Book Club: Curbing the Costs of Mindlessness

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Mindful post

In our book club discussion last week, we looked at the mindsets that underlie a mindless or mindful approach to life. This week, in chapters four and five of Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer, we are talking about The Costs of Mindlessness and The Nature of Mindfulness.

A Narrow Self-Image Verses Creating New Categories

As adults, we tend to maintain a single-minded self-image based on a focus on outcome (due to faulty comparisons between ourselves and others of assets, characteristics, or accomplishments), past performance (I’ve never been able to lose weight, that’s just me), or self-induced dependence (a changed perception of our abilities based on a change in external circumstances).

The costs of a narrow self-image have great personal costs (what happens to the woman who views herself as “Bob’s wife” when the marriage dissolves?) but can cripple a corporation as well. Langer cites the railroad industry as an example. She quotes Theodore Levitt:

The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business.

A narrow self-image or narrow-mindedness in general, can be countered by mindfully creating new categories. Had the railroad industry expanded the way they defined themselves, we may have a different experience of transportation today.

Children create new categories naturally as they play. As adults, our focus on outcome discourages us from a creative and playful approach to life. Paying attention to process and context instead of outcome can assist in taking a mindful approach. For example, Langer suggests, in a very noisy environment a clever programmer who is deaf might be a better job candidate than a person of equal ability but of normal hearing. What we would normally consider a disability can become an asset when we consider the context.

Loss of Control Verses Welcoming New Information

Often, we limit our choices by attributing challenges to a single cause. Such mindless attributions, Langer says, narrowly limit the range of solutions we might seek. As an example she cites research that indicates when the failure of a marriage is blamed on the ex, the person suffers longer than those who see other factors involved. Single-minded solutions act as blinders, preventing us from exploring information that may be helpful.

A mindful approach to problem-solving, to the contrary, can be likened to the navigation system on modern aircraft: always receiving new information to assist with decision-making.

Mindfully engaged individuals will actively attend to changed signals. Behavior generated from mindful listening or watching, from an expanding, increasingly differentiated information base, is, of course, likely to be more effective.

Join us in reading Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer and you will learn other ways that the nature of mindfulness can eliminate the costs of mindlessness, such as how approaching a problem from more than one view can help us avoid learned helplessness and how stunted potential can be avoided by assuming control over context.

Next week we’ll be discussing chapter six: Mindful Aging. If you’d like to join the discussion, leave a comment or link up below with a post at your blog.

Image by WakingPhotoLife. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura J. Boggess.

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