Mystic Microsoft, Chapter Thirteen (an Intermission of Sorts): A Flick of the Switch

Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Epilogue | Afterword

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, let me sow pardon.
Where there is discord, let me sow unity.
Where there is doubt, let me sow faith.
Where there is error, let me sow truth.
Where there is despair, let me sow hope.
Where there is sadness, let me sow joy.
Where there is darkness, let me sow light.
—Saint Francis of Assisi

"You have 672 new messages." Long before "spam" even existed it was not uncommon to see this sort of alert when we checked our morning email. Since its early years, Microsoft's lifeblood—its primary means of internal communication—has been email. Millions of messages course through its veins every day. From the senior executives down to the folks on the manufacturing floor, in the mailroom, and in the cafeterias, everyone at Microsoft has email.

It was entirely possible to spend your whole day doing nothing but reading, responding to, and deleting email messages. No matter who you were you could expect to receive at least thirty meaningful messages every day—if not several hundred! Many people received even more. I remember a friend of mine once having nearly two thousand unread messages in his inbox—and those were only the ones marked "urgent"!

Despite this torrential flood of messages, we all loved email: it was integral to our work rather than an annoying distraction. It was vastly more efficient than paper mail and wasn't disruptive like the telephone. It was also usually much more efficient to send email than to find someone by phone or in person—oftentimes a co-worker would call or come by your office only to say "check your email." What's more, people who happened to be out of town usually checked their email several times a day while outright ignoring their telephone voicemail.

One of the best features of our email system, and the major reason why we got so many messages, were the "group aliases" (now "distribution lists," which work the same). An alias is a single email address that automatically maps to any number of other addresses, including other aliases. The drg alias, for example, mapped to everyone in Developer Relations; sysmktg to all of Systems Marketing. We had aliases, in fact, for every part of Microsoft's organizational structure.

With this powerful feature you could send a single message to a single alias and get it out to hundreds or thousands of people without needing to know individual addresses. This was especially true for the msft alias, the one that sent mail to everyone in the company!

Group aliases also allowed us to form various discussion or information groups irrespective of organizational boundaries. The olecore group, for instance, included everyone who was deeply involved with the OLE technology no matter where they were in the company or, for that matter, the world. There were also aliases for varying groups of vice presidents, program managers, administrative assistants, and so forth. If you could think of any reason why you might want to email a particular group of people, there was usually an alias for it.

Our discussions were not restricted to company business. There were group aliases for everything from home buying and car maintenance to bungee jumping, punk rock, Dungeons & Dragons, and every religion known to modern man. Name an interest and there was an alias for it. And all it took to join a group was—what else!—sending a piece of email to the alias administrator. You could then look forward to even more messages in your inbox every morning!

A fun part about the whole thing was that all aliases were equal: the email system never asked if you really intended to send a message to a large group.[*] So messages that were meant for only one or two people occasionally got sent to many, many more. One day, for instance, a woman sent a very loving (G-rated) message to her fiancé (many couples within Microsoft take care of family business in this manner). Whoops! She accidentally sent the message to an alias with four hundred members! Her message was so sweet, however, that it charmed everyone who read it. Soon her own inbox was full of congratulations on her upcoming wedding and many other words of support. And the whole incident was so touching that it eventually made the back cover of Micronews, our weekly printed company newsletter of the time.

The group alias involved was one to which I belonged. Its name was soleil (French for "sun") which stood in this context for "Sharing Our Life Experiences Is Loving." Its unofficial name was the "personal growth alias" and was where people discussed things like psychology, spirituality, metaphysics, inspirational books, alternative medicine, yoga, tai chi, meditation, ecology, charitable works, UFO's, and whatever else you care to imagine. Indeed, soleil represented such an unorthodox menagerie of subjects that I referred to it as the "weirdo alias." But that's what made it fun! We're all weird in some way or another—why not enjoy it?

Conversations on soleil were nearly always interesting, uplifting, and rich with attitudes of compassion and open-mindedness. In this loving and supportive environment, individuals commonly asked the whole group for recommendations of some kind—a good naturopath, a nice place to stay at the ocean, an honest mechanic, or a non-profit organization that needed volunteers. And because everyone in the group habitually approached each new message with an open heart, there were often a dozen or more responses to such requests within an hour or two.

On February 1st, 1996,[†] about 11:30am, one of our group's most active members sent this message:

Not surprisingly, a reply came within minutes—addressed to the whole group. But it wasn't a helpful recommendation, it was a scathing condemnation! Though very short in and of itself, the message was essentially a righteous tirade on the evils of divorce and its sole responsibility for dysfunctional families and everything else that's wrong in the world. It also held a strong tone of judgment against the couple themselves for even thinking about separation!

