Sometimes mentoring is about teaching very simple techniques and helping a person turn them into habits. Its not that someone is unable to see what would be very productive or have the insight and energy to try a new way. Often it's just a matter of bringing a new eye to the situation and offering the steady support that makes the change become the new normal.
Pretty catchy title, don’t you think? Don’t you ‘instant gratification’ types get too carried away. I am going to tell you about a ten minute exercise that will change your life. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is a daily exercise. You’ll have to find ten minutes each and every day for the rest of your life and work hard to convert this exercise into an enduring habit. For some of you ten minutes a day will prove too high a price for the possibility of changing your life. For others, and I hope most, it will be a small price to pay for a huge step forward.
Taking time to reflect - consider - learn - is one way to make your life richer and more fulfilling. It isn't hard to do - you don't need some gadget or prop - you just do it. But most people don't do it - and they suffer lost fulfillment because of that - and remain completely unaware of the loss.
So, it’s not like a vaccination. You don’t get one shot and then you’re good to go for the rest of your life. But the only time that will ever be true is the second just before you die – and who wants to wait that long to achieve enlightenment?
When I first arrived on Wall Street, I became fascinated with people who seemed to be much better organized and focused than the other people around them. I was attracted to these people because they made much better partners and much more reliable participants in teams that I put together. They seemed to avoid the ‘muddling through’ that characterized the daily lives of most of the others.
Some years later, as my Buddha nature began to emerge; I sought out a particular monk and asked about the relationship between my life and what I understood about it. The teaching which ensued helped me to understand what I had observed on Wall Street. Over the years the gift I received from this particular monk has become a habit – a highly productive and useful one. I’d like to pass on that gift to you if you’re willing to listen, consider and learn.
The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates
Examine Your life: Old Socrates sure had that one right. To leave a day without giving a thought about how that day has been lived is to waste the time and effort of living that day. It is more tragic than having lived a decade without reflecting on how that decade was lived. It is much more tragic than living a year without reflecting on how that year was lived. It is only slightly less tragic than living a moment without reflecting on how that moment was lived. What is the point of going into tomorrow if you haven’t learned the lessons of today? The truth is that, if you don’t learn, you end up going back into yesterday all over again! Remember, it never gets to be tomorrow - by the time it comes, it's today all over again!
A person is condemned to confront the same challenge over and over again until they master it. Then they get to go on to the next one. Those of you who have been paying attention will find this statement a judgment on those who have not learned Socrates’ lesson. I was, of course, referring to those ‘deer in the headlights’ types that you meet all the time. Much like a TV soap opera, they can pass out of mind for years and, when they return, their continuing lives seem like just more of the same. Making the same mistakes over and over is a sign of inattention – a sign of being asleep.
The simply ridiculous thing about the insight which Socrates delivered to humanity those many centuries ago – an insight which lies at the very core of Buddhist teachings – is that, like most fundamental truths, this enlightenment is more a matter of dedication to simple actions than to mind bending mental gymnastics over Byzantine logic and convoluted theories of existence. But for the well educated amongst us, the latter is always easier than the former.
By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. Confucius
The view from above: I will admit that there is a trick to all of this. The trick is that you must cultivate the ability to view your day while avoiding the tendency towards self-justification – from above. If you can’t manage that ‘out of body’ perspective, the sessions are likely to descend into a mire of self-congratulatory self-ratification.
In the course of your review you should look at your day as one who is observing it as it took place. This ‘observer’s’ perspective is critical to making the process productive. Some people get it when I describe the view as being the proverbial fly on the wall. Others understand what I mean when I suggest that you review your day as if you were watching a movie of it. No matter how you achieve this perspective, it is important because without it true reflection is impossible.
To achieve true reflection is to avoid the necessity of attaining wisdom either by imitation or by bitter experience. Confucius had it right when he suggested that it is far sweeter to learn by reflection than to suffer the bitter cost of learning the other ways.
They only babble who practice not reflection. Edward Young
Ritual and a retreat to a private space: Everybody has to pick their own time of day. For me, it is the hour just before getting ready for bed. But the choice of the time of day is not as important as how well that choice is made. Reflection on ‘the day just lived’ is best done in a quiet place that is soothing and conducive to reflection. It is important that the time and place be available every day and without exception.
My own ritual begins with the making of a cup of tea. I don’t think about the day while brewing the tea – I think about brewing the tea. The water coming to a boil, the smell of the tea in my hand, the flow of water into the cup, the aroma that rises and fills the room as the tea brews – all of these things take my attention - and focus my senses on the present. This focus on the present allows my mind to settle out of whatever has occupied it during the day and into the very familiar patterns of preparing a simple cup of tea.
Your ritual will be different but you must pick it with care. Every day at the same time you should wall off the rest of the world and retreat into this private place to reflect.
Without deep reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people. Albert Einstein
Listing your day: Here's the idea in a nutshell. At the same time each day you spend ten minutes thinking about the day you have just lived through. See your day through the eyes of someone who has been observing you. Go over every event, large or small – significant or insignificant, that occurred during the course of your day.
So I take my tea to a favorite chair. I sit back, relax and let my mind relax as well. Then, over the next few minutes, I slowly and carefully relive the day. My mind revisits each event – meetings, phone calls, things read, things thought about and conversations all get their chance to be revisited. In each case I am an observer of myself engaged.
Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action. Peter Drucker
Consider each action: Once my listing is complete I start at the beginning of the day and relive each event – but not as a person that lived through the day but as an observer of a scene in which I am an actor.
Begin at the start of each day. Think about each action – no matter how minor – and try to revive the experience of one who has lived through it. When it was only you and there was no other person involved, try to view the experience as an interaction between you and your self. I know that’s going to sound a bit loony at first but follow me for a bit. Every time you try to develop a new habit or improve yourself in any way there are those parts of you which oppose the change. We’ve all had that experience. So in some ways all efforts at personal improvement results in an argument with your self. Ignore this argument and proceed with confidence.
Here’s an example that might relate to your morning. Let’s suppose you have resolved to rise earlier and engage in a bit of morning exercise. But your list shows something other than complete success in this area. By highlighting the fact that you did not meet your own expectations you reduce the probability that you will simply ignore your own under-performance through an act of personal indifference.
When an action involves another person try to relive that experience as one of serving the scene of two interacting. It will be difficult it first but after a bit of experience you should begin reliving those interactions as intensely, and often more intensely, than they seemed at the moment you lived through them. Your understanding of each event should be different than it first was because of this new perspective.
It is a most mortifying reflection for a man to consider what he has done, compared to what he might have done. Samuel Johnson
Positive or negative … understood or misunderstood … kindness or abusiveness: As you relive each action that was part of your day you should start to notice your own behavior and how it influenced the outcomes. At first you won’t be very good at this but eventually reliving each experience will begin to generate new understandings of how you interact with your own goals as well as with other people.
Sometimes as a result of reflection I come to realize, all be it several hours later, that my role in a particular discussion was positively negative. I will see myself turning an opportunity into a focus on some minutia. At the time it went unnoticed by me but now it stands out in high relief. The other person (the bringer of the opportunity) certainly did notice. I make a note to myself that I owe that person an apology as well as an attempt to reconnect on the opportunity.
On another occasion, I might realize that I had spent a great deal of energy and effort trying to give a particular individual guidance that would help them overcome a very negative habit. During the actual effort and in the heat of the moment I was very involved in trying to get them to see the light. Later that day, as I relive the experience, I come to realize that I have had a number of conversations with this person on the same subject and with the same results – they have no intention of changing their behavior – their attitude is simply ‘well, this doesn’t work – let’s do more of it.’ As a result of reflection I realize that this person’s self destructive behavior is their business and not mine. Any attempt to help this person amount to the proverbial ‘kamikaze raid on a vacant lot’. So I let it go and resolve to leave those pretending to be asleep pretending to be asleep.
Tis' a dangerous thing to play with souls and trouble enough to save your own. Robert Browning
One point of guidance in all of this – the objective is ‘understanding’ rather than ‘self-recrimination’. In order to achieve that, you must learn to be kind to yourself. You must cut yourself some slack – after all, most of you are human! The small joke aside, this is a very important idea. Reflection which results in self abuse is simply masochism parading as self help. If any of this is going to result in positive change you must approach yourself as a fallible human being who needs, and deserves, your support attention and understanding. During these sessions you’ll find yourself shaking your head in disbelief – try to add a gentle, bemused smile while you’re doing that.
If we would only give, just once, the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of life that we give to the question of what to do with a two weeks’ vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days. Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Planning the renovations: One of the great benefits of reflection is that it helps you sort out what you can do from what is properly left on someone else’s plate. By living through your day a second time you have a chance to see yourself in a different light.
The second great benefit is that reflection can lay the groundwork for planning and monitoring change and personal growth. Once you have begun to understand your own behavior from this new perspective the process of managing improvements in your understanding, responses and performance becomes considerably easier.
You should notice that your focus narrows to the practical and to those things which can be accomplished with focused effort. Most people suffer failure in their attempts at personal improvement because their goals are entirely too strategic. Focusing on individual actions during the course of a specific day will result in understandings that can be acted on immediately and with intent to generate specific improvements.
So now go back to your list and begin to fill in the action items. Each action is relived and a lesson is derived from the experience. What could have been done better? What did I miss that I should have seen? How could I have behaved differently and achieved a better result? What was this person trying to tell me that I didn’t hear? Your list of questions will grow as you get better at reflection.
Every time one of these or similar questions resonates you should stop and think about how you’re going to approach similar situations differently in the future. Make a note next to that action - actually stop and write it down - to remind you of this new resolution. At the core of this action is a resolve to make tomorrow a better day than yesterday – to make your participation in tomorrow better than yours was in yesterday.
Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. Margaret J. Wheatley
Your turn: Ten minutes is going to seem like a very long time at first – but after a week or two it will seem like not nearly long enough. The habit of ten minutes flows into a life path that guides you to an entirely new vision of your self and the world that you live in – and you will awaken to a new path for your life.
Ten minutes a day can, and will, change your life if you have the resolve to let it do so. Ten minutes a day – a mere sixty one hours a year – can open opportunities, disclose secrets, expand horizons and make you a far better person than you ever thought you could become. The first ten minutes will come and pass today. Use it or lose it. Decide that your life and future is worth that small sliver of time or get ready to live yesterday over and over again.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,