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Top-down influences and the power of habits

Top-down influences and the power of habits

Tempo di lettura: 5 minuti

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake expressed a wonderful truth: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite”.

To some extent, the expertise coming from our old learnings is crucial for us to take steps forward, to improve our knowledge and to allow ourselves to enhance our abilities.  Without learning from the past experiences, we would need to learn every time the same things, what we already know, and our evolutionary process would not have gone so far.  However, when the set of models that composes our expertise is used as a filter to meet the present moment, the main risk is to miss the richness of life with the multitude of possibilities that it offers. Without being aware of it, we find ourselves being in relationship with a narrow, limited and rigid world to which we rely to create definitions of ourselves, of the others, of the experience. Life is definitely more fluid than a model and, for sure, is less repetitive.

When models and habits replace reality, our identity loses a lot of those precious dimensions, that we could express in many fields of life, such as creative thinking, decision making, inspiring others and so on.

And, together with preventing us from taking the right opportunities at work, this is able to generate a lot of suffering in our lives.

It can become a sort of “not-living” life, imprisoned by a subjective world, made of restrictions, repetitions, habits and distortions, overlying the reality, guiding actions and behaviors with the same power as a universal rule.

It seems worth to introduce here what in literature is well-known as “Top-Down” and “Bottom-Up” experience processing in the brain. In very simple words that are not expected to be rigorous but just helpful to give an idea, Top-Down processing is a way of experiencing things basing on cognitive models, perceptions (that have always something subjective) old learnings coming from past experiences, consolidated opinions and beliefs, something that is able to strongly influence the way we meet the moment-by-moment experience. When we say that we live in our minds instead of living in the experience we refer to the influence of this Top-Down system.

Bottom-Up processing instead, refers to a more direct contact with the stimuli, both internal and external, that less significantly influenced by higher cognitive models and by the stories the mind creates on the experience.

The more expertise we have, the more we are at risk of making them become a model that overlies the reality, unless the use of those learnings is only focused on improving our knowledge and avoiding making old mistakes. 

The difference between a wise mind and an “expert” mind does not rely only on how rich our expertise is, but rather on the use that the mind makes of it: the wise mind is open to approach the experience with the attitude of seeing, learning, discovering.

The “expert” mind refuses to truly meet the experience basing on the strong belief that it already knows what it is. Maybe we do not need a deep reflection to understand that the “expert” mind creates its own limitations and condemns itself to be slave of models and habits. In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi states the following:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The beginner’s mind is an unconditioned, free mind, a mind that, although aware of the old learnings, is able to see things with fresh eyes, a mind that fully meets the moment with all what the moment can offer. If we consider that our mind shapes our world, a beginner’s mind creates a spacious world, full of possibilities, where people can allow themselves to see new details, possible new combinations, to discover things that they were not even searching for. A beginner’s mind, in the way that Shunryu Suzuki defines it, is the best example of wise mind, and requires awareness, patience, curiosity, all qualities that can be trained and cultivated in our daily lives.

Authors:
katiuscia berretta

Katiuscia Berretta: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Certified Teacher by the Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts – Medical School. Experienced teacher of Organizational Mindfulness and its applications on health promotion, engagement and productivity, leadership development and innovation. Former member of the Neuroleadership Institute and Certified in “The foundation of Neuroleadership”. Tony Buzan Licensed teacher of Mind Mapping and teacher of Applied Innovation. Former employee at IBM where she worked for 16 years Katiuscia has been has been operating in the R&D workload automation area and, before that, as a Research Assistant at the Department of Mathematics – University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. She is certified in UX foundations by Career Foundry and in Insight Innovation – Leading for Creativity by IDEO (Tim Brown). Katiuscia is an experienced practitioner of Yoga and Insight Meditation and regularly attends seminars and silent meditation retreats. In her activities, Katiuscia integrates together technical and scientific expertise with a long time practice. In cooperation with Centro Italiano Studi Mindfulness by Mondomindful, she offers a secure guide for positioning mindfulness and innovation pathways in companies and organizations.

