About Ellen Langer
Dr. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University where she was the first woman to be tenured in the department. She has been described as the “mother of mindfulness” and has written extensively on the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, decision-making, and health. She is the founder of The Langer Mindfulness Institute and consults with organizations to foster mindful leadership, innovation, strategy and work/life integration.
Her books, written for general and academic readers, include Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity, and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Her most recent book The Handbook of Mindfulness is an anthology that brings together the latest multi-disciplinary research on mindfulness.
A passionate and compelling lecturer who presents at organizations worldwide, Langer has authored over 200 research articles and six academic books. Her work has led to numerous academic honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the recipient of four Distinguished Scientist Awards and the Liberty Science Genius Award.
Her website is https://ellenlanger.com/
Lesson 1: Behavior always makes sense from the actor’s perspective 06m 49s.
Lesson 2: Certainty is a mindless illusion 08m 24s.
Lesson 3: 1+1 doesn’t always equal 2 13m 04s.
Lesson 4: Everyone doesn’t know something but everyone knows something else 19m 49s.
Lesson 5: Inconsistent is flexible 23m 12s.
Lesson 6: Outcomes are neither good nor bad 25m 52s.
Lesson 7: To feel differently, view it differently 27m 20s.
Lesson 8: Every activity can be done mindlessly or mindfully 33m 31s.
Lesson 9: Mindfulness is simply noticing new things 35m 20s.
Lesson 10: Life is a people game 45m 19s.E
Ellen Langer 10 Lessons
Duff Watkins: Hello and welcome to
the podcast 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 Years to Learn where we dispense wisdom
for your career and your life. My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. Our
guest today is Ellen Langer, who is professor of psychology at Harvard university,
and happens to be the first female tenured professor at the psychology
department. Ellen, welcome to the show.
Ellen Langer: My pleasure.
Duff Watkins: A lot of folks may not
be familiar with the work. So let me introduce you. First of all, you have won
four distinguished scientific awards. The titles of which are so long, we can’t
say them on the show because I can’t remember them.
bottom line is this, the work that you’ve done in psychology, anyone who is
studying psychology in an American university will be reading your stuff
probably in a textbook that you contributed to or co-authored. And you’re an
author you have over 200 published articles. You have written six books soon to
be a seventh.
sum as I see it as you’re one of the key people who has helped drive mind, body
medicine from their fringe to being mainstream from being a new age, wanky kind
of thing, to being conventional medicine. Does that sound right?
Ellen Langer: Sure. Why
Duff Watkins: But wait, there’s more,
you’ve been such a key influence in positive psychology that you’re called the
mother of positive psychology.
also called the mother of mindfulness. So, my question, what is the mother
thing in American psychology?
Ellen Langer: I think it just means I
have a lot of children. I think it’s a very nice place to be good.
Duff Watkins: So, you don’t, you
don’t get tired of that?
Ellen Langer: No.
Duff Watkins: Well, of your six books
that are currently published, I want to mention, two in particular, one is a
book called mindfulness. It just arrived attained it’s 25-year anniversary. So,
listeners, what I want to say when a book last for 25 years and still keeps
being published. That means two things. One it’s very good. Two statistically
it means it’s highly likely it will be published for the next 25 years as well.
So basically, you’re talking about a classic here.
The second book that I want to mention is called Counterclockwise a book that
is so significant, so important that actually has been mentioned on the
Simpsons television show. You know, you’ve arrived academically, when you get
mentioned on the Simpsons. I know it counter clockwise is about, could just sum
it up in a sentence or two, Ellen?
Ellen Langer: Sure first, I’m
struggling to see whether I should correct the number of books or not as many
more. Now go forward with counterclockwise. It was a based-on research I did in
1979, a long time ago. And what we did was to have old men live in a retreat
that was retrofitted to 20 years earlier as if they were their younger selves.
spoke about the present events, past events in the present tense and so on. So,
everything was for them to put their minds in the place that had been 20 years
ago. And this was the first test of the mind body unity study idea, which is
basically mind body, are just words, put them back together, wherever you put
the mind you’re necessarily putting the body.
was the first study where we put the mind in a strange place. These are men
around 80 years old or such. They lived this way for a week. We take measures
before and after and what we found being their younger selves, their vision,
improve their hearing, improve their strength improve. And they looked
noticeably younger, which is very nice because all of these effects occurred
without medical intervention.
of the first studies showing just how powerful the mind is. So,
counterclockwise just means we put them back in time. And if your mind is in
that younger place, so to where your body.
Duff Watkins: And the effect was so
profound, these guys arrived, on walking frames and sticks, and then shambling
they were leaving a touch football game, spontaneously broke out among the
guys. That is how powerful is the mind body connection and that they were
living in a situation where they would turn on the radio and they would get
news from 20, 30 years ago, the magazines, they picked up where the TV guide
was when they turned on the TV.
was from news from 20 or 30 years ago. So, they were totally immersed, in this,
and it’s been replicated since apparently. Yeah, fantastic results. Let me say
those six books that I mentioned, those are the popular ones, not the
textbooks, not the academic ones. Those are the ones that a lot of our readers
will come to.
Ellen Langer: Yes. One has to keep
their ego in check at all times.