"Whoa! Where did that come from?" I thought, startled. Soleil was founded for sharing love—it was a complete shock to see such negativity!

Again, the message was but a few short sentences. Nevertheless, it had this ENORMOUS negative power! You could feel its anger: after reading only a single sentence I had this sudden, sickening, sinking feeling in my gut: something was very wrong. "Run away! Run away!" my mind screamed. But it was already too late. I had opened the message with my usual receptivity and before I knew it, I found myself infected with terrible emotions.

And it wasn't just me—everyone else who had read even a little bit of the message had become infected themselves.

You know what happened next: "the battle was joined" and the bombs began to explode. Within only a few minutes a barrage of counter-attacks assaulted our inboxes as every reply was sent to the entire group. And then came the counter-counter-attacks. Then the counter-counter-counter attacks! Minute by awful minute people were taking sides and jumping into the brawl. My inbox was literally inundated with new responses.

Responses? Hardly—they were tirades. They were venomous maledictions. They were hellfire and damnation! And, of course, everyone believed that Truth was on their side: there was no hope for even so much as a cease-fire!

It was incredible to witness how quickly the whole thing got out of control. Cherished opinions were being attacked and the natural reaction was to fight back. Victory, as the combatants seemed to believe, was a matter of who had the biggest gun, the strongest fist, or the loudest voice. Anger beget anger; insult beget insult! And the bright land of soleil, once flowing with the sweetness of milk and honey, was now plagued with darkness and bitter poisons. Love was nowhere to be found. Even the few crying pleas to stop the bloodshed were corrupt with anger and negativity: they succeeded in only escalating the carnage further.

The great spiritual teacher Paramhansa Yogananda once wittily said, "you can't beat the darkness out of a room with a stick…." Well, everyone seemed hell-bent on proving this principle wrong. The man who started the whole thing was trying to beat out the darkness of divorce with a stick of condemnation and righteousness. In response, others were trying to beat out the darkness of his condemnation with their own sticks of judgment. And as the war intensified, others picked up sticks of reason, sticks of emotion, and even sticks of compassionate understanding. But no matter what the motive they were still sticks, they were still used for beating, and none of them were doing any good whatsoever.

I was right in the thick of it all myself, fully ensnared by anger and fury. Within five minutes I picked up my own stick of self-righteousness and started writing—or, more accurately, SHOUTING—my own declaration of war![‡]

Then I caught myself. Mustering all the willpower within me, I stopped cold. "It won't help one bit," I told myself, "to throw any more fuel on this fire." I just said NO. Dropping my stick, so to speak, I cancelled my message, purged my inbox of everything else, and took a nice, deep breath.

Aaah. I immediately felt as though the mud had been hosed off. I felt cleansed and relieved. Now I could just ignore the raging battle and get back to my work.

Whoops! Not so fast, my friend. When one is caught in the middle of mud-slinging you keep getting dirty no matter how many times you wash up. The email kept coming. Each message brought a fresh burst of negativity that scorched me before I could even delete it.

No matter how much I tried to pretend otherwise, darkness was penetrating my entire being. I had turned away from anger in hope that it would just go away and leave me alone. But it wouldn't. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. With an almost tangibly conscious force, the darkness kept pulling me downward: physically, that knot in my stomach became even tighter; mentally, I couldn't concentrate; spiritually, I felt crushed.

Nor was I alone—I realized that with only two or three dozen members of soleil taking an active part in the carnage, hundreds of others were enduring a silent agony. And they probably felt like I did, just hoping to stay out of it long enough for the anguish to subside.

Then I had a horrifying thought: the negativity was so powerful that its destructive vibrations would spread into everything I did for the rest of the day, perhaps even for another week. It would spread into my work, into my relationships, into my very thoughts! And if hundreds of others—a chill ran down my spine. We had each become an unwilling carrier of a dread disease. Our repressed anger and bitterness would ultimately infect our families, our friends, and everyone else we came in contact with. They would, in turn, infect others, who would themselves infect more. And—<shudder>—a further ghastly realization surfaced: it wasn't just happening at Microsoft's corporate campus. Soleil had members in many of Microsoft's nationwide sales offices and foreign subsidiaries—the epidemic was global!

This just couldn't go on. Something had to be done. But what? I asked the question to myself over and over: "What can I do? What can I do? What power do I possibly have that can overcome such darkness?"

As I made this desperate inward search, a certain thought took shape in my mind. Despite its many challenges in the marketplace and the courtrooms to that point, I couldn't remember a time when Microsoft had responded with hostility or malice. No, Microsoft overcame negativity with an even greater amount of positive energy. No matter what the situation, we countered every attack with an even greater determination to succeed, holding fast to our highest ideals.

The downward path of negativity and criticism is always easy: all you have to do is fall. It takes great energy and courage, on the other hand, to stand up and live your ideals—or to simply be positive—especially when no one else seems even willing to try. It is not a path for weaklings! But simply by making the effort we attune ourselves with Goodness itself, allowing the Divine Light to shine through us and drive the darkness away. In this we each have the power to change the world, if we would but choose it.

Yes, that was the answer: you can't beat out the darkness with a stick, but you can turn on the light! I had to turn on the light. I had to express some kind of positive energy that was more powerful than the downward pull of the ongoing war.

Deeply inspired by this thought, I recalled why our group had formed in the first place—Sharing Our Life Experiences Is Loving. Soleil was a vehicle for light of every shade and hue, which together made the loveliest rainbow.

Over two years with the group I'd saved various touching stories, instructive jokes, and profound quotations. While my inbox continued to swell with putridity, I read through all of these gems and picked out a few of the best. One was this passage by Marie Dominique-Ellis, soleil's founder:

Be compassionate
Allow people to be who they are
Allow people to express what they think
Allow yourself to not take things personally

If someone does not play the game
According to the rules
Let's give them the rules
Instead of raising our fists

Another told the fun episode from Sesame Street in which Oscar the Grouch was trying to spread grumpiness at Christmastime by giving away what he thought were useless and insulting gifts. But in each case the recipient found the item most helpful and Oscar succeeded only in spreading joy! Another story told of two Arabs who were driving cars in the open desert and collided. Instead of getting into a fight, however, they embraced each other. "Allah be praised," they cried, "for if we hadn't crashed we would never have met each other!" I also found the original account of the woman who had accidentally broadcast that charming message to her fiancé.

As the intense battle of negativity continued in unabated fury, I mustered every ounce of love and courage in me and composed a message with these stories. Here is how it began:

With my heart racing nervously, I wondered how people would respond. Would anyone notice? Would they turn their anger on me? I just didn't know—whatever the risks, I simply had to try.

I sent my message.

Instantly I once again felt cleansed, this time permanently. This strong, positive expression of love and joy had reversed the flow. No longer were black tentacles of hatred reaching out of my inbox to strangle me—the Light drove them back for good. I knew that the war could no longer touch me. My queasiness left me completely, my mind was suddenly clear, and my soul was all at once uplifted. Wordless prayers of gratitude rose from my heart. Never before had I experienced such an instantaneous healing.

I came that day to appreciate both the incredible power of negativity and also the even more incredible power of love. I also came to a clear understanding that although it's not up to us to create these powers, we choose which one flows through us. Will we be instruments of darkness, or instruments of light? This is really the only choice we have. It is the only real power we have.

What we choose to express, we become. To be loving simply means to choose love rather than anger or hatred. To be joyful simply means to choose joy rather than sorrow.

May we thus each pray with Saint Francis: "Make me an instrument of Thy peace…."

Oh yes, the response to my message? It was truly miraculous: the whole energy of the situation completely inverted. Whereas my inbox had been filling up with messages of anger and hatred, it was now filling up with only messages of love, joy, and gratitude—broadcast, as always, to the entire alias. Dozens of people said how my one little message had cleansed them as I had been cleansed. One woman wrote: "Thank you. You saved me from sending a very angry flame to this person. Flames were issuing from my fingers as I typed!!" Others appreciated the reminder of soleil's purpose. Some simply enjoyed the uplifting stories. And one man who had just joined the group the day before told us all how in the midst of the battle he was really wondering what he'd gotten himself into! But now, having witnessed this undeniable transformation, he understood both the group and the Power—with so many different names—that gave it life.

And the miracle continued. When I arrived at my desk the next morning I was overwhelmed to tears. For there, in my inbox, were replies not just from Microsoft employees in the United States, but from all over the world, every one of them bursting with sweetness and joy. What could very well have been a virulent scourge of worldwide anger had been transmuted into a global epidemic of Light.

In fact, from the moment my note appeared in everyone's inbox there was only one more negative message. It was from the same man who had issued that first scathing reply.

"This alias sucks!" he screamed, "I'm leaving it for good!"

    You can't beat out the darkness with a stick,

        but turn on the light

            and the darkness will vanish

                as though it had never been.

[*] Today, when using distribution lists, Microsoft Outlook indicates the total number of recipients as a gentle warning.   [Return to text]

[†] Chronologically this story is out of sequence in the book. I place it here as a brief respite before the next chapter.   [Return to text]


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