A Little Mindfulness Goes a Long Way

You walk in for your appointment.

You greet the receptionist. She says, “Just have a seat. We’ll call you when we’re ready.” You turn around and there are three chairs, two of them already occupied by people reading a magazine or looking at their phone. You take the empty seat and wait.

A few minutes later a woman on crutches, with a clunky orthopedic boot on, comes hobbling down the corridor toward the waiting room. She struggles with the door, enters, looks around, and seeing no empty chairs, she slumps against the wall, wincing in pain.

What do you do? Do you stand up and hold the door for her? Do you offer her your seat? Of course you do, right? That’s what any conscientious and thoughtful person would do. In fact, when David DeSteno and his researchers asked people what they would do in that circumstance, the overwhelming majority said they would stand and offer their seat.

Then they staged the experiment, with an actor on crutches and actors in the other chairs instructed to ignore the injured woman. Initially, they picked 19 people to go through the experiment. The participants thought they were in a room waiting for the experiment to begin, but the waiting room was the experiment. Of those 19 people, only 3 actually stood and offered to help. Three. That’s 16%. The researchers were so surprised they repeated the study and got the same results.

I know. It’s appalling. But in his research, DeSteno admits that they stacked the deck a little. Since the other actors were told to ignore the person on crutches, they had set up a classic bystander effect in which it’s hard to act against the behavior of those around them.

But still, 16%? That’s pretty disappointing. Then the researchers added just one change to the experiment. The next group of research participants were asked to engage in eight weeks of meditation training before they entered the waiting room. For eight weeks participants met regularly with Buddhist master Lama Willa Miller who offered instruction and guidance in meditation practice. Lama Miller also provided audio recordings for participants to practice at home.

That’s it. That’s the only difference. All participants had no prior meditation experience at all. Half of the participants meditated regularly for eights weeks. The other half did not. The results? Fifty percent (50%) of the group that meditated acknowledged the woman’s distress, stood up, engaged her in conversation, helped her with the door, and offered her their chair.

DeSteno has been researching the impact of regular mindfulness practice on human behavior for years, and what he has discovered is that simple meditation and mindfulness leads consistently to empathy and compassion for others. That compassion for others leads to a sense of self-control, willingness, and ability to make a difference to others.

In short, then, our research suggests that mindfulness’s most profound benefit may not be the one that’s most often touted—adapting to a stressful, competitive, even unkind 24/7 world. Instead, meditation might fundamentally alter how we treat those around us.
– David DeSteno, Ph.D.

Don’t be put off or intimidated by the idea of meditation. You don’t have to get into the lotus position, invoke a deity, and unlock your third eye chakra. The basic ingredients of meditation are simple and readily available – even in the midst of a crazy day. You need only a quiet place, focused attention, relaxed breathing, a comfortable position, and an open attitude.

Grab a copy of David DeSteno’s book here. It’s packed with research and ideas on the power of leveraging emotion – not just sheer willpower – to live a more connected and fulfilling life.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Turn off Your Notifications. Seriously. Do It.

Casey just commented on a post you are following!

Turn off your push notifications. The alerts, app banners, pocket vibrations, ringtones, the little email preview pop-ups. Do you depend on them for your job? Is it really urgent? Is it? Turn them off. All of them.

“The effectiveness of communication is not defined by the communication, but by the response.”
– Milton Ericsson

If you know your daughter is going to text you and you welcome her note, go ahead and leave your text alerts on. Or maybe you’re expecting an important call from your office. OK, leave your call ringer on. This is an example of purposely using technology designed around an intentional life. You are driving. But when you leave indiscriminate push notifications on, you are no longer in control. You just put yourself in the back seat and gave the keys to a schizophrenic.

Kim viewed your profile!

Understand that for each notification you permit – be it a welcome text from your daughter or an alert from Twitter – you are allowing someone else to dictate your time. You are allowing some company, service, product, or marketing department to hijack your time.

Polly likes your comment!