Duff Watkins: 10 lessons. It took me
50 years to learn as our podcast, but you’ve tweaked it. It’s 10 lessons. You
don’t need a lifetime to learn. You just need to listen to this podcast.
[00:04:48] Lesson 1
Duff Watkins: Let me start with
lesson number one. Behaviour always makes sense from the actor’s perspective.
Ellen Langer: Yes, but that means, we
tend to come up with single explanations for events. And when we recognize that
the actor and the observer of that action are in two different places and that,
I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make sense to me. Yet you see it in some negative
light. So, nobody wakes up in the morning and says, today, I’m going to be
clumsy, mean and, impulsive.
are they intending? So, it turns out that, from my perspective I’m being
trusting, you may see me as gullible. You may see me as, inconsistent from my
perspective I’m flexible. I may see you as impulsive from your perspective,
your spontaneous turns out that for every single negative description, there’s
an equally potent but opposite balanced alternative. For every negative there’s
actually a positive way of viewing it. And when you do that, then you have a
better understanding of the individual more important than that. You become
less judgmental. You know, you may not like me for being gullible, but when you
recognize that I’m being trusting, then all of a sudden you have no interest in
changing my behaviour.
is the best way I think for people to become less evaluative
Duff Watkins: when they realize that
the person is behaving in a way that makes sense to them, then I am free to be
less judgmental about that, about you.
Ellen Langer: Right? Right.
[00:06:21] Lesson 2
Duff Watkins: Lesson number two.
Certainty is a mindless illusion.
Ellen Langer: Yes. Everything is
looks different from different perspectives. Yes. At schools, podcasts,
newspapers, magazines always give us information as if it’s absolute. And what
happens is when you called the world still, when it’s actually in flux, you end
up with less control than you otherwise would have, even though the whole thing
is designed in part to give you control.
is a fact of life. If you embrace uncertainty and exploit the power of
uncertainty, you’re going to be much more successful in all of your ventures.
So, when you’re taught something, so for example, I was taught horses don’t eat
meat. Now, and it’s just a fact you accepted. But it turns out I was at this horse
asked me would I watch his horse, when he goes and gets his horse, a hotdog,
well, Harvard, Yale, all the way through, I’m thinking, you know, this is
ridiculous. He brought back the hot dog and the horse ate it. And at that
moment I realized that everything I thought I knew could be wrong. I often
start talks by asking people.
I’ll ask you a Duff, how much is one in one?
Duff Watkins: Well, two, everybody
Ellen Langer: Yeah, we just accepted
that, right? It’s not always too. If you add one cloud to one cloud, one plus
one is one, you add one wad of chewing gum to one wad of chewing gum, one plus
one is one. You add one pile of laundry, the one pile of laundry one plus.
the point is that everything depends on the context in which it’s embedded. And
we tend to learn information in a context freeway, which leaves us mindless,
where we think we know. But in fact, we don’t. So, if your listeners were to
take nothing else from all that I’m going to say and have said away from this
to learn something, recognize the importance of uncertainty, everything is
uncertain and you know, people now tend to make a personal attribution for
know you maybe, you know, maybe, you know, therefore I’ll pretend or feel
uncomfortable or less than, but they should change that to a universal
attribution. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. They can’t know.
Right. And so then not knowing, becomes fun. It motivates you. You know, if I
now ask, if somebody asks you how much is one-on-one, you’re not going to
mindlessly answer, you’re going to pay attention to the situation to see which
of the many answers may be the correct answer.
that when we think we know we tune out, we shouldn’t think we know, because we
can’t know when you don’t know. And you know, you don’t know, and you know,
it’s okay not to know. Then life becomes interesting, and you become more
Duff Watkins: May I ask you, so why
do we cling to certainty even though it’s an illusion? Why do we pursue it?
pretend along with it, wed ourselves to it.
Ellen Langer: we’re, we’re taught
from the very earliest ages and especially reinforced in schools on that there
are absolute answers and that the more of these, you know, the more successful
you’re going to be in life. And I’m not sure exactly why everything was set up
is that it maintains the status quo. You know, that, those people in power stay
in power as long as everybody else believes, they know more. but in fact, we
can’t know, and not knowing is a good thing because then there’s reason to
Duff Watkins: So, it’s very much
cultural and societal, but we search see it.
Ellen Langer: I think that it
basically goes across most cultures and today the world is so small that many
of those cultural differences, uh, have disappeared over time. and virtually
all cultures that I’ve looked at, and there may be exceptions, I don’t know
that people are taught absolutes. Absolutes, breed, mindlessness.
think, you know, you don’t pay any attention. So that’s why mindfulness is I
study. It is the very simple process of noticing new things. And when you
notice new things about the things, you know, you come to say, you don’t know
them as well as you thought you did, your attention naturally goes to that.
it becomes fun. You know, learning and mastering is what’s fun having mastered
or learned. doesn’t get you very far.
Duff Watkins: And that’s your point?
[00:10:43] Lesson 3
Duff Watkins: I think when you say
this point number three, one plus one, doesn’t always equal two. Once you give
up the certainty that it must equal two, it must equal two every single time.
there’s a sort of a liberation that occurs. You’re, you’re suddenly open to new
possibilities that you had excluded before.
