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Over one hundred twenty years ago, Frederick Taylor developed some theories about work. Labeled scientific management, these ideas emerged as solutions to improve worker efficiency. In his approach to managing labor he equated humans with the machines used for production. Given the knowledge available at the time, he didn’t realize how little humans have in common with the machines they use.

Even though scientific management is not as popular as it was in the earlier days of the industrial revolution, the consistent push for efficiency and production from employees remains a dominant aspect of our work cultures. Work cultures still mostly fail to understand that the organic human brain works very differently from a machine, even a machine as complex as a computer.

How We Work

Using Your Brain | Marigold Associates

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A machine essentially has two settings — on and off. So too for employees, most people reason. You are either working or you are not. Most managers want to ensure their employees are clicked “on” during the workday and producing something tangible for every billable minute.

There’s an inherent problem with this consistent drive to work from the frame of the on-off switch. Simply, the human brain is not wired that way and operating as if it was depletes energy and creativity. The brain is organic and like most of the biological world it operates in cycles of work and rest. The ideal way for a brain to work is in a series of 90 minute focused cycles. Short breaks or switching across a variety of tasks keeps the brain operating at peak efficiency.

There is a better way to create a good working environment that takes into account a better understanding of the brain.

The way your brain works provides life-altering answers for how you should work. Just a few examples include the way you learn, the way sleep and stress influence you and the difficulty you have in remembering more than five or six items from a meeting.

In fact, learning to better use your brain will help you improve your performance and creativity.

Brains in Motion

Consider this, studies show the brain performs best in motion. You might have noticed that some of your best ideas have emerged when you were exercising. For most of human history, people spent their days in motion. Movement is the default setting for our brains.

Yet most of us now do sedentary work 8 hours a day at a desk or in front of a computer screen. As a result not only our health, but also our creativity has suffered.

Brains Asleep

Using Your Brain | Marigold Associates

Photo credit: Dierk Schaefer via Flickr/Creative Commons

Most of us believe that productivity and success coincide with the amount of hours you work. Have you noticed how much people take pride in the few hours they sleep and long hours that they work? There’s a consistent push for more time spent working. But this aspect of our culture contributes negatively to our well-being and our productivity. In fact, sleep is a critical part of creativity and strategic innovation. Research has demonstrated that workers who get fewer than 7-8 hours of sleep a night make more mistakes, have fewer creative ideas and worse, have very poor judgment about the quality of the work they are producing.

In fact, the way that the brain works during sleep helps unlock difficult problems of work. It is far more effective than burning the midnight oil in frustration.

The Shower Principle

Have you ever had a great idea while showering or jogging? While it might seem counterintuitive, “mindless” activity actually opens up the neural networks of the brain in entirely different ways than during focused activity. While it’s difficult to believe it, a period of rest, walking, drawing, meditation, or hitting golf balls might be what your team needs to unlock the big idea for the project. Especially during crisis points such as an impending deadline, it is tempting to fall into the trap of working longer hours under intense pressure. It is clear from everything we know from our study of worker productivity and creativity, that this is likely to produce the lowest quality product. This over emphasis on efficiency and time management has eradicated mindless time under the false assumption that it is not productive, once again illustrating our misunderstanding of the human person. The mind is not a machine.


Many work environments extol the virtues of multi-tasking. Have you checked the job listings lately? Multitasking is almost always mentioned. From an efficiency perspective, wouldn’t you want an employee who can competently perform four tasks at once?

Well, multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains are unable to process more than one thing at a time. Meaning, the “best” multi-taskers are the people who are most capable of switching quickly from one item to another in quick succession.

Multi-tasking takes a physiological toil, however. Every time the brain needs to switch from one item to another, it burns energy as it fills in the gaps that were missed during the period of inattention. The more often you switch from item to item, the more energy is burned in switching and a decrease in performance occurs. Some studies have suggested that as much as 25% of our energy in a day is used up simply in the switching.

Ultimately, all of these aspects just scratch the surface of how we use our brain. We challenge you to begin to think about how you are using your most important work tool: your brain.

We look forward to addressing some of these ideas in more detail in the coming months.

