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"Uncertainty is the most powerful position you can maintain"
28 June 2018

Questioning everything seems like a lot of work. But get it right and it's invigorating, according to Professor Ellen Langer, speaking about how we should reframe how we think about mindfulness at AMP Amplify last week. 

Langer, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has been studying mindfulness for decades, and has ample  evidence to suggest it's a far more powerful concept than just switching off technology and concentrating when brushing your teeth. Langer believes mindfulness is about being more effective, and that in turn can make you less stressed. 

In order to be more mindful, and therefore more effective, she wants you to be aware of your assumptions, to question everything that you presume you know and to embrace everything you don't arguing: 

"People tend to confuse confidence with certainty, but the rule for success is to become confident in being uncertain." 

She gave the example of a man she met and his horse. The man asked Langer to mind her horse while he went to buy it a hotdog. "Horses don't eat meat; that is an undisputable fact, a universal truth,” she thought. But sure enough, the man returned, and the horse devoured the hotdog. 

As toddlers, we learn to talk and ask questions. Are cars alive? Why is the sky blue? Our parents do their best to give us a definitive answer. We go to school and learn there is a right answer and a wrong one. Even at university, where we're supposed to learn how to think rather than what is right, but we still come armed with a set of assumed facts. 

Langer wants you to unlearn all these facts. She wants you to instead arrive at work each day armed with the knowledge that, in fact, there is so much you don't know. When you leave yourself open to the possibility that something might be different to how you assume it might be, you leave room for greater innovation and creativity. 

Leaders take note: perpetuating a black or white, right or wrong culture for your team does not necessarily make them more effective. 

"Uncertainty is the most powerful position you can maintain." 

Langer argues that if leaders can own what they don't know, chances are their teams will see them as less supercilious, open to possibilities and less heavy handed. They'll even be more likeable in that state and therefore better able to source the information required to be effective. 

She uses the example of the Post-It note. The original inventors of the Post-it note had set out to invent a glue but they went through the process and realised it didn't stick. What do you do with a glue that doesn't stick?

They could take that adhesive, put it on the back of paper and create a Post-It note. A far more successful venture than if they had ever created a glue that did indeed stick. 

The world is changing rapidly, and so is the way we consume information. To be mindful is to be aware that even with more information at our fingertips than we ever could have imagined, there is still so much we do not know.

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