Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life - Tasha Eurich 2017
Internal Self-Awareness Tools That Really Work
Part Two: Internal Self-Awareness—Myths and Truths
Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.
After a three-hour drive from my home in Denver, my younger sister Abby and I were bumping down a narrow dirt road in the Roosevelt National Forest on our way to the Shambhala Mountain Center.
When we finally pulled into the dusty parking lot, I grouched, “I want to go home.”
Abby met my sullen mood with a beaming smile. “Well, I can’t wait,” she said, sniffing the air. “A whole weekend with nothing to do but hang out with you and practice mindfulness in the Colorado Rockies!”
“But I want to go home,” I repeated, this time with a dramatic whine.
“Oh God, Tasha,” she said, “people come from all over the world to meditate here.”
“And visit The Great Stupid.” I chuckled at my own lame and oddly hostile joke.
“The Great Stupa,” she said. “The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya.” As she reached for her door handle, she solemnly stated, “I have wanted to come to a mindfulness meditation retreat for years. I am not going to let you ruin this for me.”
As we lifted our luggage from the back of my vehicle—the sole gas guzzler in a shoal of hybrids and mud-caked Smart cars—I decided to bite my tongue and focus on the emergency Xanax I had hidden in my back pocket.
I love my sister deeply, but we are two very different souls. Abby, put simply, is the warm summer day to my raging winter blizzard. I really wasn’t trying to be negative—I was just struggling to overcome my aggressive stereotypes about mindfulness and meditation. Though these days it seems as though virtually everyone in America practices it, as a hard-nosed scientist, the activity always felt a bit “woo-woo” to me (i.e., based on wild claims but lacking in scientific evidence).
Yet upon discovering that 70 percent of our unicorns practiced mindfulness in some form, I was forced to grudgingly check it out. And what better place than the Shambhala Mountain Center? Founded by Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1971 and home to the famous 108-foot stupa built in his honor, it is, according to its website, a “contemplative refuge…an oasis for relaxing into our basic goodness, rediscovering a sense of balance and appreciating the sacredness of our world.”
As Abby and I dragged our luggage down the long, cold path toward the registration center, we approached a gang of very attractive, very fit girls in black yoga pants. I could tell this wasn’t their first meditation-retreat rodeo. They glared judgmentally at me and my designer suitcase as we passed—clearly they could tell its contents didn’t include any clothing made of hemp, and they were right. In a display of emotional perspicacity that is utterly typical of Abby, who is ten years my junior, she stopped to reassure me. “Ignore the Mindfulness Mean Girls,” she said. “If you give it a chance, this weekend will be amazing. It’s exactly what you need.”
“You’re right,” I finally conceded. “It’s only nerves. I just have to get over myself.”
“Give it twenty-four hours,” she said, smiling optimistically. “I guarantee you’ll be loving it.”
In the last chapter, we learned about the follies of introspection and how to avoid them to increase our internal self-awareness. Thankfully, there are many surprisingly effective approaches. For example, Buddhists have practiced meditation—which has been shown to produce powerful self-awareness improvements—for thousands of years. And unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that it’s experiencing a renaissance. But though meditation may be one of the oldest paths to internal self-awareness, it isn’t the only path. In this chapter, we’ll learn three separate but complimentary strategies to dramatically increase our internal insight. One is designed to examine who we are in the present, another to probe the patterns rooted in our past, and another to make sure we reap the rewards of self-examination in the future. Let’s start with a popular tool that helps us understand the present: mindfulness, both the meditative and the non-meditative varieties.
If introspection means analyzing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and ruminating means unproductively dwelling on them, mindfulness is the opposite: simply noticing what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing without judgment or reaction. Yet contrary to popular belief, mindfulness and meditation are not always synonymous. People tend to associate mindfulness with yogis or ashrams or silent retreats, but in recent years, it’s come to encompass a much wider (and thankfully more diverse) range of activities. This is in no small part due to the work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who has been researching the topic since the 1970s. Her work has brought mindfulness “out of the Zen meditation caves and into the bright light of everyday functioning.”
Where most people mistakenly see mindfulness simply as meditation, Langer provides a far broader and more practical definition: “the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on…[our] new observations.” So even though meditation is one way to practice mindfulness, it isn’t the only way—and it’s not for everyone. In fact, when asked about meditation in an interview, Langer once quipped, “The people I know won’t sit still for five minutes, let alone forty.”
I know the feeling. Truth be told, the idea of relaxing into the present moment has always kind of stressed me out. Like many of my Type A compatriots, my nirvana is achieved by checking off all of the items on my daily to-do list. I’m so addicted to productivity and activity that during our honeymoon, my husband literally had to pry my BlackBerry out of my hands and lock it in our hotel safe.
Of course, I am certainly not alone in my addiction. In a series of 11 experiments, researcher Timothy Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to spend between 6 and 15 phoneless minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think. Not surprisingly, they didn’t exactly enjoy the experience, and many found it downright unpleasant.*1 This prompted Wilson to wonder just how far people would go to avoid being alone with their thoughts. So he designed a follow-up experiment that gave people the choice between mental quiet time and an objectively less-pleasant activity: mild electric shocks. Incredibly, more than half the participants elected to give themselves electric shocks rather than endure just five solitary minutes. Wilson and his team reached the rather arresting conclusion that “people prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is [uncomfortable or downright painful].”