The creators of push notifications claim they exist for your benefit. Wrong. The alerts are not designed exclusively for your benefit. Remember, you are the product. The notifications exist for the benefit of Instagram, or Facebook, or LinkedIN, or WhatsApp, or TikTok, or whatever RSS river you are standing waist deep in. The goal is not to enrich your life. The goal is to slow you down, steal your attention. The goal is to drive you to their platform, because their platform is where they can redirect your attention again. Pretty soon you are way downstream from where you were a minute ago. And the view is very different.

The problem is not the device. Devices are useful. My Mom used to call her laptop her “cognitive prosthesis.” It’s an apt description. Your phone is a computational appendage right there in your pocket, and it’s incredibly powerful when in service of an intentionally designed life.

Luca likes your photo!

Many people claim they don’t mind the noise. Maybe you are interested in vacations in Italy. So you wander through a few websites looking at Italian villas, and suddenly ads showing photos of Tuscany are following you around the web. Some people say they enjoy being stalked by ideas and products that interest them. It’s like having your own conversational elf perched on your shoulder who chimes in periodically on your favorite topic, and reinforcing your urges. That’s fine. Just understand that you are the target. You are the mark.

Evelyn shared a post!

Push notifications originated in 2003 by Research in Motion. They built a “feature” into the Blackberry in which users didn’t have to go check for email, they could receive a notification altering them that they received one. So convenient! So easy! Apple was paying attention and in 2009 rolled out their own “APNS, the Apple Push Notification Service.” Pretty quickly responding to notifications became the default manner in which we interacted with our devices. No longer did we need to take control and decide how to navigate and interact with our devices. The device would simply tell us what to do.

Congratulate Chris for starting a new position!

Digitally triggered distraction is making our conversations less meaningful, our attention more splintered, and our decisions less satisfying. The research is towering. We’ve known for years that old-school analog note-taking and handwriting reinforces retention and comprehension. And nearly 90% of us understand that the mere presence of devices detracts from the quality of our conversations, and yet we do it anyway.

Take control. Use technology around a life you design, not a life designed by algorithms.

Speaking of building an intentionally-designed life, check out Mindscaling’s new series on Civility in the Workplace.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Gratitude Is Not About the Past. It Guides Our Future.

We think gratitude is about the past. It’s not. Gratitude feels like an emotion in which we reflect on a past event, or previous moment, or sometimes a specific person, and what they did for us or how they made us feel.

We think about that past place and time and person and feel a sense of appreciation and thankfulness. But gratitude isn’t just a passive, reflective experience. It’s an active driver of what we’re going to do next, how we are going to cooperate with others, treat people around us, and take action.

Gratitude is an emotional driver that guides our future action. Gratitude may be born of a reflective and thoughtful moment, but that emotion is a psychological driver of our own future behavior toward others.

Feeling indebted is not feeling gratitude. Feeling indebted is a feeling of Oh crap, now I have to pay them back, or What a hassle. I guess I have to go rake their leaves now. It’s obligation without the thankfulness. It’s personal demand without the joy.

We feel grateful when we think others have invested in us and we feel a joyful calling to reciprocate. Sociologist Georg Simmel calls gratitude the “moral memory” of humankind. When we feel grateful, we are more willing to act on behalf of someone who helped us, because if we don’t, the relationship dies. That’s the nature of relationships. And we all need relationships in life to thrive.

David DeSteno and his colleagues at Northeastern University wondered how people would behave if they could induce a feeling of gratitude in a laboratory. DeSteno and his team brought pairs of students into his lab – one was an actual research participant, the other person was secretly an actor hired by the lab team.

Sitting side by side, researchers asked both participants to complete a long, boring task on a computer. Just as they were completing the task, the student’s computer was programmed to crash, and the participant lost all of their work. They would often curse or groan in frustration. Meanwhile, the actor happily completed the assignment, pressed a button to submit their work, and prepared to leave.

A researcher would enter the room, see that the computer had crashed, and tell the participant that unfortunately they had to do it all over again, saying, “Sorry, there’s really no other choice.” They would then leave the room.

