Do you ever feel like you’re on a nonstop hamster wheel? That you keep on running, can’t turn off, and are constantly distracted?
Alternatively, do you often feel like you’re stuck in stasis, that you can’t move or make the decisions that will improve your life and work?
But we can control that hamster wheel, he explained, and get back to the sweet spot between gas and brake, what Hunter calls our “zone of resilience — a capacity to be calm.” The key to doing that is the practice of mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is a way of cultivating a higher quality of attention,” Hunter said, and it comes down to two basic steps: managing your nervous system and managing your attention.
Too often, we don’t live in the moment. Our nervous system is too distracted by stress and emotional reactions to be present and clear. But, as Hunter pointed out, “Managing yourself means managing your nervous system.”
To help do that, he walked the audience through a simple seven-step exercise, one that he called “Point-Seat-Feet-Root.”
Hunter recommends making a regular habit of such exercises. “The more you do it,” he said, “the more you’ll notice what calm actually feels like.”
From there, you can move on to the next phase in the mindfulness process.
“Quality of life equals quality of attention,” Hunter said. “Your life is what you give your attention to.”
So, how does one achieve the sort of densely focused attention that correlates with optimal experience?
The first thing is to forget about multitasking. “Multitasking is a fantastic strategy,” said Hunter, “if you want to be a shallow thinker.”
Beyond cutting down on doing too much with too little attention, Hunter recommends focusing on three qualities: receptivity, curiosity, and openness. Adam Smith offered an excellent rubric for this, Hunter said, when he encouraged people to adopt the mindset of “the impartial spectator.”
Embracing that approach, however, does not mean being passive, Hunter explained, but rather is part of a process of “recognizing, right now, you’re here.” From there, you can take in more information, and that information, in turn, allows you to create more choices.
Hunter recommended two actions, in particular.
Consider establishing an office meditation or mindfulness group, but make it strictly voluntary. Start small, and try to build out from a core group. “Any mandate will end in disaster,” he said.
The second step is an easy one.
“If you want to do one thing to improve productivity,” he said, “have a no-device policy in meetings.”
And that was a key theme of his presentation. Developing mindfulness is not an end in itself but rather a continual process of what he called “small steps over time that produce large effects.”
Photo courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell
Founding Director, Executive Mind Leadership Institute
2016 CFA Institute Annual Conference
8 May 2016
In this fascinating presentation, Jeremy Hunter, founding director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute, discusses how mindfulness can reduce stress, improve the management of emotions, and improve overall performance.
Jeremy Hunter: How many of you have, already, a mindfulness practice, just out of curiosity? So that’s about, I would say, a fifth of the room. How many people have never heard of this mindfulness thing? OK, that’s more.
How many of you are here because you were forcibly made to come to this talk by your spouse? You know, OK, I know there are a few of you out there. And how many of you are skeptical about this stuff? OK, small bit.
So why are you here? How many of you are here for stress reduction? OK, small amount. So then why the rest of you here?
Say it again? Focus? Like focus? Distraction, managing distraction? Right, yeah, OK.
I like this framework. How many people have heard of this term called VUCA? That’s surprising, actually. I thought maybe more. But I’ve come to realize that we live in this VUCA world.
What is VUCA? Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — just like a clicker. That this is kind of permeating our lives. This is a framework created after the Cold War, when it was becoming clear that the framework of East versus West, as a way of explaining the world, was going to no longer be so relevant. And we needed a new framework to understand the world.
And I think that this certainly mirrors our headlines every day. You know, my question is — so, it’s very easy for many of us to feel out of control. What’s going to happen?
One of the themes I hear, also, traveling around, is that the things that used to work, or the things that I could rely on working, don’t work like they used to. Our role models aren’t predicting what they used to predict. So that can lead us to feeling out of control. For myself, my own personal encounter with VUCA — I’ll be 45 this year, and when I was 20 and a sophomore at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, I was diagnosed with what was supposed to be an incurable terminal autoimmune disease attacking my kidneys.
And the prognosis was 90% chance of organ failure within five years. And something inside me said, “Oh, that’s good news, because at least it’s not 100%.” You know, it’s always going to be 100%, but you don’t think about your mortality when you’re 20. So because medical science didn’t have much to offer, I decided to make it an internal challenge.
And thought that maybe if I changed my inner way of being, that a miracle would happen, and I’d keep on living. In fact, a miracle did happen. I ended up living another 17 years after that. So what we’re going to talk about today, really, is — and in that 17 years, I ended up moving to the Drucker School of Management. Just out of curiosity, how many people know the work of Peter Drucker? Right.
So you may also know that one of his core statements was that you couldn’t manage anything else unless you managed yourself first. And when we arrived at the Drucker School in 1999, I realized that management education was all about managing something else besides you: that we trained you to manage other people; we trained you to manage money, and organizations, and strategies, and marketing campaigns.
But there was nothing, literally nothing, that was a systematic, structured way of understanding what happened inside you. How do you manage the hamster wheel that’s spinning around at 3 o’clock in the morning? How do you manage the stress in your body? How do you manage focus? Right? There is nothing like that.
