Can you always find what you are looking for? What Heraclitus, Pasteur, Goleman and a recent marketing study posit about the benefits of focus

“Opportunity favors the prepared mind” Louis Pasteur

Wouldn’t it feel strange if you always found what you were looking for? Aren’t there times that it feels like when you are stuck on an issue and something someone says or something you read or see is exactly what you were looking for.

How lucky are you? But is it luck or something else at play here?

I have written before about how ancient philosophical tenets meet modern thinkers (here and here) and in this occasion modern neuroscience.

Reflecting on these notions, serendipity seems suddenly less influenced by luck and more a matter of statistics.

It appears that Heraclitus (the Dark Philosopher), Louis Pasteur (the French chemist and microbiologist) and Daniel Goleman (the writer of Emotional Intelligence) may have had a lot to share on the subject.

Heraclitus

HERACLITUS 

“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to those that have rude souls” Heraclitus

Heraclitus, the so-called Dark philosopher was a Greek Natural philosopher that lived in the city of Ephesus around the 500 BCE. Most of his work was lost and/or destroyed. We currently have access to only a few fragments of his writings. The most famous phrase attributed to his philosophy is the below:

“Τα Παντα ρει” – “All things pass and nothing stays” (Plato Cratylus 402a = A6)

Apparently, it cannot be proven that he actually wrote this but it pretty well sums up key tenets of his philosophy.

What is of interest for this blog is a lesser known jewel from his fragments, the one that posits that eyes and ears are bad witnesses to those that bear rude souls.

What Heraclitus seems to be suggesting with this tenet is that when we are predisposed to view a situation from a particular perspective we tend to favour a positive or a negative interpretation of stimuli depending on our character, our state of mind and maybe how well we are attuned to ourselves, how well we “know thyselves” (i.e. our “soul”).

Heraclitus was not alone in the view that, the way we interpret things is the key (see here).

For example, imagine you graciously give up your seat on the tram or train (person A) to a person that appears to need it (person B). There may be two responses to this action:

  1. a positive response may be that you (person A) get a “thank you” based on the acknowledgement of your gracious action (from person B) OR
  2. a negative response when e.g. person B perceives this action as if someone is thinking less of his/her capabilities i.e. as if person A is putting them down. So, in this example person B chooses to tell off person A in the most ungracious of ways.

I am sure you can reflect and recall a few such examples when the disposition or attitude allows for a polar opposite interpretation of an action.

Reflecting on Heraclitus’ quotation we can also phrase it as follows:

“Eyes and ears are good witnesses to those that have refined souls”

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur

LOUIS PASTEUR

Similarly minded about the usefulness of focus and attitude was Louis Pasteur (French chemist and microbiologist).

Pasteur was very persistent and enormously successful in the fields of vaccination and the prevention of disease, as well as, his invention of “pasteurisation” which is a technique of treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination. He always tried to find solutions to problems and break new ground.

He focused on finding solutions and this focus appears to have reaped results as the solutions came to him (combined with hard work of course) resulting to his breakthroughs.

Hence, he articulated:

“Opportunity favors the prepared mind”

The two great thinkers do agree that if one is focused on something e.g. an opportunity, a question, a required result to a problem, it is as if the mind consciously and unconsciously seeks the solutions.

When you set your mind to something you usually find a way to succeed.

Solutions are out there, in the combination of things, the re-engineering of processes. Focused attention is sometimes the missing ingredient.

Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman

DANIEL GOLEMAN – How Heraclitus and Pasteur were onto something

For me, all of the above was just quite reasonable empirical deductions towards developing a positive attitude in life until I came across Daniel Goleman’s classic book, Emotional Intelligence.

In it, Goleman describes in layman’s terms the different functions of the parts of the brain and in particular the functions of the Limbic system and the Neocortex. The results are surprisingly revealing in support of both the great thinkers.

