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sHeroes: How Dr. Tracy Chang, a Professor at Rutgers University is helping her students live their best lives

Visualization is a very powerful tool. Steve Jobs used it. Have a clear vision of what a “healthy and uplifting” workplace looks like. See yourself clearly in your mind and visualize vividly how you will be in a “healthy and uplifting” workplace. If you are a small start-up, see each person with your mind’s eye […]

Tracy Chang, Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, Piscataway, NJ.  10/19/2016  Photo by Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com
Tracy Chang, Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, Piscataway, NJ. 10/19/2016 Photo by Steve Hockstein/HarvardStudio.com

Visualization is a very powerful tool. Steve Jobs used it. Have a clear vision of what a “healthy and uplifting” workplace looks like. See yourself clearly in your mind and visualize vividly how you will be in a “healthy and uplifting” workplace. If you are a small start-up, see each person with your mind’s eye and imagine how that person will perform in a “healthy and uplifting” workplace.


For my interview series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tracy F. H. Chang who is an Associate Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Iowa and M.B.A. from New York University. She is also a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher trained at the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Chang teaches Organizational Behavior, Senior Seminar on Reinventing the Self and Work, and Social Entrepreneurship undergraduate courses. Her research interests include mindfulness in higher education, work, and organizations. She is available for consulting services and teaching executive education courses in mindfulness-based stress management, communication, team dynamics, leadership, and entrepreneurship.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?

I was born and grew up in a rural village in Taiwan. According to the Chinese Zodiac, I was born in the year of the “fire horse.” That was very true of me — intense, rebellious, freedom-seeking. My parents sent me to college in Taiwan “to find a good husband,” but that’s not the life I had in mind for myself. So, with two suitcases in tow, I left for the U.S. to pursue my doctoral degree without my parents’ approval.

Because of my rebellious tendency, my career trajectory has been unconventional. As a Ph.D. student, I wanted to study how people form ideas, opinions, beliefs, assumptions, and identities about themselves and how this self-concept influences the type of work they choose to do and, in turn, how the type of work they do shapes how they think and feel about themselves. In the midst of my study, I became a leader of a labor movement that raised wages and obtained health coverage for 2,600 graduate employees at the University of Iowa. This experience led me to a career in which I trained more than 30,000 labor leaders on how to improve workers’ lives in the U.S. and internationally.

Today, I am an Associate Professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?

As a kid, “transactional” spiritual practice was my thing. Whenever I had important exams, I would pray to the greater forces to help me get a good grade. My mother would take me to the temple and make offerings to the deity of the ancient Chinese Intellectual. In college, I decided this was old-fashioned and superstitious. I turned away from spiritual practice.

Mindfulness is different. I discovered mindfulness many years later, through a catastrophe in my life. My husband suffered a major stroke in 2011 and lost the ability to read, write, speak, and understand. I read the book “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor while my husband was in the hospital, and her story of recovery gave me hope. I began to research neuroscience studies in order to find ways to help my husband heal his injured brain and regain his ability to communicate. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was the major program used in most of the studies. It actually changes the brain. At that time, I thought I also could use some stress reduction myself as a caregiver of a stroke survivor. So, I signed up for the program.

Can you image a “fire horse” like me try to sit still, close my eyes, and practice “non-doing?” Through mindfulness, my beliefs about what I am able and unable to do began to crumble. This crumbling brought me a lot of questions. First, if the ideas of myself that I held for so long were not true, then what else is not true about myself and how do I find out? And if my ideas of myself are not true, then what about my ideas of other people and how the world works? Finally, why would these seemingly simple mindfulness tools bring about such a shift in self-concept and world view?

I reasoned that one way to find out is to go through the teacher’s professional training at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where the program was created. So, I did. During one of the workshops with 750 people, I was sitting about eight feet from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR. As I was sharing my “full catastrophe living” story of how I discovered my capacity to love and be happy through my husband’s stroke, the tears started flowing. Jon stepped down from the stage and gently handed me a tissue. His compassion and integrity touched me deeply.

How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?

Mindfulness has two camps of scientific research. One lies in the context of creativity, which I encountered during my doctoral study. The other has to do with awareness and the practices, tools, and methods to develop that awareness.

What does that mean? Awareness is paying attention to experiences in the present moment without passing judgment — paying attention intentionally and recognizing that emotions like anger and fear are triggered by just thoughts. Rather than automatically reacting to external or internal stimuli, mindfulness creates a space to consciously respond. Just like a laboratory to chemistry, mindfulness tools create a laboratory to psychology, where one can experiment, observe, and work with one’s thoughts, emotions, and body. That means that everyone can be a scientist of psychology by turning inward.

A few years ago, I began to introduce mindfulness into my teaching as a scientific inquiry tool for self-awareness. The results have been striking. My research shows that mindfulness-based learning increases students’ mindfulness and portable skills. For example, they get better at observing and describing their thoughts and emotions and not reacting to them. These skills can be transferred to dealing with external phenomena — a useful tool when my students begin their careers. Interestingly, the benefits of mindfulness varied by gender. Male students became more empathetic, while female students got better at understanding the perspective of others.

As a “fire horse” like teacher, students used to find me intimidating. Mindfulness dismantled many of my assumptions and judgements about my students. As a result, my passion toward teaching grew, my teaching became more fulfilling and purposeful, and my relationship with students become more meaningful.

Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?

About two years ago, a mentor at NYU introduced me to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, creator of the Inner Engineering program. I was curious to learn how these Inner Engineering tools differ from MBSR tools. So, I again signed up for the program to study and practice these tools. The result has been surprisingly impressive.