The actor was coached to observe this interaction and say something like, “Well I might be late for my work-study job, but I’m pretty good at computers. Maybe I can fix it. Let me help.” The actor would then pretend to work hard at fixing the problem for a few minutes, then strike a secret set of keys, and magically ‘fix’ the problem. As you can imagine the research participant was delighted they didn’t have to do the entire onerous job over, and deeply grateful for the help.

So, it’s no surprise what happens next. The researchers asked the actor in the experiment to later stand outside the building and pretend to be working on a school project and asking for volunteers to fill out a brief survey. The grateful research participants happily filled out the survey and spent 30% more time contributing to help.

You’re thinking, Well sure, they’re just paying it back. Well, maybe. In the next version of the experiment, the actor standing in front of the building was a complete stranger, the research participant had never met. Yet now, newly infused with a feeling of gratitude after the savior rescued them when the computer crashed, that grateful research participant was not only more likely to volunteer to help a complete stranger, but they also spent significantly more time on the survey than the control groups who were not induced for gratitude.

This is but one small experiment, of many, that DeSteno has conducted on the power of gratitude to cause people to be more generous, invest more time, and contribute more often to loved ones, as well as complete strangers. Gratitude doesn’t just make you happier. It also makes the world a happier place, because you will feel joyfully compelled to be helpful to others.

“Gratitude really isn’t so much about paying it back, as it is paying it forward.
– David DeSteno, Ph.D.”

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Stop Complaining. Take Control. Reprogram Your Brain.

Two workers sit down and open their lunch boxes. The first one says, “I got a meatloaf sandwich for lunch. I hate meatloaf.” The next day she opens her lunchbox, and exclaims, “Another meatloaf sandwich! I can’t stand meatloaf.” On the third day, yet another meatloaf sandwich shows up in the lunchbox.

Her friend says, “Why don’t you just ask your husband to make something else for lunch instead of complaining about it every day?”
“I make my own lunch.” She replies.

If you’re unhappy, change something. You are in control.

You look out the window and see that its rainy and cold. That’s an observation. But then you say out loud, “It sucks that it’s rainy and cold today.” Now you’re adding a negative descriptor. On the other hand, if you add “Looks like winter is coming. I can’t wait to go skiing!” then you’ve added a positive twist.

Complaining is self-reinforcing. Complaining begets complaining. And the more you complain, the more you look for things to complain about. The more we reinforce those negative neural pathways, the more available and accessible they become. Sound like anyone you know if your life?

Even if you’re not naturally a complainer, the topics you choose to talk about can set you down a negative mental path. About 30 times a day, we complain about all kinds of things. Topics such as our weight, the weather, traffic, prices, crime, politicians, health care, government, the image of America in the world, environment pollution, and views on the police, all prompt more negative inclinations in our minds.

Initiating discussions on these topics are more likely to put you in a bad mood, and more likely to bum out the people around you, because our moods are contagious. Constantly focusing on what goes wrong, or what you don’t like, or who offended you, or how the chef ruined your meal, simply perpetuates a conversation about what’s wrong.

The average person has no awareness of their own complaining. According to Will Bowen, it’s like bad breath. You are only aware of someone else’s, not your own.

This isn’t a message to shut up, and suck it up. This is a message to stick to the facts, not indignation. When you say to the waiter, “Why did you serve me cold soup?” you are saying How dare you offend me like this? When you say to the waiter, “Did you know the soup is cold?” you are saying Would you please warm this up for me? Focusing on complaining is focusing on the problem. Focusing on facts is focusing on solutions.

Guy Winch, Ph.D. says people enjoy complaining because they find it a bonding mechanism. Winch says, “complaints can make us feel like we connect with someone because we have a mutual dissatisfaction about something.”

The most important thing to remember is that you are responsible for making your own luck.

Here’s a trick to get started. Take the 21-day Complaint-Free Challenge. It’s pretty straighforward. You put on the bracelet on either wrist. If you complain, you switch to the other hand. It gives you an instant awareness of your complaint level.