Yet in spite of—or perhaps as a reaction to—our addiction to distraction, mindfulness (and particularly mindfulness meditation) is currently having a bit of a cultural moment. After all, when celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Anderson Cooper, and Ellen DeGeneres tout (or, I should say, tweet) the benefits of anything, you know it’s only a matter of time before the masses jump on board. And jump on board they have. It’s not just celebrities who have gone gaga over mindfulness: corporations like Google, McKinsey, Nike, General Mills, Target, and Aetna are using it to harness the improved productivity and well-being it supposedly brings. Many have also brought mindfulness into the classroom, with school programs reaching more than 300,000 students across the country, from prestigious East Coast preparatory academies to inner-city public high schools. Even the U.S. Marines and professional sports teams like the Boston Red Sox are embracing meditation and other mindfulness exercises. The result is a nearly one-billion-dollar cottage industry—and it seems only to be growing.
Paradoxically, despite the trendiness of mindfulness, I don’t think many people these days would agree that we’re actually getting better at it. If anything, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. As just one of many anecdotal examples, I was recently waiting in line at the airport. To amuse or perhaps distract myself, I decided to count how many of the travelers at our gate were scrolling through their smartphones. You might not be shocked to learn that all 42 people—every single one—had their eyes glued to their little screens. It was a striking example of what Ellen Langer calls mindlessness; instead of being present, it’s far easier to occupy ourselves with distractions like e-mail, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Pokémon GO, or whatever happens to be the new fad of the day. Here’s a revealing data point: more than 38 million Americans admit to shopping on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. Folks, I’d say we’ve got ourselves a problem.
And it’s not just the computers in our pockets that meddle with our mindfulness; our own minds contribute just as much. When Langer’s Harvard colleagues Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert tracked 2,000 people’s real-time thoughts as they went about their daily lives, they found that whether working, watching television, taking care of their children, running errands, or doing almost anything else, nearly half reported being distracted with other thoughts than what they were currently experiencing. In fact, for 21 out of the 22 activities they tracked, no fewer than 30 percent of participants reported thinking about other things, like the past, the future, and life’s “what ifs.” (The one exception, rather unsurprisingly, was sex.)
So what toll, exactly, does mindlessness take on us, and in particular on our ability to be self-aware? For one, Langer’s research has found that distraction decreases happiness. What’s more, we lose the ability to monitor and control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—and this makes self-awareness virtually impossible. In one study, researchers asked dieters to either watch a distracting video clip of bighorn sheep or watch themselves on video for 10 minutes. Then, they were allowed to eat as much ice cream as they wanted. Who went hog wild? The distracted dieters, of course. When their attention was pulled away from their actions, they were less aware and in control. This principle holds whether we are eating ice cream, responding to a difficult situation with a co-worker, making a critical career decision, or anything else. Luckily, when practiced correctly, mindfulness is a rather straightforward antidote to this problem. Let’s start with the more mainstream view of this approach.
As a walking prototype of distraction, I knew I’d be a fish out of water at the Shambhala Mountain Center. It was for this precise reason that I’d roped in my younger sister and token family unicorn. And rather conveniently, Abby had recently become a passionate advocate of meditation.
But precisely 24 hours after my sister “guaranteed” that I’d be “loving” the meditation course, I was trying to decide between laughing hysterically and running away screaming. Picture a group of 20 adults in a completely silent room walking in circles, very, very slowly. Our shoulders were hunched over, our hands (for reasons that were never fully explained) placed in a highly specific position, one balled into a fist with its thumb sticking up and the other curled around it, and both pressed into our stomachs just beneath our belly button.
Everyone was taking this walking meditation extremely seriously—at least, everyone besides me. We paced, heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe, around and around, for what was allegedly 20 minutes but seemed like two hours. All I could think of were the people I grew up secretly chuckling at, who often lived in Boulder, Colorado, and had super-earnest, super-annoying levels of commitment to their alternative lifestyles. I didn’t want to become one of them!
But I was also determined to see the weekend through. As a scientist, I’ve been trained to follow the data wherever they lead, and to my great irritation, the results on mindfulness meditation are clear and compelling. Research shows that people who practice it are happier, healthier, more creative, more productive, more authentic, more in control of their behavior, more satisfied in their marriages, more relaxed, less aggressive, less burnt-out, and even thinner. So as ridiculous as I felt, I was at least self-aware enough to know that my biases were irrationally influencing my opinion about something I had never even tried.
Plus, I was on deadline for my book (this one), and this retreat was an important piece of my research on self-awareness. There’s a growing body of evidence that mindfulness meditation can save us from the traps of introspection and rumination you read about in the last chapter. In one study, when researchers put people who had never meditated through a 10-day intensive mindfulness training retreat, the subjects were less likely to introspect compared to a control group, both immediately afterward and weeks later. In contrast, the control group’s introspection levels actually increased. Participants trained in mindfulness were also less depressed and less upset, and they even had better memories and attention spans.
Although the direct connection between mindfulness and self-awareness is just beginning to be understood, initial research is telling. One investigation of mental health professionals showed that the more mindful among them also tended to enjoy greater self-insight. Some researchers have even suggested that the reason mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, and depression is because it increases insight.
Of course, mindfulness on its own is not sufficient for complete self-awareness—after all, to truly know ourselves, we need to delve a bit deeper—but it does help us notice and control our reactions while avoiding the follies of introspection. When we’re mindful, we experience our emotions without overthinking or overreacting, and we remember that the way we feel now isn’t the way we’ll feel forever. As Dr. Megan Warner, associate clinical professor in the Yale School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, explains, “Mindfulness offers a strategy to disconnect from where our thoughts, emotions and pain can take us.”