Success is achieving the outcome of one’s desires. There are two levels of success — outer and inner success. I always wanted a peaceful relationship with my parents but the disaccord remained for most of my adult life. After four years of practicing mindfulness and three weeks of Inner Engineering tools, one day I picked up the phone and called my parents for the first time in 14 years.

Today, my relationship with my parents is the most loving one I could ever dream of. And I’ve became more accepting of others — students, colleagues, politicians, even strangers on the street — whose views differ from mine. I consider that a great success, both outer and inner.

After I experienced this success, my husband learned the Inner Engineering tools. Now, he is able to say my name and three-word phrases and sentences, like “how are you” and “I love you.” He is more successful too!

What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?

More than a good life, I want everyone to lead a great life, a flourishing life. That’s why I created a new course called, “Beyond Mindfulness: Inner Engineering for Success.” When you know how to manage your mind, body, emotion, and energy, a great life is a natural outcome.

Sadhguru’s work preserves the pure and comprehensive methods of the inner sciences, from which mindfulness originates. These systematic and scientific methods go beyond the awareness of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations by including breathing techniques that activate, balance, and cleanse the human energy that powers our thinking, feeling, and acting. When you are charged with clean and sustainable energy, you can scale up your activities without polluting yourself and people around you. Instead, your energy lifts them up. This is empowering for entrepreneurs!

Recent neuroscience studies show that how we breathe affects how we think and feel. Conscious control of breathing patterns and awareness of breathing sensations engage distinctive but overlapping brain circuits. Organizational scholars have begun to emphasize the impact of human energy for positive behavior in teamwork and organization.

My own research shows that students who use “inner engineering” are flourishing. They become more mindful and experience more positive emotions (joy and happiness), better social relationships, and a higher level of academic psychological capital (self-efficacy, hope, optimism, resilience) and engagement. They find their studies more meaningful. They have more energy and they sleep better too!

I found similar results in a small pilot study of a Fortune 500 company using the Inner Engineering online tools. After completing the program, employees reported increases in mindfulness, joy, energy and vitality. They became more inclusive of others, more connected with their work, more confident in solving problems, more hopeful, and more optimistic toward their work.

Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?

A few months after practicing the Inner Engineering tools, I was invited by a major publisher to film a video lesson on mindfulness and stress management for researchers for a library collection. The first thing I needed to do for the lesson was to define stress, but I had great difficulty doing so. Of course, there are abundant academic definitions of stress but, in my living experience, I no longer “knew” what stress is. Stress was not only reduced but it was dissolved within me.

My Chinese name means fragrance and benevolence. As a “fire horse,” I couldn’t relate to this name at all — it seems the complete opposite of me. But now, with activated but balanced energy, I can run wild like a “fire horse” or I can simply sit still like a fragrant flower. Whichever way I want to be or need to be, I can be. That is freedom. That is a great life to live!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I would like to pay tribute to my college professor, Dr. and Fr. Daniel Ross.

He was a Jesuit priest from Wisconsin who lived for many years in Taiwan. He devoted his life to our growth as human beings. His teaching philosophy was not to fill students’ minds with information, but to inspire them to serve others and society. He adopted an experiential learning approach and helped us break our own limitations. He is the person who inspired me to come to the U.S. and become the professor I aspire to be.

For 30 years, I always thought of Dr. and Fr. Ross but had lost contact with him. Two years ago, I saw him as he was fighting late-stage cancer. He was calm and peaceful in his final days.

Thirty years after my students graduate, I want them to measure the impact of my teaching the way I measure his.

Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?

Be healthy and uplifting yourself. Whatever we do is just an extension who we are. If you are the founder of a start-up, you are the culture. Are you uplifting and joyful from the moment you wake up in the morning until the moment you fall asleep at night? If you are a CEO of an existing company, then the change of culture starts within you.

Visualize. Visualization is a very powerful tool. Steve Jobs used it. Have a clear vision of what a “healthy and uplifting” workplace looks like. See yourself clearly in your mind and visualize vividly how you will be in a “healthy and uplifting” workplace. If you are a small start-up, see each person with your mind’s eye and imagine how that person will perform in a “healthy and uplifting” workplace.

Design the process, not the outcome. Once you have a clear vision of the workplace you want to create, consciously design the process to make it happen. The process may look nothing like the outcome. It’s the small details that count.

Care and Commit. If you really care for something, devote the necessary resources, time, money, and energy to make it happen. Studies show that workplace wellness initiatives succeed mainly because sufficient resources are allocated toward them. You won’t have the flower if you don’t have time to plant the seed.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would say a movement of “Who am I?” This is not a philosophical or even a spiritual question. This is a very practical and scientific question of self-awareness. What is this thing that we call “self?” AI and robots are replacing human mind and body — AI is more knowledgeable than a doctor, and a robot’s hand is steadier than a surgeon’s. Everybody is talking about the “future of work.” Well, as the saying goes: the best way to predict the future is to create it. What else are we capable of doing to create the future of work that will best serve the humanity?

At any given moment, our minds are creating all kinds of ideas, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and assumptions about ourselves that, most of the time, hinder rather than enhance our functioning at work as well as in life. Most of them are not true of you — you are not what you think! The science has spoken: mindfulness and its parent, inner sciences, offer tools for us to work with our minds, body, emotions, and energy to realize our greatest potential, performance, and inclusiveness. The tools are here, we just need to make them accessible for everyone, especially business leaders who make decisions that could influence the well-being of millions of employees and customers, as well as the planet we live on.

How can people follow you and find out more about you?

You can email me at [email protected] and learn more about my work by visiting this site: https://smlr.rutgers.edu/faculty-staff/tracy-f-h-chang.

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