A Short History of Brain Development:

There are three stages of evolution in the brain:

  • The brainstem (which is the primitive brain) which we share with all other species that may a minimal nervous system. This is where the basic body functions are regulated e.g. breathing.
  • The limbic system (from the word limbus which means “ring”). This is built upon the brainstem and is also called the emotional brain g. when you are overwhelmed by craving or fury (“I can’t think straight”) that’s the limbic system taking over. The limbic system refined two essential tools forhomo sapiens a) learning and b) memory. Key structures of the limbic system that do much of the learning and remembering are:
    1. Amydgala – is the part that does most of the learning and remembering in terms of the emotional flavor of events. The Amygdala is the specialist for emotional matters.
It has been found that if theAmydgala is severed then
      1. We lose recognition of feeling as well feeling about feelings,
      2. Lose the urge to compete and cooperate, have no sense of social order.
      3. Emotion is blunted or absent
      4. Repository for emotional impressions and memories that we have 
known in full awareness
    2. Hyppocampus – is the part that deals with registering and making sense of 
perceptual patterns than with emotional reactions, it provides a keen memory of context (e.g. recognizes the 
differing significance of a bear in the zoo than a bear in the 
backyard) and retains the dry facts whilst the amygdala retains the emotional flavor e.g. hyppocampus – that is your cousin, amygdala – you don’t like her.
  • The Neocortex (also called the thinking brain) evolved as of 100m years ago and is the center that puts together and comprehends what the senses perceive. Strategizing, long-term planning, art, civilization and culture are the successes of the Neocortex.

How do signals get processed?

Sensory signals get processed from the ears and eyes through a structure called the Thalamus, to the Amygdala through a single synapse and at the same time to the Neocortex. The signal reaches the Amydgala at 1/3 of the time it takes to reach the Neocortex. So, the emotional brain begins to respond earlier than the thinking brain.

The usual way for sensory information to be processed is from the eyes and ears through the Thalamus and then to the Neocortex where the signals are put together into objects, as we perceive them. These are then sorted out, recognized for what they are and what they mean. The signal is then sent from the Neocortex to the Limbic system and from there the response is coordinated internally and externally.

The usual way takes precedence if the Amydgala is not aroused by the direct signal for e.g. fear of danger. If the Amydgala is aroused then we instinctively respond to the signals before the Neocortex has a chance to analyse the information.

So, essentially, the Amydgala is a repository for emotional impressions and memories that we have never known about in full awareness.

And this is where it gets very interesting.

LeDoux (Goleman p.18) proposed that the Amydgala’s role in memory explains the “startling experiment in which people acquired a preference for oddly shaped geometric figures that had been flashed at them so quickly that they had no conscious awareness of having seen them at all”.

So, the Amydgala and Hyppocampus, as part of the emotional brain, can be viewed as a subconscious sorting mechanism to the myriad of signals that come through our eyes and ears so, we “choose” to distinguish and pay attention to the ones that are emotionally charged only.

In this way it becomes apparent that if we provide significance and emotional charge to specific things these are registered in the recesses of the Amygdala and the Hyppocampus (in the limbic system) and so, we can distinguish them subconsciously within the sea of signals we encounter everyday.

EXPERIMENT USING “THE EYE CONTACT” DEVICE PROVES THE POINT

As reported in The Guardian’s article “Shopper’s eye view of ads that pass us by” as the result of an experiment in marketing conducted in 2005 in the city of London:

In one 45-minute journey, the average London commuter is exposed to more than 130 adverts, featuring more than 80 different products….. In an entire day, we’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages. ……The experiment, analysed with the help of ID Magasin, the company which developed the device, highlighted both the extent to which individuals are bombarded by commercial images and how adept most have become at screening out advertising messages. The results of our experiment showed that 99% of adverts make little or no impact.

The marketing messages encountered in a day in a metropolis like Melbourne (my home city) cannot be far from this number. So, out of the thousands of brand cues we encounter we tend to recognise and consciously pay attention to just a handful. The above brain mechanism Goleman analysed is the one that allows us to do so.

