Three lessons about talent from Tibetan Buddhist monks

Whether in business, extreme sports, online gaming, or other fields, there are patterns to how individuals organize for mutual learning and achieve higher levels of performance.

As we’ve studied how organizations maximize (and sometimes inhibit) talent development, we’ve found certain principles for learning are common across disciplines. Whether in business, extreme sports, online gaming, or other fields, there are patterns to how individuals organize for mutual learning and achieve higher levels of performance. We discovered an unexpected example of these persistent patterns at the antipode of the western business world: the Drepung Monastery regarded as the Highest Seat of Learning among the top monasteries in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, currently located in South India since being displaced from Lhasa, Tibet.

Eric Traub—angel investor, entrepreneur, long-time student of Buddhism, human change and accomplishment—has been living and studying at the monastery for months at a time over three years. Alongside top scholars there, he is conducting research into how ancient teachings on cognitive advancement apply to current thinking on continuous learning and extreme performance improvement. We were struck by the applicability and resonance of the principles he is exploring with our own work on talent, learning, and passion. The account below draws from his experience and research.

Tibetan Buddhist monks are unique among the world’s spiritual traditions, their lives, studies, and practices more akin to elite professionals than to holy men or clerics. Their renunciation of lay life isn’t so much a spiritual immersion as it is a commitment to a lifetime of “expert development” as a practitioner of Buddhism and cognitive transformation.

For hundreds of years, this monastery has served as a locus of training for the most advanced and dedicated practitioners. However, Drepung’s decades-long curriculum might surprise outsiders. Training does include quiet meditation and contemplation, along with extensive self-directed learning and memorization, but the centerpiece of training is a stylized form of rigorous debate that resembles a verbal sparring match. It is a deliberate, dialectical practice of exchanging logical contradictory arguments. Examinations are frequent and intense, and the failure of an exam during the final two years of the process results in termination of the monk’s training.

Although the goals of your organization may differ from those of the Drepung Monastery, their methods offer great insight into talent development:

1.     Cultivate dispositions rather than train for skills

Though the curriculum includes enormous volumes of rote memorization, the focus is not to acquire specific knowledge, but for practitioners to develop what we have called “questing and connecting” dispositions. The monk’s goal is to cultivate a disciplined but also “pliant” mind, capable of rapid learning and measurable accomplishment. Monks are encouraged to constantly seek and explore knowledge; for example, many monks are surprisingly well-read in neuroscience. In addition to learning from high masters, the monastery emphasizes peer-to-peer learning as a shared social practice to foster a culture in which certain dispositions more naturally arise.

Though dispositions are difficult to cultivate, they can be much more valuable than specific skills or knowledge, particularly in times of rapid change. The faster change happens, the shorter the shelf-life of any knowledge or skill becomes. And while knowledge is often domain specific, dispositions apply across domains.

2.     Build “creation spaces” to enhance learning

The most valuable learning in an organization comes from the interactions among its members. The organization must balance structural elements (policies, rules, floor plans, class sizes, communication tools, etc.) with enabling the “wisdom of the crowd” by letting participants self-organize. Combining these two elements in a creation space can help maximize talent development.

Drepung houses around 2,500 monks, divided into cohorts of 50–250 students, who live together and have both differing and shared training regimes. Within each cohort, students self-organize into learning groups of 8–10 people. It is within these peer-to-peer interactions that much of the deep learning takes place as monks discuss, challenge, teach, and learn from each other. (We couldn’t help but notice the similarity to Dunbar’s numbers and Jeff Bezos’ 2 pizza rule.) Advanced students select their own teachers, so that only the most capable (as judged by the students) remain. The student-teacher relationship is actually more of an apprentice-master relationship where knowledge is given in order to be applied; the learning has a hands-on, applicable, embodied quality. As small groups within a cohort interact, and as that cohort interacts with older and younger cohorts, knowledge is transmitted and extended through the monastery.

3.     Create environments of “play”

Pervasive throughout the monastery lifestyle is the element of play, particularly during debates. We mean play in the broad sense, encompassing the joy and freedom of experimentation and improvisation. As monks debate in pairs and small groups, they are fully engaged in trying new arguments and approaches. This environment allows people to take risks; everyone can learn from other’s successes and failures. The sense of play cultivates an atmosphere in which failure is highly valued as a fast track to new discoveries. Debates also generate productive friction and competition and strengthen, rather than harm, relationships.

Play is a powerful tool for learning and talent development. Not only is it the natural way we learn, it is arguably also the most efficient. Participants interact directly with the problem at hand, making small adjustments, and receiving constant feedback to make further improvements—not unlike the process for rapid prototyping. Consequently, they quickly build a repertoire of understandings and frameworks that allow them to master the original problem, as well as a variety of related problems. This disposition to tinker and play with a problem to find a solution is a key component for innovation and extremely valuable in a world of constant change.

For leaders and managers, the example of the Drepung monks raises three questions:

  • What are the most important dispositions to hire for and to cultivate in today’s economy?
  • What organizational policies, silos, or practices inhibit practitioners from connecting with those they can learn from?
  • How can I foster an environment that enhances engagement and allows for risk taking and learning from failures?

What do you think?