It was the ocean’s fault. Having grown up on the west coast, I’ve always been struck by the ability of an ocean view to give me pause. It’s like nature grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to pay attention, telling me, “You need to take a moment.” This time it was an east coast moment in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on vacation with my family. Even while swirling in the glorious maelstrom that is a family vacation with four kids, an ocean view-induced bout of introspection—about introspection—grabbed me by the shoulders.
Over the last year, I’ve been leading focus groups and holding dialogs with educators nationally and internationally exploring the question of readiness. Will our students be ready for the dramatic changes on the road ahead? Will we be ready to help them get ready? Is our education system up to the task? Given the dramatic changes at hand, what are the essential skills our students need to possess?
Out of these conversations, teachers, employers, government leaders, and parents have consistently highlighted the value of introspection as a transcendent learning skill—a skill that can prepare students to rise above their current state and achieve more. However, outside of the laudable efforts of the writing across the curriculum movement over the last few decades, introspection is a practice that many are not comfortable weaving into their instruction. At minimum, the students in our focus groups comment that the ubiquitous multiple choice tests they slog through don’t lend themselves to deep reflection. For some educators, introspection is too closely linked to religious practice. For others, it’s simply too “soft.” Still, echoing up through the passages of time, Socrates exhorts, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Introspection matters. Indeed, one of the key leadership lessons we review in our work with teams and individuals is the importance of going slowly—reflecting on ideas, issues, innovations, and connecting with people—so you can move quickly. Hardly the sexy, fast-paced technology tool, introspection remains a timeless skill our students need to develop and master for their learning today and their lives tomorrow.
To spark your own conversations about introspection, here’s a framework that materialized out of a couple of our dialogs. I call it “explosive introspection,” because it involves TNT: Triggers, Noise and Tools.
Most people are forced into introspection when emotional events trigger such a reaction—the death of someone close, a relationship ending, or a major accident of some kind. When unexpected events or powerful external forces disrupt the rhythms of our lives, introspection is almost guaranteed. I’ve argued that it is the courage to act on triggered introspection that has driven many adults back into learning. Many will relate their current bearing to triggers that led to introspection, which led to action.
Also, internal triggers can lead to introspection—the sinking feeling that you’re not on the right path, something is wrong, this is not your purpose. It’s that still, small voice speaking to us in stolen moments through an intuition or insight. Listen to the lyrics of Ask for More by David Wilcox to hear the voice of these moments. While these internal triggers are often less explicit, they wield the same power as external ones.
External triggers seize our attention because they brandish the power to slash through the noise of our everyday lives. In our forums, people ranging from business leaders to busy parents discussed the challenge of noise. For a corporate team, noise from messy meetings and poor communication blocks them from quality reflection on major issues. For college students, the noise accompanying their newfound freedom and friends often misleads them to take dangerous, unthinking turns in their first semesters on campus. For older and returning students, the noise of list-heavy lives—caring for kids, parents, and an outside job—make contemplation difficult, reflection frustrating.
Noise plagues us all. Cell phones ring, emails ping, and kids scream in the background—the incessantly distracting world of the typical home worker. Ed Hallowell’s Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap is a great read on the topic. Hallowell tackles the noise of multitasking in particular—how we go juggling through our world with persistent partial attention. We have a hard enough time listening to the person standing right in front of us, much less the still, small voice from within.
External and internal triggers have an inevitable and irreplaceable role in our lives. At the same time, the distracting noise of modern living is a diversion to looking within. As a result, we must expose our students to beneficial, proactive tools that lead to introspection, so they are not simply at the mercy of external events. In the realm of Continuous Quality Improvement, reflection tools like plus/delta and affinity diagramming allow teams and individuals to achieve this. For larger and more personally reflective models, see the work of the Center for Renewal and Wholeness in Higher Education. On the individual level, teachers in our groups offered tools like training students to keep a journal or simply writing one-page reflection papers. Other students and teachers noted how blogging can trigger introspection. Again, the goal is not to rely on reactive, externally triggered introspection, but to initiate proactive, internally disciplined reflection.
These triggering tools, however, must be accompanied by habits that dial down the noise—both the noise of our personal lives and the cacophony of “a world gone A.D.D.,” as Hallowell describes it. An executive in one group suggested, “Do less to do more.” I’ve always talked about reducing variables in a situation—a principle drawn from research design. Hallowell suggests challenging ourselves to reduce the multitasking and move toward a more mindful approach to situations, particularly with people. The Buddhist philosophy on the topic is simple: one. In one moment, focus on one thing, and do that one thing well.
Then there is earth, wind, and fire (no, not the band). Participants loved the arresting power of the outdoors. Absorbing a stunning view, sitting by a camp fire, and strolling down a quiet path were all mentioned as tools to help learning and reflection. Moreover, several people talked about the importance of play and fun in activating introspection. In the playful book Work Like Your Dog, Barber and Weinstein suggest 50 ways to work less, play more and earn more. How often are we encouraging our students in this direction? Not enough. Even with studies extolling the virtues of exercise and aesthetics in learning, many of our public schools are busy cutting recess and stomping out artistic reflection.
Finally, when groups examine this issue, they always arrive at the idea of ensuring that technology moves from being a problem—raging ring tones, tempting texts, seductive social networking, PowerPoint presentations with neither power nor point—to a tool of introspection. From the ability to instantly search for information that can serve as the grist of introspection to the capability of the DVR to stop live TV so a couple can take a moment to talk, this fact remains: We can harness the beast. I’ve long said we need to make sure we are using technology, not being used by it. See The Road to DotCalm in Education and Pavlovian Problems for a couple of takes on this topic. The key to remember is that, however advanced, all of our tech toys have off buttons. We just need to use them more.
Playing with TNT
Tomes upon tomes have been written on the topic of introspection. From religion to cognitive sciences, we have labored to harness its incredible power. And it continues to emerge as a necessary and transcendent learning skill for our students. Indeed, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner argues that introspection is an essential element of one of Five Minds for the Future – the ethical mind. As people engaged in personal development, economic development, and societal advancement, we neglect it to our peril. We need to stop and pay attention. The explosive introspection frame that has developed in these conversations is at least one way to take a breath, bring the conversation up, and reflect on the need for reflection. And if we listen closely, we just might hear the explosion of possibilities introspection can ignite.