Category: Psychology

Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga.

The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I’m back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

Cognitive Exhaustion: Resting Your Mental Muscle

In the go-go-go world of today, we need to be sure we’re giving our mind ample opportunity to rest and relax — recognizing when we need a mental break.

I usually take a walk. Or go to a yoga class.

It turns out resting your mind has a big impact. Taking a walk isn’t enough, it depends on where you’re walking.

In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman elaborates on cognitive exhaustion:

Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy.

The antidote to attention fatigue is the same as for the physical kind: take a rest. But what rests a mental muscle?

Try switching from the effort of top-down control to more passive bottom-up activities, taking a relaxing break in a restful setting. The most restful surroundings are in nature, argues Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, who proposes what he calls “attention restoration theory.”

Such restoration occurs when we switch from effortful attention, where the mind needs to suppress distractions, to letting go and allowing our attention to be captured by whatever presents itself. But only certain kinds of bottom-up focus act to restore energy for focused attention. Surfing the Web, playing video games, or answering email does not.

We do well to unplug regularly; quiet time restores our focus and composure. But that disengagement is just the first step. What we do next matters, too. Taking a walk down a city street, Kaplan points out, still puts demands on attention— we’ve got to navigate through crowds, dodge cars, and ignore honking horns and the hum of street noise.

In contrast, a walk through a park or in the woods puts little such demand on attention. We can restore by spending time in nature— even a few minutes strolling in a park or any setting rich in fascinations like the muted reds of clouds at sunset or a butterfly’s flutter. This triggers bottom-up attention “modestly,” as Kaplan’s group put it, allowing circuits for top-down efforts to replenish their energy, restoring attentiveness and memory, and improving cognition.

A walk through an arboretum led to better focus on return to concentrated tasks than a stroll though downtown. Even sitting by a mural of a nature scene— particularly one with water in it— is better than the corner coffee shop.

The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others

We all face situations where we need to persuade others to change their minds. Often, we forget the need to understand the other person’s thinking before we can truly convince them. These nine tactics help effectively influence others.

Mindgym the Nine Influence Tactics

The number one thing to understand about influence is that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours.

“When you try to influence others,” Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in their book Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, “it is essential that you understand the other person’s reasons so you can use tactics that will work to persuade them, as opposed to tactics that would work on you.”

Okay, with that said, here are the nine primary tactics to influence others.

1. Reasoning

What Is It?
“There are three excellent reasons why contemporary art is a worthwhile investment. First . . .”

The tactic we call reasoning, at its best, is the process of using facts, logic, and argument to make a case.

Give Me an Example
“You should run the marathon next year. The training will make you fitter and healthier; it will give you something to focus on outside work, which you said you wanted; and you will raise money for a good cause, maybe that hospice you gave all your old clothes to for their fund-raising sale. It just makes sense.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is useful most of the time. Reasoning is the bread and butter of influencing. The challenge is to support your views with relevant information and a coherent argument. Although reasoning requires more effort than some of the other tactics, it is much more likely to create your desired effect.

Warning
When you present a view or position as if it is a fact (e.g., “This problem is going to take a long time to solve”) but without any evidence to back it up, then the reasoning is weak. Weak reasoning is the most common influencing tactic people use, but without the evidence to back up your view, it is far less effective.

2. Inspiring

What Is It?
“Imagine a world where …”
Almost the exact opposite of reasoning, the inspiring tactic focuses on the heart rather than the head. It appeals to emotions and suggests what could be possible, if only the other person were persuaded.

Give Me an Example
Some of the most well-known uses of the inspiring tactic can be seen in political leaders’ speeches. Great examples are Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Shakespeare’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech given by Henry V. These speeches don’t just ignore logical argument but defy it. Take this excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s speech about putting a man on the moon, with commentary from a skeptic in brackets.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard [Yeah, like that’s a good reason for doing something ; hey, I reckon we should paint the garden fences with a toothbrush and nail varnish because it’s really hard], because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills [How so? Why wouldn’t feeding the starving in Africa or increasing world literacy do it just as well if not better?] . . .

