What Was I Thinking?June 10, 2011
You exercise every day. You eat a diet that keeps you healthy and trim. Oh, and you have more than enough in your savings account for a rainy day. Right? Our most important behaviors are glaring proof that we don’t actually think about everything we think we do. Otherwise, our actions wouldn’t betray us so badly. We would actually do all the things we know we should. Consequently, it seems a bit crazy not to engage in a little metacognition—thinking about thinking.
Thinking about Thinking
Ellen Langer, a distinguished Harvard professor of psychology, has devoted much of her life’s work to researching how people think. Her findings point to an obvious, though scarcely realized, insight–if we don’t think about our thoughts, we aren’t likely to improve them or to realize insights that make things better.
Remarkably, her research reveals we can discover positive changes simply by being more mindful of how and what we’re thinking. She notes, “It’s a subtle change in thinking although not difficult to make once we realize how stuck we are in culture, language, and modes of thought that limit our potential.”
In one groundbreaking study, Langer astonishingly showed how elderly men who consciously thought and lived as if they were actually in a younger stage of their lives experienced improved hearing, memory and dexterity. Apparently, we are what we think. We’re just usually unaware of what we’re thinking.
So, here’s a life-changing insight hiding in plain sight right in front of us—we will think better if we actually think about thinking. And we owe ourselves the chance to reap the benefits of a more consistent flow of insights that can create advantages in our lives. Most of us have been favored with an insight-creating device of unimaginable capability. Yet how many opportunities pass us by every day simply because we aren’t mindful or fail to remove the obstacles blocking our insights? How can we improve the odds and increase our chances?
Think Change. Change Thinking.
Thinking better involves a very basic concept—actively, intentionally thinking about our thoughts. As Langer suggests, “If we open up our minds, a world of possibility presents itself.” There’s no magic formula, patented process or prescription for a multi-step program for thinking better, it’s about preparing to think differently, to be more aware and more intentional about our thinking. Changing the way you think is about becoming ever more aware of your thoughts. Mindfulness helps you see and appreciate the difference between what you think you know, what you really know and what you would like to know. When you change the way you think, the things you think about change.
In 1493, Cardinal Mendoza invited Christopher Columbus to dinner to celebrate his return and his discovery of America. In spite of his achievement, some of the dinner guests were not so impressed, suggesting anyone would have made such a discovery had they set out on a similar voyage. Columbus heard this and decided to turn it into a teachable moment. Requesting an egg from the kitchen, Columbus challenged the naysayers to discover a way to make it stand up lengthwise on the table with no external support. It seemed straightforward enough, yet the diners failed every effort to get the egg to stand on its own. Columbus took the egg and tapped it on the table just enough to create a slight indentation in the end of the egg. Turning the notch to the bottom, he easily stood the egg in an upright position on the table. Of course, the other guests scoffed and protested that anyone could have done that! To which Columbus replied, “The difference, my friends, is that you would have done it, but I have done it.”
We each have boundless possibilities in our everyday lives to realize insights that can inspire positive change; insights that enhance personal and business relationships, help us make and save more money, invent new products, advance our businesses and careers, create life-saving breakthroughs in healthcare, express creative ideas and figure out how to get an egg to stand on its end. We just need to think about changing the way we think.