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)
Reading Time: 2 minutes
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?