For all the skeptic’s heckling, this speech helped mobilize a nation. The magic about inspirational appeal is that it touches our hearts by appealing to our values and our identity. Like falling in love, when the inspiring tactic works, nothing can beat it (certainly not a cynic).

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is especially useful when your rational argument is weak or unclear and you want a high level of emotional commitment. The inspiring tactic doesn’t tend to be used much in daily life, especially in the workplace, which is a shame because it’s a powerful way to persuade and excite.

Most of us have been seduced by this tactic as children (e.g., “It’ll make you big and strong when you grow up”), when watching TV (e.g., advertisements with young, sexy people having wild times drinking a particular brand of soda), or when we’re with friends who are hooked on a new craze (e.g., “You have to check out dune bashing: the surge, the speed, the heat, the views”).

Warning
It is not just what you say but also how you say it; the inspiring tactic demands conviction, energy, and passion. When deploying this tactic, a dreary demeanor will leave you floundering. Deliver inspiration like it matters more than life itself and you’ll be pretty much invincible.

3. Asking Questions

What Is It?
“Would you like to be rich?” Asking questions encourages the other person to make their own discovery of your conclusion (or something similar).

Give Me an Example
I am walking through the airport when a woman with a clipboard approaches me from in front of a large advertising board and asks, “Do you have a credit card?”

I utter a dismissive “Yes” and keep walking.

“Do you get airline miles with your card?” she persists.

“Yes, I do,” I reply, slightly irritated, and carry on walking.

“Do you use your airline miles?” The truth is I don’t, but I’m not going to get caught up in this conversation.

“A bit,” I reply, but my walking slows.

“Would you rather have cash?” I stop, turn, and look at her for the first time.

“Do you have five minutes to fill in a form to get a credit card that gives you cash?” she asks.

In five questions I have been persuaded to do something I haven’t done in over a decade: switch to a new credit card.

When Is It Useful?

This is a great tactic when it is important that the other person feels responsible for the outcome. In coaching and counseling, for example, a course of action or therapy is much more effective when the other person believes it was their idea rather than when they grudgingly give in. Asking questions is also useful when you’re trying to persuade someone who has more power than you— maybe your boss (“Do you think I’m overdoing it?” “Do you struggle with work– life balance? How do you deal with it?”) or your client (“Are you happy with the gold service? Or do you ever wish you had the platinum?”).

Warning
This is one of the hardest tactics to use because it is impossible to know how the other person will respond. If the questions are too broad, then you are likely to veer off course; if they are too narrow, the other person will spot what you are up to and may refuse to cooperate. But while most of the other tactics get weaker if they’re used too much, asking questions is a tactic that has an extended battery life— it’s effective time after time.

4. Cozying Up

What Is It?
“You’re a smart guy.”

If you feel positive toward someone, you are much more likely to agree with them, and you almost always feel positive toward someone who makes you feel good about yourself. This is the cozying up tactic.

Give Me an Example
“Hi, Sandra. You’re looking well. I heard from Mark that you did a great job on the Johnson case. Not an easy situation— well done. I have a challenging case coming up in October and am pulling together a top-level team to work on it. Would you be interested?”

When Is It Useful?
Cozying up is a particularly good tactic to use when you’re trying to influence people with less or the same level of power as you, because they are likely to value your views. Many of us use it on our partners (“Darling, you look like a million bucks”), our friends (“I know you are someone I can trust”), and our clients (“You’re the sort of person who will really appreciate this— because you’re smart”).

The danger with cozying up is that if you’re too obvious when using this tactic, you’ll have the opposite effect (“You’re only saying that because you want me to do something for you”). As a result, some people avoid it altogether. They are missing out. A less risky approach is to leave time—sometimes even several days— between making someone feel good about themselves and trying to persuade them.