And if you think your life is too stressful and crazy to start a challenge like this, I’ll tell you I’m only going to the gym after I get in shape. The time for taking charge of your life is always now.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Yes, Life is Crazy but You Don’t Need to Be Alone

Hi there! Sorry its taken a while to write you back. My life is insane right now. I can’t focus on anything and sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe. But you know how crazy life is these days!
My commute is a white knuckle mess and my work is a disaster. I swear any second I’m going to get fired. Then what?! I can barely pay my bills now. But the weekends have been gorgeous, right? We took the kids hiking on Sunday to make up for my total meltdown in front of them. I’m convinced I’m a horrible parent. I know I only screamed at the kids because I can’t sleep. Anyway, enough of that. Let’s have coffee soon. I miss you.

We don’t tell the whole truth. We conceal ourselves because we’re scared of humiliation, or shame, or burdening others with our stories. Or maybe of appearing weak. Yet when we consistently conceal our feelings, we also alienate ourselves from those around us. We start to check out. And that sense of personal isolation is increasing year over year. The result is that we are all feeling a little more detached, alone, and polarized. There is a strong correlation between that feeling of isolation and decreasing empathy around the world.

The strength of our society, our communities, our companies, and the collaboration which drives our innovation, is all based on the power of us to connect, communicate, and ideate together. Our shared imagination is, indeed, our most powerful human trait. Our complex language allows to talk about things that do not exist at all – except in our collective imaginations.

Things like currency, the United Nations, or Roman Gods exist only in our minds. Two lawyers who have never met, can still collaborate on the civil rights of someone arrested, because of their shared belief system. Karl Benz patented his first Motorwagon in 1886, and Mercedes-Benz today employs about 145,000 people – most of whom are complete strangers to one another, yet all united in one shared vision and goal.

An important place to connect with others is in our communal settings, like coffee shops and grocery stores. But even simple things like grocery shopping can be outsourced and automated. The result is that our world is becoming more and more transactional and anonymous.

It’s time to start paying attention to our social relationships the same way we pay attention to our diet and exercise.
– Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD

Urbanization is increasing. Now, over 82% of Americans live in urban settings. People are migrating to cities and leaving the countryside. In a strange irony, cities have a much higher percentage of people claiming to feel lonely than rural environments.

Loneliness makes our lives shorter, our bodies more subject to disease, our minds vulnerable to depression and mental illness, and our lives generally less joyful.

Empathy is a simple term but a complex idea. It’s about how one person responds to the emotions to another. It’s about recognizing what someone else is feeling and catching their joy, fear, or pain. Empathy is a concern for another person and desire for them to have greater well being.

We are all leaders somewhere, in some capacity – in our book clubs, in our town halls, on our sports teams, in our families, or at work. As leaders, we all have a responsibility and opportunity to guide the culture of that environment to be more connected, more empathetic.

Here’s a quick and fun exercise to deepen empathy on your team. Think of someone on your team and finish a sentence below. It’s not only an affirmation of the other person, it’s also an empathetic thought process.

  • Something I learned from you recently is . . .
  • I like your personality because . . .
  • I know I can count on you when . . .
  • I really appreciate it when you . . .
  • Some adjectives that describe you are . . .
  • I always am impressed by the way you . . .
  • I look forward to seeing you because . . .
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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Your Vulnerability is an Act of Courage

Imagine you just got in a disagreement with your colleague. You had one idea, they had another. In the moment, the stakes were high. You were adamant. You were right! And besides, they were being ridiculous.

Or imagine you got in an annoying little passive-aggressive argument about nothing with your partner. Something small like who fills the gas tank more often, or who does the dishes, or who takes the trash out more often – a petty kind of argument about keeping score, the greatest of losing games.

In either example, now imagine you are the first to apologize. You are the first to reach out and say words of kindness, or words of reconciliation. How does that makes you feel? You might feel vulnerable, or weak, or embarrassed perhaps. But definitely hesitant. Now imagine something even more vulnerable. Imagine confessing romantic feelings or deep personal doubts or weaknesses to our partner. It can be scary right?

