On Disbelieving Your Own Thoughts

A central challenge of leading is being able to see — see very clearly — what is happening. Many things can impede this needed awareness and insight — inadequate data and wrong information being two of the most common problems. A third may be our own biases, the unexamined personal beliefs that drive poor judgment.

I’ve told the story before — but it bears repeating — about the leader who shared one of her personal disciplines with me. She’d wake up each day and instead of planning out in her mind all her priorities and decisions she would ask herself instead, “What do I believe is true in this moment that just isn’t so?” This is the question of a person with a great deal of curiosity and inner strength, unafraid to challenge herself and deeply question her own assumptions without being undermined by self-doubt.

It sounds so easy, written in this way!

Yet most of us, and especially leaders in positions exposed to criticism (and which ones aren’t?) have learned to project a certain amount of confidence, even if privately we know we also dance with demons — our anxiety and anger, our own potential fraudulence and fears about others’ eventual discovery of our feet of clay. Instead of questioning, we justify and become extremely good at it. We cover up with a projected air of certainty, hiding whatever niggling insecurities might be there. But in so doing we also bury the gift of being able to challenge our own flawed thinking.

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The other day I watched an episode of Full Circle in which Anderson Cooper interviewed renowned teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn about mindfulness and the practice of meditation. The connection is that meditation can help us separate from the whole process of our own thoughts; learn to watch them flow as a waterfall and sink into a reference point that is below thinking itself. With such a reference point our awareness can begin to interrupt emotional reactions and old beliefs that might otherwise unconsciously control us. Everyone has the equipment to do this according to Kabat-Zinn, “it’s our superpower.”

Which is a great way to look at things, but isn’t necessarily what we as leaders consistently practice. To the contrary, we can let our assumptions and convictions wash away awareness in favor of the superficial sense of being right we convince ourselves we must uphold. And that dynamic gets super-charged when it’s hooked up to the management powers of a position, particularly a high position — where making mistakes, being exposed, being embarrassed can lead to particularly refined forms of critique and discrediting. Compensating, we become pretty sure everything we think is true, though of course it is not. It’s like the old joke, “For a long time my brain was my favorite organ, but then I figured out who was telling me that.” Slightly contradicting Descartes, we might better say, “What I’m thinking isn’t who I am.” Or perhaps more pointed, “What I am thinking just isn’t so (but I can feel the urge to believe it nevertheless).”

Learning to look back at the waterfall, if we give ourselves a chance to do so, teaches us to observe the constant flow of thoughts, hear their white noise, experience observations about ourselves and our circumstances that can be both quieting and disquieting, and watch as they, too, quickly tumble away. We see what matters and what doesn’t matter. In a moment, stepping back from the falls, we find beauty, silence, timelessness, humanity — essences that may indeed become our own very best private change agents, the only true ones in this irremediably tough and strangely fragile world.

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