Do You Have a Job or a Calling?

There’s nothing quite so inspiring as seeing someone embrace their work in the pursuit of excellence, or in service of a greater mission. And there’s nothing quite so moving as witnessing small acts of excellence, generosity, and kindness. Often the most moving and inspiring stories are about competitors who become comrades, or everyday people taking deep pride in their work.

There’s this beautiful story of high school runner Meghan Vogel, who helps her fallen competitor, Arden McMath, cross the finish line of the 2012 Ohio State Track meet. And then there’s this story of quiet dedication and inspiration Martin Seligman recounts in his book Authentic Happiness…

Years ago Seligman was visiting a dear friend in the hospital. His friend Bob Miller was a vibrant, joyful man, and at the age of eighty-one still an avid runner, tennis player, and gregarious person. Miller had been hit by a truck while running, and now lay in a coma for the third day in a hospital bed.

The neurologist gently asked Seligman to consider Miller’s “advance directive” order, and consider removing the life support system. Seligman was distraught considering the possibility that his friend would never rise again. He asked for a moment of quiet, the doctor left the room, and Seligman sat down in a chair to watch the orderly working in the room.

The orderly was quietly rearranging art on the walls. He took down a calendar, pinned up a Monet print, and then took two Winslow Homer prints from his bag and placed them with consideration on the walls. Next to Miller’s bedside he taped a photograph of a Peace rose.

Seligman gently asked the orderly what he was doing, and the man replied, “My job? I’m an orderly on this floor. But I bring in new prints and photos every week. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in here. But when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away.”

In Martin Luther King Jr’s “Street Sweeper” speech he said,

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry… if you can’t be the sun, be a star. It isn’t by size that you win or you fail. Be the best at whatever you are.”

Some people have jobs, some have careers, and some have callings. A calling is a pursuit of something greater than oneself, and often the path which creates the greatest inspiration for others.


Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 2.45.37 PMShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful elearning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. He is also the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes and his new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Bibliomotion, October 4, 2016).

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Destroy One Fear, Change Your Life

What’s one of your biggest fears? Spiders maybe? Public speaking? Annual performance reviews?

Let’s say it’s snakes. Many people are terrified of snakes. Picture one now in your mind. Now imagine that you are being asked to stand near the snake. Now you are being asked to touch it, or even hold it.

Albert Bandura is 90 years old now and widely considered one of the greatest living psychologists, and among the greatest ever alongside BF Skinner, Freud and Paiget. Dr. Bandura still practices in his office at Stanford today.

Over forty years ago he started experimenting with helping people overcome their phobias, and he started working with people who are afraid of snakes. These are people who had such profound paralyzing fear of snakes that they were terrified of even walking in a park or a garden lest they might come across one. Their phobia of snakes had truly become a limiting factor in their quality of life.

He would bring the patient into his office and tell them that there is a snake in the next room, behind that door, and that they are going to go in there and touch it. You can imagine the reaction. Most patients told Dr. Bandura what he could do with that idea! There was no way on earth they were going in there. Ever.

Our daughter holding a tarantula.

Our daughter holding a tarantula.

First Dr. Bandura would have the patient stand behind a one-way mirror facing the adjacent room and have the patient look at the snake being held by a veterinarian. The patients would often panic in belief that the snake was going to suddenly attack and strangle the veterinarian. But instead the snake was held comfortably and lazily by the handler.

Next Dr. Bandura would ask the patient to put on thick leather gloves and even a protective mask, if they wish, and stand in the same room as the snake. And finally, Bandura and his patient would gradually approach the handler and the snake. Over time using this slow approach he called “guided mastery”, his patients developed the ability to touch the snake with a gloved hand, and ultimately even hold the snake in their own hands.

And just like that, their phobia would be gone. Dr. Bandora checked in with his patients in the days and weeks after they left his offices, and universally he discovered that their phobias stayed gone. In one interview with a patient long after her session with the snake, she recounted having a dream in which a friendly boa constrictor helped her wash the dishes. Another patient was able to wear a necklace for the first time in her life. And another patient dramatically increased their real estate sales because they were no longer afraid to show rural properties.

