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.


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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