Whether they know the science behind it, or they just believe it to be best practice, athletes with any competitive experience lean on the concept of mental preparation or visualization. The techniques typically involve imagining the complex tasks they must perform well to succeed in their sport. The quarterback recites the play calls and commands the huddle, in his mind. An episode from last year’s Hard Knocks depicts this visualization when backup quarterback T.J. Yates sits in an empty room pretending to run the Atlanta Falcon offense, successfully picking up the defense, audibling to the right play call, and torching the imaginary foe.


Photo credit: MartaZ* via Flickr/Creative Commons

But more than football, athletes of all kinds perform these visual mind games. A downhill skier will walk the course, imagining successful lines and fast times. A tennis player visualizes the perfect serve.

Beneath all of these visualizations is a core truth about positivity. Human beings respond well to positivity. They, in fact, thrive.

The Ratio

In fact, research suggests that human beings flourish much more consistently when they encounter 3 positive emotions for every negative emotion. This principle defines the positivity ratio.

The positivity ratio is, in fact, a calculation of an overall emotional state based on the emotions you are currently feeling. Have you felt silly, amused, or fun-loving? That’s a positive emotion. Have you felt guilty, repentant, or blameworthy? That’s a negative emotion. Over the course of 20 or so questions, you can begin to see where you stand on the positivity ratio.

What these athletes working through visualization are encountering is the benefits of positivity. In addition to the good feeling it provides, positivity can widen the scope of attention, broaden your behavioral repertoire, increase intuition, enhance creativity, speed up recovery from injury or disease, prevent stress-related disorders, provide resilience in adversity, and increase life span. So, in short, it’s a pretty big deal.

But an adequate positivity ratio is extremely rare. In fact, only 20% of Americans accomplish it.

The State of Nature

And intuitively, it makes sense. Everyone experiences good and bad emotions on a daily basis and our moods reflect that variety of positive and negative emotions. Brains have been wired to respond to threats against survival so we all tend to focus on that threat instead of seeing the positive things happening in life. When we experience positive and negative emotions at an equal level, the scale tips toward the negative and life feels unrewarding.


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These negative emotions trigger fight or flight behavior. While it might help us focus and increase our reaction time, it also challenges your health, especially if you work a desk job. Consistent stress can negatively influence your health rapidly. It can increase cholesterol production and decrease its rate of removal. It can position you to encounter a higher chance of blood clotting. It can take a toll on your immune system. It can even influence your memory.

Much of this negativity is a result of our own doing. As a society, we change jobs quickly. We are expected to take on high workloads. There’s a consistent stress on finances as we try to keep up with the Joneses. Generally, we’re too busy and our perfectionist ways lead to negative self-talk.

So how do you get there?

To start, take the test and take it often. You can find it at Secondly, find some balance through skills and hobbies that can relax and refresh you. This suggestion is especially important for people stuck in mid-level and entry-level roles where they don’t feel like they have much autonomy to change the system. Maybe it’s reading a book. Perhaps it’s joining a rec-league basketball team. Maybe it’s serving at an animal shelter.

If you’re in a management position, take steps towards creating a positive environment. Provide support, encouragement, and appreciation. Be an advocate for your team. But don’t avoid conflict, as an appropriate approach to conflict can be affirming as well, provided the end goal is collectively in mind.

So business people should take a page out of the sports playbook and think positively. It might mean visualizing a great day at work. It might mean harnessing the things you can control in your life to provide some balance. It could mean approaching team management a little bit differently. But shifting the ratio toward positivity, at least 3-1, but even higher is better, will be good for you, good for your team, and good for business.

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Living beyond your means? Join the party! But be prepared for the hangover that is coming.

We almost always think of “living beyond our means” as relevant only to our financial life. But let’s think about this a little more deeply. First of all, what are our means? This is simply another way of talking about our assets or resources. Money is just one of the many resources we rely on daily. We need more than our financial assets in order to get us through the day. Time, energy, skills, information and relationships are just some of the other core assets we require.

So what does it look like to live within our means broadly? We’ll start with the obvious one.