The post-snake-touching interviews with his former patients also revealed something more profound. Many of his former patients reported that once they had been cured of a once-debilitating phobia, they started trying out other new activities. Some started doing public speaking, or taking more audacious risks in their professional work. One patient started horseback riding. In general his patients reported feeling more free, more uninhibited by fear.

Bandura’s conclusion from his research was that by destroying one fear in their life, people had begun to develop the mindset that they could change other paralyzing aspects of their lives as well.

If you can destroy one of your fears, it could affect your entire life.


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful elearning courses based on the work of thought-leaders and authors. He is also the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Why Energy is More Important Than Skills and Results


I had an interview recently with Victor Cho. Victor is currently the CEO of Evite, the digital invitation service. You may have used them to organize a dinner event, or your kid’s birthday party. Evite currently has about 70 employees, which as he describes, is big enough to offer a full spectrum of organizational challenges, yet small enough to remain nimble in this volatile technology market.

In our conversation, Victor pointed out that competitive advantage comes down to the quality of the people. Talent is everything. When it comes to hiring, and placing the right people in the right roles at Evite, Victor thinks in three dimensions.

Skills and Capabilities
First, do they have the skills and capabilities to do the job, and are they willing to constantly learn and gain new capabilities. As he described, it’s certainly important that people arrive with great skills for whatever role they are applying for, but more importantly he looks for a constant willingness to learn, grow and develop new capabilities along the way. This is the growth mindset every top contributor needs.

Points on the Board
The second criteria Victor considers is how much contribution are they making to organizational goals? It’s something Victor refers to as “points on the board.” That is, how many hard, measurable contributions are people making toward the company’s vision. He’s patient with this criteria. It can take time and inertia to put points on the board.

Energy Accretion
The final criteria Victor looks for is something he calls “energy accretion.” Accretion is a fancy word simply meaning “to build gradually” or “to grow.” His expression means how much do people in the organization contribute to, and accelerate, the positive energy of those around them. If “points on the board” is the science, then “energy accretion” is the art.

Victor defines “energy accretion” as one’s ability to build a positive sense of curiosity, enthusiasm, and can-do attitude on the team. Victor views this subjective, and hard-to-quantify trait as the most important characteristic.

Victor has the least patience with those who disrupt the chemistry in the organization. The other two factors about skills and contribution, he is more forgiving and patient. Here’s why: Skills can be learned and developed, and points on the board can be coached, and often outside factors can get in the way of contributing hard results.

Bad chemistry and negative mojo can quickly spoil the energy of an entire team. In Victor’s opinion, this is where many leaders can often get sidetracked. In his experience, leaders and managers often hold measurable contributions in highest esteem.

This is an easy trap to fall into. After all, if we want results, who cares how it gets done, right? This is a mistake. When we start to reward results by any means, at any cost, we celebrate lone heroes, and place individuals above the team. Because in the long run, it’s teamwork and collaboration that will create breakthrough results, not lone wolves.


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful elearning courses based on the work of thought-leaders and authors. He is also the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Why We Learn Faster When We Love It

I have never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it … I have written because it fulfilled me.”
– Stephen King

Practice doesn’t make perfect. There is no perfect. Great practice will hone the good habits, and get rid of the bad habits. Poor practice is practicing your mistakes over and over until they’re ingrained.

By now, most of us have read, or heard of, the 10,000-hour rule, in which 10,000 hours is the magic practice barrier after which we get to be experts and gurus. Unfortunately that has been a misrepresentation of the work of K. Anders Ericsson, and his colleagues from Florida State University from the 1990s. Ericsson never claimed 10,000 hours was the magic expert barrier.

However, research does support the idea of reinforcing “time on task.” In sports, most believe today the best coaching and training involves increasing the amount of “touches on the ball” instead of an older style of coaching in which players stand around watching a demonstration and then take individual turns doing one activity. A poor practice looks like kids standing in lines. A good practice has everyone involved.

We learn by watching, but we learn faster by doing.

Very recent research examined 88 different studies on the effects of practice over time and concluded that practice does count, but much less than previously argued by Malcolm Gladwell and others. Practice certainly matters, but other factors were equally important such as the age in which the activity was introduced, and how much the participant enjoyed the activity. In one example, children reported thirty times higher reading comprehension when they also reported enjoying the reading.

A successful person continues to look for work after he has found a job.

