Mindfulness without the Bells and Beads by Clif Smith



Unlocking Exceptional Performance, Leadership, and Well-Being for WORKING PROFESSIONALS








Wiley Logo

To my mother, Vicki, for being like the sun. You have always given me warmth, light, and love without expecting anything in return.

To my son, Alexander, for reminding me I had eyes like a child once, too, and for helping me find them again.

To my wife, Jennifer, for your love and unwavering support on our journey together.



We first met just before Clif was to speak with 4,000 of EY's newly promoted managers at the firm's annual Milestones event. Having heard great things about Clif's impact on so many people, it was a highly anticipated meeting for me.

Clif's towering height quickly gives way to his authentic words and genuine care for fellow humans. This first meeting centered on Clif's decision on whether to shift his career and life, yet again, and follow his heart and passion to bring mindfulness to even more people. Clif wanted to make a dent in the world by helping people live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. A heavy conversation before a big keynote. For most, it might throw them off. For Clif, it was an opportunity to personally practice mindfulness. Shortly after finishing our chat, Clif hit the stage and masterfully captured the crowd.

Despite being unknown to the audience and delivering his keynote wedged between an acclaimed Harvard professor and a New York Times bestselling author, Clif's talk was rated the highest. It is a testament to the power of his story, combined with an ability to be vulnerable and connect with an audience, that he can successfully introduce mindfulness to skeptics. We continue to work closely since that day.

Too often, mindfulness gets mistakenly characterized as a wellness concept that belongs outside the scope of a learning organization, which is otherwise focused on developing highly skilled leaders and technically competent professionals. Clif's approach of framing mindfulness as a way to impact performance, leadership, and well-being is unique, and his results are compelling.

In just a few years, Clif has reached over 60,000 people with his keynotes, workshops, and courses … with consistently exceptional feedback. The measured business and personal impact of the programs are similarly impressive, as covered later in this book.

When we evaluated moving mindfulness into our formal curriculum and developing a plan to scale it to even more people, it was a no brainer. It's been a great decision and a wonderful partnership.

Clif's impact continues to spread throughout our firm and also with clients. They have called on Clif and his team to introduce mindfulness to their leaders and people at all levels and help them establish effective mindfulness programs.

It's exciting that Clif has put his powerful story in writing and combined it with a practical, authentic, and no-nonsense guide to developing a consistent mindfulness practice.

Wishing you the same level of impact that our people at EY have received from Clif's approach to mindfulness and life.

Tal Goldhamer, Partner and Americas Chief Learning Officer,
Ernst & Young LLP



Most people will never become nor even try to become a US Army Chinese linguist, a CIA-trained case officer, a diplomat, or a Harvard graduate. These types of achievements, it's commonly believed, are reserved for exceptionally gifted individuals, the privileged old-monied elite, or private school–trained children of well-connected corporate or political power couples. It begs the question, then, how someone born into a poor family, living in a trailer with no college-educated family members, could ever become any one of those things, let alone all four and more? Many people think being born into a situation like that is tantamount to a life sentence of destitution and poverty. They would be wrong; there are repeatable paths from poverty to prosperity, but you only see them if you pay close attention and you only take those paths if you can get out of your own way.

I was kind of a late bloomer. You know the type: tall skinny kid in high school who lacks the kind of coordination needed to play any sport that requires complex physical activity or strength. I could, however, generally run in a straight line given enough motivation. The first time I thought about participating in sports, in a meaningful way, was when I decided to try out for the track team in 11th grade because my girlfriend was on the team. (Yay, motivation!) All I knew about track and field was what I vaguely remembered seeing on TV during the 1988 summer Olympics and, for some reason, the decathlon sticks out as my only memory as I write these words in 2020.

As you can imagine, I knew next to nothing about running track. When I finally joined the team, I was surprised that the runners' starting positions were staggered. In the starting position immediately before a race begins, the runner on the inside lane (lane 1) is at the primary starting line, and the runner in the outermost lane (lane 8) is positioned far ahead, 53.02 meters ahead to be exact.1 The runners in lanes 2 through 7 were incrementally further “ahead” of the runner in lane 1, with the runner in lane 8 being the furthest “ahead.” This baffled me (I never took geometry in high school) and upset me because the coach assigned me to lane 1 for my first training race before I understood why starting lanes were designed this way. As I approached the starting line, I complained under my breath that everyone else was starting ahead of me. Once the gun went off it was my thoughts doing the racing. I thought, over and over again, about how unfair it all was to be put at such a disadvantage and there was no way I could ever catch up to the guy in lane 8 given such a fortunate advantage. Needless to say, I bombed the race and finished dead last. This same scene played out during my first couple practices.