Warning
Using cozying up on someone who clearly has more power than you can look like sucking up. So, unless you know what you are doing, be mindful about how much kudos you’re sending out into the world.

5. Deal Making

What Is It?
“If you pick me up from the airport, I will . . .”

Deal making is when you offer or give another person something in return for their agreement with you. It may be explicit, but it doesn’t have to be.

Give Me an Example
“I promised a friend I would walk his dog while he was on vacation. Then tonight I was offered Beyoncé tickets at the last minute. I’ll buy you dinner if you come over and watch the dog while I’m at the concert.”

When Is It Useful?
Deal making is useful when you want to increase the odds in your favor and don’t mind giving something away in return. Sometimes it is necessary to be up front (“If you help me paint the bathroom, I’ll cook dinner every night next week”). At the same time, the deal can work better when the connection is only implied (“Sure, I’ll introduce you to my sister,” and then twenty minutes later, “Can you really get me into the VIP section at the golf tournament?”). Often deal making is most effective when the connection is all but invisible, like it’s something you would have done for one another without a deal.

Warning
This tactic works by appealing to a desire for fairness. Some people can “take, take, take” without feeling any remorse or indebtedness (or they may just think you’re a generous fool). Deal making won’t work with this type of person unless you are very up front about the terms of the exchange.

6. Favor Asking

What Is It?
“Can you help me out?”

Favor asking is simply asking for something because you want or need it, but you’re not offering anything in return.

Give Me an Example
“My guest speaker has just pulled out of the event I’m organizing next week. All I can say is that I’d be eternally grateful if you’d be willing to step in and give a speech to my group.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic works well only when the other person cares about you or their relationship with you. If used sparingly, it is hard to resist.

Warning
The person you ask for a favor might feel that you owe them one in the future. If you think they do, make sure you “pay back” the favor or you won’t get such a positive response next time.

7. Using Silent Allies

What Is It?
“Everyone who has read this book so far …”

The use of silent allies invokes other people, who are generally similar to the person you are trying to persuade, to make your case (“All professional runners train this way, so you should too”).

Give Me an Example
The advertising slogans “Nine out of ten dentists recommend …” and “America runs on Dunkin’” are classic examples of this tactic. Movie reviews and quotes from satisfied customers are also common examples . Outside of advertising and marketing, the silent allies approach is often used in the workplace, where you might hear comments like “All the best graphic designers use a Mac.” In social situations, you might hear “All the cool kids are wearing these jeans, and they’re the top-selling brand.” The best silent allies are those whom the person you are trying to persuade naturally associates with, such as professionals in their own industry or people with similar interests or beliefs.

When Is It Useful?
One of the most powerful ways to persuade teenagers to do anything is to show them that their peers, especially the cool ones, are doing it already. The silent allies tactic also works in business by, for example, referring to best practice models or a list of past clients. If the person you are trying to influence is concerned about risk (and most people are, deep down) or is anxious to fit in, then this can be your winning tactic.

Warning
Some people actually prefer to be contrary (“I only like underground bands”). Entrepreneurs, for example, are rarely dissuaded from trying something because no one has done it before. They actually see it as a potential benefit.

8. Invoking Authority

What Is It?
“It’s our policy not to refund cash.”

The invoking authority tactic is used from a position of power or by appealing to a rule or principle. It doesn’t matter whether the authority invoked is formal or implicit, so long as it is recognized by the person you are trying to influence.

Give Me an Example
“I won’t work for you unless we sign a contract” is an explicit approach to influence that not only appeals to the rules but also creates them.

“I won’t take business calls between the hours of five P.M. and seven P.M. because that is dinnertime with my family” is an approach to influence that creates boundaries based on principles.

When Is It Useful?
The advantage of invoking authority is that the tactic is quick and straightforward . The downside is that it is more likely to lead to compliance than commitment. It’s better to invoke authority as a last resort rather than use it as your opening gambit, unless you are in a rush. Authority can, however, make a positive impression on someone who abides by similar rules or lives by similar principles.