According to economist Paul Kasriel, Americans are living well beyond their means.  Prior to the recent unprecedented string of deficits in six of the last seven years, Kasriel says there have been only seven other years American households have been so upside-down in their finances since 1929.
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That leads to an obvious question: If they can’t afford it, how are people continuing to spend as if all is well? The answer? They are borrowing against their homes, selling stocks, and running up credit card debt.

If you are living within your means you should be able to pay for all of your expenses each month. This would include the obvious: mortgage or rent, food, health care, insurance, car, education, clothing, entertainment, etc.  Each month you (or your benefit package) are putting money into your savings or retirement fund. You should be able to pay off all your credit cards every month and maintain a zero balance. You should also have savings to cover several months of expenses in case of an emergency.

Signs of living within your financial means include:

  • Your income is larger than expenses.
  • Your savings can cover emergencies.
  • You pay off your credit cards monthly.
  • You are adequately preparing for retirement.


Time is one of the trickiest assets we have. No matter what we do we are limited to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is nothing we can do to increase the amount of time allotted to us. Can’t buy it, can’t make it. As a result we do a lot of juggling of our time. We cheat by robbing one area of our life in order to have more time for another. We  “multitask” in order to fit double the amount of life into half the amount of time. How many times have you driven down the freeway while eating your lunch and participating in a conference call? Photo thanks to graymalkn via CC

Evidence is rapidly accumulating that we are not as smart as we think we are when we try to cheat time. There are measurable declines in our memory, concentration, and problem-solving ability when we multitask. Our health is impacted severely by our failure to exercise or sleep 8 hours a night.  Our families have to cope with our absence when we steal time from them for work.

Here are some indicators that you are living within your means when it comes to time:

  • A full night’s sleep (7-8 hrs) is your norm.
  • You enjoy one day every week with NO work.
  • You take real annual vacations – for at least 10 days.
  • Family dinners & exercise are routine for you.
  • Weekends are spent with family and friends.
  • We take real lunch & work breaks.
  • We give undivided attention to the task before us.


Are you regularly drinking energy drinks, coffee or other caffeine stimulants? Are you often tired long before bedtime? Do you sedate yourself in the evenings with wine? How many wine bottles and caffeine drink containers are in your blue bin each week? Do you become a couch potato at home? Perhaps these are signs that you are not living within your means when it comes to energy. There are some natural variations in how much energy we each have. Age, gender, self-care, and personality all affect our energy levels. Because of these individual differences, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others when it comes to energy.Photo thanks to alubavin via CC

Each of us needs to have self-awareness about our energy level in order to steward it well. Think of a simple formula to describe living within your means:

    Energy input = energy output.

On the input side are diet, relaxation, sleep, and creative engagement.

On the output side are our physical and mental activities. When we overextend ourselves, we experience a range of negative emotions including irritability, dullness, intrusion of negative thoughts, quick temper, pessimism. Our daily work becomes a burden that weighs us down. We shy away from people. We begin to depend on caffeine to wake us up and alcohol to put us to sleep.

In contrast, when we are living within our energy means, we have the energy we need to be creatively engaged. Our capacity for innovation and problem-solving increases. We feel bright and alive. Our work and personal life are equally delightful.

Signs of living within your energy means include:

  • You maintain a stable mood.
  • You are creatively engaged.
  • You are mentally sharp.
  • You have a sense of humor.
  • You are sociable.
  • You maintain healthy self-care habits.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Living within our means is not the cultural norm. We live in a society that glorifies over-extension in time, energy and finances. Our economic engine depends upon it. It is very difficult to begin to live counter-culturally. But it is absolutely essential to our long-term sustainability. We will burn out mentally, physically, and financially if we can’t harness our habits and learn to live within the limitations of our assets. It may have already occurred to you that our time, energy and financial assets are intertwined. Often we are overspending our time and energy in order to try to keep up with our extended financial commitments. Because we can’t really afford our lifestyle, we are overdrawn physically and mentally, resulting in loads of stress. Here is a guarantee: it will catch up to you sooner or later.

What can you do to live more within your means?