That may come as no surprise, but keep that in mind when making project and task assignments in your professional work. Yes, if you make task invitations that are a stretch but that people might enjoy, that’s an invitation for excellence. But when you offer project and task invitations for activities people detest, you are far more likely to get mediocre results. And research seems to suggest that no amount of arguing for pluck, grit and perseverance, will improve results when the task presented is against their skill set.

In an interview with Scott Turicchi, CFO of J2, a 500M dollar technology company, he said he very intentionally moves team players to different positions within his organization so they have the benefit of seeing different sides of projects and understand the greater picture of any particular project or deal in the works.

As Scott described, there’s an even more important reason to working in different roles, other than job experience and perspective. The most valuable reason is to find what you love, to find the intersection of what you are good at, and what you love to do. Scott said that the kinds of people he likes to hire are those who have passion for their work.

And how are you going to find your passion if you don’t try something new?

Your beliefs don’t make you a decent person, your actions do.
– Maya Angelou


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful elearning courses based on the work of thought-leaders and authors. He is also the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Only You Can Own Your Own Engagement

“Seek small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens. And when it happens, it lasts.”
– John Wooden

I recently spent a half-day working with executives from a global technology company. Our goal was to develop ways to heighten the engagement and drive of their team members. The executives in the room were responsible for immense teams. The twenty or so executives assembled that day were responsible for the work and livelihood of thousands of people around the world.

To kick things off, we reviewed results from a recent company-wide engagement survey. The results were so-so. While the ratings were fairly high in response to the question about being proud to work for a famous and well-known brand, the results were poor regarding levels of personal engagement, and also low regarding a sense that the company leadership was open, accessible and communicative.

Many respondents claimed there was a lack of communication between the higher levels and the lower levels in the company. The survey revealed that many people in the company felt like they were left in the dark, out of the loop.

One of the participants in the survey commented anonymously, “Now what are the executives going to do about the lack of engagement around here?”

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

It Starts with Choice
There is a simple truth about people who become great leaders. They step up. It doesn’t start at the top. You can’t sit around and wait for the culture to change, or the engagement to start magically happening. You have to make it happen. It starts with you and your own personal attitudes and behaviors.

Yes, it is true that your manager often defines the personality of the company for you. You experience the company through the quality of your relationship with your boss. And it’s also true that the greatest attractor of outside talent is great managers.

But this doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to be accountable, and to be as present as you can in your work. Each of us must accept responsibility for our own “engagement.” A manager only creates the circumstances and the opportunity for you to do your best work.

Make it Easy on Yourself
The expression “activation energy” was coined 150 years ago by a chemist. The terms refers to the minimal amount of energy required to stimulate an interaction between available reactants. Make things easy on yourself. If you want to start jogging more, lay our your gear and your shoes by the bedside before you go to sleep. That way, it will be right there staring at your in the morning. And if you’ve been wanting to become a better public speaker, block off time on your calendar that will alert you to focus on that activity for just thirty minutes.

When you make things easier to begin, you lower the amount of energy it takes to get started. And if it takes less energy to get started, you are more likely to do it.

“Turns out it’s not where, but what you think, that really matters.”
– Dave Matthews

Not Where, But What You Think
Hip workplaces and free cafeterias are cool, but ultimately it’s not where – but what – we think, and how we behave, that matters. I recently had an interview with Paul Hiltz, CEO of Springfield Medical Center. The staff of two different hospital systems came together and moved into a brand new five hundred million dollar state-of-the-art facility in Springfield, Ohio.

Thinking perhaps the new building was somehow inspirational to the staff, I asked him what role the new facility played in helping to bring about high levels of engagement and patient focus. He explained that the new hospital, equipment, and facilities were all very nice, and definitely increased their ability to effectively treat patients, but it was not a big player in the developing the collaboration and camaraderie of the staff.

In his opinion, the facilities are a nice-to-have advantage in their work, but the deep and meaningful team collaboration and heightened patient care came from conscientious work of the staff and leadership, it didn’t come from simply working in a fancy building.

When we point fingers at the management, or the CEO, or this crappy workplace, we are placing blame on people and circumstances. To begin a path to engagement, fulfillment and effectiveness, we have to own our own engagement.


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, and the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

The Small Rituals of Great Teams

In our house if the coffee isn’t ready by the time my wife leaves to teach, her mojo is off for the whole morning.