Warning
If you try to persuade using this tactic and don’t succeed, then you don’t have many other options left (mainly the forcing tactic, detailed next). You are also likely to have damaged a relationship. And like using silent allies, this tactic can have the opposite effect from the intended one. Think of Dirty Harry being told he is being pulled off a case, only to carry on his investigations anyway. Or Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich refusing to bow down. If the person you’re trying to influence doesn’t agree with your rules or principles, using authority can have a quick and extreme impact on your relationship. Be warned, this tactic is a bit like drawing a line in the sand.

9. Forcing

What Is It?
“Do it or else.”

The forcing tactic involves engaging in assertive behavior, such as threats and warnings.

Give Me an Example
“Eat your vegetables or you’ll be going straight to bed.”

“Love me or leave me.”

“The last person in your job didn’t last very long; we wouldn’t want you to make the same mistake.”

“The more time you spend arguing about it, the less time you’ll have left to do it.”

When Is It Useful?
Forcing is used when you want something done fast. Therefore, it’s ideal in emergencies.

Warning
Because forcing is relatively easy to adopt and usually delivers short-term results, like compliance, it gets used a fair bit, especially when combined with using authority. However, relationship breakdowns can often be traced back to uses of the forcing tactic. Almost like smoking cigarettes, the immediate damage appears minimal, but the long-term effects can be terminal; and even if you give up using this tactic, it could be too late, so it’s probably best not to start. Using the forcing tactic can also be quite addictive, because it gives the user a sense of power when it gets results. Only employ forcing when everything else has failed.

Remember people change their mind for their reasons not yours. If you’re not effective, it’s probably because you’re looking at things through your lens and not theirs. Continuing to give the same arguments in the same way only solidifies resistance even more. So the next time you’re trying to convince someone of something you’ve already tried to change their mind on, trying picking a different approach. Better yet, pick three or four and use them in combination. Tactics work better when employed together.

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of interesting and insightful stuff you can use every day.

The Psychology of We

Two categories of people that can be hard to have a conversation with are good friends and people who have worked together for a long time. Sometimes it’s like they are speaking their own language — and they are. But these connections can transcend conversation and touch on life.

In Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Shenk explores how the identity of pairs resemble that of a mosaic, “a series of pieces that connect to one another.”

A good place to begin is with ritual, since this is often the foundation of creative practice. Igor Stravinsky came into his studio and, first thing, sat down and played a Bach fugue. When he was writing The End of the Affair, Graham Greene produced five hundred words every day, and only five hundred, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a scene. The choreographer Twyla Tharp rises every morning at 5:30, puts on her workout clothes, and catches a taxi to the Pumping Iron gym at Ninety-First Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. “The ritual,” she writes in The Creative Habit, “is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”

Tharp’s point is that ritual emerges from the smallest, most concrete action. For pairs, the most basic thing is a regular meeting time. James Watson and Francis Crick had lunch most days at the Eagle pub in Cambridge. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg begin and end every week with hourlong private meetings. After they began to exchange their work, J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis set aside Mondays to meet at a pub and later met with a group, the Inklings, every Thursday night at Lewis’s apartment.

Meeting rituals may be tied to moments in time — as when partners like Buffett and Munger begin every day with a call—or to a physical space, as when Lennon and McCartney met at Paul’s house to write. Watson and Crick ended up sharing an office at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge because the other scientists in the lab couldn’t stand their incessant chatter.

Moving towards each other as people often means leaving the rest of the world behind. “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves.

In the midst of the feverish and entwined six-year collaboration between Braque and Picasso that led to cubism, both artists signed the back of each of their canvases; only they would know who did what. “People always ask Ulay and me the same questions,” Marina Abramovic told me. ‘”Whose idea was it?’ or ‘How was this done?’… But we never specify. Everything was interrelated and interdependent.”