When we admit fault or show vulnerability, we often feel inadequate or shameful.

Now imagine it’s the other person that comes to you first. Your colleague or your partner steps up and says, “I’m sorry that happened. I see your point. I’m sorry I was frustrated and upset.”

When we imagine ourselves showing vulnerability in these situations, we cringe. It often makes we feel small and weak and scared. But when we see others act in these very same ways, we are often inspired and attracted to that person. We see strength in their honesty. While we feel embarrassed or ashamed by revealing ourselves, we can be inspired and impressed when others do it.

When we see others show vulnerability, we often see courage. We see the beautiful, honest mess of a human being that we all are on some level. Yet when we practice vulnerability ourselves, we feel inadequate. Here are a few ideas to help our courage in moments when we reveal we are, in fact, a beautiful, complicated mess of a human being.

Call it what it is. Awkward! You go into a department store and try on a jacket. It was the jacket of another customer. You’re checking out at the grocery store. The pregnant cashier says, “Have a nice day.” You say, “Have a nice baby.” {Smack forehead} These true stories of idiocy go on.

Make fun of your situation. When you call out the comedy and hilarity of a vulnerable moment, you diffuse the tension and appear more confident and courageous to others.

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is the act of mindfully acknowledging whatever pain, ill thought, or difficulty we are confronted with, and treating ourselves with humanity and care. It’s the very opposite of the harsh, critical language we often use on ourselves.

Let it go. Seriously, blow it off. Whatever silly or embarrassing comment you made will linger much longer in your own head than in others. Other people, particularly those who care about you are much more likely to assume best intentions and let it go. You should too.

For some people the craving for authentic interactions and relationships is so strong they join the “Authentic Revolution” and attend regular meetings in which the goal of the evening is to be open, forthright and honest. According to participants it can be quite a rush.

“Just revealing something vulnerable about yourself can be its own rush, it can be its own thrill.”
– Bryan Bayer, co-founder of the Authenticity Revolution

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Add Gratitude to Your Grit. Stir.

We’re told if we can only be a little grittier, a little tougher, we can keep our promises to ourselves, go to the gym more, finish the book, and generally be a better version of ourselves. “Stick-to-it-iveness” can be an excellent predictor of achievement and success for some people. Just look at Michael Phelps, Shaun White, or Lindsey Vonn. Hours upon hours of quiet toil at their sport. And then they win.

Must be the grit, right? Who *wouldn’t* expect these superstars to have grit? But willpower alone is demanding and exhausting. Willpower will likely wane over time and can be harmful to our emotional and physical well-being.

Stress, anxiety and loneliness are increasing globally, and in those circumstances, emphasizing grit can have a negative effect. When you tell someone who is stressed-out to simply work harder, and lean in to their work, you’re telling them to rely on their internal willpower. And when that gives out, they often wind up telling themselves that they aren’t good enough. That’s where a good dose of self-compassion comes in.

David DeStano has been studying the intersection of grit (self-focus) and gratitude (social-focus) for years and has discovered there are some powerful side effects when you combine the two. Grit is your own perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Gratitude is appreciation and thankfulness for others. When you combine the two, you get individual excellence plus generosity and collaboration.

Gratitude is not only an emotion experienced in the past, it’s an emotion that guides future action. The reason you go over to your friends house on a rainy Sunday at 8am to help move their furniture into a truck is because you care for them. Over the years your friend has made numerous gestures of kindness and generosity. You feel grateful. And the reason you want to help is to maintain the strength of your relationships.

In a series of DeStano’s studies, he found that when you feel a sense of gratitude towards someone, you don’t just want to help them in return, you want to help just about anyone – even complete strangers.

In one amusing study, he and his colleagues took a group of graduate students and divided them in pairs. Each pair had to go into a quiet computer room and perform a difficult and tedious task on a computer. It was an awful task that took half an hour.

The two of them were left alone to chat and get to know each other while they performed the task. However, one of the two people in the room was a confederate, secretly an agent for the researchers.