Mindfulness meditation can also create real impact in the hard-nosed world of business. Mark Tercek witnessed this firsthand soon after being appointed president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Coming from a successful career as a managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs, he thought he’d escaped the high-pressure life when he left Wall Street. Yet Mark found himself facing some tough decisions in the early months of his new job, which he began right at the start of the 2008 financial crisis. But even after the Nature Conservancy had weathered the storm, Mark still sensed that something was a bit off for him both professionally and personally. So he called our mutual friend Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s top executive coaches, for help. Marshall interviewed Mark’s executive team, his board, and even his family. Apparently, Mark’s hard-charging style had been ruffling a few feathers at work, and some of that was following him home.
Mark was surprised. Even though things had been tough, he hadn’t fully realized how much his tendency to make quick, impulse-driven decisions was affecting others. With Marshall’s help, Mark vowed to work on three things: to be a better listener, to embrace a more positive mindset, and to stop sweating the small stuff. Things got a bit better in the months that followed, but not as much as Mark had hoped. Despite Marshall’s support and Mark’s commitment, Mark wasn’t sure how to push past this plateau.
Around that same time, Mark became interested in mindfulness. He’d start each day with 10 minutes of meditation; and if he couldn’t wake up early, he’d steal away to his office to focus on his breath and get in a more positive frame of mind. With each passing day, not only did Mark begin to feel happier and calmer, it didn’t take long for him to notice a few more unexpected benefits. On the days he meditated, he found himself making measurable progress toward the goals he’d set with Marshall: he was pushing past that plateau that had seemed insurmountable just weeks earlier.
Soon, Mark realized that he could better recognize—in the moment—when he needed to override his gut and make a different choice. He was better able to stop and listen. He was less reactive, critical, and defensive. He was finally in control of the pillar of reactions. Mark was also pleased with the difference this relatively small daily ritual was making at home. On days he’d meditated, his kids would say, “Dad, what happened? You’re so nice now!” “Hey, be careful,” he’d playfully joke. “No, Dad, you were nice before,” they would tactfully answer, “but now you’re really nice.”
Mark realized what researchers also know to be true: because mindfulness helps us be more aware of our thoughts and feelings, we can better control our behavior and make smarter decisions in real time. And though mindfulness is much loved by those seeking internal self-awareness, it also has surprising benefits for external self-awareness; by quieting our egos, we become more open to feedback from others.
Psychology professor Whitney Heppner and her colleagues discovered this effect through a rather creative experiment. They asked students to write an essay about themselves, which would supposedly be used by other participants as the basis for choosing a partner for a subsequent computer task. One-third of the students were told they had been chosen by another participant (the acceptance group), one-third were told that no one had chosen them (the rejection group, essentially the equivalent of being the last person picked in gym class), and one-third were asked to mindfully eat five raisins prior to learning that they hadn’t been chosen by another participant (the mindfulness-rejection group).*2
During the computer task, the researchers gave participants the choice to blast as much noise as they wanted at their competitors. They predicted that the rejected participants would be angrier and therefore aggressively punish the people who hadn’t picked them. This is exactly what happened, at least for the non-mindful rejection group. Yet even though the mindfulness-rejection group had been equally shunned, they were two-thirds less aggressive—in fact, their reactions were statistically indistinguishable from the acceptance group. Mindfulness seemed to have guarded against the defensiveness and anger that can accompany critical feedback or perceived failure. After all, even though it’s important to understand how other people see us, those views don’t completely define who we are.
MINDFULNESS WITHOUT THE MANTRAS
We’ve seen that mindfulness meditation can produce some pretty dramatic improvements in self-awareness and well-being. But remember, mindfulness has a broader definition than just meditation. So if you are as ambivalent about meditation as I was, you’ll be pleased to learn that there are many scientifically supported mindfulness methods that don’t require a single mantra. For example, a few non-meditative unicorns reported that simply spending time outdoors—things like hiking, running, biking, or going for a long walk—helped them stay focused on the present. A few even believed that these activities were among the most important tools in their ongoing self-awareness—sometimes just a few minutes of true quiet can do wonders for putting us back in touch with our thoughts and feelings. And although just writing about the following activity gives me anxiety, many unicorns achieved this quiet by shutting off their phones during certain parts of their day—most consistently in the evenings and early mornings. Other unicorns reported finding a similar peace through prayer.
Before we move to a few non-meditative mindfulness tools, an important point is in order. Mindfulness is not the same thing as relaxation. In fact, even though these two activities seem similar, their outcomes couldn’t be more different. In one study, unemployed men and women either went through a three-day mindfulness meditation program or a three-day relaxation program disguised as a mindfulness one. Both groups engaged in many of the same activities, but only the first program employed real mindfulness techniques. For example, both incorporated stretching—but where the relaxation group was encouraged to chat with one another during those exercises, the mindful group was instructed to pay attention to their bodily sensations, even unpleasant ones.
At the end of the three days, both groups felt equally refreshed and better able to manage the stress of the job-seeking process. But when the researchers scanned their brains, their MRI results told a different story: only the mindfulness group was actually more focused and calm. And four months later, when researchers measured participants’ interleukin 6 levels (an indication of inflammation, which is a sign of stress), the relaxation group’s levels had increased more than 20 percent while the mindfulness group’s decreased by the same amount. The lesson here? Whatever you do to center yourself, make sure you spend that time actively noticing new things rather than just mentally checking out.