Partnerships often form impediments to others trying to look in. Outsiders are not part of the club, they are not doing the work, they don’t have the shared understanding, the common goals, the …

This is one reason many epic partnerships end up as historical footnotes or become entirely effaced: “Things were said with Picasso during those years,” Braque said, “that no one will ever say again, things that no one could ever say any more, that no one could ever understand… things that would be incomprehensible and which gave us such joy.” This was one of the very few lines either man ever spoke about the relationship that helped give birth to modern art.

In addition to the physical gestures that a pair can share, there is also an unmistakable private language. This is the key to high-bandwidth communication.

Many pairs have what we could fairly call a private language. Tom Hanks described the communication between director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer as “some gestalt Vulcan.” Akio Morita and Ma- saru Ibuka, the cofounders of Sony, “would sit there talking to each other,” Morita’s son Hideo said, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying … It was gibberish to us, but they were understanding each other, and interrupting them for any reason was forbidden.”

Private language emerges organically from constant exchange. Intimate pairs talk fluidly and naturally, having let go of what psychologists call “self-monitoring”—the process of watching impulses and protean thoughts, censoring some, allowing others to pass one’s lips. … The psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes the same point. “Like most people, I am somewhat cautious about exposing tentative thoughts to others,” he said. But after a while with Amos Tversky, “this caution was completely absent.”

You just get so high-bandwidth,” Bill Gates said about talking to Steve Ballmer, his longtime deputy at Microsoft (and eventual successor). “Steve and I would just be going from talking to meeting to talking to meeting, and then I’d stay up late at night, and write him five e-mails. He’d get up early in the morning and maybe not necessarily respond to them, but start thinking about them. And the minute I see him, he’s [at the office whiteboard] saying we could move this guy over here and do this thing here.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg used that same term, high- bandwidth, to describe his exchanges with his COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We can talk for 30 seconds and have more meaning be exchanged than in a lot of meetings that I have for an hour,” he said.

More than shared language, people develop into shared rhythms and syntactical structures of speech.

This is due in part to the astonishing power of mimicry, which psychologists call “social contagion.” Just by being near each other, the psychologist Elaine Hatfield has shown, people come to match accents, speech rates, vocal intensity, vocal frequency, pauses, and quickness to respond.

Psychologists used to think that people imitated each other in a deliberate attempt to be liked, but mimicry is far more pervasive than this — and largely nonconscious. Intimate partners share physical postures and breathing patterns too. They use the same muscles so often, the psychologist Robert Zajonc and colleagues found in a study of spouses, that they even come to look alike. Warren Buffett has said that he and Charlie Munger are “Siamese twins, practically.” In addition to wearing the same gray suits, the same Clark Kent glasses, and the same comb-overs, writes Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder, they also share a “lurching, awkward gait” and a flickering intensity in their eyes. Whether or not this is due to what Zajonc calls “repeated empathic mimicry,” we can’t be sure, but one does wonder.

The larger point about any physical convergence is that it reflects what psychologists call a “shared coordinative structure.” Shared mannerisms, like similar walking gaits, often come along with shared emotions and ideas. Just as physical qualities are “highly communicable,” write psychologists Molly Ireland and James Pennebaker, so are behaviors, affective states, and beliefs.

Language is an unusually potent mechanism for psychic convergence, because it is so closely tied to thinking. “Linguistic coordination,” Ireland and Pennebaker explain, leads to “the cultivation of common ground (i.e., matching cognitive frameworks in which conversants adopt shared assumptions, linguistic referents, and knowledge).”

Of course, eventually this goes telepathic.