And I realized that’s what I was — if I wasn’t going to live that long, at that point, I thought this was a worthy thing to do. How do you help people manage their own mind? And so I think of this as honing an edge. All the people I get the privilege of working with are really good at what they do. They’re extraordinarily talented. And what oftentimes is missing is this little 2% edge of, how do I manage the stuff in my head, that takes really good to really great.
And so that’s part of what we’re going to talk about today. When we think about managing ourself, there’s a staged answer to this challenge. The first of the stages, the most fundamental, is how do you manage your nervous system? Your nervous system is the fundamental infrastructure that kind of carries your body and mind through the world. And so here’s a simple diagram of how the nervous system works, right?
It’s divided into two branches. Your brain is the densest part of the nervous system that is distributed throughout your whole body. On the left-hand side is the parasympathetic nervous system. You can think about that like the brake. It slows things down. It’s relaxing. Your muscles relax. Your heart beat goes down. Your blood pressure decreases. Your digestion becomes more robust.
And on — this’s the kind of place we like to be. And on the other side is the sympathetic nervous system, which is like the gas pedal. That’s its mobilizing energy. So your heart rate goes up. Your muscles tense for action. You start breathing more quickly, and oftentimes with a kind of shallowness. You might see, over there, conversion of glycogen to glucose. We know there’s a fairly clear relationship between chronic stress and diabetes.
So secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline. That’s the part of stress we like, right? It’s the fun part. So we are moving between states of activation and states of relaxation. And how we manage that movement is fundamental to self-management. So let’s take a look, right?
So gas pedal on one side, brake on the other. And we like — let’s face it — we like, all of us achieving types, we like this kind of activity. And so in many times, the implicit model in our head — as Jason mentioned, I’m half Japanese. My great-grandfather was a sumo wrestler, and my mother is Japanese; my wife is Japanese. I’m the father — it seems our cats, by the way, are Japanese, because they respond to Japanese.
And so I spend a lot of time in Japan. And I think of this as the kind of implicit Japanese national mental model for productivity: that you just keep going; you keep going. You have more to do; you get up earlier, you stay up later, and you keep going. You keep pushing.
I had students who said, “Oh, in my office, we have a betting pool about who’s ulcer is bigger.” They had a whole point system about how many nights — they got points if they slept in the office that night, they got points for how many cigarettes they smoked, they got points for the size of their ulcers. And I’m not kidding, actually.
And so they just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. So how many of you are on this model, just out of curiosity? Don’t be shy. Literally, right?
I mean, so this is great if you’re a teenager, or in your 20s, but by the time you hit your mid-30s and, Lord knows, you’r early 40s, it doesn’t work anymore, because the biological reality is something like that, right? So people always say, “Oh, isn’t stress a good thing?” Yeah, it’s a good thing on this upper left-hand quadrant. But at some point, there’s a tipping point, and what happens is, it’s not true that stress kills you. What’s true is that stress exacerbates weaknesses in your biology that open up windows for things to come in that later kill you.
And that shows up in your 40s, and 50s, and 60s, in the form of cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes, or some other chronic illness. So part of what we talk about is, how do you stay on the right side of the curve. Because if you are on too much on the left-hand side, you end up somewhere like here. Don’t ask me how I got this guy to pose for this photo.
But what happens is that the nervous system can’t process information effectively. And I think that’s because it’s on threat. It’s too much gas pedal. It’s thinking about its own survival. And so it’s usually short-term survival.
So what I thought, in talking with Jason about how to plan this talk, is — this is interesting to me, and I think it’d be interesting to you, because you are using your mind to make a living. And Drucker talked about the importance of knowledge worker productivity as the key to the success of 21st century developed economies. How do we help people who use their minds to make a living be more productive?
And in this case, I think that being more productive isn’t about just about churning out more stuff. It’s really about, how do you enhance the quality of your own life. And the quality of your own connections, and relationships. And your capacity to think.
And so something like this is not enhancing your capacity to think. So what happens is that too much of living on the wrong side of that curve, too much gas pedal, impairs all the things that, my guess is, that you need to be successful in a sustainable way, in terms of what you’re doing.
I mean, if I can’t think well, or my memory is lousy, or my decision-making isn’t so good, you get prone to becoming more rigid. And you’re more vulnerable to your own emotional reactions. And it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, and the hamster is running as fast as ever. So let’s think about this from a different way.
Here’s another way of looking at the nervous system. That we all have what is called zone of resilience, and it’s the capacity of our nervous system to absorb stimulation. And we’re born with different capacities. My wife has a capacity as wide as the Mississippi River. She’s really quite amazing. Much less than her husband, quite frankly.
So she has a capacity to just be calm, no matter what. Now what’s great about living in the 21st century is now we know how to improve the capacity. How to widen the capacity, which is what we’ll talk about in a second.
But this is the kind of place, my guess is, you would want to be. I think this is the you that you put on your online dating profile. This is the you you want the world to know. So, all right? Do you identify with that?
So, because if there’s too much stimulation, we move into this. This is too much gas pedal. And so we move into a stance of defense, of escape, or eat. Fight, flight, or feed.
And so take a look at that list. You know, what does that look like for you? Like the hamster wheel’s going around, it’s hard to relax or sleep. What I’ve found is that an enormous number of really talented people feel guilty relaxing or have lost the capacity to relax. “Help me shut my mind off,” is what they say.