What you probably knew in middle school, and what I eventually figured out in 11th grade, is that the distance around the track from the staggered starting spots to the finish line are actually the same for each lane. The “disadvantage” for the runner in lane 1 and the “advantage” for the runner in lane 8 were only in my mind. They were illusions. They were a result of my misperception of reality. After a few races I began to realize the runner in lane 8 was always way out in front at the start of the race but as it began and progressed, the entire field of runners generally came to be running nearly together as they closed in on the finish line. Once I gained a more accurate perception of reality, those unhelpful thoughts began to gradually subside and I began to place higher in the races.

I had been experiencing the exact opposite of the placebo effect. The placebo effect is that fascinating wonder of the human mind wherein individuals are given fake medicine, aka “a placebo,” but nonetheless realize measurable improvements in a health condition due to their own expectation that the “medicine” is helping them. The placebo effect is so powerful that the US Food and Drug Administration uses it as a key factor in their evaluation criteria when considering a drug for approval, and doctors will even sometimes give patients a placebo instead of a drug with an active ingredient.2 That's how powerful our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations can be.

So, in just the same way but with the opposite impact, my internal thoughts, beliefs, and expectations about other runners' advantages and about my disadvantages negatively influenced my performance in each race. Furthermore, the unhelpful thoughts and the negative effects didn't immediately stop after learning about the equal distances regardless of track lane placement. There was a lingering effect despite knowing the “truth” of the matter. This had a powerful impact on the level of importance I placed on understanding what I was doing with my own mind and how it affected me. The key lessons I learned were that what you do with your mind matters, and even when you have an epiphany or insight about the “truth” of some situation or circumstance, it still takes diligent effort and a focused mind to continue to prevent yourself from falling into the same trap over and over again.

I felt like I had discovered a superpower but didn't really know how to use it. Fortunately, I had already received some initial mindfulness training to become more aware of the tendencies of the mind, but it took me a little while to begin practicing those skills in earnest and see my small investments in time and effort grow into a totally different conversation with life.

The “staggered start” analogy is really a metaphor for life in a number of ways. In this life, we tend to notice others who have it better than we do (folks with advantages) much more often than we notice people who have it worse (folks with disadvantages). We compare ourselves “up” versus comparing ourselves “down.” Therefore, many of us are in a constant state of feeling we would be just as successful as those people with the advantages if only we had the same advantages. Unfortunately, this isn't the only way our brains distort reality.

When comparing ourselves to others with many advantages—and there are real advantages out there—we also tend to unconsciously overlook any disadvantages inherent in others' circumstances. For example, we might be able to imagine many advantages enjoyed by the children of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a successful business-owning spouse. Children of parents like that probably go to the best private schools, attend amazing summer camps where they continue learning and growing, and have allowances that would make the average wage earner salivate. They probably take enriching overseas trips and ski at the best resorts when they go on vacation. Of course, they also have their college tuition and expenses covered and maybe even get accepted into an Ivy League school because their father or mother attended and made a big donation. These are real advantages. Are there any drawbacks?

Children of the wealthy do not have to experience money problems. It's unlikely they've had their electricity or water turned off due to nonpayment. They've probably not had to decide which of their things they should pack as they prepare to move to a new apartment due to rent increases or job layoffs and they can't take everything because the new, cheaper place is much smaller. They may have never experienced the need to wear their older sibling's clothes so the family could save money. Resilience and grit are born out of facing and overcoming such obstacles and challenges, not by never facing them. These qualities are a big advantage for those who possess them and a big disadvantage for those who don't.

CEOs and business owners often work insane hours to rake in their high six- and seven-figure salaries and may only see their children a couple hours a day on the weekends. Is that an advantage for the children? Children's easy access to money with less supervision often confers easier access to unhealthy things such as drugs and alcohol. Can you think of any wealthy families' children who've gotten themselves into trouble or worse because of addiction? According to a study from 2017, kids in wealthier communities are using drugs and alcohol and drinking to intoxication at rates two to three times the national averages for their age groups.3 Is that an advantage?

Comparing yourself to people who have more success and wealth than you do and attributing it solely to them being given a better lot in life is like me thinking the runner in lane 8 has an advantage. They do if you look at their circumstances with a very narrow and one-sided perspective. I easily saw and fixated on how far out in front the runner in lane 8 was but failed to see that by being in lane 1, my distance around the first turn was much shorter. I saw all his advantages and none of mine while seeing none of his disadvantages and all of mine. Seeing in this way is a trick of the mind in order to protect a fragile ego. It's an illusion. It's very difficult to accept that it's our decisions that matter most in our successes and failures in life, much more so than the circumstances into which we were born. What you focus on and the stories you tell yourself have an outsized impact on the quality of your life. This is where mindfulness comes in handy.