vicki flaherty

Vicki Flaherty: Vicki Flaherty, Ph.D. was part of IBM’s Leadership Development team. She helped IBM executives lead with clarity, intention, and authenticity and her passion is awakening humanity in the workplace. She led the mindfulness movement at IBM and helped IBMers lead with resilience. As an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, her career is about helping people succeed through design of onboarding, mentoring, career development, leadership, and talent programs. Vicki has been an IBM Corporate Service Corps alumnus, an IBM Certified Consultant, and a member of IBM’s Coaching Community of Practice. She is a leadership facilitator and coach, speaks at global events about success, and she blogs about leadership. Traveling with her husband Jim, running and gardening are key ways she recharges and creates focus, and she finds great joy in yoga, reading inspirational books, journaling and writing, especially poetry. You can reach her at: LinkedIn and Twitter. You can follow her at her Leading with Intention blog or via the Mindfulness series on IBM’s Jobs blog.

Obstacles to excellence and their underlying causes

Obstacles to excellence and their underlying causes

Tempo di lettura: 5 minuti

Rousseau: “Life is tough”. Voltaire: “Compared to What?”

Some years ago, one of Gary Hamel’s articles on Harvard Business Review started saying that the world was becoming more turbolent faster than most organizations were becoming more resilient. In these very difficult times, that companies all over the world are currently facing, the urgent, continuous invite to cultivate and promote “excellence at work” have become the only means of survival in almost every professional context.  And the meaning of excellence itself has come through a long evolution year by year. There have been a lot of misunderstandings in the sense of the excellence at work and the evaluation/motivation mechanisms used by a lot of companies gave a significant contribution to increase this confusion.

What is called world’s turbolence, is something that significantly reflects on each single individual’s experience, taking the shape of a constant uncertainty, an increasing level of complexity and pressure, together with a decreasing resilience. This situation is well described by the common and well-known expression “It’s a VUCA world!”, where VUCA means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.

According to the human biological design, people respond to this difficult conditions with a constant, mental and physiological, activation, that is able to dramatically affect health, productivity, relationships, and leadership at any level. In a VUCA world, more than ever, QI, professional expertise, and “external” forms of learning about how a leader must be or become, are considered pillars but cannot be the only drivers; they cannot be helpful if people are not able to rely on resilience, or on the ability to handle their attention resources, or on the clarity of vision. Even technological excellence, if it is in the service of a lack of confidence, engagement, motivation, ability to inspire others and to drive the change, represents a huge waste of time, money, energy, and a missed opportunity to express excellence.

The myth of an excellence completely based on QI and technical skills, supported by the ability (or, more likely, the illusion) to keep emotions out of the scene as something able to inhibit the clear vision and to disturb the so-called rational thinking, has created a dangerous culture, founded on the blind belief that, to be excellent, we need to control events and conditions, to adjust reality to make it fit our expectations. This kind of culture keeps us in a constant sense of threat and has affected our social needs as well: our natural capacity to be connected to each other has been decreasing as a consequence of the lack of connection to ourselves. In fact we become really aware of others’ feelings only because we naturally reproduce these feelings inside ourselves. So we can be connected to others if, and only if, we are authentically connected to ourselves.

Very often people work in team as a group of singles beings each one having his own goals and pathway, preventing themselves from expressing the team full intelligence.  

Supported by a vision like this, so many people operate in any role, making a lot of effort to convey values that cannot be of support for a healthy development of individuals, organizations and communities, although their potential as human beings is really high.

From our perspective, the very starting point, before even talking about the difficult conditions our world is currently coming through, is to understand what excellence really is and how it can be cultivated, promoted inside the workplace.

In the 70s, thanks to David C. McClelland from Harvard, we know that neither the QI tests nor school grades seem to have a significant power to predict real competence in the main life outcomes and real high-performance at work. Although this is well-known and widely accepted from an intellectual point of view, the importance assigned to this kind of measures is still too high and causes big investments without guaranteeing any result.