People feel frustrated, they get defensive. FDS is something I termed, called “frivolity deficiency syndrome.” You’re always serious. You look at what the worst-case scenario is. It’s hard to have fun. The cheeseburger–chocolate axis is this kind of comfort food munching. Maybe it means that there is a cut crystal bowl on someone’s desk in the office, of chocolate, or Hershey’s Kisses, or some sugary thing.
And that’s a way — what that does is to create, temporarily, a parasympathetic response. That’s why they call it “comfort food.” So we can munch on this, and it makes us feel good temporarily. And then it’s followed by an increase in sympathetic activation. So it’s a kind of devil’s bargain that we get to ourselves.
And so too much energy also means a kind of rigidity, or an anxiety about what’s going on. Anybody identify with this, just out of curiosity? If no one — is there anybody in this room that doesn’t live here at least somewhat regularly? I’ll take the uncomfortable laughter as, yes, that’s us.
But there’s more. Because if there’s too much — if you live too much on gas pedal, then the brake takes over, and you move into this. This is a more advanced stage. So this is too much brake. So if I go back here, one slide: this is too much gas pedal; this is too much brake.
And this is about not enough energy. That too much gas pedal is about too much energy. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning; you can’t shut your head off. This is about not enough energy. Means that you don’t want to get out of bed, you don’t want to pick up the phone.
I work with a group of Japanese traders, and I thought we would talk about the other slide, but we ended up talking mostly about their colleagues who can no longer get into elevators, or pick up phones, or open envelopes, because they’re frozen. They had too much stress in their body. They think of it as a character deficiency, but what I wanted to assure them was that there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just dealing with biologies that are overwhelmed. And they need to do something about that.
So this is the person that doesn’t want to get out of bed. Maybe they hide in their office. They don’t want to talk to people. There’s low energy, a certain kind of deadness, where they just give up on things. And that’s the extreme form.
In the mild form, it’s like, a client of mine was in a meeting with somebody who attacked a friend of hers, and also a fellow colleague, unfairly. And that she did nothing to defend her friend. That’s another kind of freeze. And she felt ashamed that she didn’t come to the aid of somebody that was very important to her.
So we have too much gas pedal, too much brake. And then the question is, how do we start to get back — how do we get back to the sweet spot, really?
So what I thought we could do — you have, if you signed up for this, you have a little handout. Or maybe you will receive a handout. But I’ll lead you through it. Would it be interesting to you to do a little practice? You’d be cool with that? All right, should we try it?
All right, so you’re all seated. I will sit down right here. This is called grounding. Every person I work with learns this method. And it’s a way, simply, of relaxing a nervous system.
And you can use this, let’s say, so for example, there’s a group of lawyers I work with. And before they are to try a case, before they go into the courtroom, they’ll find a quiet corner. They’ll set a timer for five minutes. They’ll sit down and do their ground, right?
So they’re able to walk into the room calm. A group of engineers I worked with, before what is one of their day-long meetings that can be very contentious, they do their grounding. And then the meeting tends to be more collaborative than it is contentious.
So before a difficult phone call, before a flight, if you hate flying — you know, I have a student who has to fly for her job, and she hates flying, and so she does her grounding. So it’s a useful tool.
OK, so first, just be comfortable. You’re all sitting down. So I’ll sit down and join you.
And step two is what I call point, which is kind of wiggle around until you find that place where your spinal cord, your shoulder, and your head sort of line up. And if you’ve ever done any martial arts, you know that’s your center of gravity. And so you find that place. It will be kind of an easy place to be.
So then step three is seat, which is just letting your attention rest on the sensation of connection between your body and the chair. You’re not trying to make anything happen. You’re not trying to invoke “serenity now.” You are just allowing your nervous system to do what it will naturally do if you give it the chance.
So in this step, you’re just letting your attention rest in the sensation of connection, of being supported by the chair. You don’t have to think about anything; you don’t have to wish for anything; you’re just sensing the support of the chair holding up your body.
You can do this with eyes open. You can do this with eyes closed. Just let your hands rest in your lap, or wherever they might be comfortable. Right, so all you’re doing is sensing the chair. And if you’re sitting back in the chair, then maybe you let your attention rest on the connection of the seat of the chair, and the back of the chair.
And then notice what’s happening inside. Like what’s going on with the chatter inside your head? What’s the quality of your breathing? Or do you notice that there’s tension in the body? Or a sense of motion in the body? You just notice what’s happening.
Again, you’re not trying to make anything happen. You’re just noticing what’s already there, and feeling the sensation of connection between your body and the chair.
And then you can move attention down your legs to your knees, to your shins, and calves, to your feet, to your ankle, and to the bottom of your feet. And then sense the sensation of connection between the bottom of your feet and the sole of your shoe. And then from the sole of your shoe to the sense of connection between your shoe and the floor.
So again, you are sensing the support of the floor holding up your body, holding up your feet. And as you do that, just notice what happens inside. Sometimes people say, “I don’t feel more relaxed; I feel more anxious.” And if that’s true, let me know afterwards. That’s your nervous system trying to protect you.
