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Liu Yingzhao and Buddhist Alchemy: A Silicon Valley Executive Talks Spirituality and Integration
Like any executive, Liu Yingzhao, design director at LinkedIn, has rules for her team. But they are not your usual rules: “Practice with simplicity; test what I call your ‘response-ability’—how well you respond in the present moment with kindness and productive suggestions; be part of a practice community; don’t seek to maximize gain in everything; be more about basic goodness, ‘right-ness;’ and share your story with others,” she told me when she was in Hong Kong recently to give a public talk about transforming everyday life into spiritual wisdom. “Work-life balance is actually a bit of an outdated idea for professionals. Balance implies limitations, scarcity, and a sense of lack. I prefer the word integration because it invokes a sense of abundance. Integration isn’t like a set of scales trying to balance itself with equal weights, but Chinese ink and water mixing together,” she said.
Liu’s comfortably non-denominational, hybrid concepts based on wordplay and puns are common characteristics of “spiritual” management in influential corporations like LinkedIn. However, I believe Liu’s approach is relatively unique among the many other approaches to office management and stress circulating in the San Francisco Bay Area because she fuses concepts of her own (variously inspired by Chinese spirituality, her love of nature, and Zen ideals) with the paradigms of simplicity and mindfulness that are already widely adopted in Silicon Valley. “I consider myself a very poetic person. I love using archetypes and images to speak more eloquently and I believe we are all seeking meaning and connection.”
Liu was born in China’s Jilin Province in 1973, during the Cultural Revolution. “When I was five or six I had anxiety problems and a stutter. I felt disconnected and shy, unable to interact with others,” she recalls. “But I also realized that I had a profound, almost mystic connection with nature. I memorized the names of trees, shrubs, and other plants. Nature helped me become comfortable in my own skin.” She immigrated to the US when she was 18 and her first years of professional life after graduating from UC Davis were what she calls a “struggle.” But in her mid-to-late-twenties she connected deeply with the San Francisco Zen Center, established in 1962 by the renowned Sōtō Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904–71). She has also felt equally, if not more, at home with the healing experiences taught by Native American wisdom.
These days Liu’s meditative life is centered on Jikoji Zen Center, a Sōtō Zen temple in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She is a resident there, and lauds the relatively informal interaction between members and the natural beauty of the center’s surroundings. The common theme running through her learning process from childhood to the present day seems to be naturalness, or inherent goodness.
Naturalness is, of course, easier said than achieved in a corporate environment driven by profit, shareholder satisfaction, and a product that needs to be sold. “Yes, there is a product to sell,” Liu acknowledges. “But I want to move from products to people. It’s perfectly possible to do things that hold meaning while working in a company.” Her idea is similar to one promulgated by Buddhist entrepreneur David Yeung, who founded the sustainable food startup Green Common and the initiative Green Monday—that one can doing good while doing well. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to realize non-duality over the past three years,” says Liu. “My specific concern is how to balance the demands of work with my ideals.
“At heart I’m a designer, and creativity is at the heart of design. At my company I try to enlarge the idea of creativity, and urge my team to use themselves as the material,” she says. “I coach my team indirectly in the sense that I prefer to ground people in their experience and try to get them to learn from that. I try to get that creativeness going by asking them to look at their past experiences and to ask questions outside of the box. And finally, I hold that being a perfectionist holds you back. Don’t let the perfect jeopardize the good.” By doing this she helps her team feel “resourced.” “People have more power than they think, but they need to feel it,” she clarifies.
Liu is also a big believer in “outdoor teaching,” an experiential education concept, promoted by a company called Where There Be Dragons, in which students learn, explore, and interact with one other in natural environments such as forests rather than the typical corporate learning environment. “Working with Where There Be Dragons has taught me a lot. I consider myself pretty critical of the current education system we have in the US,” she says. “From what I’ve seen, students feel unhappy and restricted by the standardized national curricula. Education needs to be unstuck from its old ways in the same way that we need to become unstuck from our attachments and concepts.”
Liu’s style is a blend of the simple and the deep; insights from traditional schools of thought and personal wisdom she has picked up along her journey. “By the way, I don’t think I’ll be at LinkedIn forever,” she notes. “I always support employees who leave the company. I consider all of us to be making a tour of duty at one firm or another. What I can do is take ownership for my leadership style, and deal in openness, honesty, and transparency. By the way, you’ll be surprised how much less tension and difficulty there is when people are open and simple about their issues.”
Liu believes that this approach can be applied to anything that feels difficult: “Simplicity is an attitude to embracing problems and dealing with them as they are, without projections. Don’t fear failure! And for those people who aren’t happy in their working lives, I would advise them to accept their feelings non-judgmentally, but then to take ownership and consider how they can improve their situation. There’s also always healing to be found naturally and organically in a community of practice.”
Liu returns to images of nature to illustrate her concluding thoughts. “Near Jikoji, I saw a maple tree that had grown around a big rock, wrapping it with its large roots,” she recalls fondly. “I imagine that this large rock must have caused the tree a lot of trouble, yet the maple managed to not only grow around it, but also embrace the rock and make it a part of itself. Every tree in the forest must have had significant challenges in its life—storms, animals, and so much more. We all face big obstacles too. But with patience and natural simplicity, we can be like that tree—accepting, embracing, and transforming our suffering, no matter how major, as integral parts of our being.”