SUMMARY

So, what we choose to focus on and in general our attitude towards things i.e. on whether we perceive challenges or opportunities, on whether we focus on why something would not work rather than how something could work plays a huge role at the cues that our emotional brain selects to display into our consciousness, the things that help us move forward and solve the challenges we encounter.

A healthy attitude and targeted focus on what matters most is thus, keys to developing a productive lifestyle.

Stoicism and Stephen Covey – You don’t need to worry anymore!

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things” The Enchiridion, Epictetus (translation by William R Connolly)

How would you feel if you did not have to worry again? Is this attainable? The Stoics certainly thought so.

More recently, Stephen Covey revisited this theme and provided a mental model to approach about such situations.

It becomes amazing how, sometimes, key tenets of Ancient Philosophy find their way into modern popular handbooks and practical how-to guides.

It is useful to occasionally revisit and embrace the transformative nature of these tenets, in combination with their modern variations, in an effort to lead more meaningful, productive and fulfilling lives (professionally and in the private sphere).

Let’s look at one of these tenets and mental schemes in action.

 

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

 

STOICISM

Stoicism is a movement that started with Zeno of Citium at the early 3rd BCE. Other major philosophers involved in this movement were Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (you can find more information here).

The basic tenet of the movement was “apatheia” (equanimity). Stoics posit that one way to attain this state of mind is by recognizing what lies within our power or influence and what is outside. Thereafter, come to terms with this realization.

Meric Casaubon elaborated on this thought in his translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as follows:

“Two points in the Stoic system deserve special mention. One is a careful distinction between things which are in our power and things which are not. Desire and dislike, opinion and affection, are within the power of the will; whereas health, wealth, honour, and other such are generally not so. The Stoic was called upon to control his desires and affections, and to guide his opinion; to bring his whole being under the sway of the will or leading principle…..” (Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Meric Casaubon)

 

Stephen Covey

 

STEPHEN R. COVEY

Stephen Covey mentions more or less the same theme but expands on it providing a mental scheme enabling us to better visualize how to go about this basic idea.

His mental scheme consists of concentric circles that portray our circle of influence and our circle of concern (see picture below).

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE

Stephen contends that we should first reflect on “where we focus our time and energy” and then consciously refocus our efforts to what we can influence, in an effort to increase our effectiveness.

Specifically, usually, we tend to worry or be concerned about many things such as, our health, our children, problems at work, the national debt, nuclear war. These concerns can and should be separated based on our mental and emotional involvement but also based on those for which we have some real control over and those that we cannot influence at all.

Thereafter, by focusing our time and energy in influencing those that we have some kind of control over we succeed and hence, we may also increase our circle of Influence further. We see people who embrace this behaviour being positive and empowered.

CIRCLE OF CONCERN

On the other hand, we see others that focus their time and energy on things they have no real influence over. These tend to blame and accuse circumstances or people and use reactive language. Eventually, the Circle of Influence of these people will shrink. I am sure you can think of a few people who embrace the one or the other behaviour and can possibly reflect on the consequences of their stance in life.

Like the ancient Stoics, what Stephen rightly highlighted is that we have to look at our attitude towards these situations and change our perspective so we can be “highly effective” in our lives. This happens if we do not waste time and energy on worrying about things we cannot control or influence but instead focus our energy to influence those that we can.

You can read more about this mental scheme here.

 

SCIENCE ABOUT THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF A POSITIVE ATTITUDE

Until recently this could have been described as a feel good and  useful belief. More recent scientific studies though have started to test even such esoteric beliefs.

I have written here about an insightful talk from Kelly McGonical which details a recent study that looks at the link between attitudes and cardiovascular disease.

In particular, this study links the attitude we have against stressful situations to specific responses our body has and the associated risk for development of cardiovascular disease.

 

CONCLUSION

People respond to different challenges in a different way and develop their own defense mechanisms to deal with the vicissitudes of life.