Ellen Langer: Yes. Once you know that
it’s okay not to know that it’s mindful not to know. Then you get an
opportunity to discover, and everything becomes new and exciting. Things like
boredom or stress, all of these, things that people suffer from disappear, you
know, that, uh, situations are not new or old.
depends on how you view them. If you view them mindlessly and hold it still,
this is a terrible situation. I must be stressed. You’re going to be stressed
if you say, oh, this is the same old, same old you’re going to be bored. But
those are in your head, not in the situation. So, if you take the situation
that’s boring and you notice ways in which right now it’s different and it will
be different if for no other reason that you are different from the last time.
becomes exciting again. Situations that are stressful are often stressful
because you think they’re brand new and you don’t know how to respond. But
there are aspects of that situation that are very familiar. So being mindful is
not just noticing the new in the old it’s noticing the old in the new. It’s
saying that whatever single explanation you have is only one of several and all
of us, most people around the globe that have been taught to answer questions with
there are always multiple ways of looking at things.
Duff Watkins: Okay, let me ask you
this. This is a true story. I recruited a guy, I run an executive search firm.
I recruited a guy. He was a Latin American. He was in a Latin American air
force. I won’t mention the countries, but he said he and his team parachuted into,
they were in there fighting terrorists, Sendero, Luminoso, the shining path.
And they were finding them. They parachuted into, at night, into another
country illegally, as it turns out and they were lost. And I said to him, what
did you do? And he said, well, the thing is, when you’re in the military, the
people, your men are looking at you, he was the captain, And he said, the guy
is looking at you and you can’t say, well, I don’t know. I don’t know where we
are. I don’t know what to do. They were lost at night and enemy occupied
territory where they weren’t supposed to be. And I’ve thought about that many
times when you’re in a position where you can’t say fellas, I’m sorry.
don’t know what to do. I’m open for suggestions. What do you do then?
Ellen Langer: Well, it’s interesting.
I think the best way to be in this world is to be confident, but uncertain. And
that, to pretend, you know, when you don’t know when there’s somebody there who
might have information that you don’t have, that would be useful to the success
of the mission.
you should be open to it. I think that there are ways of saying, I don’t know
where people question your authority, people get nervous and so on. And there
are ways of saying it, look, you know, this is, this is new. Let’s use all the
information we have from the past and we’ll figure it out.
what I think that we should do. Does anybody have a better idea? You know,
which is different from gee. I don’t know.
Duff Watkins: Please help.
Ellen Langer: well, a leader may
become scared when they mistakenly think they should know and then discover.
They don’t know. They never know, you know, people suffer from an illusion of,
predict, but all of us think that we can virtually all of us. And, um, so I
tell a little story about this. So, I tell my students in an advanced graduate
course on decision-making. I’ve been teaching a version of this course for over
40 years. I’ve never missed a class. What is the likelihood I’m going to be
here next week?
a small class. We’d go around the room and they, you know, these are Harvard
students. So, they don’t say a hundred percent. They say silly things like 98%,
97%, but they’re all essentially saying they predict I’ll be there next week.
Then I say to them, okay, we’re going to go around the room and they want each
of you to give me a good reason why I won’t be here next week.
one that says, always, it’s almost always at least, says, uh, we have always
been here. You think it’s, you know, you’ve earned the time off. So, you don’t
come. I mean, the next person says your dog has to go to the vet. The next
person says you got a flat tire. And we go around the room, 12 people, 12 good
I say, okay, what is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week? And a
hundred percent drops to 50% going forward. When we realize all of the, various
possibilities that could unfold. We become aware that we don’t know. Looking
back, it’s very easy to say, oh, I should have known when it reveals itself.
if I said to you, Jim and Susie were fighting at the party, are they going to
get divorced? Who knows, right. People fight. If you find out that Jim and
Susie, are getting divorced and he’s like, ah, yeah, I know. Cause I saw them
fighting at the party. So, looking back gives us an illusion of knowing that we
don’t have going forward.
Duff Watkins: It’s the ex post facto
reasoning and confabulation first and going to the military situation,
confident, but uncertain. Let’s all write that down. That’s a good way to be.
And the illusion that my captain commander friend had was that he knew what the
hell he was doing anyway. So, he was cleaning to an illusion when he landed.
Ellen Langer: Yeah. You know, that if
he knew exactly what it was, what he was going to do, that would mean that
everything in that situation was perfectly knowable. And you know, uh, all you
need is, a log, you know, a tree that fell that blocks the path, you know, that
he was supposed to take and then you have to improvise.
point, the larger point is that everything is always new. Everything is always
changing, recognizing that, keeps you alert, following a plan. Mindlessly gets
you into trouble because that plan was derived at an earlier time before all of
the conditions were known. All of the plans that we make, not just in the
military, in life, you make a plan for yourself that’s based on what you know
right now. And all we know is that when you’re doing it, they will be things
that are different. So, you, you want, you want your plans to be loose. You
want plans, rules, routines to guide what you’re doing rather than to govern
what you’re doing. You don’t want to do the same thing regardless of the
context, just because that is the plan.
Duff Watkins: That’s called a rut.
You’ve touched upon this point already.