And then the next step is imagining, from the bottom of your feet, roots growing down into the ground. And again, just notice what happens. What happens inside to your breathing, your muscles, the sense of chatter, or not, inside.
You might feel tingling sensations; you might feel twitching; you might feel bubbly sensations. Those are all signs that your nervous system is coming back into the resilience zone. You might want to yawn; you might feel like stretching. And if you feel like stretching, stretch, by all means.
And then you can begin, again, and you may have noticed that either seat, feet, or root, one of those or maybe more than one, was easier, or more accessible, or more enjoyable, for you to be at. And if that’s true, pick the one that you like being with. And let your attention rest there.
And again, noticing what’s happening inside. So just resting in that sensation of being supported. You don’t have to do anything else.
If you have a piece of paper in front of, you might wish to jot down, what did you notice change? What’s different now compared to when we began? What’s different now compared to when we began?
And it’s the conscious noticing of that difference that helps us realize, “Oh,” when we’re out of our resilience. So just out of curiosity, what did you notice happen? Anybody? No telepathic answers, please. It’s overwhelming.
Yeah, please. Your breathing slowed down. Anybody else noticed that? You’re breathing slowed down? How many people actually felt calmer?
OK, anybody else feel sleepy? So there’s another permutation. So you might, instead of doing this in the chair, you might do this in bed. And then instead of the seat, you just let your attention rest on the sensation of connection, of being supported by the mattress. And you can move your, move your attention down through your head to your feet.
You can also do this standing. So whenever you’re in line at the store, regretting that you didn’t pick the faster line that’s next to you, like me — I tend to be impatient; so instead of getting wrapped up in my impatience, I just start doing grounding with my feet, standing in line.
So that was maybe five minutes. You could do it for 5 minutes; you could do it for 10 minutes. I guarantee you, the more that you do it, the more you will notice, A, when you are calmer. I’ve had people say, “Look, I haven’t been calm in years. I’ve completely forgotten.” And they weren’t joking.
So the more you do it, the more you’ll notice, what does calm actually feel like. What does calm actually feel like? And then you start to notice when you’re not calm.
OK, any thoughts, comments? I can turn around if you want to run screaming from the room; that’s OK, too. So let’s move on.
So step one of this challenge of managing ourselves is about managing our nervous system, which we just did. Step two is about managing your attention. So my graduate advisor was a man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And he wrote a book in the 1990s called Flow, which you may know.
And he was one of the few people, at that time, that was interested in what made life worth living. And one of his core ideas, or core philosophies, was that quality of life needs quality of attention. That if you did not have quality of attention, then it was very difficult to have quality of life. Because attention is the mechanism with which we relate to the world. It’s the energy which we relate to the world.
One of the core ideas is that you are what you attend to. Your life is what you give your attention to. So I think of, especially professional services, as really an attention discipline. People are paying folks in professional services, really, for their attention. And their knowledge next.
So how do we then start to enhance our own quality of attention? You know, I think — oops, sorry about that. And one of his findings was that if you wanted the best experiences of being alive, what we called the flow experience; he studied rock climbers — relied on the capacity to focus your attention.
You can imagine, right now, she’s going to reach into her back pocket, and pull out her phone, and text her boyfriend about what’s for dinner. And, you know, because it would be ludicrous. I mean, we know that focused attention is necessary to do this, to play chess, to play tennis, to do all these things that are somewhat complicated. And yet we take that for granted, and yet we also take for granted that we can go to the office and multitask our way through our day, and we’ll wear badges of honor and think that we’re great at this.
So we know there’s now more than a decade’s worth of research that multitasking, switching your attention back and forth between multiple things, it’s a fantastic strategy. It’s a fantastic strategy. It’s a fantastic strategy if you want to impair your memory. It’s a fantastic strategy if you want to irritate everybody around you. It’s a fantastic strategy if you want to be a shallow thinker. It’s a fantastic strategy if you want to be impulsive and reactive.
We know that from research. We know that kids who multitask a lot don’t learn things. And yet this makes sense, and simultaneously this makes sense. But this doesn’t really make sense. So I think one of the core leadership challenges of people who use their minds to make a living, going forward, is how do we start to manage attention? How do you actually start to manage attention in a more sophisticated way than we have before?
So what I usually I ask my students to do is an attention audit of their office space. Like, what is it that’s distracting their attention? Sometimes it means you’re working in an office where the walls are all glass, and you have to say hi to people as they walk by.
Or one of my students had the office copy machine right next to her door, and that whenever anybody was ever waiting for their copies, they would stick her, stick their head in her office and chit-chat. And sometimes it would happen two or three times an hour, all day long. And she would never be able to get anything done. And she didn’t realize that it’s because the copy machine is right there.
So, phone call, copy machine was moved, and for the first time in three years of her working at this place could she concentrate throughout the entire day. And she said it was a revelation.
We can talk about multitasking and its effect on performance. But to me what’s most costly is its effect on our sense of satisfaction. That this doesn’t provide a sense of satisfaction. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve done a good job. Because many, many people I worked with say, at the end of the day, I do stuff that I know I can do better.