I’m sure lack of caffeine is part of the problem, but it’s only half of the story. Another meaningful part of the process is the brewing of the coffee, the pouring of the coffee, stirring the half and half in her favorite mug, in just the right quantity, and sipping the coffee on the drive to school. It’s the ritual of the coffee that is equally as valuable as the taste and the caffeine.

Rituals performed in groups can be even more powerful. When we take time as a team, to savor moments or engage in rituals before events we can greatly affect the outcomes. For example, simply taking time to share a toast before a sip of wine, will make make the wine taste better to everyone.

According to researcher Kathleen Vohs, the principal reason is because the ritual forces everyone to be very present in the moment. Another form of savoring is when we close our eyes while listening to music we enjoy. By intentionally closing one type of sense, we are opening and accentuating another.

These are small examples of savoring experiences, which involve taking time to appreciate and amplify the small moments of life such that they become more powerful and meaningful. Families are the most basic and essential teams in our lives. And building positive rituals in our families can have immense impact. According to author Bruce Feiler:

“A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem.”
– Bruce Feiler

Sports teams innately understand the power of rituals. Consider the awesome and fear-inducing Haka performed by the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Team before every game. This powerful expression of native dance not only reinforces their heritage and cohesiveness as a team, but also channels any pre-game anxiety into unified energy and focus. In this instance, the Haka ritual also acts as a social glue to bind the team together.

You can easily build rituals into your professional team culture as well. Here’s an simple example for your weekly or monthly team meetings. Often these meetings involve the same people. And often the more junior participants speak less while the boss speaks more, which is exactly opposite to what a healthy culture looks like. Healthy, participative teams want ideas and insight from everyone at the table.

Here’s the idea from Paulo Guenzi’s book Leading Teams. Tell everyone in advance of the meeting that if they don’t participate and share their best ideas, they could get a yellow card as a warning. If they get a red card after two warnings, they aren’t permitted to attend the meeting next week. Don’t be too worried that people will intentionally get a red card to leave the meeting. It’s not likely people will actively seek negative reinforcement to get themselves kicked out.

What’s more likely to happen is that you will begin to develop a team meeting culture in which everyone is encouraged to bring forth their best ideas. Good luck!


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, and the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Nobody Else Knows What They Are Doing Either

“I don’t belong here. I have no idea what I’m doing. They’re going to figure out I’m a fraud.”

Have you ever believed you are not deserving or worried people will reveal you as a fraud? Have you ever thought someone else could do your job better, or thought you got that bonus or promotion by luck?

Have you ever been in a hurry to leave before someone finds out you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about?

Olivia Fox Cabane teaches at Stanford. Each year, she asks her incoming group of freshman this question: “How many of you in here feel that you are the one mistake that the admissions committee made?” Each year, over two-thirds of the students raise their hands.

It’s human nature to compare. In any given situation we often look around and make comparisons. And these comparisons make us feel inadequate. We know that the less we focus on comparisons, the happier we will feel about ourselves, but we can’t help ourselves anyway. Someone else is smarter, prettier, funnier.


Dr. Margaret Chan, Chief of the World Health Organization, once said, “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

The immensely talented and brilliant Maya Angelou authored 11 books in her lifetime. She once said, “but each time, I think ‘Uh-oh. They’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”

Kate Winslet won an Academy Award for her role in Titanic. After receiving the award, she said, “I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, ‘I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.’”

“Why compare yourself with others? No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you than you.”

The interesting thing about Imposter Syndrome is that the more successful you become, the greater the likelihood of encountering more bouts of self-doubt. The reason is because as you enjoy greater and greater success, you encounter increasingly successful people for you to compare yourself against. Here’s the secret: They don’t know what the hell they are doing either. They’re just winging it too.

Social media doesn’t help. We all get to see the happier, more beautiful side of everyone else online, instead of the moments of doubt, sleeplessness, and insecurity. Sure, they know something about something, which is what got them there in the first place. But when under the influence of a self-doubt attack, you begin to believe those around you must be brilliant.

Try to remember these truths: You do deserve to be here. It wasn’t luck. It was your tenacity and hard work. Ambition is a good thing. Strive for more. It’s OK to ask. And stop comparing, it’s self-defeating.

You are a better version of you than anyone else.


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.