[00:17:15] Lesson 4
Duff Watkins: Point number four, else
Everyone doesn’t know something, but everyone knows something else.
Ellen Langer: Yeah. Yeah. That
because of schools, military, in many, institutions in our culture set things
up so that we have a sense that people, some people are winners, some people
are losers and, that leads to problems because very often that person, the
person who’s considered a loser, doesn’t have the motivation to succeed after
putting that aside that that person has special information that could be
useful. Let me give you an example. I was lecturing in South Africa, and I took
an afternoon and was down by the swimming pools, very fancy hotel. And they had
this entire area that was unused with very expensive real estate.
The only person who knew that was the lowly cabana boy. But who was going to ask
his advice? All right. simply that everybody knows something. If we assume that
only the people who get A’s in school or who win the football game or whatever
it is, are the people who know we lose out. And it also the idea, there’s a
little song I wrote for my grandkids and a little ditty.
doesn’t know something, but everybody knows something else allows you to not
know. And so that commander you were talking about what that teacher, or me
with my grandkids, should feel free to say, gee, I don’t know. Let’s find out
rather than the assumption that we have, the information that we can’t have
because things are changing.
we pretend we distanced ourselves from the kids, from the army, from the
students and, everything proceeds in a less efficient manner than it otherwise.
Duff Watkins: And this is the tenor
of the conversation I’m picking up from you. This uncertainty is not to be
dreaded necessarily. It can be embraced.
Ellen Langer: No, it’s to be
embraced. It’s to be embraced. In fact, the bottom line to all of this is that
the power or we seek is found in exploiting uncertainty. The uncertainty is
there. You can ignore it if you want, which people do. Or even be oblivious to
the fact that things are uncertain. But once we recognize it, then everything
becomes new, and everything becomes exciting again.
you know that when your mindful, which is again, for me, just the simple
process of noticing new things, and that puts you in the present and you have
all of this silly stuff where people say, be in the moment, it’s an empty
instruction because when you’re not there, you don’t know that you’re not
to be in the present is just simply noticing new things. As you notice those
new things, the neurons are firing. Life is exciting, and you’re going then to
be in a position to take advantage of opportunities, to which other people
would be blind and avert the danger, not yet arisen. You know that we have your
soldiers in the middle of some godforsaken place in the middle of the night.
And if they, are aware that they don’t know,
and that it’s okay not to know. Then all of a sudden, they’re going to see
things and opportunities that they might otherwise have missed. I don’t know
what the, you know, not being a soldier travelled in that way. I don’t know
what to use as an example, but hopefully your audience can fill in the blanks.
[00:20:39] Lesson 5
Duff Watkins: You, you spoke to this
point. Point number five, every negative ascription has an equally potent, but
opposite alternative. Can you elaborate on that? I’m not sure I grasp that.
Ellen Langer: Okay. That’s what I had
said. Earlier, we can do it as far as characteristics of people. So that’s why
I said, you know, you can see me as inconsistent, or you can see me as
flexible. Uh, one is negative. One is positive. Uh, you can see me as
impulsive, you can see me as spontaneous. Gullible or trusting and so on, but
it’s also the case that with events. Events don’t come with a valence. Events
are not good, not bad, they’re nothing, they’re just events. And it’s the way
we think about them.
makes them positive, negative, neutral. So, you and I go out for lunch. I know
I always use this example. I’m not sure why, but nevertheless, we go out for
lunch and the food is good. Wonderful. Okay. We can go out for lunch and the
food is awful. Wonderful. I’ll eat less. All right. Which for me would be a
positive, you know?
that I was going to do this podcast for you, which we’re doing right now, but
that, I get a note, an email from you right before. Geez, sorry. I can’t make
it, uh, but my car has a flat tire, whatever it is. So now is that negative or
positive? Well, for me, it’s positive, then I have a found hour, to do what I
And if we
do the podcast and we have fun with it, which we are, that’s also positive, you
know, it’s not, pie in the sky. It’s recognizing not that everything is positive.
Everything is neither positive nor negative. So given that the way you feel is
going to be a function of whether you see it as positive or negative, why not
choose to see it as positive, but the important point is it is nothing.
the world for ourselves that we’re going to experience the way we understand
people. And you know, so if I see you as inconsistent, I might not want, I
might not want to have anything to do with you. It’s annoying. If I see you as
flexible, then I embrace you and I look forward to our interactions.
I’m suggesting is the same expression. Inconsistent flexible. They both equally
describe the situation, your behaviour. One leads me to feel good. One leads me
to treat you more respectfully and the other, quite the opposite. So that’s the
choice given that we can choose how to see things. I don’t see an advantage in
seeing them negatively.
[00:23:17] Lesson 6
Duff Watkins: And that’s the point
number six, that outcomes are neither good, nor bad independent of how we see
them. I read that and I thought, Ellen, when you’ve been dipping into your
Epictetus again, you’ve been dabbling in the stoic philosophy.
Ellen Langer: Yes.
Duff Watkins: I learned this in high
school and I’m still trying to wrestle with Epictetus said for those of you who
don’t know, he said a long time ago, we are not upset by the events that
occurred, but by our opinions of the things that occur, and your point Ellen is
we actually have a bloody choice as to how we see interpret view, frame.