Practical philosophy such as the ideas described in this blogpost provides an extremely useful guide to think about things and be-free oneself from behaviours that damage productivity, happiness and the attainment of fulfillment in life.

A great resource to continue this journey with is Alain De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (an easy to read and immensely entertaining book or DVD).

Maya Angelou who recently passed away put it succinctly when she said:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”, Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter:

What are the tenets, beliefs or thoughts that help you to get through the day?

 

What Aristotle and Plato have to say about Team Development? – Part 2

In the previous blog post I discussed how the Aristotelian/Platonic term Endelexeia can assist us conceptualize and develop our Teams. I also provided some tips on how we could go about achieving this. Let’s now have a look at the second significant term – Methexis.

Read on if you also want to find out more about this concept and also get some tips on how to go about to achieve this within your teams.

Aristotle

Methexis

Methexis is a term we find in both Aristotle and Plato with slightly different connotations. The term effectively means ‘working together’.

However, the interpretation of the term provides for a more esoteric meaning e.g.

“A good way to describe methexis is by considering the circular dance of primitive tribes we sometimes see on the History Channel. The dancers work on an individual plane acting the steps based on the rhythm but also on a collective as the group can also be considered as a separate entity”. – Bolt

Paraphrasing Bolt (found here), Methexis is a way of considering the intermingling of attitudes, expressions and movement and the way in which meaning is enmeshed with the materiality and temporality of processes and practices in which signification is embedded.

So, it becomes clear that “the primitive tribes’ ” dance is not in response to the world, but a means of encountering it, sensing it, and remaking it.

Extending this thought, Carter (found here) describes the indigenous belief in the practices of sand-dance-painting which, he believes, is producing ‘real effects both on the human and the divine plane’.

“In essence, acting within a group has the potentiality of producing real effects on the individual and supporting and guiding his or hers journey towards self-actualization”. -Carter

Thereafter, the key question is this:

‘How is it possible for one form or nature to be present in a plurality of things, and yet to remain one?’. Cornford

To understand this question better, we can think of it in the same sense as  modern physics asks the question for the nature of light:

How can light be considered a particle and a wave at the same time? (you can find a brief description here)

In response to Cornford’s question and for whoever has immersed in dance, the experiential facts provides the answer that:

Yes, we can be present in the plurality of dance and still remain “one”.

Moreover, it is meaningful to do so.

A good start to your team’s journey towards your achieving Methexis is summarized below:

  • Employ each team member wisely taking into account technical skills but also psychological attributes that compliment the team and the team’s mission.
  • Run collective meetings each week/month and promote open discussions about the team’s goals, key performance indicators, and future opportunities.
  • Run a SWOT team analysis every year.
  • Promote a “one in, all in” attitude for your team.
  • Promote and encourage the full understanding of how the team’s efforts affects the organizational success.
  • Create a sense of pride for the work done.
  • Perform a stakeholder bonding exercise e.g. a small interview between team members. The below is an excerpt questionnaire from Schuh et al’s, fabulous book The CPO, reportedly used at a team building exercise:
  • “Why am I at this company? What motivates me to be part if this organization?
  • What do I expect from my colleagues within procurement and/or in different countries and/or in other functions?
  • How do I contribute to this? What am I willing to give?
  • You would never have expected this about me:”

 

CONCLUSION

Thinking about effectiveness and how to build the organizations of tomorrow, it becomes clear that we should focus on removing the organizational barriers that created the silo mentality and thwarted communication, innovation and progress.

Plato and Aristotle when they argued about Endelexeia and Methexis did not have modern organizations in mind. Methexis was a term that was used in the Arts (Theatre) as a way to describe that the audience was fully immersed in the play and so, a measure that the play was successful.

However, both these terms can provide much food for thought in how we organize our teams today. This is because these terms assist us to conceptualize basic human needs i.e. the need to become and the need to connect.