Resiliency: How to Rise to Your Potential

“Some of my greatest pleasures have come from finding ways to overcome obstacles.”
– John Wooden

Considered one of the greatest speed skaters of all time, Dan Jansen was favored to win the gold medal in both the 500M and 1000M races at the 1988 Olympics. Just a week before the Olympics, Dan was on top of the skating world when he won the World Sprint Championships. He was fit and prepared.

As the Olympic race day grew closer, Dan’s sister Jane was getting sicker and sicker battling leukemia. In the early morning hours, the same day of the 500M race, Dan’s sister died in a hospital surrounded by loved ones. Dan was shocked and stunned as he deliberated whether to race. Believing his sister would want him to compete, he went to the track to warm up.

He later said in those moments while warming up he didn’t even feel like it was himself inside his skin. He felt he had forgotten how to skate. In the 500M race, Dan lost an edge and went down just after the first turn. A couple of days later in the 1000M, he again lost his feel for the ice, slipped and went down.

Four years later, in 1992 in Albertville, France, Dan was again on the ice ready to compete in the 500M and 1000M races. Just two weeks before the Olympics he had set a world record. He said he was super confident he would win, and at the starting line he felt completely calm, without anxiety or nerves. Of his Olympic opportunities up until then, this was Dan’s time to shine. He knew there was no other competitor who could beat him that day. In the 500M race, Dan took 4th place. In the 1000M race, Dan came in 26th.

Later, he couldn’t explain it. He didn’t fall. It was as if he was skating as someone else. He wasn’t nearly as fast as his recent times would predict him to be.

In 1994, the winter Olympics were held in Lillehammer, Norway. At his physical and training peak, this would likely be Dan’s last shot at an Olympic medal. Over the two years since the last Olympics, Dan had posted the five fastest times in history, and was the only speed skater ever to break 36 seconds in the 500M race.

In the 500M race Dan lost an edge on the final turn and slipped badly – not falling outright, but effectively losing the race. Now in his fourth Olympics without a medal, he was stunned and baffled, but not despondent. He later said he was confused, but he didn’t despair. In his failure, he was disappointed, but motivated. Instead of resignation, he felt inspired to succeed.

Dan said when the gun went off for the final race of his Olympic career, he felt “incredible.” He said that time slowed down, his efforts felt easy and instinctive. He felt as if he was in slow motion, with plenty of time to be hyper-aware of his surroundings. Glancing up at the split times on the clock during the race, he saw that he was skating faster than he had ever before, in fact faster than anyone had ever skated. And he still had more in the tank. He won that race, and set a world record doing it.

He said the first thought that went through his mind at that moment was, “I finally skated to my potential at the Olympics.” He had no idea yet if it was worth a medal or not. And he didn’t care. On his victory lap, he carried his daughter Jane, named after his sister.

That final race was the culmination of years of preparation, resolve and resiliency. Remember never to be defined by a moment. Each event, and each day, is but another opportunity to fall forward.

“Players with fight never lose a game, they just run out of time”
– John Wooden


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, and the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Saying “I Don’t Know” is a Strength

“A culture of asking questions – the really big ones and the seemingly small, incremental ones – is critical for innovation.”
– Karl-Ludwig Kley, CEO of Merck

The great physicist Richard Feynman once described how you can spot a real expert versus a phony. Look for three little words, “I don’t know.” The phony will have all the answers, while the expert will be willing to admit what they don’t know. Real experts are relentlessly curious, even assertively curious – that is, they will demand explanations for things that many others simply accept as rules.

Creativity consistently ranks among the most sought-after and valued characteristics of workers today. Executives know that the next killer app, product, service or innovation is going to come from relentlessly curious and creative people. The most desirable professionals today are happy, collaborative, and have hustle, but above all are relentlessly curious and creative.

In a recent study from September, 2015, Merck surveyed over 2600 people on both the value of creativity in the workplace, and the ways in which their company encouraged (or stymied) creative practices.

While a staggering 90% agree that the best ideas come out of persistent and curious behavior, including constantly questioning company practices, less than 25% of those working today describe themselves as curious people. We are more likely to call ourselves “organized” or “diligent” or even “friendly,” than to call ourselves “creative”. If anything, it’s swinging the other way. Over 80% of us say the pressure to be more “productive” is increasing in intensity.