  • Discuss this problem with your family and friends. Do they feel the same way? If so, decide on ways you can all support each other as you begin to move toward a lifestyle of living within your means. Do this together as a family and community.
  • Try some limited experiments. For example, live on a modest budget for three months. Work only 40 hours a week for awhile. Replace your afternoon caffeinated beverages with water. Take your self–care seriously for three weeks. It takes that long for your actions to become a habit.
  • Say no to any new commitments and eliminate any others that are not essential.
  • Some families, whether through choice or misfortune, have found a sense of freedom in downsizing. They have sold the homes they can’t afford, limited their purchases to things they need rather than want, dropped the expensive vacations and replaced them with rich personal experiences closer to home. This radical approach is not for everyone, but may in the end be the only way forward.

Begin to look at all your life assets and learn to manage them wisely. Your good future depends on it.

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These are rough times. We’ve been waiting for good news from Wall Street or Washington. It doesn’t come. The problems are so complicated they defy solution. It has been a very long economic winter and we wonder, will spring ever come?

How do you handle adversity?

Do bad times bring you down, leave you untouched, or make you stronger?

We have all heard stories about remarkable people whose strengths are forged in the fire of challenge.  One friend has lived a remarkable life of contribution despite a spinal cord injury from a diving accident as a teenager. Though he must use a wheelchair, it hasn’t stopped him from working, socializing, traveling solo, and being part of a rock band in his limited spare time. Another friend, raised by alcoholic parents in severe poverty, became a successful businessman and philanthropist.

Both are classic examples of what it means to be resilient. They faced significant obstacles and hardships from an early age. They have lived good, even excellent, lives. They radiate positivity. They are loving, content, successful, respected and admired. Their lives have meaning and purpose. If they can do it, can’t we?

How do they do it?


Resilience is a component of flourishing that becomes relevant when we encounter adversity and challenge. It is the capacity to bounce back from hardship, to have a good outcome despite threats to our well-being.  At one time, the general understanding was that there was something extraordinary about resilient people.

The great surprise of the resiliency research is the ordinariness of the phenomena. It turns out that resilience is a common human response that results from the operation of basic human systems. If those systems are protected and in good working order, people can survive and even grow in the face of severe adversity. If those major systems are impaired before, during or after the event, the risk for damage is increased.

It can be helpful to identify those human qualities associated with resiliency.  A few might be considered “givens.” There is not much one can do to achieve them. They are a gift, so to speak, of biology and genetics. These include our physical attractiveness, intelligence, talents, and physical abilities.

But most qualities of resilience are better understood as competencies that are developed within a particular setting. Often these characteristics are the result of what one does with the “gifts” that one is given. We may be very bright, but if we spend our days watching television, playing video games, smoking pot or trying to master the lottery system, there is not much that will come of that intelligence. If we are physically attractive but don’t care for our bodies with proper hygiene, nutrition, sleep, and exercise, we will squander that innate potential.

The characteristics that lead to resilience are also highly dependent upon the opportunity to express them. For example, someone with a talent for music will not get far without a teacher, an instrument, and some encouragement. A person with a talent for swimming or diving can’t get far unless there is a pool and coach available to them. Good schools, mentors, and opportunities for meaningful work are important aspects of context that lead to successful resiliency.

Keeping in mind then, that qualities of individuals are rarely due solely to individual forces, what are those dimensions that characterize resilient people?  They can be summed up pretty easily: health, social support, competence and spirituality.

Here are four foundational ways to build your resiliency:

1. Get Healthy.

Having a healthy body is the first and best line of defense against stress and adversity. Sleep, regular exercise, deep regular breathing, good nutrition, and a good balance between work and relaxation are all foundational. These are so simple and obvious that they are often overlooked as solutions for people who are languishing. If you don’t feel well but you aren’t really sick, if you feel chronically tired or a bit down, chances are you are not getting enough of something basic; oxygen, exercise, sleep, nutritious food, or water. The advantages of being physically healthy when confronted with adversity are obvious. We want to be at the top of our game. We need a reserve of energy, sharpness of thought, and well-developed habits of restoration.