So we know that this wandering mind, this capacity to distract ourselves, is innate. And that almost 50% of the time your attention is wandering. The baseline never goes below 30%. Thirty percent of your waking life, we are somewhere else. What are you doing, right? What are we doing?
The same study also found that 10% of the time, people’s minds are wandering during sex. Which makes you think, what were they thinking about? Did somebody let the cat out? Like, what’s going on?
So mindfulness is a way of cultivating a higher quality of attention. This is something — living between Western and Asian culture, I realized at a very young age that, especially the Japanese were much more attuned to the quality of attention in a way that we weren’t in the United States. And that we were a thinking culture, and that the Japanese were a perceiving culture, and that the quality of attention was something that was fundamental to people.
Like my father-in-law is a master painter. My father-in-law is a master calligrapher, and my mother-in-law is an award-winning painter. And that’s their hobby. And the people of a certain generation will have almost always had some kind of attention improving, or attention in enhancing art, whether it’s calligraphy, or archery, or swordplay, or flower arrangement, or tea ceremony. That a quality of attention was the starting place for many Asian educations, whether it was Indian dance, or Chinese calligraphy. In the West, our attention disciplines are golf, and surfing, and music. But we don’t hold them in the same kind of reverence that we do in other parts of the world. So I think about mindfulness. What mindfulness does is it helps us create choices. It helps us create options. And that, usually, those options lead to better results.
And now, as you may know, right, we’re in the midst of this so-called mindfulness revolution, right? It’s gone from this esoteric thing, because when I started doing this in 2003, people weren’t that interested. But now it’s on Time magazine, and there’s Mindful magazine, which, in full disclosure, I write for.
One thing should be clear is that only good-looking people meditate. But now all of these different companies have mindfulness programs. The Golden State Warriors, for those of you who are living in the United States, they just — an incredible team — and they’re now the second generation of National Basketball Association teams that have a mindfulness program.
So what is this mindfulness thing? So it’s a receptivity. It’s a curiosity. It’s an openness about what you’re experiencing. What are you experiencing right now? What are you experiencing right now?
Being open to what are you experiencing right now. Even right now, what are you experiencing? Boredom, regret. Why did I come to this talk? It’s recognizing that you’re here. Right now, you are here.
Because for most of us, 50% of the time, we’re somewhere else, fantasizing about the future. Or regretting the past. Thinking about what’s for lunch, right, or we’re just in some other realm.
So it isn’t, is it’s not passive. It’s not relaxation. So grounding, the thing that we just did, isn’t necessarily a mindfulness technique. It’s there to help you become more relaxed. It’s not about creating a special state. It’s not trying to figure things out. It’s not trying to stop your thoughts.
So one of the biggest misnomers I think that people think that somehow they start their meditation practice, and it should be quiet inside, the hamster should be also checking out. But the hamster is running as fast as ever. And that’s the core insight. That’s the core insight. That you have a hamster, and the hamster is busy.
It’s not about taking the hamster out. It’s about changing your relationship to the hamster. So we tend to think of this as an Asian thing. But what’s I think is important to know is that Adam Smith advocated, almost word for word, for something like mindfulness. He called it the impartial spectator.
You cultivate the impartial spectator, and it was the key to self-governance. You know, it was the key to managing yourself. So I don’t think of this as a particularly Asian thing. I think of it as a human thing. And it’s a capacity that we have to cultivate, just like we cultivate our rational analysis. We also should — and we think of thinking as rigor, but we don’t think of seeing as rigor.
We don’t think of a feeling as something that we can be rigorous about, but just as we can have rigorous thinking, we can also have rigorous seeing and rigorous feeling. So those are capacities that we can also develop. And I think that they are useful one’s for you. And in fact, now we have more than 40 years of research that shows what happens when you cultivate rigorous seeing.
So the rate of research in the last few years has just skyrocketed. Here are some of the benefits from a medical point of view and a psycho-behavioral point of view. The leading cause, or the leading treatment, for helping people stop smoking is a mindfulness-derived therapy. To help people see their own thinking about wanting a cigarette, and learning that they don’t have to believe that. They don’t have to go down that pathway.
So the later stages of research were about enhanced cognitive capacity. So again, for knowledge workers, people who use their minds to make a living, these are incredibly useful skills. Your quality of attention gets better; your ability to focus gets better. As somebody mentioned over here that they wanted focus more, your ability to be creative and problem-solve gets enhanced. Your memory — although I can’t say that my memory is better.
You become more flexible. You become more ethical. Why? Because you’re not acting out of a place of survival, right? Your decisions don’t come from a place of short-term survival. And that you see the reality that’s there, not the reality that you’re projecting through your emotions, through your assumptions, through your biases. You become clearer. You become more rational.
So here’s a 2011 study that meditators have — their minds wander less. So it’s dealing with that 50% that’s not there half the time. You tend to be here more of the time, right?
Here’s another one. This is fascinating. So this is an image of lung tissue. And there are an average of 10 potentially cancerous cells in this lung tissue. They gave a group of 24 radiologists five samples. And on the fifth sample, they gave them this one. Do you see anything unusual about this?
There is something in there, right? Yes, there is a gorilla in this image. Now how many radiologists do you think saw the gorilla? Any guesses? Just shout out a number, out of 24. Zero; there’s some optimists in the room.