Now, to understand how to practice non-meditative mindfulness, it might be helpful to re-review Ellen Langer’s definition. The process of drawing novel distinctions is, according to Langer, “the essence of mindfulness.” But what does it mean to draw novel distinctions? In a nutshell, it’s seeing ourselves and our world in a new way. Langer gives the example of traveling. When we’re in a strange place, we tend to notice new things in ourselves and the world around us—the sights, the sounds, the people—versus our day-to-day lives, where we tend to focus on the familiar and draw on the perspective we’ve always had. But we don’t need to travel to far-off lands to experience these benefits. If we can get in the habit of mindfully noticing new things in ourselves or our world, it can dramatically improve our self-knowledge.
One way to do this is reframing, which simply means looking at our circumstances, our behaviors, and our relationships from a new and different angle. Let’s look at the story of Aviana, a unicorn, mother of two, and manager in the wireless telecommunications industry whose courage in reframing her circumstances was a major force in achieving greater self-knowledge; it even played a role in saving her career. A few weeks after giving birth to her youngest son, she received devastating news. The call center where she worked—no, loved to work—for the past 11 years would be closing, and everyone, including her, would be out of a job. Worse yet, because her husband worked there too, her family was about to go from two incomes to zero literally overnight.
Aviana was panicked and afraid. She would lie awake at night staring at the ceiling thinking, What am I going to do? She decided to return early from her maternity leave for the simple purpose of stockpiling as much cash as possible. But back at the office, her co-workers’ reactions didn’t help her state of mind. “Isn’t this horrible?” they’d whine. After a few days of letting everyone get her even more lathered up, Aviana wondered whether there was another way of looking at the situation. Instead of focusing on what I’m losing, she pondered, what if I focused on what I might gain? Yes, she was losing her job, but this also could be an opportunity to grow, and maybe even to get a better job than the one she had.
Armed with this new perspective, Aviana quickly realized something that should have been obvious to her before. Right out of high school, she’d taken a few semesters of college courses, but when they failed to hold her attention, she left to explore the working world and never looked back. That had been a mistake, she realized, and this was her chance to make it right—and in fact, if she didn’t go back to school, she’d be seriously hurting her long-term job prospects. So, 11 years after her first attempt, Aviana re-enrolled in an online undergraduate program while simultaneously applying for other jobs in the company.
Before she knew it, her last day of work arrived. That afternoon, she learned that a co-worker was organizing a happy hour, which seemed fun but dangerous given everyone’s freshly deposited severance checks. She handed in her badge and was about to head to the bar when her phone rang. It was the hiring manager calling about one of her company’s open positions! Before the manager had even finished offering her the job, Aviana exclaimed, “I’ll take it! And I can start Monday!”
The new position was a breath of fresh air and a net win for her career. Since then, Aviana has received two promotions. And thanks to her company’s tuition-reimbursement program, she’s close to finishing her degree in organizational leadership.
Aviana’s flexibility in reframing the loss of her job as an opportunity—rather than staying mired in a mindset of helplessness—dramatically improved both her career and her life. But interestingly, reframing isn’t just helpful when things go wrong. Quite often, we gain valuable perspective by reframing when things are going right. Earlier, I mentioned my friend whose husband left her for what, to her, seemed like completely out-of-the-blue reasons. If she had thought “My marriage seems to be doing really well right now—but what if it weren’t?” she might have stumbled upon some of the issues before it was too late. I’m certainly not suggesting that you become a giant bummer to yourself and others—what I am suggesting is that looking at both the good and the bad from multiple angles will help you maximize your insight and success.
When in a difficult situation, ask: What opportunities can I find? What about my weaknesses could be strengths? When I look back on my life or career, what successes have I had in my most trying situations? What is one gift I’ve gotten from my most challenging personal or professional relationship?
By the same token, when things are going well, you might ask: What are the potential risks and how can I avoid them? What aspects of my strengths could become weaknesses? What potential challenges can I find in my past successes? What is one risk in my best personal or professional relationship, and how can I mitigate it?
If you’re a theater geek like I am, you probably know that characters in plays sometimes step out of the action to speak directly to the audience or observe a scene. As many of our unicorns showed us, we can use this same technique to gain valuable insight by reframing our experiences from a more objective angle. One unicorn explained that when she and her husband are having a disagreement, she mentally steps outside of herself to “watch” what’s going on—so instead of being an angry spouse, she becomes an observer. (This might remind you of perspective-taking; but while perspective-taking is about putting yourself in others’ shoes, this is about observing things from a more detached, objective angle.) Negotiation expert William Ury aptly calls it “going to the balcony,” but whatever name it goes by, this kind of reframing can be immensely valuable.
Our second non-meditative mindfulness tool is comparing and contrasting. When we compare and contrast, we’re looking for similarities and differences between our experiences, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over time. In particular, this can be a great way to see patterns (one of the Seven Pillars of Insight) that we might not have picked up on in the past. But, you might be wondering, if mindfulness is about noticing the present, how does examining our past help? Because comparing and contrasting past experiences to what is happening right now can give us immense clarity about the present. For example, “I was so happy with my job last week—what’s different this week that’s making me so miserable?” or “When I chose my major in college, it seems like I got the most excited in my business-related classes than anything else. Am I tapping into that same passion in my current job?” or “If I’ve had the same challenges across multiple jobs, what might this mean?”