2. Spend Time with People.

It’s pretty clear that the old song is true: people who need people are in fact the luckiest people in the world—or at least they are the healthiest. There is something absolutely basic  about the social nature of being human. Over and over again, the research demonstrates that people who have healthy relationships are better able to withstand stress, adversity, and trauma.  In fact, social support is doubly weighted. We depend on our social systems for support when we are stressed. When our relationships are in trouble, we are in double jeopardy. Our stress goes up significantly and we lose one of our most important means of coping.  So do all that you can to strengthen your core relationships!

3. Build Your Strengths.

Self-regulation is the process of how we manage our behavior to achieve positive results.  It depends on three things:

  • Our belief that we can do something to change our situation for the better.

    Our ability to envision desired future events creates incentive or motivations that guide our actions.

  • Our goals.

    Goals or standards are essential in defining the outcomes we wish to achieve.

  • Our realistic self-evaluation.

    Self-evaluation leads to an emotional reaction that in turn can enhance or disrupt our goal directed activity. When people see themselves successfully coping with difficult situations, their sense of mastery and competence increases.

4. Practice your Beliefs.

Whether we rebound with a sense of hope will be in part determined by our ability to make sense of the suffering that we have witnessed and endured. Our traditional sources of wisdom, religion and philosophy, have been studying these questions for millennia. Today, in part due to the ascendency of science and technology, people are generally less literate in these areas. Even those believers who regularly attend religious services can be scripturally and theologically impoverished. Although we may be highly educated, we can find ourselves ill-prepared to deal with the difficult questions of existence.

Those who thrive in the face of adversity are high in their capacity for love, hope, joy and faith; the fruit of a positive spirituality.  Adversity and even trauma can be transformative. It can change the way we think about our self and our place in the world.  Through challenge we may find new meaning, re-set our priorities, and renew our belief. Our  connections and community may deepen and dysfunctional systems may heal. We may be given the gifts of increased gratitude, compassion and commitment to others.

Is your community resilient?

It is hard to fight against the overriding trends of your community. Look around you. Are your friends, family, and co-workers building resilience?  If not, you will need to begin to build yourself a resilient community. Start with your partner, your friends and family. Commit to caring better for something in the areas we have outlined: your health, relationships, competencies, and spirituality.

Whether or not Washington or Wall Street rebound, you can not only survive, but thrive. Resiliency is something within your reach.  Bounce back, baby!

Have you noticed that when we’re working we don’t realize we are coming to the end of our capacity until we’re overdrawn? It is often not until we’re tired, irritable, distractible, or restless that we recognize we need a break. And too often, we keep going even when the signs that we should stop are apparent to others. Do you want your surgeon to be stressed and tired when she operates on you?  Do you want your accountant to do your taxes at 3:00 AM?

Optimal Performance

When we push ourselves too far, this means we are working beyond the point of our peak performance. As you can see in this simple model, our optimal performance comes when we are experiencing eustress, a term coined by endrocrinologist Hans Selye, which means “good stress.” Stress that is healthy gives us a positive feeling of meaning and accomplishment. When we are operating at our peak it typically feels great. We are creatively engaged, confident in the quality of our work, feeling appropriately challenged. The negative emotions are associated with distress and eventually exhaustion.


The trick is to stay in the zone of optimal performance; neither bored, nor exhausted. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has coined the term “flow” to describe the feeling that accompanies optimal performance. We might talk about it as being “in the zone,” “wired in,” or “having our head in the game.” Have you experienced that recently in your work?  When we’re in that state, time seems irrelevant, we are focused and immersed in the pleasure of our work.  The result is that we feel energized rather than drained by our work.

When we work in a situation of extreme high demand, we often become careless about preserving our capacity to work at peak performance. Instead of paying attention to our capacity, we focus on all the work that is waiting to be done or meeting the expectations of a unforgiving supervisor. We keep going, unaware of the decline in the efficiency and quality of our work. We cut corners, lose our concentration, let things slip, settle for good enough. We lose the pleasure of work.

How can you stay in the zone?