Four out of the 24 saw it, right? And if you can’t see it, it’s right up in the upper part of the tissue. Now the good news is that they saw the cancer. And that naive observers, you know, people who weren’t trained, none of them saw the gorilla. But from your point of view, why I think this is interesting, is that you only see what you look for.
That’s the deal. You only see what you look for. So how do you know what you’re looking for, and are you looking in the right places, especially in thinking about investment? How do you make your mind’s more flexible, to look in the places you normally wouldn’t look for opportunities?
One more, sorry. One of the things we also know is the higher capacity you have in mindfulness, the lower tendency you are to be emotionally reactive. You do get calmer over time. The part of your brain that’s the kind of alarm system becomes less hyperactive. It becomes attenuated.
So, all right. So then, what I thought we could do is another series of exercises before we close out. The unit of analysis I work with are moments. And I look at life as a series of moments.
You’re born, and you die. And in between that, you have this finite series of moments. So that’s how I see the world. And from a mindfulness point of view, again, it’s this capacity, this enhanced capacity to help you see what’s happening with you right now. What’s happening in the room? What’s happening with the person or client across the table from you?
And that information helps you make better choices. As one of my former deans, who was a big car guy, said, “Oh, I get this mindfulness thing. It’s like checking your own dipstick.” Yeah, it’s like checking your own dipstick, right, but it’s also checking everyone else’s dipstick.
Like, what’s going on in there? You just said something and they lean back from the table. Or they cross their arms. Or there was this momentary flash of irritation, or anger, or boredom. Right, did you detect that?
So if we start to think about, if you start to see your life as a series of moments, how are you feeling, or acting, or how are you narrating the scene right now? How does that affect the choices you’re going to make?
And so you ask yourself, OK, what are the stories in my head? What are the assumptions I’m walking into this room with? Or, I have a phone call at 2 o’clock, and what are the expectations I have with that? And does that color how I’m going to act or approach this person?
What are the emotions that are coming up right now? What are the body sensations? What are the sensations in the body that’s happening? You walk in and think about the time you were looking for the place you lived. And I’m sure you probably looked at a dozen different places before settling on the place you live right now.
And you could walk into a place, and it just gave you the creeps, right? Everybody’s had that experience. Like, this isn’t the place. Or you walk into the place where you’re living, and, “Ah, there’s something I like about this.”
Your body is telling you information, but as a culture, we don’t train you how to decipher that information. It is a language. It has syntax. It has meaning. And for most of us, we just ignore it. You know, you take Pepto Bismol.
There’s information that’s being communicated to you. And that information allows you to create choices. And I tell my students, I call it bending the future. You act differently now, and you keep acting differently now, right? You make a different choice.
I always turn right. I always turn right, and I get this result. Well, what mindfulness does is help you realize you can also turn left. And if you turn left enough times, you get a different future.
So what I thought we could do is a series of scenarios. So how do you practice mindfulness in action? Because mindfulness isn’t just about meditating. It’s not about going to the mountaintop.
I started my career working with serious working executives, and I realized I couldn’t ask them to go away for 10 days. But I had to develop methods to help them do this in the work and worth of their life. So what I’d like to do is give you a series of scenarios. And just notice what happens.
What happens in your body? What are the stories that show up in your head? What are the emotions that you experience? That’s mindfulness. That’s checking your own dipstick, right?
So here’s one. You’re in a meeting, and your client gets angry and very publicly questions your own competence. What happens in your body? What do you notice? Say it again? Fight? Yeah.
Somebody says, “Oh, I’d make a fist.” What’s the narrative? What’s the narration in your head? “You jerk; I’ll show you.” Or whatever. Notice. So what happens in this moment, and then what happens in the next moment, if you allowed that reaction to inform your actions?
And do you even notice that happening? So scenario two, you’re sitting at your desk. The phone rings. You look down. And it’s your most difficult client. That moment, what happens?
What happens? Uncomfortable smiles is all I see. Now, I work with a group of financial advisors, and the guy in the back of the room named George goes, “Oh God; Joan.” And everybody laughed, because everybody had a Joan in their life.
His, the story in his head was that Joan woke up that morning with the intention of ruining his day. And that she would call him and she’d be very anxious. And then the call would almost invariably be very difficult. And so when he saw Joan’s name on the caller ID, he was already primed for battle as he’s lifting up the phone.
So third scenario, you were just finishing your phone call with Joan, put it down, there’s a knock at the door. You’re working on this project. It’s just about to come to fruition. The lead of the project walks, reaches into his jacket, and you realize he’s handing you his resignation. What happens in the body?
I saw some people just tense up. Somebody has resigned recently. What’s the storyline? And can you see into what’s happening with that person, as well? Because what was interesting is, as George started to listen to what Joan was saying, what he started to hear was not anger directed at him. It was anxiety about her life, because she was a widow, her husband managed all the money, he suddenly dies, and she has no idea what to do with all this stuff. And so she’s terrified.
And when he started to pay attention and not get distracted by his own thinking, his own story about Joan, he heard a woman who was incredibly fearful. And so instead of condemning her, or judging her, he let go of that storyline and realized she was calling him because she needed his help.