Ellen Langer: It’s people and events
that every time that we’re making an evaluation.
think it’s in the thing, it’s not it’s in our minds. And so, stress is a result
of these views rather than the event itself. And when you realize that every,
every time you’re feeling something negative, that you’ve implicitly made a
choice that might not be working for you. And so, we have all of this, it says
over and over again, we have far more control over our lives than most people
realize they do.
way to experience that control starts off by this appreciation of uncertainty
and this act of noticing everything changes.
[00:24:44] Lesson 7
Duff Watkins: And that takes us to
point number seven. To feel different. View it differently. And one of the more
cited, uh, experiments in psychology is the chamber made experiment. Can you,
can you talk a bit about that?
think it’s such a beautiful illustration of what you’re, when you’ve been
Ellen Langer: this is a more recent
test of the mind-body unity theory. Um, so we took chambermaids and we asked
them how much exercise they get. And despite the fact that they’re working all
day long, exercising. All day long.
Duff Watkins: These people, making
these rooms and hotels.
Ellen Langer: They see themselves as
not getting any exercise because to them exercise, according to the surgeon,
general is what you do after work. And after work, they just do tired. It gets
put that aside for the moment. Now what we do is we take these chambermaids and
divide them into groups. And the important group we teach, teach them that their
work is exercise making the bed is like working on this machine at the gym.
on, the only change for them is their mindset. Now they see their work as
exercise, right? Do we take all sorts of measures? And we repeat them at the
end of three weeks. And are they eating any differently after this? No. Are
they working any harder? No, we get as much information as we can. The only
thing that seems to be different is the mindset.
result of now, seeing them work is exercise. They lost weight. There was a
change in waist to hit ratio, body mass index, and their blood pressure came
down. Just by changing. Their minds.
Duff Watkins: Let me restate that.
They’re doing the same job, the same way to say all you did was say, think of
it as exercise and their physiological responses as easily measurable weights,
blood pressure, things of that nature reduced, and they simply became healthier
by thinking of it as exercise.
Ellen Langer: Yeah, and we have a lot
of, uh, tests, um, like this with all different diseases and so on. Talk about
it in a moment, but the, the main idea is that the world, in some sense, it
just is, it’s an is. It’s not anything in particular. Then we act on it and the
way we categorize and understand things is going to determine the way we use
we realize that, um, one-and-one, for example, is only sometimes two, that most
of the times horses don’t eat meat, but that we can’t be sure of any of this.
Then we stay tuned in the neurons are firing and that’s good for our health.
And we end up with far more control over every aspect of our wellbeing.
Duff Watkins: Can I just say I too
went to Yale for grad school, and I didn’t know horses eat hot dogs. I mean,
with some serious gaps in my education.
Ellen Langer: No, no, no. That’s what
they know, but, but that’s the point. That’s what they teach us. And we accept
it without thinking about it. We’re not told how many horses were tested, how
large were the horses, how hungry were the horses, how much beef was mixed with
how much grain, and you know, and so on.
of those things make a difference. And when we recognize that everything is, a
little less certain than we thought, we don’t get locked in in the same way.
You know, you’re doing something, and you need an ingredient for what you’re
cooking, and you don’t have the ingredient. There’re some people who just won’t
make whatever it is rather than say, okay, a person created this recipe.
they create it? They mixed and matched and experimented. All right. So, what
else can I use for this whatever it is you need, so you need salad cream, you
don’t have salad cream. So, you know, I use yogurt. You don’t have yogurt. I
don’t know. Maybe even a whipped cream cheese. I, you know, it’s going to taste
different, but that difference, maybe an advantage. And if we recognize that in
general, life is a social construction. That means people decided how we do
things. What we have, what is the best way to approach them? Just people who
lived at a different point in time with different experience, different biases
and so on. And when you keep that in mind that it was just other people it’s
easier to make changes.
in this framework, everything becomes mutable. An example, you see a sign on,
the lawn and unless you live in New York, and the sign says, keep off the
grass. And unless you’re a new Yorker, you’re just going to keep off the grass.
Now compare that with the sign that says, Ellen says keep off the grass. Who’s
Ellen? Maybe she doesn’t live here.
can negotiate with her. All right. And then, you know, or I’ll walk on the
grass now, but I’ll make it up to her another way. The point is it becomes
mutable. You think you can still take some action as soon as you know, people
were there. Now, interestingly, when you want to persuade somebody to do
something, you leave out the people component.
want people to feel free, to make adjustments, you add the people components.
So, when I tell you, oh, I don’t know. Let’s say smoking is bad for your
health. Then you shouldn’t smoke. If I told you, it’s a study by Duff Watkins
and Ellen Langer found that under these conditions, uh, people who smoke are
likely to get this and that result, then it becomes much more iffy.
not telling people they should smoke or not smoke, but simply to believe
smoking. I’m sure there are situations where smoking isn’t bad for your health.
I’m sure if you’re 95 years old, uh, the stimulant that’s in most tobacco
products is probably good for. Everything that’s bad. You know, gambling is
supposed to be bad for you.
agree with that. But again, if you take people, you know, say elderly people,
whose lives are lived now and, and not very exciting way, and you bring them
into a casino, they come alive. So, the right answer, I think to almost any
question, is it depends. How much is one in one, it depends. Do horses eat
depends. Should this, soldier in this foreign country go to the right or the
left. It depends.