In the model proposed by McClelland a competency is defined as an underlying set of qualities of a person that enables them to deliver an excellent performance in a given job, role, or situation. When responsibilities grow and the roles become more complex, involving other people’s guidance, technical skills and knowledge are not enough to guarantee outcomes. Something more is needed to make difficult decisions, to drive the change, to be of example, to motivate and inspire others.

Mindfulness practice can drive a real change of perspective, as it allows to cultivate a focused attention, a flexible attitude, a strong intention, leveraging mind qualities like metacognition. Its effects are supported by a wide body of research and many companies in the world are working to integrate Mindfulness with their internal processes. Many of them report significant benefits in different areas of professional and personal life.

Authors:
katiuscia berretta

Katiuscia Berretta: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Certified Teacher by the Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts – Medical School. Experienced teacher of Organizational Mindfulness and its applications on health promotion, engagement and productivity, leadership development and innovation. Former member of the Neuroleadership Institute and Certified in “The foundation of Neuroleadership”. Tony Buzan Licensed teacher of Mind Mapping and teacher of Applied Innovation. Former employee at IBM where she worked for 16 years Katiuscia has been has been operating in the R&D workload automation area and, before that, as a Research Assistant at the Department of Mathematics – University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. She is certified in UX foundations by Career Foundry and in Insight Innovation – Leading for Creativity by IDEO (Tim Brown). Katiuscia is an experienced practitioner of Yoga and Insight Meditation and regularly attends seminars and silent meditation retreats. In her activities, Katiuscia integrates together technical and scientific expertise with a long time practice. In cooperation with Centro Italiano Studi Mindfulness by Mondomindful, she offers a secure guide for positioning mindfulness and innovation pathways in companies and organizations.

vicki flaherty

Vicki Flaherty: Vicki Flaherty, Ph.D. was part of IBM’s Leadership Development team. She helped IBM executives lead with clarity, intention, and authenticity and her passion is awakening humanity in the workplace. She led the mindfulness movement at IBM and helped IBMers lead with resilience. As an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, her career is about helping people succeed through design of onboarding, mentoring, career development, leadership, and talent programs. Vicki has been an IBM Corporate Service Corps alumnus, an IBM Certified Consultant, and a member of IBM’s Coaching Community of Practice. She is a leadership facilitator and coach, speaks at global events about success, and she blogs about leadership. Traveling with her husband Jim, running and gardening are key ways she recharges and creates focus, and she finds great joy in yoga, reading inspirational books, journaling and writing, especially poetry. You can reach her at: LinkedIn and Twitter. You can follow her at her Leading with Intention blog or via the Mindfulness series on IBM’s Jobs blog.

The roots of an innovative mind

The roots of an innovative mind

Tempo di lettura: 4 minuti

It is quite common, in today’s world, to develop a task-oriented mindset in order to navigate the many to-dos of our personal and professional lives. While a task-oriented mind might help us evaluate, prioritize and apply existing and known solutions to problems, it may also limit us from opening up to the expansive realm of new and creative possibilities in our lives. Can we be true innovators with a primarily concrete, task-oriented mind? Furthermore, is it possible for us to develop a multi-faceted capacity to be both task-focused and radically creative? And how might the phenomenon the experts call, “the illusion of multitasking,” impact this ambitious goal? 

Biology dictates that the way we experience the world is strongly influenced by what “we already know of the world”. Our worldview is formed by life experiences, our families’ teachings, personal study, travels, and formal education. With the proliferation of screens in most of our lives, our worldview is also impacted by the constant stream of information, app interactions, and social media content. Everything we take in affects our perception of reality, both in overwhelming and valuable ways. The information we take in from the world, some by choice and some by chance, inevitably ranges from positive, joyful, negative, tragic throughout the span of a lifetime. The sum of these experiences help us adapt, to varying degrees, to the world and it’s uncertain surprises. Driven by our worldview and our experience-informed realities, our response to life events is typically automatic, very quick, based on habits or preconceptions. In that sense, it’s more of a reaction than a response.

Given these truths, how might we become happier, more creative and better decision makers in this complex world – responders rather than reactors? How might we leverage our patterns and worldview to enhance our lives instead of as unconscious drivers in our lives?