  1. Become more finely tuned to the emotional cues of eustress vs distress.
  2. Take breaks every few hours, even if you think you don’t need one. Stretch, breath deeply, look at something beautiful, listen to music you love, read some poetry.
  3. Ensure that you have sufficient tools, resources and support to do your best work.
  4. Develop your creativity in important ways outside of your work.
  5. When you know you have to operate in a capacity stretching manner, buttress yourself with energizing activities before and after.
  6. At the very least, be aware of the behavioral cues that signal your capacity is starting to get  low. Give others permission to let you know when they perceive you as running on empty.

You might find encouragement in an article in Harvard Business Review on how Sony has had great success improving their employee productivity by implementing an energy management training program. More than 90% of the participants say they have more energy for their work everyday. Who can argue with results like that!

Do you find staying in the zone a challenge? Let us know what helps you get and stay there.

How well do you know yourself?

Even after all these years as a psychologist and professor, I am still surprised by how little people know themselves.  I’m talking about bright, insightful, successful people.  I’m talking about myself.  I am convinced that it is part and parcel of our human nature.  We are not objective observers of ourselves.  Apparently learning about our self is something that happens slowly and mostly though trial and error. It seems like there should be an easier way.

Rather than get into “why” it’s so hard to get to know ourselves well, I want to explore the effect of this aspect of our humanness. A lack of self-knowledge can damage us and affect our current and future well-being.

1. It affects our ability to make good decisions about our life.

When we don’t know our selves, we make decisions that go against our nature. For example, if you don’t know your capacity for handling anxiety and stress, you may take on responsibilities that will eventually lead you to sleep disorders, burn-out or even health problems.

2. It makes relationships more difficult than they need to be.

I would highly recommend that people going into committed relationships do some good work trying to understand their basic personality styles. Rather than arguing for decades over how busy your social calendar should be or how neat to keep the house, it would be good to start out with an understanding of each other’s capacity for stimulation and perfectionism.  Evidence is that these things are fairly hard-wired and knowing your partner’s traits will keep you from knocking your head against the wall expecting them to change. Perhaps it will even awaken our compassion for someone who has different needs.

3. You will be less skilled at handling conflict.

Let’s face it. Very few of us are comfortable with conflict. It’s one of the more difficult aspects of being human. Knowing our own preferred conflict resolution style will help us get better at negotiating differences.

4. We misunderstand why we have the difficulties that we do at work.

We often end up in positions that are not good for our basic personalities. Big picture people end up having to attend to details. Creative problem-solvers end up having to implement the plans of others. Knowing yourself will help you find the position that best suits you, which is not necessarily the one with the highest status or paycheck.

5. We are set up to make mistakes that hurt us and hurt those that we love.

Misunderstanding our self and others is at the heart of many of our unresolved relational problems.

What can you do about it? Here are a few ways to get to know your self better.

1. Personality tests are much better than they used to be.

Many personality tests used to be based on bad theory, poor or no research, or for the purpose of diagnosis of mental disorders. Now there are some very good instruments out there.  I encourage you to get one done.  It’s very helpful as an objective measure of certain aspects of who you are. Make sure that you get an interpretation of the test results from someone who is appropriately trained. We use one based on the BIG FIVE personality traits. This is the “gold standard” in the industry. It might be particularly helpful to do this when making career decisions or as part of pre-marital counseling, for example.

2. Encourage other people to tell you the truth about their experience of you.

If you respond with gratitude, rather than defensiveness, you’ll get to know lots about yourself. Their view might not be the Truth, but it is their impression of you—one more piece of evidence.

3. Keep a journal.

Write without censoring yourself about your experience. What are your most commonly experienced moods and emotions? Do you tend to be more positive or negative in your expectations and explanations of what has happened to you? How much energy do you have for physical and mental activity?  What energizes you and what depletes you?

4. Examine your thinking when you get into relational conflict.

It is very natural to think that others are like ourselves or should be like ourselves. Somehow we tend to think our version of reality is the right version. After all, it is our experience and it is difficult to doubt our own senses. If you find yourself thinking that the other is obstinate, lazy, neurotic, etc., maybe you can re-frame this in more positive terms.  Perhaps they just have a different personality style.