As work pressure builds to be more productive, our work environments increasingly stifle imagination.

Here’s an interesting fact about people who describe themselves as curious and creative. These people are also assertive. Curious people are decision-makers. They are influencers. In interviews, they often say they have direct influence over the outcome of decisions and change. If you think of the people in your company and community who consistently drive change, I bet you will be thinking of inquisitive people – people willing to ask the hard questions.

That may seem counterintuitive. After all, if we are busy questioning the world around us, aren’t we in a listening and receptive mode, and not in a decisive action-taking mode? But these two behaviors of deeply questioning, and then taking action, are reinforcing levels of creative engagement. This is because highly creative people also tend to also be fearlessly persistent. They often describe themselves as “adventurous” and “risk-taking.”

Another characteristic of highly curious and creative people is that they are generally less affected by peer pressure. They tend to follow their values, even when it may run counter to what the group is doing.

Stay assertive, curious, and follow your values.


Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, and the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello:

Your “Smartphone” May Be Dumbing Down Your Conversations

“People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern.”
– Shalini Misra

American adults are consuming over 11 hours of digital media daily. Keep in mind we are only awake 16 to 17 hours a day.

It’s been steadily increasing over the years for American kids too. Today, on average, kids are spending over 7 hours immersed in “entertainment” screen time. And that’s outside of the screen time they may have at school working on computers doing homework or school-related activities.

It’s true that sometimes it’s nice to sit together at a coffee shop and absently chitchat about nothing while we scroll through our devices. Together, yet apart. But more often, we all want our conversations to be meaningful, connected, deep, expressive, honest, intentional, substantial, and empathetic. New research demonstrates that even the mere presence of a smartphone, in our hands or just sitting on the table between us, detracts from the quality of the conversation.

That’s right, even if we don’t actively look at it, the simple presence of a smartphone detracts from the quality of the conversation. Simply the anticipation of a text or alert distracts us from meaningful interaction.

In a recent study, researchers Shalini Misra and her colleagues asked 100 pairs of students to spend just 10 minutes talking about either a casual, light topic or alternately a deeper, more meaningful topic.

Meanwhile an observing researcher nearby noted the amount of non-verbal behavior and the amount of eye contact. After the conversation took place, the observer asked questions related to the quality of the conversation itself. Participants were asked to qualify their “feelings of interpersonal connectedness” and “empathic concern” they experienced during the conversation. Questions included “I felt I could really trust my conversation partner” and “To what extent did your conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings?”

The results were clear: “If either participant placed a mobile communication device on the table, or held it in their hand, during the course of the 10-minute conversation, the quality of the conversation was rated to be less fulfilling.”

“Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies. In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds.”

While the use of devices and technology to allow people to communicate digitally increase, face-to-face interaction decreases.

Meet William Powers. A digital lifetime ago back in 2008, Bill Powers and his family decided to reclaim their lives from their devices. He, his wife and now 17-year-old son were increasingly spending their evenings and weekends facing away from each other and spending hours deeply entranced by their screens, instead of each other.

They are certainly no Luddites. Bill is a researcher and journalist, and his wife is a novelist, so they both spend long hours at their computers, researching and writing. They are also both keenly aware that the internet and their ability to connect digitally grants them the freedom to work at home, and make a living because of the information and connectedness they enjoy from the internet.

But they were also spending less and less time simply talking with one another, and instead texting and emailing each other from across the house. They were spending less and less time taking walks, enjoying the outdoors, and spending meaningful time with one another.

For the past 7 years, their family practices something they call “selected disconnection.” Each weekend they have an Internet Sabbath. Starting late Friday evening until Sunday evening, they turn off the WiFi in their house, and their smartphones, and their computers, and they disconnect digitally.

When they first started the experiment, Bill said, “It almost had an existential feeling of, ‘I don’t know who I am with the Internet gone.’ But after a few months it hardened into a habit and we all began to realize we were gaining a lot from it.”

Ok, so maybe the thought of totally disconnecting for two days is terrifying or unrealistic. Start with just an hour, or two. Then if you think it’s a meaningful exercise for you or your family, turn it into a whole evening. Worst case scenario is you all learn something. And that’s a good thing.


Shawn Hunter is the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.

Twitter: @gshunter
Say hello: