5 Mindful Steps to Guarantee Success
By Kathy Caprino
In my training as a family therapist years ago, I began to see clearly that the ways in which we view ourselves and the world around us, in fact, alters our lives and our experiences dramatically. As science has proved, “The observer affects the observed,” or put another way, what you believe, you will live.
I was intrigued, then, when I recently learned of the mindfulness research conducted by Dr. Ellen Langer, a renowned mindfulness expert, experimental social psychologist and Psychology Professor at Harvard University, and the author of the groundbreaking bookMindfulness. Dr. Langer is considered the “mother of mindfulness” and has been researching mindfulness for more than 35 years, producing an important body of work on the impact of mindfulness on expanding success, health and vitality.
Dr. Langer is convinced that virtually all of our suffering — professional, personal, interpersonal, societal — is the direct or indirect result of our mindlessness. In fact her studies suggest to her that most of us are mindless most of the time.
She shares, “We suffer from an illusion of certainty and would prosper from realizing that since everything is always changing and everything looks different from different perspectives, this ‘certainty’ is mindless and robs us of control.”
Her research has found that increasing mindfulness results in increases in health, competence and happiness. More specifically, when people become more mindful, they become more charismatic, more innovative, less judgmental. Memory and attention improve, relationships expand, and mindfulness even leaves its imprint on the products we produce.
Langer defines mindfulness as the simple process of actively noticing new things. As you notice, you become more aware that you didn’t know (the object) as well as you first thought, which naturally draws your attention to the target. You become situated in the present, more aware of the importance of context and perspective.
In this way, we become engaged. All we have to do is to notice. We can still have rules and routines, but they guide not govern what we do. Most interesting is that this mindfulness is energy-begetting not consuming. Consider that when we go on a trip weexpect to see new things, and so we notice and are energized. Mindfulness is easy, engaging, and has enormous benefits.
Much of Langer’s research has been in the area of health. By increasing mindfulness she’s found that stress decreases, pain diminishes, symptoms of arthritis, ALS and the common cold decrease, among other findings. Most astounding is that when seniors were encouraged to be mindful, they actually lived longer.
Another hallmark of Langer’s work is to question our beliefs about our limits. “We can never know that we can’t do something; we can only know that we haven’t yet done so.” One test of this was an amazing study, where Langer took seniors to a retreat that was retrofitted to 20 years earlier and had them live as if it were the past.
By priming a time they felt vital and having them live mindfully in a novel environment for the week, they became measurably stronger, their vision and hearing improved as well as their mental faculties. They even looked noticeably younger at the end.
How can we become more mindful in our lives, and create more success and vitality in the process? Dr. Langer suggests we take these 5 critical steps:
Seek out, create, and notice new things.
Becoming mindful is not a complicated, burdensome affair as many make it out to be. All that’s necessary is to seek out, create, and notice new things. As an example, when Dr. Langer conducted a test where researchers instructed one set of orchestra musicians (vs. the control group) to alter their musical performances in small ways that only they knew of, it made a dramatic difference in the quality of the musical performance that audiences could hear and appreciate. Further, when Dr. Langer’s team asked salespeople to find a way to make their rote sales pitches new and fresh each time they delivered them, the salespeople sold more products than before, and were seen as “charismatic” by their customers.
The key is to actively notice and bring into focus new things about your present situation— including work, people, and the environment. When you commit to noticing new things in your daily life, you become more creative in developing new solutions to problems, seeing multiple options, and eliminating previously defined “solutions” that no longer apply because the situation has changed. The result: you’ll experience less frustration, improved outcomes, a greater sense of accomplishment, and increased confidence.
Realize how behavior can be understood differently in different contexts.
Mindful people recognize that words and deeds — their own or someone else’s — make sense given the context in which they were delivered. For example, if you take an action that doesn’t work out as planned and ends in “failure,” it’s critical to remember that your decision to take this action made perfect sense at the time, from your perspective and within the given context. To berate yourself and judge yourself harshly for this action is to ignore the context in which the decision was made. You did the best you could with the information available to you at the time.
You can apply this thinking to other people as well. If someone acts in a way you think is hurtful, insensitive, or harsh, it is likely that the person did it for reasons that made sense to him or her. Understanding individualized “context” of behavior results in lower stress, greater empathy, and stronger relationships with colleagues, friends, and family.
Dr. Langer’s tip: The next time a colleague or friend does something that would typically embarrass or anger you, try this: think of three positive reasons that the individual might have acted in this way. How did it make sense from his/her perspective? By coming up with positive reasons for another’s behavior, you’re more likely to be more understanding, empathetic, and open to seeing the situation in new and positive ways.
Reframe mistakes into successes.
Redefining something that we perceive as a “failure” requires taking a fresh look at the event and creating another application or use for what we believe was the “failed” outcome.
Increasing your perspective in this way results in greater creativity and innovation. Ask yourself how this “failure” might be useful in some way to you or your business. As an example, when 3M produced a glue that failed to adhere, it seemed at first like a colossal failure. But in creatively brainstorming what they could do with a substance that adheres for a short time, the team generated the idea of the Post-it Note – and a phenomenal commercial success was born.
We often focus on a single-minded outcome in our work and create a process that we think will optimize the likelihood of achieving that outcome. Then, when our objective is not met, we discard everything and focus only on overcoming the “errors” in the process.
A more positive, creative approach is to examine the components of the process and find three aspects that were beneficial, and three unplanned outcomes that could be positive. In short, avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Brainstorm new products and services that actually require and draw upon the “failed” property.
Be aware that stress — indeed, all emotion — is a result of our views about events.
Understanding that your emotions result from your mindset and perspective means you can gain control of your reactions. Things are not intrinsically either positive or negative; we make them so by our thoughts and judgments. If we open up our single-minded way of looking at a situation, we will find opportunities that otherwise are hidden from us. This process helps us feel more in control and less overwhelmed or stressed by any particular situation.
Dr. Langer’s tip: Consider a particular event which would normally cause you stress. Perhaps you are getting ready for a staff meeting with your boss or taking your mother to the doctor and you are nervous about the outcome. First, think of three outcomes that you perceive are “negative” that generate fear. Then, think of three reasons why this negative event you fear may not even occur. Finally, think of three reasons why, if this perceived “negative” event were to occur, it could have positive ramifications in the long run. The key is to understand that stress is created by your interpretations of events, not the events themselves. Greater awareness of your thoughts and judgments creates greater choice.
If you are untrue to yourself, nothing else in your life can work positively. Being authentic means that you are willing to question the conventional wisdom of what “works,” what doesn’t, what’s allowed, and what isn’t. Don’t forget that people make rules, and rules are not immutable. Change is the only constant, and there is more than one way to do almost anything. If we act in ways that are meaningful to us and remain true to our own selves and values, we will be a happier, more mindful, engaged, and successful, in our work, our lives, and our relationships.
Dr. Langer’s tip: Today, identify three things you don’t like about yourself. What is the positive version of each of these traits? Can you reframe what you don’t like to create a more positive interpretation of your qualities and traits? For example, are you “slow” or merely contemplative? Are you “impulsive and rash,” or simply spontaneous? Are you “obstinate” or determined and tenacious?
Embrace yourself and find new ways to be true to yourself, honoring who you are rather than forcing yourself into a rigid box that constrains and limits you.