5. If you have the means, consider working with a professional.

There are many good counselors out there who can help raise your self-awareness. You don’t have to be emotionally or psychologically troubled to benefit from a mentor, counselor or coach.  Beware if you wander outside of the realm of licensed professionals.  The life coaching industry is not regulated so there are lots of people claiming to be life coaches and gurus who have not had the training needed.

6. Make a point to push your own limits once in a while.

When we are challenged or facing adversity, we often see bits of our self that remain hidden in the everyday routines that we have established.

While it may still take a lifetime (we are mysterious and we do change and grow!), by being intentional about developing self-awareness, we may thrive rather than just survive our personalities!

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glass half-full

Is your glass half full?

I have a mug on my desk with a line drawn half way down and the statement, “now the glass is half empty.” What about you? Is your glass half empty or half full? Or are you a devoted realist, right down the middle?

Chances are, you know very well what direction you lean. And according to the experts, it makes a big difference in the quality of your life. In Western societies, optimists have an advantage over pessimists when it comes to such basic things as achievement, perseverance, happiness, and health. These are big ticket items!

According to Martin Seligman, father of the positive psychology movement, optimists explain positive events as having happened because of something they did, and negative events as flukes. Positive events confirm their belief in their ability to make good things happen, while negative events just roll off of their back.

Pessimists think the opposite way. Negative events confirm their belief that they don’t have what it takes to succeed and mistakes and failures are inevitable. Positive experiences are seen as just good luck. While it might not be easy, it is possible to learn optimism by changing your outlook on the events that happen to you.

If you are a pessimist, try the following exercises:

When something positive happens to you, examine your thinking.

  • What are all the ways you contributed to making that happen?
  • Focus on your strengths.
  • Think of other areas of your life and in your future that will be impacted by this positive event.

When negative events happen, examine what you tell yourself.

  • Think about all the extenuating circumstances that contributed to it.
  • Aim for a realistic self-appraisal.
  • Look at your shortcomings and try to improve them.
  • Treat your mistakes as learning experiences.

Remember, this is a lifelong habit. If you don’t see immediate changes, don’t give up! Be an optimist about your ability to change your pessimism!

CC Photo by Jenny Downing

“The world is your oyster. You can be whoever or whatever you want to be.” So we are told by our adoring parents and and broader society. But is it true? Can we really become anything we, or our “Tiger Mothers”, set our minds on? New research suggests that people have limitations. Sad, I know. The nature part of the nature/nurture debate is staging a comeback!

The more we explore human nature, the more popular notions about what makes people tick are exposed as misguided at best. We rely on some pretty dicey information about one of the more important aspects of our lives. When you think about it, how we think about and live out our lives is dependent upon our understanding of human nature. It shapes everything from the expectations we place on ourselves to how we parent, make and retain friends, manage people, run organizations, regulate the banking industry, and love our partners. It is central to most everything we do. As Mr. Greenspan and more than a few parents have noted, an incorrect view of human nature can have pretty serious implications.

Researchers from a variety of disciplines have been publishing a lot on this topic recently, but much of it isn’t accessible to a broad audience. One of the authors, Steven Pinker, does research and popular writing. His TED talk is particularly good. In his work, Pinker identifies three popular, but misguided notions of human nature—the Blank Slate, Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine.

The Blank Slate is an old idea found as early as Aristotle that keeps popping up. In this view, when we are born we are like a new hard drive, clean without even an operating system. Who and what we become is a complex mix our parents, environment, culture and relationships. The idealization of the Noble Savage arose in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Primitive” indigenous people, as yet untainted by the corruptions of civilization, retained their nobility, virtue and naivete. We find this idea lingering today with those who regard the natural and primitive as inherently good and pure. Finally, the Ghost in the Machine (Rene Descartes) separates mind (soul) and body in a way that locates what is ultimately good about humanity separate from the body. It tends to diminish any appeal to aspects of human nature located in our bodies, brain and biochemistry. The material world weighs us down.

These three views of human nature are misguided, but they remain very influential in our society and impact us all negatively. In the next series of blogs we will explore these in greater detail. We would love to have you join us!

In the meantime, consider your view of human nature. Do you subscribe to any of the three views above, or a combination of them? Let us know below.