Barry Sonnenfeld, who has directed photography on several films for the Coen brothers, remembers Ethan saying, after a take, “Hey, Joel, you know what?” And Joel replying: “Yeah, I know, I’m going to tell him.” When the writer David Zax visited The Daily Show to profile Steve Bodow, Jon Stewart’s head writer at the time, Zax could understand only a small fraction of their exchanges, given the dominance of “workplace argot and quasi-telepathy.” “If you work with Jon for any length of time, you learn to interpret the short hand,” Bodow said. For example, Stewart might say: “Cut the thing and bring the thing around and do the thing.” ‘”Cut the thing’: You know what thing needs to be cut,” Bodow explained. “‘Bring the thing around’: There’s a thing that works, but it needs to move up in order to set up the ‘do the thing’ thing, which is probably the ‘blow,’ the big joke at the end. It takes time and repetition and patience and frustration, and suddenly you know how to bring the thing around and do the thing.”

Learned Helplessness

“The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away it can only be forgotten.”

That Sounds like something Victor Frankel would say.

However, it’s Greg McKeown in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

How is it that we forget our ability to choose?

One important insight into how and why we forget our ability to choose comes out of the classic work of Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, who stumbled onto what they later called “learned helplessness” while conducting experiments on German Shepherds.

Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.

Afterwards, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness.

We’re much the same way — this reminds me of the fixed versus growth mindset. If you try something and never get better, you eventually give up, believing that nothing you do will matter. Grit, the ability to muddle through that without giving up, is more important than IQ. And best of all, you can develop it.

What does learned helplessness look like in organizations?

When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented. They throw themselves into every assignment. They tackle every challenge with gusto. They try to do it all. This behavior does not necessarily look like learned helplessness at first glance. After all, isn’t working hard evidence of one’s belief in one’s importance and value? Yet on closer examination we can see this compulsion to do more is a smokescreen. These people don’t believe they have a choice in what opportunity, assignment, or challenge to take on. They believe they “have to do it all.”

The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen

Dan Harris turned to meditation after a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.

In the back of his excellent book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, he writes a section that he wanted to call “The Ten Pillars of Cutthroat Zen” but ended up calling The Way of the Worrier.

1. Don’t Be a Jerk
2. (And/ But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen
3. Meditate
4. The Price of Security Is Insecurity— Until It’s Not Useful
5. Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity
6. Don’t Force It
7. Humility Prevents Humiliation
8. Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod
9. Nonattachment to Results
10. What Matters Most?

Don’t Be a Jerk

It is, of course, common for people to succeed while occasionally being nasty. I met a lot of characters like this during the course of my career, but they never really seemed very happy to me. It is sometimes assumed that success in a competitive business requires the opposite of compassion. In my experience, though, that only reduced my clarity and effectiveness, leading to rash decisions. The virtuous cycle that Joseph described (more metta, better decisions, more happiness, and so on) is real. To boot, compassion has the strategic benefit of winning you allies. And then there’s the small matter of the fact that it makes you a vastly more fulfilled person.

(And/ But . . .) When Necessary, Hide the Zen Be nice, but don’t be a palooka.

Even though I’d achieved a degree of freedom from the ego, I still had to operate in a tough professional context. Sometimes you need to compete aggressively, plead your own case, or even have a sharp word with someone. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to do this calmly and without making the whole thing overly personal.

Meditate

Meditation is the superpower that makes all the other precepts possible. The practice has countless benefits— from better health to increased focus to a deeper sense of calm— but the biggie is the ability to respond instead of react to your impulses and urges. We live our life propelled by desire and aversion. In meditation, instead of succumbing to these deeply rooted habits of mind, you are simply watching what comes up in your head nonjudgmentally. For me, doing this drill over and over again had massive off-the-cushion benefits, allowing me—at least 10% of the time— to shut down the ego with a Reaganesque “There you go again.”

The Price of Security Is Insecurity— Until It’s Not Useful

Mindfulness proved a great mental thresher for separating wheat from chaff, for figuring out when my worrying was worthwhile and when it was pointless. Vigilance, diligence, the setting of audacious goals— these are all the good parts of “insecurity.” Hunger and perfectionism are powerful energies to harness. Even the much-maligned “comparing mind” can be useful. I compared myself to Joseph, Mark, and Sharon, and it made me happier. I compared myself to Bianca and it made me nicer. I compared myself to Bill Weir, David Muir, Chris Cuomo, David Wright, et al., and it upped my game. In my view, Buddhists underplay the utility of constructive anguish. In one of his dharma talks, I heard Joseph quote a monk who said something like, “There’s no point in being unhappy about things you can’t change, and no point being unhappy about things you can.” To me, this gave short shrift to the broad gray area where it pays to wring your hands at least a little bit.