While they both worked on the task, the confederate would finish first. As they were leaving, the computer of the research subject would crash and go blank, ruining all of their work. The confederate would then offer to help “fix” the computer, claiming they had some IT expertise. After working on the computer for several minutes, the confederate would strike a secret set of keys and *surprisingly* reset the computer, saving all of the long and arduous work.

The research subject is grateful of course. And later, when the confederate asks for help on a separate school-related project, the person primed for gratitude was more likely to be helpful, and help for a longer period of time. That’s no surprise.

The surprise came when the researchers introduced complete strangers who then asked for help on a school project. In that circumstance, research subjects primed to be grateful were almost twice as likely to help a complete stranger, and spend more time helping them.

In DeStano’s work, he has discovered that a sense of gratitude is linked to achieving longer term goals because gratitude is a social emotion. It’s a feeling that comes from experiencing, or thinking about, others in our lives. And when we reflect on our gratitude toward others, we reinforce our commitment to them and want to strengthen those bonds.

That sense of community and gratitude then strengthens our own resolve to persevere toward our own goals. It’s a reinforcing cycle.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

A More Powerful Way to Build Habits

I’m trying to play more guitar. So I took the guitar out of the closet, tuned it up, and keep it by my desk, within reach. It works. I play more. It’s a small, simple habit stack that helps me achieve a small goal. But what about longer term goals, bigger goals – the kind which require persistent effort, and the outcome is unclear and far away? Like saving monthly for retirement, or eating kale?

Previously I wrote about the notion of activation energy – which is basically the idea that if you make something bad for you harder to do, you will be less likely to do it. And inversely if you make something good for you easier to do, you will be more likely to do it.

So, for example, if you want to go running tomorrow you place your running gear next to your bed so it’s the first thing you see in the morning and it’s easily accessible to put on. Or if you want to stop eating ice cream, you simply stop buying it, so in order to eat ice cream at 9pm it would require you put on go-in-public clothes and drive to the corner store and buy it. You might, but it would be a hassle.

The ability to delay gratification, and value the future more than the present, seems to be the holy grail for better health, better relationships, and better careers. But the prevailing themes we keep hearing in the media are about grit, tenacity, and perseverance. And often the advice to be grittier comes across as the importance of being more robotic, more cerebral, and more disciplined.

This is an argument in which we try to remove temptation, remove emotion, and take away the stress of dealing with temptation and bad choices, and create better habits simply by applying some self-discipline, and some cool tricks and life hacks. James Clear has lots of habit tricks that I greatly enjoy and apply.

David DeSteno, professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, has different ideas. His research suggests that the disciplined habit-tweaking approach described above is basically a form of impulse control. If our impulse is to do something that has long term negative consequences, then we need only change the environment and circumstance, and be a little mentally tougher, to help control that impulse.

DeStano argues that exercising self-control as a rational, logical approach to solving an emotional self-control dilemma is another way of suppressing our immediate desires. It’s not really human, and it’s not our instinct. DeStano suggests that we may get more powerful results not by rejecting, controlling or diminishing our emotions, but instead by activating the right kinds of emotions and leaning in to those, and using emotion as fuel instead of denying it.

Let me explain. We do have self-control, but our self-control did not evolve to maximize our 401k. Self-control evolved to make us better collaborators with other people. Because if you are viewed as sharing and compassionate and generous, then you are trustworthy and others will work with you, help you and share with you. And when you can figure out how to be a trustworthy collaborator, you are more likely to be part of a tribe and survive longer when the hyenas come around.

The kind of self-control to avoid buying a new car in order to maximize our 401k is an intellectual, rational kind of control. It’s not always easy to simply will ourselves to not eat the ice cream, or not have another drink, or to go to the gym after work. This is because we naturally devalue the impact of our short-term choices and we have a hard time imagining the long-term impact on our future selves. Basically we have a hard time envisioning our future selves because we think we won’t change.

Yes, we recognize that in the past we did change. Look at those photos of young me. I was so silly and naive. But now that we’ve evolved into who we are today, we think we’re all done changing.