▪  ▪  ▪

For far too long, mindfulness in the West has been nearly exclusively associated with spirituality and/or wellness. People seeking enlightenment or relief from stress, anxiety, and pain have been the primary audience. Therefore, most mindfulness teachers have continued to discuss mindfulness within that frame. That frame has been so narrow for so long it might seem that mindfulness is only for the spiritually inclined, or for people with challenging medical issues, such as panic attacks, paralyzing anxiety, and deep depression, or people who just want some stress relief. That couldn't be further from the truth.

I believe mindfulness today is where executive coaching was 20 to 30 years ago. Back then, no self-respecting managers or executive leaders would admit they had an executive coach. The fear that kept them quiet was that it might make it look like they needed a coach. Back then coaching was (thought to be) only for ne'er-do-wells who couldn't hack it on their own and needed a helping hand. The framing that executive coaching could help you go from good to great had not been constructed yet, even though, most nights on television, we could see hundreds of elite professional athletes such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, Jerome Bettis, Monica Seles, Gabriela Sabatini, and so many others at the top of their games still getting coached. Eventually, the corporate world caught on and now almost all executive leaders have had some form of coaching to help them up their game.

Mindfulness is on the cusp of finally making that leap out of the frame that you only do it if you feel you are “broken” and can't handle the rough-and-tumble modern world or when the wheels are coming off your life and you're having an existential crisis. Having an “underlying condition” is not required to benefit from mindfulness. It can help you go from good to great when it comes to your performance, leadership, and well-being. Keeping mindfulness framed only in spirituality and wellness/stress relief limits its reach and impact.

Fortunately, there are some who have started to see this potential. Many in the sports world have dropped the term “mindfulness” and just call it “mental conditioning,” which has enabled it to spread widely across professional athletes. Some companies have seen mindfulness's potential for leadership and performance enhancement and have begun to implement programs. The Mindful Leadership program, which we started in 2015 at Ernst & Young (EY), one of the Big Four firms, has affected more than 60,000 of our people through their attendance at my Mindful Leadership in the Modern World keynote, our 8-week Mindful Leadership at EY course, or one of our other mindfulness training and practice sessions. In just five short years, we went from teaching to six people around a dusty conference room table to presenting mindfulness to our most senior executive leaders around the boardroom table.

Unfortunately, not all of the corporate programs are as successful as EYs. We began to frame mindfulness as an avenue to exceptional leadership early on and were extremely diligent about keeping the teaching secular. However, that doesn't seem to be happening across the board and it's a detriment to the impact mindfulness can have. Of those few teachers and organizations who have attempted to step out of the binary frame of the spiritual- or wellness-focused approach, many tend to continue to bring in spiritual accessories regardless of their audience.

Attending my first mindfulness teacher training course was quite a shock. In the morning on the first day, the teachers came into the room holding small bells, wearing Buddhist beads, and carrying special cushions on which they meditated. This struck me as odd, because I had signed up for the “secular” mindfulness teacher training. It did not take long to gather that this “secular” training was going to be deeply intertwined with overtly spiritual and new-age thoughts, positions, and perspectives. There were–I kid you not–even Tarot card readings at an evening event and scores of participant comments during the training were met with the response, “That's so beautiful.” If you want to turn off a corporate audience and never be invited back beyond what your original contract stipulated, just do what's in this paragraph.

I have no problem with those things in and of themselves; people can do what they want. I have read dozens of books and ancient writings on spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and so on, as well as traveled to Dharamshala, India, and meditated mere feet away from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, but in the context of a training program being billed as secular, it was extremely off-putting. I quickly realized if these teachers were to show up at my company to try to teach mindfulness, they would be bringing with them nearly every stereotype people often associate with mindfulness and mindfulness teachers. In the corporate world, where there is no place for religious, spiritual, or new-age proselytizing, this could be devastating, because it only takes one “secular” mindfulness teacher describing their “invisible connection to the divine energy of the universe” to get a corporate mindfulness program canceled.

The fact that so many mindfulness teachers and advocates seem incapable of separating bells, beads, and spiritual beliefs (and, increasingly, political beliefs) from how they teach and describe mindfulness is a huge problem, because it alienates millions of people who could actually benefit from the practice. Additionally, many people who put shingles out as mindfulness “teachers” have rose-colored views of what mindfulness can do. They erroneously think, and are purveyors of the myth, that mindfulness is a path to only having joyous thoughts, being blissed out, seeing rainbows and butterflies everywhere, and being happy all the time.