Personally, I am indebted to the compare-and-contrast tool for the single most important “aha moment” of my career. I spent the first five years after college in an academic setting, working as a researcher and adjunct instructor while earning my PhD. But being a businessperson at heart, I also took on whatever consulting gigs I could—first under the supervision of my graduate professors and then as a consultant with a small firm in Denver. After I finished school, and having fallen in love with the business world, I held a series of corporate roles as an in-house organizational psychologist. Eventually, I scored what I thought was my dream job—I worked for an incredible company with a team I adored and a boss who essentially gave me free rein to do whatever I thought was most helpful for the company.
But less than two years later, a feeling of restlessness began to set in. At first, I pushed away these feelings, telling myself I was being ungrateful for the opportunity. But despite my best efforts, the restlessness grew to the point where I could no longer ignore it.
One evening, I was discussing this predicament with my husband. “If memory serves,” he offered, “you felt pretty much the same way in your last job right around year two.” I hadn’t noticed it myself, but he was right. What I was experiencing wasn’t unhappiness per se—instead, I felt trapped in the predictable routine of the people, the projects, and the politics. Often on the way to work, a feeling of dread would wash over me as I took the same route to the same office at the same time as I had the day before.
Did I experience this, I wondered, earlier in my career? I couldn’t remember having that feeling when I was teaching and consulting; because every new semester, new class, and new client was a clean slate, I never got too settled into a routine. It was also pretty clear that I had been much happier working for myself than when I was working for someone else. (This makes perfect sense in hindsight: I come from a long line of entrepreneurs who don’t like being told what to do.) But I’d never asked myself these questions in this way before. And though the answers weren’t as convenient as I would have liked, they gave me a whole new level of clarity.
Never one to act impulsively, I decided to let these rather unsettling conclusions bounce around my head for a few weeks. Then one night as I was walking from my office to my car, the answer hit me like a punch in the gut. I had to start my own company—period, full stop. And I had to do it soon, lest I wake up in my 50s, still wondering why I couldn’t muster the courage to take the plunge. Despite the rather uncomfortable nature of this realization, I felt a great sense of relief and purpose. It wasn’t easy to leave the cushy corporate world, but I can honestly say that I never imagined I could enjoy my job as much as I do now. And I can trace this trajectory directly to the few weeks I spent comparing and contrasting the high and low points of my career.
The compare-and-contrast tool isn’t just well suited for professional epiphanies; it can also help us discover patterns that are holding us back in our personal lives. Take Jed, a single 66-year-old computer programmer (and unicorn) who had just been given, in his words, “a really long paid vacation.” When his company went through a large downsizing, they offered him a retirement package, which, coupled with his fortuitous social security eligibility, meant that he could finally take some time off. Early one morning a few months into his vacation, he had just awoken and was staring bleary-eyed at the ceiling. It seemed that Jed’s new life had come with an unpleasant (yet ultimately positive) side effect: free time to confront the things in his life that dissatisfied him—for one, the fact that he was still single. But instead of ruminating, he began to ask himself if there was a common factor in his failed relationships.
At the time, Jed was just finishing Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. (He’d decided that his sabbatical afforded him the opportunity to read some of the classic novels he had overlooked in his youth.) In Madame Bovary, Dr. Charles Bovary marries Emma, the daughter of one of his patients. At first, Emma is thrilled to be married to Charles, but she quickly becomes bored with him—and (spoiler alert) becomes so upset about it that she literally dies. One passage caught Jed’s attention:
But how to speak about so elusive a malaise, one that keeps changing its shape like the clouds and its direction like the winds? She could find no words; and hence neither occasion nor courage came to hand…Charles’s conversation was flat as a sidewalk, a place of passage for ideas of everyman; they wore drab everyday clothes, and they inspired neither laughter nor dreams.
When he read this, something clicked. Could the common factor in my relationships be ME? Jed wondered. Could I be as flat as a sidewalk? To discover the answer, he searched for the similarities in his behavior throughout his past relationships (specifically, the pillars of patterns, reactions, and impact). In a flash of insight, Jed realized that in every relationship, he’d held in his emotions too much. When something would upset him, he wouldn’t say or do anything; he’d just shut down. This denial, Jed realized, “flattened” him, blocking any kind of deeper connection.
Right around that time, he had reconnected with an old friend he’d known for 20 years but with whom he’d been out of touch for the last 10. They started taking dancing lessons together, and lo and behold, a romance blossomed. They were married a year later, and Jed has made it a point to show up differently in this relationship. If something happened that he wasn’t thrilled about, for example, the old Jed would have sat on it in silence, but the new Jed knew he needed to be more open with his feelings, even if it was difficult or uncomfortable. His marriage isn’t perfect (whose is?) but he’s never been happier.
If you want to try comparing and contrasting for yourself, here are a few questions to get you started. You can apply each one to almost anything that you want to better understand, such as your job, your career, or your relationships. What about X is the same and what is different than it was in the past? Have there been any patterns in my mood, positive or negative, that have coincided with changes in X? Does the way I feel about X remind me of any similar feelings I’ve had about a past situation? How happy or fulfilled am I with X today versus how I felt about X in the past? When I think about X over the course of my life, have things gotten better or worse?