It’s easy to look back on our past selves with a kind of bemused, slightly embarrassed recollection, because we can see how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned and developed. But at the same time we are terrible at imagining our future selves. We think who we are today is who we will be in the future. Wrong. We are always changing.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you have ever been.
– Dan Gilbert

The key to envisioning a positive and healthy future version of you is to tap into those emotions which activate future thinking. Gratitude is a powerful emotion for envisioning a positive future self. We often think of gratitude as a reflective emotion, as in “I’m so grateful Sally and Barbara helped me through my difficult break-up with Marcus.” But gratitude is a powerful emotion for guiding our future actions. If we’re so grateful for Sally and Barbara, we are likely to envision ways to reciprocate. We’re likely to imagine who we will be in the future when we are helping Sally and Barbara because of our sense of deep gratitude.

The emotion of gratitude relies on our connection to others. The emotion exists to ensure that we reciprocate and continue building our relationships. If Sally and Barbara help us out, and we never reciprocate because we don’t care or we don’t understand empathy, then the relationship dies.

DeStano argues that the right kinds of emotions to drive the choices and habits that create a better version of ourselves are the morally-toned emotions of gratitude, compassion and authentic pride of a job well done. Morally-toned emotions are the kinds of emotions that make us feel connected with one another, and help us envision a shared future together, and therefore help us value longer term benefits.

In DeStano’s research they asked participants to place values on immediate versus future rewards, and found that on-average, people valued $17 right now as roughly equal to receiving $100 in a year. In other words, almost everyone would rather have a little bit now instead of a lot more later.

Then they primed their research participants to think of something they are grateful for, and found that participants began to almost double the value of future benefits. After priming for gratitude, it would take nearly $33 right now in order to have the same value as $100 in a year. Gratitude and compassion seem to have the capacity to encourage people to place a higher value on their future selves, and thus encourage people to make better long term decisions.

But don’t get lost in focusing on just future benefits. Gratitude and compassion have been demonstrated to reduce blood pressure, increase immune responses, allow people to sleep better and a whole host of other immediate mental and physical benefits.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

The Subtle Art of Being Direct Instead of Being Blunt

“If you want to get your point across, be direct; if you want to destroy any chance of doing so, be blunt.”
– Mark Goulston, Ph.D.

Have you read any David Sedaris? Or better, have you seen one of his shows? The things he says are appalling. My wife and I went to see Sedaris recently. He stands at a lectern and reads his own material in a fairly deadpan manner. In the first few minutes I thought it might be boring. Oh, was I wrong.

He says things out loud in front of a thousand strangers that most people would blush just thinking about. He says things that leave you gobsmacked, wondering, “Did he just say that?” It’s a kind of shock theater he is especially good at.

We go to comedy hour or the theatre to hear something surprising or alarming or shocking. But we don’t go to work to hear our colleagues be crass or rude or smart-ass.

There’s a subtle difference between being blunt and being direct. Think of these two things in terms of tools. A sledgehammer is a blunt force tool. Needle-nose pliers or wood planes require subtle care, even artistry, to use well. It’s the same idea with words. Remember, the words we use not only shape other people’s impression and reaction to us, our words also shape the way we think and act in the world. Choose well, and use words with care.

I’ve been re-reading Goulston’s book Get Out of Your Own Way, and he has some great advice for trying to discern between being blunt and being direct.

  • Slow down. The next time you think about barking out a response or shooting from the hip, take a deep breath and sit up straight. Those two little things will slow you down, and help you think.
  • Respect boundaries. You may think someone else’s boundaries are stupid, but respect them. If you colleague says they want a quiet hour to get something done, give them that space. You may only have a quick, easy question, but that small disruption could derail their thought and energy.
  • You do care. When you get ready to spout off about something and you think to yourself, “I don’t give a damn what they think.” Think again. If you really didn’t care you would walk away. Ask yourself instead, “Why am I trying to get a reaction out of them?” You might have a good reason, and you might craft that comment better.
  • WWJD? What would ______ do? It doesn’t have to be Jesus, of course. Think of someone you love and admire, and ask yourself, “What would they do in this situation?” Do that instead.