And so he started to talk to her in a more gentle way, in a more caring way, and because he changed his reaction, he changed the future of their relationship. He saw his job as not to avoid her and let her go to voicemail, but rather to help her. And they had a very productive relationship.
And so by changing action right now — and you do this over and over again — it means you get a different kind of future. That’s what mindfulness gets for you. So I think about it as small steps over time that produce large effects. You don’t have to do a lot.
In my own case, I ended up living another 17 years. And in 2007, my doctor has a heart-to-heart with me and goes down the list of all the signs of uremic poisoning, which is a sign that your kidneys are failing. And as he’s going down the list, I’m checking off every one of those things. And realize, OK, it’s done.
So we have a heart-to-heart. And he said, “Look, you’ve got three options. One, you can live a life on dialysis.” And I’m sure some of you know people who live on dialysis. It’s not a particularly great way to live.
“You could put yourself on a list,” he said. “But I’ll be frank with you. You live in Los Angeles. People are on the list seven to eight years.” In the United States, the mortality rate of dialysis patients is 20% a year. You do the math. Not really great.
“And then,” he said, “the third option is you can ask somebody. You can ask people to consider donating a kidney to you.” I don’t know about you, but most men I know won’t even stop to ask for directions, let alone ask somebody for an organ. But I had to swallow my own pride and realize that’s what I needed to do.
And I sent out a letter to my family and friends and former students in February of 2008. And then by May of 2008, the lady from the hospital who handles the donor volunteers says, “You know, I’m calling to let you know that we’re going to turn your donors away now.” And I said, “Why?”
And she said, “Well, because there are so many of them that we can’t process the donors for other patients.” And so the competitive part of me got on the line and said, “Well, how many?” And she says, “25.” And I thought, “Is that a lot? What’s the record?”
And she said, “Yeah, we wondered that, too. And so we looked, and near as we can tell, the old record was seven.” And it turns out, out of that 25, 13 were my former students, including the person who would eventually become my donor. And so at the end of 2008, we went through the surgery. It was a huge success.
She’s kind of an Amazon, and races motorcycles for a living, and rebuilds V8 engines. And for two weeks after the surgery, I had incessant fantasies about Aston Martin V8 Vantages, which I had no thought of before in my life, outside of a James Bond movie. And I called her up. I said, “I’m having these fantasies about Aston Martin V8 Vantages and I think this is you.” And she said, “You bet it is.”
So that’s how the story can end. Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Jason Voss, CFA: I’m going to turn to the audience questions. I’ve got a couple, too, that were sparked by your presentation. So a question that’s been asked by a couple people in the audience — the modern office is moving toward an open floor plan, which can lead to some people feeling particularly stressed. Any comments on how to cope with these crazy environments?
Jeremy Hunter: Obviously thought of by an extrovert, the open office environment. It was 1964, and I think it was Steelcase or Herman Miller created something called the action office. And it was about removing barriers to increase communication. But what I think we didn’t realize was that — so that people could be more creative.
But I think what we also didn’t realize was that the other half of the creative cycle was the capacity to go away and concentrate on what you’ve learned. And so that has been, I think, a consistent absence in office life. So what I think is important — now different terms are starting to adapt, and realize just as much as we need to be in communication with one another, we also need to isolate from one another, from time to time.
And I think that A, there should also be, if you’re going to move to an open office environment, there should be someplace you can escape to, if need be. But the deeper issue is a social one. And it’s more the conversation and expectations we have of one another about, when do I signal to you, please leave me alone. And to have that be OK.
So an aerospace client of mine, working in an open office environment, realizes that they can’t concentrate. And so they made a deal amongst themselves that for 90 minutes a day, everybody got what they called project focus time, and it was inviolate. You know, unless the customer called or there was an emergency. But it was inviolate.
And they came up with a signaling system, which in this case was a rubber duck. Because they call themselves the sitting ducks, because they were all so vulnerable to interruption, because of how their cubicles were. Everybody got a rubber duck, and if you put a rubber duck on the top of your cubicle, it was the signal: leave me alone.
And I think that — I’m just writing an essay about this now, about what I call the conversation we all need to have that we’re not having, which is about how do we, as a culture and as a society, come to some agreement about when is it OK to interrupt me. And when is it OK to squirrel yourself away and concentrate. We need that. We need that.
When is it OK to — why is it OK to bring your laptop to a meeting where the 10 of us in the meeting are all staring at our laptops, and not actually in the meeting? If you want to do one thing to improve your productivity, create a no-device policy for your meetings. It’s the simplest thing. But I guarantee you, in a month, your productivity will skyrocket.
Jason Voss, CFA: So a question I know is probably on the minds of many of the audience: What does a mindfulness practice actually look like? How much time do you do it per day? Do you do it every day? Do you do it in the morning? Do you do it in the evening? And then there’s a follow-up on that, OK.
Jeremy Hunter: So there are two kinds of practice, right? And we did them both. One is a meditation practice, which you could do morning or evening — I think that’s really up to you. I started out as a night meditator, and now I’m a morning meditator, thanks to my five-month-old son.
I think there was new research that showed 10 minutes a day has a measurable effect, right? So you just start out something easy. Start out with a minute. And then go to five minutes. And then three weeks later, go to 10 minutes, or something like that. You know, stair-step your way in.