Now let’s turn to our final mindfulness tool. Studies have shown that one reason we fail to learn from experience is that we rarely take time to reflect on our discoveries. Finding the time to regularly check in with ourselves can feel surprisingly difficult in our busy, distracted world. But daily check-ins don’t have to be time-consuming (as with journaling, more is not better). In fact, the majority of our unicorns described a habit of short, focused check-ins (just as Ben Franklin did). When explaining his process, Jeff, our architect-turned-entrepreneur, reported: “I take the perspective of a critical outsider and ask, ’How did I do today and how do I feel about how today went?’ ”
Instead of using the time to introspect—or worse, ruminate—we should use daily check-ins to review the choices we made that day, look for patterns, and observe what worked and what didn’t. This small ritual can have a big impact, not just on our mood and our confidence, but on our actions and results. For example, in one study, call-center trainees who took just a few minutes to reflect at the end of each day improved their performance an average of 23 percent.
So try taking five minutes every evening—whether it’s during your drive home, while unwinding after dinner, or after you climb into bed—to mindfully ask yourself: What went well today? What didn’t go well? What did I learn and how will I be smarter tomorrow? The answers you unearth need not be life-altering—quite often, even insights that seem insignificant at the time can help us improve incrementally. But if we can get just a bit more mindful and self-aware each day, the sum total effect of these insights can be astonishing.
YOUR LIFE STORY: CHART THE CONSTELLATION, DON’T JUST GAZE AT THE STAR
My husband just so happens to be a giant nerd, which is precisely why I married him. By day, he geeks out as an IT systems architect at an engineering firm, and by night, among other things, he geeks out about astronomy. A few years ago, he decided his hobby had become serious enough that it required an equally serious telescope. Due to the hefty price tag of such a piece of equipment, he formed a coalition of eight or so family members who each contributed to what would soon come to be known as the Best Birthday Present Ever. Every time he uses his favorite possession, he performs an evening-long ritual of setting it up, getting it configured, sometimes attaching a camera to it, looking at what times different objects are in the sky, and so on. Then, with childlike delight, he will spend hours on our rooftop deck looking at the red spot on Jupiter, or a certain crater on the moon, or the rings of Saturn.
One weekend, we were up at our cabin in the Colorado mountains. It was a crisp, clear night, and I figured the telescope would be coming out at any moment. When I heard the back door slam shut, I prepared myself for the inevitable “Hey, come look at this!” that I’d soon be hearing from our back deck. After a while, having heard no such exclamation, I decided to go out and check on him. I was surprised to find my husband just sitting there, staring up at the sky with the telescope still in its carrying case next to him.
“Is your telescope broken?” I asked in horror.
Chuckling, he reassured me that it wasn’t. “Once I got out here and my eyes adjusted,” he explained, “I started looking at all the constellations—do you see how beautiful the Milky Way is tonight?” Still sensing my confusion, he opined, “Sometimes it’s really nice to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.”
The same is true for self-examination. If the mindfulness tools you just read about will help you understand your present self, the Life Story approach helps you look backward to learn how the sum total of your past has shaped you. If each life event is a star, our life story is the constellation. And if we spent all of our time looking at individual stars through a telescope lens, we couldn’t appreciate the magnitude and beauty of the constellations that dot the sky. To that end, the process of becoming, as Timothy Wilson describes it, “biographers of our lives” is a profoundly powerful but surprisingly underutilized approach to better understand who we are, who we are becoming, and who we could be.
Psychology professor Dan McAdams has been prolifically researching life stories for more than 30 years. The approach that McAdams and his colleagues use to help people compose their life stories goes something like this:
Think about your life as if it were a book. Divide that book into chapters that represent the key phases of your life. Within those phases, think of 5—10 specific scenes in your story—high points, low points, turning points, early memories, important childhood events, important adulthood events, or any other event you find self-defining. For each, provide an account that is at least one paragraph long:
1.What happened and when? Who was involved?
2.What were you and others thinking and feeling, and what about this event was especially important for you?
3.What does this event say about who you are, how you have developed over time, or who you might become?
When you are finished writing your account, take a step back and look at your life story as a whole:
1.What major themes, feelings, or lessons do you see in your story?
2.What does the story of your life say about the kind of person you are and might become?
3.What does your story say about your values, passions, aspirations, fit, patterns, reactions, and impact on others?
After collecting life stories from tens of thousands of people, Professor McAdams and his colleagues have learned that they usually have overarching themes. And identifying them can help make sense of seemingly contradictory aspects of ourselves. Take the example of Chase, an introverted non-profit fundraiser who loves his work. His pattern of introversion and passion for a job that requires him to frequently schmooze might seem incongruous at first. But when Chase examines his life story, he notices that every high point has involved “doing good” for someone who was less fortunate. So even though his job requires more mixing and mingling than an introvert might usually prefer, it allows him to live his most important value: helping others. And if that involves a little socializing, Chase is happy to do it.
Let’s look at a few specific ways to become a biographer of your life in a way that generates real insight. Research shows that self-aware people tend to knit more complex narratives of their key life events: they are more likely to describe each event from different perspectives, include multiple explanations, and explore complex and even contradictory emotions. In many ways, this complexity is the opposite of the need for absolute truth that we learned about in the last chapter: instead of searching for simple, generalizable facts, self-aware people appreciate the complicated nature of the key events in their lives. Perhaps for this reason, complex life stories are associated with continued personal growth and maturity years into the future.
