The President of Iran, Bill Gates and Goldie Hawn are gathering at the tiny Swiss resort of Davos this week to discuss global domination and the benefits of meditation for stressed-out billionaires.
That’s not a set-up to a joke; it’s actually all part of the agenda this week in Davos, Switzerland at the 44th annual World Economic Forum. On Thursday Hawn will be heading a panel discussing “mindful meditation.” She will be joined by a Buddhist monk to discuss how meditation can enable more focused and (hopefully) altruistic behavior.
It’s been a long weird trip for the WEF since 1971 when a European economist held a meeting to discuss the philosophical relationship between commercial enterprise and social responsibility. From those immodest beginnings the WEF has grown to an invitation-only collection of 2,500 “delegates” who will compete for time in the spotlight and a speaking part in any one of 220 presentations made over the course of five crazy days.
The theme for Davos 2014 is “The reshaping of the world.” The surprise isn’t the ambition of the agenda, but the concession that the world has gone about shaping itself without first asking for the WEF’s permission.
The event is an almost willful celebration of its own importance. Only in Davos could Pope Francis’ plea for business leaders to be “guided by high ideals of fairness, generosity and concern for the authentic development of the human family” be linked to Hawn’s panel on meditation and a speech by Kofi Annan without any sense of irony.
Big-deals, deep breaths and good deeds
Hawn’s panel isn’t as incongruous as it seems. As it turns out plenty of CEOs and Wall Street heavy hitters use meditation to help deal with the stress that comes with mastering the universe. Hedge fund manager Ray Dali told New York Magazine he uses Transcendental Meditation (TM, a trademarked form of meditation made popular by the Beatles in the late 60s) to help clear his mind and make better trading decisions. The former CEO of medical device maker Medtronic converted a board room into a place for execs to chill their minds and better sell product.
This strange mix of naked self-interest and self-improvement is central to the mission of Davos. When Iranian president Hassan Rouhani makes his rumored visit later this week he’s more likely to be talking about Iran’s reemergence on the crude oil market than human rights. It’s doubtful that plan will include any sort of meditation.
It’s way too simple to dismiss Davos as nothing but a collection of the rich and pampered. Billions of dollars in deals may be struck but many of the business and entertainment stars at the WEF seem to be genuinely motivated by altruism and a desire to spread their good fortune to those in need.
Yesterday Matt Damon accepted the WEF’s Crystal Award for founding Water.org, a non-profit group dedicated to helping the 780 million people in the world without access to clean water. Damon, who doesn’t seem to need career tips from the president of Iran or anyone else has dedicated thousands of hours and a untold amounts of his own money to the cause.
London Mayor Boris Johnson calls Davos “a constellation of egos involved in massive orgies of adulation,” but as Damon makes clear there’s something more going on in Switzerland this week. The group as a whole may be self-absorbed but they truly do have the power to make the world a better place.
If you’re looking for that type of moral clarity you’re not going to find it in Davos. That willfully oblivious mix of greed and altruism is a big part of what makes the World Economic Forum irresistible.