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Perspectives on mental resilience from a former monk: Kamal Sarma

In our Alumni Voices video series, Kamal discusses mental resilience, mindfulness, and how we can build resilience at work.

For those who prefer to read, below is a transcript of the video.

Hello, my name is Kamal Sarma and I am the CEO of Rezilium, but also I am an alumnus of McKinsey many years ago now. So at the age of 13, I was sent to be a monk. Now I just want to be clear, I didn't choose that lifestyle. I loved being an Aussie kid, playing rugby, eating meat pies, and then suddenly I was sent to a monastery. First of all, no rugby, no bed, and having a cold shower in the morning at 4 sorry, not a shower, a cold bath at 4:00 in the morning was intense. But what it did teach me was that we can be very happy with very little. And I think that's one of the biggest lessons I've taken out of my time as a monk. And as I've gone onto my corporate career and built my family life. Sometimes we forget, sometimes we feel like we need more. But there's a real lesson in learning how to be happy and joyful with enough.

When I was a monk, we used to do all these practices. And when you were a 13-year-old kid, you just do them. But what I found is that as I've grown older and also as, you know, we've had new scientific discoveries around dopamine, around how the brain works. I now have put those practices into context. For example, sitting and meditating, trying to think about nothing and clearing your mind is a really powerful technique. It helps you regulate dopamine. It helps you regulate your brainwaves so you can think better. You can problem-solve a lot better. So I think these practices that I learned as a 13 year old kid have stood the test of time. Unfortunately, sometimes we know things, but we don't do them. And I think the key word is a practice. It's got to be a practice. You've got to do it all the time. Just knowing about it is not good enough.

Mental resilience preconceptions

One of the biggest preconceptions of mental resilience is that you have to, you know, eat green juices and be vegetarian and you've got to be in a monastery to practice this. You don't. I think the most powerful thing is incorporating these practices in a busy life as a consultant, as a mother, as a father, as a boyfriend , girlfriend, as a partner, as a grandparent. These practices help us stay present to the people around us, to the issues that we have. And these mental resilience practices help us build that mental bench strength to deal with the issues that we're facing.

These preconceptions around mental resilience practices stop us from doing little things like, you don't need to meditate for an hour or even 20 minutes. Even 2 minutes can be really beneficial to make sure that you start your day right, that you end your day right, that you transition between home and work, especially during COVID. Especially with hybrid work. But we notice that those natural transitions are no longer there. So making sure we have those natural transitions and we build those into our daily routine is really valuable.

Resilience through trauma and hardship

Where my mental resilience was really tested and this event changed my life was when my first daughter passed away. So when she died, my life changed. It changed dramatically. And what I realized is that even though I had been a monk, I had lost my ability to focus my mind. The grief was overwhelming, and I couldn't sit still for 30 seconds when I used to be able to meditate for three, 4 hours. So for me to relearn that was the thing that really saved me and really helped me regain my mental composure and my mental resilience.

Techniques and touchstones

The most important technique, I think, that you learn about mental resilience is understanding the mind. And there are two main areas.

Number one is active or passive. Active is more around mindfulness. So when you're walking, walk; when you eating, eat; when you're washing the dishes, just wash the dishes. So many times when we're doing something, we're actually in our heads thinking about something else, and that exhausts us and depletes us, especially if you're kind of a McKinsey alumni and you like to think about deep things. What we do is we process a lot, but that can be exhausting.

The more passive type techniques are meditation, deep meditation. What I found, though, is that it's hard to meditate or have contemplative practices when you're busy on your phone. So I find retreats really useful. Sometimes I do, like, a five-day retreat or a ten-day retreat to create that stillness in my life. But sometimes you can find, like, 20 minutes just away from everything, shutting everything down, just be present and really just enjoying your breath or just enjoying the concept of being alive. That can be incredibly beneficial, both mentally and physically.

Resilience at work

So my experience at McKinsey was intense, like all of our experiences in McKinsey, was intense, and I kind of realized that I was capable of working harder, longer than I ever thought possible. But it does teach you about resilience. It teaches you about how to, you know, go with a hypothesis and not to boil the ocean and, you know, not to deplete yourself too much.

What I've noticed is the structured thinking from McKinsey plus the contemplative practices really helped me reduce the noise. And I think that's what resilience is about, is that there's so much noise. We live in such a noisy world, we have such noisy careers and noisy families. To reduce that noise. And once you've got that noise reduced, then you can think those deeper thoughts.

I think one of the biggest things that I've seen with the people that I used to work with at McKinsey or people that I used to work with in private equity or venture capital, is that we live such intense lives and we've been rewarded for intensity, for that hard work. And it's played out in our careers, it’s played in our families. I would suggest that sometimes we pay too high a price. And I think what we have to do is we've got to juxtapose that intensity with deep rest. If we can balance intensity with deep rest, we get into a much better state of flow.

Unfortunately, sometimes when we get addicted to our thinking, we get addicted to problem solving. We don't get the deep rest that we need. So I think that, you know, one of the most productive tools you can do is to learn how to do nothing. I think with McKinsey people doing nothing can be one of the most challenging things in their lives. I know as I see my son, my son is getting to the age that I was when I joined McKinsey. I kind of think back and go, What are some of the tools and techniques that I can help him as he goes through his corporate career? So I think McKinsey has really helped me with the structured thinking, plus the contemplative practices have really helped me have that much more clearer, more deeper thinking on some of the more important issues in my life.

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