Duff Watkins: The right answer to
every question is it depends. Okay. We’re making progress here. So, the
takeaway for folks is, is that if I feel stressed about an event, it’s not the
event, it’s my interpretation of that event, but the way I’m choosing, and
there’s a great deal of choice here, to experience a particular event. Okay.
Ellen Langer: Right. And so, I
suggest for people who are suffering stress to do two things first recognize
that, events, that we can’t predict what an event is going to be. We can’t make
predictions. Second that, whatever it is we have means of interpreting. So, for
example, the belief is this thing is going to happen.
it happens, it’s going to be awful. You want to attack both of those. So, this
thing is going to happen. Give yourself three reasons why it might not happen.
All right. So, you went from thinking it’s definitely gonna happen to might not
happen. You immediately feel better. Now let’s assume it does happen.
that actually be an advantage? So, you went from this terrible thing is
definitely going to happen, scared to death to maybe it’ll happen. Maybe it
won’t happen. And if it does happen, that’ll bring me these advantages. So,
then you, instead of being reactive, you can just sit back and, and live your
life in this more, comfortable way.
Duff Watkins: that’s reminding me
when I used to work in psychiatry as a psychotherapist, I learned rigidity is
the kiss of death. I mean, to be unyielding and life is just, it’s not a good
[00:32:32] Lesson 8
Duff Watkins: Which takes us to point
number eight, every activity can be done mindlessly or mindfully.
Ellen Langer: Right. And you know, so
that I can be answering your questions mindlessly or mindfully, I can be eating
a sandwich mindfully or mindlessly.
I can be
playing tennis. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. But the point is that over
40 years of research has made clear to me that if you do it mindfully, you reap
all sorts of benefits. If you, do it mindlessly, it’s essentially a non-event
and you set yourself up for all sorts of problems. And any event can be any
activity can be engaged mindfully by simply noticing the ways it’s new.
if you’ve done it a thousand times, it’s never quite the same. You’re not the
same. And when you’re aware of that, we have things to go far, a field from
this practice, most people are taught to in learning a musical instrument or a
sport, keep doing it until it becomes second nature. Terrible, because what
that means is keep doing it till you don’t have to think about it anymore until
your mindless now, that would be fine.
knew that you had the very best way of doing it and nothing was going to
change, but you can never meet those two conditions. And the way to practice is
to get more and more comfortable with uncertainty. So, you stay tuned in. And
so, you know, if, for example, you’re playing tennis, you are learning tennis
and you always play against people who are right-handed.
you think, oh, master of this, and now all of a sudden, you’re playing with the
first person who’s, left-handed, it’s a different game. And that you’re caught
unaware because you think, you know, and every time we act as if now, we’ve got
it, uh, we make ourselves vulnerable. So, all practice should be engaged, not
to make perfect, but to recognize, the uncertainty that’s implicit in the
[00:34:27] Lesson 9
Duff Watkins: And that takes us to
point number nine, we’ve been talking a lot about mindfulness and your
description of it is very simple. Mindfulness is simply noticing new things.
Ellen Langer: Yes. I, sometimes I
wish I had called it something different because, and, and I think I’m going to
switch to talking about mindlessness, which seems to be, people don’t seem to
get confused, but now you have lots of people who, when you say the word
mindfulness, they think of meditation.
is not mindfulness. Meditation is a practice you engage in order to result in
post meditative mindful. All right. Uh, and that’s a practice. What I’m talking
about is a way of life. That stems from the very simple appreciation of
uncertainty, when you’re uncertain, you tune in. When you tune in the way you
tune in is to notice.
you’re noticing again, the neurons are firing. It feels good. It turns out it’s
easy to do. This is not a practice. It’s energy, beginning, not consuming. And
it’s fun. It’s what we’re doing when we’re, when we’re enjoying ourselves. It’s
what we’re doing when, whenever you laugh, you know, if I were to tell you a
joke now, which I’m sort of pleased to do,
I have a
couple of stock and trade jokes that are easy to tell them to remember. Okay.
So, if I tell you. This clairvoyant, midget escaped from prison. That’s right
there. That there’s a small medium at large,
funny, which it’s often not to people, but the reason it’s funny is because
when I say clairvoyant, you don’t immediately think of medium as a size. So, on
and large at large, you know, out there in the world rather than again, as a
size. So, it’s the recognizing that you understood it one way, but it could
have been understood a different way.
that’s what makes it funny. Right. And so, realizing that is being mindful
when, if you’re doing a crossword puzzle that you like crossword puzzles and,
you’re engaged in it. It’s all fun. The next time you do it, where do you know
all the words? It’s no longer fun.
whenever you’re having fun, it’s because you’re noticing new things. So, we
have studies, a simple study.
people who hate football, who hate rap music who hate a lot of haters, hate
classical music. Don’t like art. And we have them engage in the activity where
they notice. We just have them listen to the rap music, listen to the classical
or watch the football game. Or we say, notice one new thing about it.
three new things, notice six new things. And what we find is the more you
notice, the more you like the activity. So, we have, uh, you know, several
studies showing that the more you notice, the more energized you are. And I use
myself as an example here, uh, sometimes to the dismay of the people with whom
I’m speaking, because I start most people will start off here and then over
time, They go like this, and they get tired. For me I started here, and I just
go up and up and up because I get more and more excited about what I’m saying.