Equanimity Is Not the Enemy of Creativity

Being happier did not, as many fear, make me a blissed-out zombie. This myth runs deep, all the way back to Aristotle, who said, “All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics . . . had a melancholic habitus.” I found that rather than rendering me boringly problem-free, mindfulness made me, as an eminent spiritual teacher once said, “a connoisseur of my neuroses.” One of the most interesting discoveries of this whole journey was that I didn’t need my demons to fuel my drive— and that taming them was a more satisfying exercise than indulging them. Jon Kabat-Zinn has theorized that science may someday show that mindfulness actually makes people more creative, by clearing out the routinized rumination and unhelpful assumptions, making room for new and different thoughts. On retreat, for example, I would be flooded with ideas, filling notebooks with them, scribbling them down on the little sheets of paper between sitting and walking. So, who knows, maybe Van Gogh would have been an even better painter if he hadn’t been so miserable that he sliced off his ear?

Don’t Force It

It’s hard to open a jar when every muscle in your arm is tense. A slight relaxation served me well on the set of GMA, in interpersonal interactions, and when I was writing scripts. I came to see the benefits of purposeful pauses, and the embracing of ambiguity. It didn’t work every time, mind you, but it was better than my old technique of bulldozing my way to an answer.

Humility Prevents Humiliation

We’re all the stars of our own movies, but cutting back on the number of Do you know who I am? thoughts made my life infinitely smoother. When you don’t dig in your heels and let your ego get into entrenched positions from which you mount vigorous, often irrational defenses, you can navigate tricky situations in a much more agile way. For me humility was a relief, the opposite of humiliation. It sanded the edges off of the comparing mind. Of course, striking the right balance is delicate; it is possible to take this too far and become a pushover. (See precept number two, regarding hiding the Zen.)

Go Easy with the Internal Cattle Prod

As part of my “price of security” mind-set, I had long assumed that the only route to success was harsh self-criticism. However, research shows that “firm but kind” is the smarter play. People trained in self-compassion meditation are more likely to quit smoking and stick to a diet. They are better able to bounce back from missteps. All successful people fail. If you can create an inner environment where your mistakes are forgiven and flaws are candidly confronted, your resilience expands exponentially.

Nonattachment to Results

Nonattachment to results + self compassion = a supple relentlessness that is hard to match. Push hard, play to win, but don’t assume the fetal position if things don’t go your way. This, I came to believe, is what T. S. Eliot meant when he talked about learning “to care and not to care.”

What Matters Most?

One day, I was having brunch with Mark and Joseph, forcing them to help me think about the balance between ambition and equanimity for the umpteenth time. After the entrées and before dessert, Joseph got up to hit the bathroom. He came back smiling and pronounced, “I’ve figured it out. A useful mantra in those moments is ‘What matters most?’ ” At first, this struck me as somewhat generic, but as I sat with the idea for a while, it eventually emerged as the bottom-line, gut-check precept. When worrying about the future, I learned to ask myself: What do I really want? While I still loved the idea of success, I realized there was only so much suffering I was willing to endure. What I really wanted was aptly summed up during an interview I once did with Robert Schneider, the self-described “spastic” lead singer for the psych-pop group, Apples in Stereo. He was one of the happiest-seeming people I’d ever met: constantly chatting, perpetually in motion— he just radiated curiosity and enthusiasm. Toward the end of our interview, he said, “The most important thing to me is probably, like, being kind and also trying to do something awesome.”

If you think you’re on the verge of losing your way in life, I highly recommend Dan’s book.