Remember, you’re an artist, not a rock-smasher. When interacting with other people, you want influence, and influence starts with empathy and understanding.

Learn how to be confident, consistent, and calm in the middle of chaos by elevating your leadership presence. Check out the Art of Leadership Presence from Mindscaling.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.

Your Stubborn Optimism Is Contributing to Your Success

One day, the farmer’s horse jumps the fence and runs off. The farmer’s neighbor stops by and says, “I’m so sorry. That’s terrible news.”

The farmer shrugs and says, “Who knows if it’s good or bad news.”

Several days later, the horse returns with six other wild horses who have followed him home. The neighbor stops by and says, “That’s amazing! What wonderful luck!”

The farmer shrugs and says, “Who knows if it’s good or bad news.”

Soon after the wild horses have come to live in their pasture, the farmer’s son is thrown from a horse while trying to tame it. He breaks his leg in the fall and is bound to a wheelchair while he heals. The neighbor stops by and says, “What a horrible accident. I’m so sorry for your son and your family.”

The farmer shrugs and says, “Who knows if it’s good or bad news.”

While his son is healing in his wheelchair, the militia marches through the town, conscripting all able-bodied young people to serve in the war. The farmer’s son is spared from serving in the military. Again, the neighbor stops by and says, “What fortune that your son does not have to join the army.”

The farmer shrugs and says, “Who knows if it’s good or bad news.”

You get the point. This fable can go on and on. It’s about how our interpretation of events is a result of our view of the world, our innate sense of hope or despair. But hope and optimism aren’t quite the same thing. According to researcher Tali Sharot:

Hope is what you want to happen. Optimism is the belief that what you want to happen will happen.
– Tali Sharot, Ph.D.

Some people say the key to happiness is low expectations. The idea being that if we keep our expectations low, we aren’t likely to be disappointed, and therefore when things do go our way, we’ll be pleasantly surprised. But it turns out that most people aren’t pessimistic. Only 4% of us claim to be full-on pessimists, and that’s a good thing.

We (and by “we” I mean everyone – men, women, old, young, western culture, eastern culture, rich, poor…) commonly overestimate our own optimistic outlook of the world. Statistically we think we are more attractive, more likely to get promoted, more likely to stay married, and less likely to get in a car accident because we’re better drivers than most other people too. And through it all, we think we’re more modest than the next person too.

Privately, we hold more optimistic expectations for ourselves, our loved ones, and our children, yet hold more pessimistic expectations for strangers. Although the actual chance of getting some form of cancer during your lifetime is about 35%, most people think it will happen to the other guy.

This optimism bias turns out to be a good thing because – although it can lead us to underestimate our chances of developing illness, getting divorced, or getting in a car accident – it also leads us to be more cheerful and excited about our own future.

That innate optimism bias allows us to have more favorable expectations of upcoming events in our lives, which in turn, lets us be happier and healthier in the long term, in part because we expect it. According to the scientist Tali Sharot, it’s optimistic anticipation that keeps us cheerful, and that sunny outlook on life comes from the belief that we have control over our future.

The reason we are more optimistic about ourselves is because we believe we have control over our lives. And the reason we are more pessimistic about bigger ideas like the economy, climate change, or real estate markets because we believe we have no control. So when we think about the upcoming weekend, we can get excited about the plans we have made and when we think about the giant project we are on, we might believe it’s going to fail because we have little control over the outcome and success.

Here’s the big idea. When we take a moment to reflect on how our own decisions, efforts and emotions make a positive difference in the world around us, we are more likely to be optimistic about the outcome, which actually makes it more likely to happen, precisely *because* we take control. It can be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Go forth and never apologize for your smile.

Start one small act at a time. Try our course Small Acts of Leadership to build action into your life every single day.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? I love to work with groups large and small. Let’s talk.

Last summer, my son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.