And, when I get off of a podcast, a lecture, uh, television, something that
I’m, that I’m doing, where I’m totally engaged, I end up all excited rather
than depleted. So, this kind of mindfulness, isn’t a practice.
energy begetting, not consuming, as I’ve said, it’s fun. It’s what you’re doing
when you’re enjoying yourself the most. Basically, what I’ve said so far is
that this thing is very, very easy to do this act of noticing the act of
noticing feels good. Turns out is very good for you. And not only that, when
you’re in the process of being mindful of actively noticing. People, find you
more charismatic, more authentic, and more trustworthy. Not only that, but when
you’re doing the things you’re doing, if you’re doing the mindfully, it turns
out that, the product bears the imprint of that mindfulness.
have, for example, we have a fun study with orchestras and they’re all going to
play the same pieces, but half of them, we encouraged to be mindless half
mindful when they’re mindless, we say, remember a time you enjoyed playing this
piece and then just replicate that performance. We say to the other group, make
it new in very subtle ways that only you would know now they’re playing
ways indeed have to be subtle. We tape the performances and then we play them
for people who have no idea about the study. People overwhelmingly prefer the
mindfully played piece. Because of the work you’re doing now Duff, that,
another part of that study is relevant for you, which is I didn’t realize this
until I wrote up the paper for publication. That here we have a situation where
people are made more mindful, noticing new things.
everybody is basically on their own being mindful of situation. And you end up
with superior coordinated experience. Which leads me to believe that the job of
the leader, the most important job of a leader is to provoke the mindfulness of
those people being led. And it’s easier to do that when you do all the things
we’ve talked about so far, because you respect all of those people.
lowly, cabana, boy, everybody doesn’t know something, but everybody knows
something else. And if they’re all drawing their information from the same
ongoing situation, that’s why you get the coordinated experience, very
different view of leadership.
Duff Watkins: And you say three
things, one it’s effortless, two it’s fun in three, it begets energy.
Ellen Langer: Yes. Yeah. And the
newest work that we’re doing, they have, you don’t have time to go into, says
that it’s also contagious. So, if you have a company and you make your leaders
in the company, more mindful, it will spread. I don’t know, exponentially or
not, but it will spread. And it’s the kind of thing where once you try it and
get into this way of being, you don’t need any extra motivation to do it
because it’s its own motivator.
good. So, you do it. If you were to visit me, I’m in Provincetown,
Massachusetts right now. If you came to visit me, you wouldn’t have to practice
being mindful. You get off the plane and everything. I know. I don’t know if
you’ve been to Provincetown, but you’ve never been to my house that I know.
you’ve come to my house. They’re going to be looking around. It’s going to be
fun for you. It doesn’t require any of. And the mistake we have is in
confusing, using mindfulness with just thinking and thinking has gotten a bad
rap. Cause thinking also isn’t negative. It’s worrying that you’re not thinking
correctly, worrying that you’re not going to get the right solution, but the
act of going from not knowing to knowing is exhilarating and it’s too bad that
schools largely have turned us off to this whole thing by asking us to
memorize, for example, you know, which is ridiculous.
me tell you a little quick little story, apropos very little. Okay. So, I have
my grandkids, over the house, and I say to them, do you want to get the googers
is a made-up word out of the hot tub. We are excited. They get the googers out
of the hot tub. Now, the fact that I’m telling you the silly name purposely, so
getting the leaves and debris right, the next week they come over and they say,
grandma, can we get the googers out of the hot tub?
can be sure that they didn’t spend a week saying googers, googers.
because it was meaningful to them because it was fun. they instantly knew it.
And yet you have schools telling us the way we’re supposed to learn is to
memorize. And I’m telling you, the way you’re supposed to learn is to make
things meaningful. And the way to make them meaningful as to notice new things
about them, to make them personal and so on.
you just know it. Well, it turns out for you, for me, for most people we know
probably 98% of what we know we didn’t memorise. So, I asked the question, why
do we teach people the importance this activity that in their life is going to
cover so little territory. Anyway. if you’re mindful and you notice things
about it, you’re likely to remember it.
you’re mindful, noticing things about whatever it is, you’re going to be
enjoying it and energized while you do it.
Duff Watkins: I have an anecdote for
you because it reminds me of your orchestra story, Paco de Lucía, who is one
of, to me use the best flamenco guitarist practices, 10 hours a day.
is all rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm rhythm. And he started playing with Al Di
Meola, John McLaughlin, jazz guitars, where it’s all improvisation. And he
said, when he started playing with them, it was very, very difficult. So
contrary to what he did before, but he’s one of the world’s best at, he said
now, after practicing playing with those guys, he cannot live without it.
thought to myself, that, to me, it illustrates what you’re talking about. It
starts off as difficult, but he stayed with it, and he changed.
Ellen Langer: Well, the activity, you
know, the practice wasn’t difficult. What was difficult was his fighting with
himself saying this is not the way to learn it.