Morning or evening is really up to you. But then, I think also, what is also important is what we did. Is like paying attention to your reactions, right? That’s also a mindfulness practice. It’s actually, in some ways, much more challenging. Because it means you can be practicing anywhere, right?
The phone rings. It’s your most difficult client. What do you notice happening to yourself, right? You wake up. You turn on the TV. The market’s tanked. What happens inside you? That’s also a very rigorous thing. So you can do that anytime. And you’ve already done it at least three times today, right?
Jason Voss, CFA: So a follow-up question, for those in the audience who are long-term meditators, and I know that you are: How do you keep your practice from getting stale?
Jeremy Hunter: Yeah, what I do is, every year I take on a particular emotional challenge. So you work with a specific emotion. So one year, maybe three or four years ago, I worked with anger. And just noticing, OK, when does anger show up? How does anger behave? Where does anger live in my body?
And then every day, or throughout the year, I just work on it, understanding, how does anger operate? And eventually you’re less angry. You’re metabolizing those emotions.
And then the year after that it was fear. And how did fear operate? What was fear’s story? What did fear feel like in the body? And then the year after that was doubt. And sometimes, it doesn’t have to be negative stuff. Or uncomfortable stuff. Sometimes it’s joy, right? I mean, that’s actually one I recommend practicing. Like what makes you feel joyful?
Tibor Scitovsky wrote a classic book called The Joyless Economy. And it was about how we’ve become so stuck into production that we forget to step back and say, “OK, what’s great? What’s great about my life?”
An exercise I give all my students is something called an appreciation practice, which is different than gratitude. Appreciation is looking at your life, looking around, and saying, what are things that are good, right now? What are the things that make you feel strong? What are the things that you give value to?
They have to make a list of 10 things every day for three weeks, without repeating something. Which most people think is impossible. But as you’ll notice, our minds are geared towards looking at what’s broken, what’s wrong, what’s dangerous. And it’s good, it’s useful. But it’s also not the only element in our emotional diet we should be eating.
And so what happens is that they’re forced to look at what’s going well in their life. Down to, there’s lights, there’s water, I have a place to sleep, the sky is blue. And they notice beauty. They notice beauty everywhere in their world. And there’s something revivifying and nourishing and strengthening about that.
You could use that as a practice. And what I find is that particular practice creates space. Because when we just focus on what’s going wrong, we just focus on this little tiny thing that’s going wrong — towards the end of my pre-surgical life, I realized that, actually, I was really healthy. There was only one thing that was going wrong, which was my kidneys.
Everything else worked really well. My eyes work. My tongue works. My hair’s here, still. I’ve got two arms, and 10 fingers, and two legs. And everything else is working really well. It’s just one thing’s not working well.
And it helped me not feel sorry for myself. It helped me not think of myself as a sick person. I was a person that had a bad kidney. And it that reframing gave a lot of energy, actually.
Jason Voss, CFA: So we’ve got time for maybe one more question. With the apologies to the audience, we’re going to make —
Jeremy Hunter: Sorry for my long-winded answers.
Jason Voss, CFA: It’s all right. We’re going to go maybe two minutes over, just because I think these last two questions are particularly helpful. You mentioned the focus qualities of meditation.
Jeremy Hunter: Yeah.
Jason Voss, CFA: It helps reestablish focus, and, of course, stress relief. One of the questions from the audience has to do with seeing the hidden connections between disparate pieces of information. And I know there’s some support for that in meditation. I wondered if you could talk about that.
Jeremy Hunter: Yeah, absolutely. You know, earlier in my career, we did studies of creativity. And we interviewed Donald Norman, who is one of the great product designers alive. And he said, all of his insights, like the vast majority of his insights, came in the bathtub.
He wasn’t kidding. And he advocated for his employer to install a bathtub in his office, which he thought was ridiculous. But if you talk to creative people, you find that the insights come in places where you least expect it. Running, jogging, cooking, gardening, bathing, meditating. And especially in, I think, the early stages of meditation practice, it’s even more so. But, yeah, absolutely.
Things will pop in your head, and you’ll realize, “Oh, there’s a relationship between this and this I hadn’t thought of.” Absolutely.
Jason Voss, CFA: So all of — because I’ve researched this for the CFA Institute meditation program, there are a couple of research studies one, one by Colzato, in I believe 2012, that looked at the different mental benefits, specifically focused on creativity. That’s a study you can look at. And turns out, you have greater interconnections. And neuroscientists, as they look at your mind in a PET scan or a CAT scan, they see more parts of your mind active. So you’re using more of your mind if you have a routine meditation practice.
So, final question; then I have a couple of announcements. Do you have any suggestions for how to introduce this concept of mindfulness at a large organization that’s in high-gas mode?
Jeremy Hunter: Yeah, one is to make it totally voluntary. And then you’ll get a core group of people who are interested. They will have a good experience, and they will tell other people. Any way to mandate this will end in disaster, I guarantee you.
People shouldn’t be forced to look at their own mind if they’re not wanting to do so. I think start small, and see what results you can generate. And let those results speak for themselves. I think that’s probably the best way to start.