken with him for his mother. And then, when Mr Carter visited, Meng happened to be around. “And I took a picture. I put it on my wall – so then there were two, and it snowballed.”
With each visiting president, Meng gives them his book, hoping that they will become interested in world peace too. The president of Bulgaria, who visited the other day, promised to read it. And has he?
“Not yet.” A gale of laughter. “He’s too busy.”
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