CG #64 – Are You the Flea in the Jar?

CG #64 – Are you the flea in the jar?

It’s easy to pooh-pooh mindfulness as another management fad until you start to look at the connection between the flea in the jar and our tendency to “stick like lint to the familiar.” (Mary Oliver)


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Fleas in a jar learn to limit their jumping so they don’t have painful encounters with the lid. They learn this so well, they continue to jump only that high after the lid is removed.   Unlike a flea, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer doesn’t believe her jar has a lid. I bet the words “always” and “never” or the phrase “it is what it is,” don’t fall from her lips. To Langer, every moment is open territory if we looking for what’s different about it.

“The problem is…we suffer from an illusion of stability and think everything we once experienced is still the same. Everything is always changing and looks different from different perspectives. Bringing that expectation of not knowing to our daily lives will encourage us to notice and be in the present.”

Langer has been studying the effects of mindfulness on well-being and performance for the last 30 years. “Actively drawing novel distinctions is the essence of mindfulness,” she says. When you are looking for what’s different from one moment to the next, you start to see all the choices available to you. That’s the opposite of sticking to a habitual way of thinking about our boss, or our role or what’s possible.

That’s the difference between being mindful and being the flea: The mindful person is always scanning their environment expecting to see something new. The flea takes the one time they smacked into the lid on the jar as proof that nothing is going to change, not ever, that’s the way it is here, woe is me. Never, always, can’t.

This is what I most often see in my clients who are stuck: Their boss was unreceptive to an idea once, so they never bring it up again. Their co-worker always gets the best projects, so there is no point in asking for the next one. I couldn’t get this to work last time, so it must not be possible. The mindful person asks, “What is different about this moment, about that person, about me? What assumptions are keeping me stuck?” and “What can I do differently because something or someone is slightly different?”

Langer’s practical approach to mindfulness doesn’t involve hours on a meditation cushion becoming non-judgmentally aware of your thoughts. We can be mindful in any moment: Either we believe that the world around us is stable and unchanging and the habits that served us yesterday are the right ones for today, or we are on the lookout for what’s new. According to Langer, “we expect everything to be new and so we notice, become engaged and enjoy ourselves.”

Langer isn’t just after enjoyment, she’s out to change the world: Her upcoming project is to study the effect of mindfulness on Stage IV breast cancer patients. She expects to shrink tumors. (Link to NYT article) Her track record so far makes me think she will.

Where are you the flea in the jar, mindlessly jumping at a fixed height? Where can you start looking for what’s different or new in the same old situation?


  1. John Fletcher says

    The Paradigm Shift, many people are not prepared for a change of direction and because their not prepared they will fight or refuse what is not the norm. Bad history or poor leadership can make a person feel like a flea in a jar.

    A mindful person is working towards self development and will not keep themselves or let anyone keep them contained in a jar.

    • Nohemi Barriga says

      Hello John,

      Correct, I feel that people lack awareness for their surroundings; and ignore that they are indeed biologically changing too!! The clock keeps ticking and we have no choice but to keep moving, keep evolving whether we like it or not. The hours, days, months, and years are passing; time keeps obviously rolling and it is not pausing for us to make up our minds to become ready for change, nor until all of a sudden we have an “aha” moment where we decide that we should embrace change after all. I feel that continuous education is key, and that it is very much an investment to provide consistent education to our group members. Real leaders believe in the development of themselves and theirs to resume innovative production hour after hour of their lives. Plus, authentic leaders believe that embracing education and growth means planting seeds of achievements, not of fears to create.

  2. Nohemi Barriga says

    Change is absolutely fascinating. It comes in many shapes and forms; taking the time to contemplate on its many forms, gives you the opportunity to realize that change is innovation. Moreover, this reminds me of those “leaders” just as “fleas that are so afraid to jump out of the jar” or like those that have such an entrenched bad habit that does not let them develop, however their body language cries out for that change in their lives. Despite their “inflexibility” to accept change they demonstrate their desire to explore development and ultimately embrace change.

  3. Nohemi Barriga says

    It is truly a lifestyle that needs to be adopted in order to grow in this awareness that is much needed for change, and the result is simply one’s mindfulness of innovation. Everyone says to want prosperity, growth, attraction, and to make a contribution to their deepest passions in life, but how to do that? There are those people that are extremely talented and cannot get passed performing at a same level year after year in their lives. Same as others, who are eager to begin new adventures in their personal lives or organizations, but are crippled by fear to become ready for change. That is it; we become disabled by fear to fail that we cannot dare to “jump out of the jar”.
    “I failed my way to success.” — Thomas Edison

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