At the same time, we also want to seek something called thematic coherence. When we’re able to find consistent themes across multiple important events of our lives, we can glean surprising self-insights—like how Chase discovered his theme of doing good. Some common themes include achievement (i.e., personal success), relationships (i.e., forming and keeping connections with others), and growth (i.e., seeing life as an opportunity to develop and improve). Another especially interesting life-story theme is one that McAdams has focused on for much of his career: the theme of redemption. Whereas people with “contamination sequences” see a pattern of good things turning to bad ones, people with “redemption sequences” believe that bad things can turn to good.
Self-awareness researcher Timothy Wilson and his colleagues demonstrated the power of the redemption sequence when they studied freshmen at Duke University who were struggling with their grades. Clearly, the students’ poor academic performance was powerfully challenging their “good student, great school, bright future” narrative. Wilson and his team divided the students into two groups: one watched videos of upperclassmen explaining how their grades improved after they adjusted to college life—that is, the freshmen heard a new narrative, one that provided an alternate explanation for their struggles. A second group was not given a new narrative. The effects were dramatic: after one year, the “new-narrative” students had improved their GPAs by an average of .11 (compared to the “old-narrative” students, whose GPAs dropped slightly), and were far less likely to drop out (a mere 5 percent of the new-narrative students threw in the towel versus 25 percent of the others).
One particularly moving example of a redemption sequence involves a young man from one of McAdams’ studies—let’s call him James—whose life has been fraught with hardship. Entering the world as a product of rape, James faced challenge after challenge, including a near-death experience after being stabbed. But where many would see only darkness and despair, James sees hope: “I was dead, but the doctors brought me back….My philosophy of life has always been to be positive instead of negative on any circumstances you deal with. If you go with the positive ideas, you’ll progress. If you get involved in the negative, you’ll drown.” It would be easy to label James as overly optimistic. But the research on people like him paints a clear picture: if we view our challenges accurately and as an opportunity for redemption, even the most horrific experiences can help us learn, grow, and improve.
So when the time is right for you to write your life story, don’t look at it as a neat, clean Hollywood narrative. Embracing the complexity, the nuances, and the contradictions will help you appreciate your inner reality in all its beautiful messiness.
SOLUTIONS-MINING: FROM PROBLEMS TO GROWTH GOALS
So far in this chapter, we’ve explored tools to help us better understand our present (mindfulness, both meditative and non-meditative) and our past (life stories). At this point, then, one important topic remains: How can we become more internally self-aware and successful in the future? Or as one unicorn noted, “It’s not enough to know yourself. You have to set goals and make changes to really live the life you want.” Quite often, the commitment to the process of self-discovery unearths disparities between where we are and where we want or need to be in the future. Let’s say that after some mindful comparing and contrasting, you realize that the company you work at isn’t a good fit for you. Or perhaps charting your life story reveals the importance of family in your life, but your current 80-hour workweeks aren’t in line with that value. Quite often, whether we choose to act on our newfound self-insight is the difference between success and stagnation.
Matt, for example, was a bright, ambitious financial services professional—in addition to being a fountain of industry knowledge, he had earned accolades from bosses, peers, and clients throughout his career for his diligent, disciplined approach. When I first met him, I was running his company’s high-potential development program, into which he’d just been accepted. I could see that potential instantly.
Matt had recently been hired as a long-term successor for the role of business unit president. The plan, the company’s CEO told me, was for Matt to spend the next three or so years working for the president and learning the ropes, followed by a smooth and successful transition into the role when the president retired. But, as is often the case, things didn’t go as planned. A year into Matt’s tenure, his boss had a sudden health crisis and had to leave the company. The CEO made the decision not to hire from the outside to replace him, at least for now, which left the door open for Matt.
But as much as the CEO wanted to appoint his new high-potential hire to the role, he wasn’t sure Matt was ready. This left Matt in a rather awkward position: his mentor was gone, no one had been appointed to run the group, and someone was going to have to step in and fill the leadership vacuum. Matt approached the CEO and offered to fill in until they could find a more permanent solution, and he agreed. Matt knew he’d feel some growing pains: in addition to facing the same challenges every leader faces, like motivating his team, managing performance, and delivering results, he had the added complication of being an unofficial boss to some of his current peers. But rather than get discouraged, Matt decided it was the perfect opportunity to turn his problems into solutions—that is, he set a goal to develop the skills he’d need to earn the permanent job.
Most people instinctively know that when faced with a challenge, finding solutions is the most productive choice—which might explain why bosses enjoy barking adages like “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”—but particularly in the business world, we still spend inordinate amounts of time focused on problems and comparatively little on how to fix them. Yet not only does focusing on solutions—a technique called solutions-mining—help us reach our goals in record time; it has the surprising benefit of helping us think less but understand more. For example, in one study, participants completed a three-month life-coaching program that focused on setting goals and measuring their progress toward them. Not only did the program help participants reach their goals in record time, they showed less introspection and more self-awareness. Another study demonstrated that people sustained this progress nearly eight months later. As an added bonus, solutions-mining is a powerful antidote to rumination.
The data on solutions-mining are so compelling that the field of psychology has formed an entire discipline based on the premise that focusing on them can produce insight, well-being, and success. Developed in the 1980s by married couple Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, an approach called Solutions Focused Brief Therapy has produced dramatic improvements in things like depression, recidivism, stress and crisis management, and psychological and social functioning in populations such as parents, prisoners, adolescents with behavior problems, healthcare workers, and couples struggling with their marriages. And for our purposes, the approach has also been associated with greater insight and psychological growth.