I don't know why you picked up this book, but given the title it might be that you've had the thought, “What the hell is all the hype about mindfulness?” You may be one of the millions of people who have been curious about mindfulness but don't want to be associated with the spiritual crowd that so often drowns out its core meaning. Perhaps you recoil at the thought of listening to someone breathlessly guide meditations in a sickly sweet voice. Maybe you thought you'd need to join a yoga studio and get a subscription for monthly deliveries of incense. If any of those have been keeping you from trying out mindfulness, this book is for you. In these pages, I peel back the layers of hype and hyperbole about mindfulness and provide a practical and demystified approach to reaping the real benefits from a consistent mindfulness practice over just an 8-week period.

When I was approached by Wiley Publishing about writing a book, I knew my purpose would be the same as my purpose for delivering my keynotes, coaching high-performers, and teaching my 8-week mindfulness course: to creatively inspire others so that they may transcend self-limiting beliefs, achieve their dreams, and navigate life with a bit more ease.

As you progress through the book and do the exercises, you can gain a greater ability to respond thoughtfully and calmly in the midst of high-pressure and complex situations, become more agile in the face of change, and pay more attention to the things you deem most important. You will learn practices that are known to lead to enhanced mental focus, empathy, and resilience. Through consistent practice, you can become aware of some of your self-created challenges and learn ways to avoid automatically falling into the same patterns so you can get out of your own way. You will learn ways to be less affected by unhelpful internal dialogue, limiting beliefs, and irrational feelings of fear (failure, embarrassment, and criticism), allowing you to see and seize opportunities to grow beyond what you previously thought possible and unlock your latent potential. Finally, you'll also begin to be able to connect with people around you more fully and effectively. These benefits cascade and compound, resulting in improvements in performance, leadership, and well-being.

The book is divided into two primary parts. Part I, beginning with my story and how mindfulness has affected my life, is designed to demystify and define mindfulness (the what), discuss the science and benefits of mindfulness practice in the modern world (the why), and provide you with some initial exercises to begin increasing your base level of mindfulness (the very basic how). These are the fundamentals. I won't be going into a deep scholarly review of ancient texts and parsing the different definitions asserted by Pali and Sanskrit language experts. My goal here is to provide practical, useful, and non–new age information to give you the tools needed to start an effective mindfulness practice, begin to reap the benefits, and be an informed consumer of mindfulness training.

Part II is a deeper dive into mindfulness (and some non-mindfulness) exercises to begin to create a consistent practice so you can move from merely an intellectual understanding of mindfulness to an embodied knowledge that positively affects your experience. Part II is meant to be followed as an 8-week course in which you read the content of week 1 and do the exercises outlined at the end of the chapter for a minimum of 1 week, before moving on to week 2 and beyond.

Here is a quick overview of the 8-week course:

  • Week 1: No Trivial Moments: Moving from Autopilot to Aware
  • Week 2: The Mindset You Bring to Your Experience Matters
  • Week 3: Do You Have the Story or Does the Story Have You?
  • Week 4: The Saber-Toothed Tiger of the Modern World: Everything
  • Week 5: Delving into the Difficult
  • Week 6: In the Same Boat
  • Week 7: Who Watches (Out for) You?
  • Week 8: Maintaining Momentum

Getting the most out of this book requires a commitment to doing the practices consistently. It's fine if you want to read the entire book first to get a sense of things and then actually do the course later, but do not lie to yourself as you close the last page and think, “I got this; now I know how to be mindful.” If you do that, you'll be about as mindful as one of those rocks in a Zen garden. You'd only have an intellectual understanding of mindfulness, which is pretty much useless. Whether you are new to mindfulness or have a long-term practice, I encourage you to start at the beginning of the book and work your way through in chapter order, doing the exercises consistently along the way. Practice is the only way to reap the benefits of mindfulness. Let's get to it.


  1. 1.   https://www.dimensions.guide/element/track-and-field-400m-running-track
  2. 2.   Hróbjartsson, A., & Norup, M. (2003). The use of placebo interventions in medical practice—A national questionnaire survey of Danish clinicians. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 26(2), 153–165. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163278703026002002
  3. 3.   Luthar, S., Small, P., & Ciciolla, L. (2018). Adolescents from upper middle class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early adulthood. Development and Psychopathology, 30(1), 315–335. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579417000645

Part I
My Journey with Mindfulness and an Introduction to the Fundamentals