In our times, it appears that we live in the overactivation  of the two brain systems underpinning the so-called “DOING-MODE mind”: the THREAT-AVOIDANCE system, by means of the fight-fight-freeze response, triggers us to act against anything that we perceive as a threat, and the so call ACHIEVING brain system, that works for our survival as well, triggers actions to achieve results ( winning competitions, improving our abilities to perform , obtaining more to make our lives safer and more comfortable, being recognized by others and so on). The DOING-MODE is a need and has a  wonderful influence on our tendency to improve our lives, to motivate actions. Troubles may arise in presence of a chronic overactivation of these systems, that then begin to stimulate each other, consuming a lot of brain energy, naturally narrowing our sight and looping on the same thoughts mechanisms and behaviors, while we are expected to be creative!

Bringing awareness in our lives means mainly focusing on re-balancing our brain systems, reducing distress and promoting physical and psychological health. More specifically, we need the integration of the “being mode” inside our active and full lives. This means creating the needed space for new possibilities to arise even in the middle of a storm. Instead of the one-way reaction of fight-flight-freeze mode, other approaches exist that can be explored by the awareness and can make the difference in many situations. Paul Gilbert correlates meditation practice with the cultivation of the third brain system, called SOOTHING-AND-CONTENTMENT system. Balance, health and happiness are strictly related to the way these three brain systems work together and integrate with each other. When the three systems are balanced, we can experience fear without being overwhelmed by the emotion, we can have goals without being identified with one way to achieve them, we can stay in the not-knowing state and being receptive of what the uncertainty has to offer, instead of being focused on how to fix it. Can our thinking be really free under the conditions we have described here above?

The identification with the thought creates a story, influences our perceptions, activates a selective attention, as we become more sensitive to what is coherent with the story and exclude the rest.

The mind shapes our world, and the mind itself is shaped by our inclinations. Shaping appears to be the key-word. Shaping means modeling, transforming, operating on something that is flexible enough. The shape of the mind is as fixed as our habits and, moment by moment, can be either our prison or the way to our freedom. In each moment stands a precious, unique opportunity for our life, as innovators and as human beings.

Authors:
katiuscia berretta

Katiuscia Berretta: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Certified Teacher by the Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts – Medical School. Experienced teacher of Organizational Mindfulness and its applications on health promotion, engagement and productivity, leadership development and innovation. Former member of the Neuroleadership Institute and Certified in “The foundation of Neuroleadership”. Tony Buzan Licensed teacher of Mind Mapping and teacher of Applied Innovation. Former employee at IBM where she worked for 16 years Katiuscia has been has been operating in the R&D workload automation area and, before that, as a Research Assistant at the Department of Mathematics – University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. She is certified in UX foundations by Career Foundry and in Insight Innovation – Leading for Creativity by IDEO (Tim Brown). Katiuscia is an experienced practitioner of Yoga and Insight Meditation and regularly attends seminars and silent meditation retreats. In her activities, Katiuscia integrates together technical and scientific expertise with a long time practice. In cooperation with Centro Italiano Studi Mindfulness by Mondomindful, she offers a secure guide for positioning mindfulness and innovation pathways in companies and organizations.

vicki flaherty

Vicki Flaherty: Vicki Flaherty, Ph.D. was part of IBM’s Leadership Development team. She helped IBM executives lead with clarity, intention, and authenticity and her passion is awakening humanity in the workplace. She led the mindfulness movement at IBM and helped IBMers lead with resilience. As an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, her career is about helping people succeed through design of onboarding, mentoring, career development, leadership, and talent programs. Vicki has been an IBM Corporate Service Corps alumnus, an IBM Certified Consultant, and a member of IBM’s Coaching Community of Practice. She is a leadership facilitator and coach, speaks at global events about success, and she blogs about leadership. Traveling with her husband Jim, running and gardening are key ways she recharges and creates focus, and she finds great joy in yoga, reading inspirational books, journaling and writing, especially poetry. You can reach her at: LinkedIn and Twitter. You can follow her at her Leading with Intention blog or via the Mindfulness series on IBM’s Jobs blog.