The balance between the individual and the team is very important, i.e. the balance between the need to reach Endelexeia and to feel Methexis and so, making steps towards achieving both these states would ensure that organizations will have happy and engaged employees, well tuned and effective teams in their effort to be successful in this hyper-competitive market-space.

=========================================================================

 

Image courtesy of Nick Thompson / www.flickr.com

 

What Aristotle and Plato have to say about Team Development? -Part 1

Dedicated to the SAPHIR team, my friends and colleagues at CMA CGM for highlighting what dedication, perseverance and passion can achieve, and for a reflective, joyful and productive three weeks spent with them at Head Office working towards the SAP implementation project as well as, a variety of other small side projects.

The below post was on my mind for a while but believe it “put itself together” following this great experience.

This post focuses on two basic principles that assist us to conceptualize Team Engagement (analyzed before here, here and here) starting from an interpretation of Ancient Philosophy that seems more contemporary than ever.

Read on if you also want to get some tips on how to go about to achieve this within your teams.

Plato and Aristotle

INTRODUCTION

So, what can Ancient Greek Philosophy can contribute to a discussion on better Team engagement?

What would Aristotle and Plato say about the management of modern teams?

Surprisingly, the advice that these thinkers may have suggested is very close to what our current thinking about team and individual development is.

The core of it could be crystallized in two terms: methexis (μέθεξις) and endelexeia (ενδελέχεια).

Let’s see on why it is important to consider those terms which enable us to better strategise towards getting optimal results from our teams.

 

Endelexeia

Endelexeia means to “have an end in itself / to have completeness”. In other words, to become who you really are.

Endelexeia is a concept that suggests that we need to know our team members’ behavioural style, i.e. weaknesses, strengths, dreams.

Only then, we can find the best ways to engage them i.e. position them in the right roles, support them and guide them towards meaningful work that will eventually promote and expand their ability to achieve optimum results for themselves and for the team i.e. work that will increase their Self-Esteem and enable them to even attain Self-Actualisation (as per the model by Abraham Maslow).

Nowadays, it is true that Work and Life have become intertwined. Technology has vastly contributed to the blurring of the dividing line between the two.

As we are creatures that seek meaning in all facets of Life, Work provides a great opportunity for this should we want to pursue it.

Moreover, we are getting closer and closer to Peter Drucker’s inspirational view that organizations are the means through which individuals can contribute towards the embetterment of society. Specifically, from his book The Effective Executive the below quotes are representative:

“The cohesion and strength of our society depend increasingly on the integration of the psychological and social needs of the knowledge worker with the goals of organization and of industrial society.

Effectiveness reveals itself as crucial to a man’s self-development; to organization development; and to the fulfillment and viability of modern society”

Job positions that satisfy mere processing needs are becoming automated and so, eventually we will be left with positions for which significant value-add will be required from each team member.

This means that creativity, lateral thinking, full engagement and the organizations’ focus on each team member contributing 100% of their capability will shift the attention towards understanding and promoting Endelexeia for each individual.

We already see this in recent literature e.g. the Rosenbluth and McFerrin Peters great book, The Customer Comes Second, supports the notion that should an organization supports and promotes the success of its own employees, then it also ensures that the Customer will be served and looked after.

It is thus important that work transforms itself to become meaningful enough and engaging enough so, each team member can be allowed to achieve optimal results.

Only then, the process of work becomes a win-win situation in which each individual can achieve Endelexeia.

A good start to the journey towards endelexeia is summarized below:

  1. Run a Behavioural Test with each team members and use it as a prompt to start a discussion.
  2. Run a Productive Culture Survey and use it as a prompt to see how you can improve it. 
  3. Start having One-on-One meetings with your team every week or bi-weekly so, you keep in touch with them. Use these meetings as a means to connect, reflect and continuously improve.
  4. Reward successes.
  5. Go through the presentation on 12 tips for successful team engagement (here)

 

In my next blog post I will discuss the second significant term, Methexis and some tips on how to achieve this.

 

Image courtesy of Image Editor / www.flickr.com