If you want to increase your ability to mine problems for solutions, a simple but powerful tool is the Miracle Question (you might recognize it from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch). Developed by de Shazer and Berg, the Miracle Question produces insight everywhere from the workplace to our home life to the therapist’s couch; it’s even been shown to help golfers reduce their putting yips (i.e., jerks in their putting stroke). So what is the Miracle Question, exactly?
Imagine that tonight as you sleep a miracle occurs in your life. A magical momentous happening has completely solved this problem and perhaps rippled out to cover and infinitely improve other areas of your life too…Think for a moment…how is life going to be different now? Describe it in detail. What’s the first thing you’ll notice as you wake up in the morning?
Let’s circle back to Matt. After getting feedback from his team that his biggest problem was delegation, he used the Miracle Question to explore what the solution might look like. If Matt’s problem were magically solved, he thought, the first sign would be that he’d no longer see asking for help as a weakness. Instead, he would embrace it as a method for greater team involvement, improvement, and prosperity.
Matt proceeded to paint a poignant picture of his desired future when the problem was solved (or, as the Heath brothers call it in Switch, a “destination postcard”). One where he would improve his team’s engagement and performance, all while feeling less burdened and more efficient. But notice that Matt’s solution wasn’t an oversimplified single action (“I’ll do a better job delegating”). Instead, he envisioned exactly how both he and his employees would change on a far deeper level.
And indeed, part of the reason that the Miracle Question can be so effective is that it forces us to think more broadly about our aspirations, a key pillar in our self-awareness journey. One unicorn we spoke to echoed this. Emily grew up as one of eight children in a family that struggled to make ends meet. Determined not to repeat her family’s mistakes, she channeled her difficult childhood into motivation to succeed in her career.
Self-awareness can’t happen without goals. I define what I need to accomplish—for example, when I was new to my company, I needed to build strong relationships and establish credibility. The only way to do that was to earn my team’s trust and develop their confidence in me. Any missteps would get me in trouble. So I had to constantly ask myself, How will this action impact my goal?
But when it comes to improving our internal self-awareness, all goals aren’t created equal. And just like Carol Dweck and Carol Diener’s learn-well kids, when we express our goals in terms of how we will learn and grow, it opens us up to a whole new level of insight and achievement. In one study, college students were asked to write two paragraphs about a major life goal and how they were trying to accomplish it. Interestingly, when the students described goals involving learning and growth, they demonstrated improved self-awareness, maturity, and well-being nearly four years later.*3
In Matt’s case, instead of simply vowing to delegate more effectively, he was able to change the way he operated on a deeper level by conquering his fear of asking for help and taking action to inspire and empower his team. For the next several months, Matt continued to work on the skills he’d need to succeed as president, should he be given the opportunity. Eventually, the CEO formally promoted him. Now, more than a year later, Matt continues to exceed expectations. He is a powerful reminder that the sooner we can explore how our challenges can lead to growth, the easier it is to take charge and get what we want out of life.
At this point, you might be wondering how my maiden voyage into the world of mindfulness ended, and whether I lived to tell the tale. On the final day of the meditation course, our group took a long trek through the snow to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. As we crossed an elegant wooden bridge strung with colorful prayer flags, I looked up to see it towering above us—two huge white arches topped with a cone of shining gold, all set in a natural amphitheater of snowy pines. I was surprisingly moved.
After a few awe-inspiring minutes experiencing the breathtaking sight from afar, we took off our shoes and winter jackets and entered the shrine. “Oh wow,” I whispered to Abby as we walked in—and craned our necks to take in a towering golden Buddha beneath an intricately painted ceiling of azure blue.
I was surprised to find myself thinking, “I really hope we get to meditate in here.”
When we did, I finally got it. And no one was more surprised than me. It was as if all weekend, my mind had been a glass of water with dirt swirling around inside it and now, for a few awesome minutes, it was clear. My anxious, Type A, overthinking brain had stopped running at a million miles an hour and was now perfectly calm. In that moment, I understood what all the fuss was about.
On the drive back from Shambhala, I felt happy just to sit in serene silence with my sister—something that had never happened before. There was no need, I realized with a kind of fascinated delight, to fill every second with incessant babble or music. As Abby and I descended from that magical space back into the noisy city, I considered buying myself a meditation cushion and converting half my office into a mindfulness mecca.
The day after my return, with great gusto, I sat and meditated. The day after that, I sat and meditated (though my emotionally needy five-pound rescue poodle made the entire affair pretty difficult). But the day after that, I didn’t sit and meditate. Or the day after that. The day after that, I thought maybe I’d delay my office conversion for a while. I’ll admit that I haven’t meditated since—not because I didn’t see the possibility of what it could do, but because I find that non-meditative techniques just work better for me.
The point is that there are many ways to approach internal self-awareness—life stories for probing our past, meditative and non-meditative mindfulness for noticing our present, and solutions-mining for shaping our future. Though it’s worth trying each of them at some point, you may find that certain tools work better than others. After all, part of building insight is learning what methods of self-exploration work best for you.
*1 It might be helpful to point out that the participants were equally displeased regardless of age, education, income, or social media use.
*2 In case you’re wondering, mindfully eating a raisin goes something like this: “Imagine that you have never seen a raisin before…next rub the raisin gently across your lips, noticing how it feels against them. Now, put the raisin in your mouth, and roll it around slowly on your tongue…take a very small bite…now chew the raisin slowly…” and so on.
*3 And if you’re a fan of the TV show 24, you might be interested to know that the first author of this study was…wait for it…Jack Bauer.