Duff Watkins: The shift in his head.
Ellen Langer: Yeah.
[00:44:13] Lesson 10
Duff Watkins: Our final point point
number 10, life is a people game.
Ellen Langer: Yeah. This is what I,
hinted at earlier when I said that the world is a social construction. And when
you recognize that it was created by people, to the extent that it doesn’t work
for you, it occurs to you to change it.
example, when I give a talk, I might ask how tall are you? You look very tall
Duff Watkins: Six one in us terms.
Ellen Langer: Okay. Great. So, you’re
six one. Let’s say you were in the audience. I’d asked you to come up to the
stage. I’m five, three. So, we look like this, right then I’ve asked you, can
you put your hand down and you put your hand up and I put my hand up and your
hand is probably two, three inches larger than mine.
the question I would raise is should we do any physical thing the same way? It
seems absurd. Should we hold a golf club, a tennis racket, do anything
physically the same way, because physically we’re so different. Now, the point
that I’m making is if the rule is made by you and your team, you teach people.
the way I’m never going to be very good at this thing because we’re so
different. So, the more different you want from the person who created the
activity, the more important it is probably for you to find your own way. And
so, whenever you’re taught to do something, rather than take it as,
commandments coming from the heavens, you take it as a guide.
sort of the way you hold a tennis rack. This is sort of the way you write this
report, whatever it is you’re doing. And then that would encourage people to
find their own way in which you know, so I paint. If I am true to myself, no
one can be a better Ellen Langer than I, you know, if I’m trying to be Rembrandt,
you know, and I may be the 12 million Rembrandt like person, and that’s fine,
but if Rembrandt tried to be me. He couldn’t be me if he were alive.
So, the point is that when we recognize that what is all created by people,
people who are a particular way, physically, emotionally, who have certain
biases and so on, and that we don’t take that way as law, but rather as a
suggestion of possibility and make it our own, it will feel better and we’re
likely to be more successful.
imagine, you know, I have a scale, it’s a mindfulness scale. It would probably
be bizarre if I didn’t do well on the scale. Yep. So, the more like me, you are
the better you’re going to do on the scale. If somebody else created, do you
see what I’m saying? So that’s what I mean. It was all put in place by people.
So even a
simple thing, you walk into a room, and you know, or you sit down on a chair
now, if you and I suggest on the same chair, one of us is going to be
uncomfortable, but most people just accept that the chair is, as the chair is
rather than, the chair was created by Pete, for example. And so, for you,
you’re going to add something to the bottom from me.
to cut the legs and that way I’ll be comfortable, right? When we recognize that
it’s all put there by people, everything becomes fungible now. Interesting. As
I’m speaking, I realized that wasn’t what I meant when I originally wrote that
thing to you. What I meant when I wrote that was essentially that because
everything can be understood in so many different ways that if I want to
belittle you it’s very easy for me to do so. If I want to, find you attractive,
appealing, it’s very easy for me to do so.
happens is that, so you’re coming to me for a job. And if you think that it
doesn’t matter how you interact with me, that I’m going to appreciate all of
your, wonderful assets. You’re being blind to the fact that it’s all a people
game. I tell my students, you know, while you’re a student is very important to
show me how smart you are.
get out in the world, it’s more important for you to show other people how
smart they are. So, who would you want in your company? Do you want that person
who makes you feel good? Or do you want the person who, you know, who may know
some answers that are already in the past and people consistently use
yesterday’s solutions to solve today’s problem?
fact that you were a great problem-solver in the past, doesn’t mean you’re
going to be a great problem solver in the present. That, that cabana boy that I
spoke about has enormous information that could be useful. So why should I hire
that person who I don’t like? I’m not likely to now people don’t feel comfortable
just saying, I’m hiring you, giving me the raise, doing this, buying from this
store, whatever it is, because the person was nice.
ultimately that’s what it’s all about. That if people like you, they will
understand the situation in such a way as to make it the smart thing to do.
Duff Watkins: I always think of Carl
Sagan’s quotation. People are not always grateful for demonstrations of their
credulity. In other words, you go around making people look stupid, they’ll
tend to pay you back.
to remember it.
Ellen Langer: Exactly, but I’m
saying, you know, in, in any situation that if you remember that the person,
that it’s all created by people, that people, no matter what their status is,
still, have the same feelings that the rest of us have. And so, we don’t ignore
that as we get on with the task. Success, I believe is more likely,
Duff Watkins: and we’ll finished on
that note. I’m glad you mentioned that you’re an artist. Ellen langer.com is
your personal website, your books, and your art is available for purchase on
Ellen Langer: Yes.
Duff Watkins: You’ve been listening
to the podcast, 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn. You’ve been listening
to us, but we’d like to hear from you. You can contact us at
email@example.com that’s podcast at 10, the number one zero lessons
learned.com and anything you want to know about Ellen, her books, her art, you
let me know, and I’ll make sure that you get to it.
find a way to get it to you. And by the way, while you’re at there, go ahead
and hit the subscribe button, because this is the podcast that is making the
world a wiser place lesson by lesson. My name is Duff Watkins, and our guest
today has been Ellen Langer. Thank you for joining us.