We’ve been reading Mindfulness by Ellen Langer for the current book discussion at The High Calling, and this week’s focus is Chapter 4 – “The Costs of Mindlessness” and Chapter 5, “The Nature of Mindfulness.” I believe Langer has a serious point to make about how mindlessness – doing things almost by rote because we’ve always done this way – can lead to bad results and negative outcomes. But her evidence for the costs of mindlessness gets a little thin.
She cites a 1975 Harvard Business Review article by Theodore Leavitt, “Marketing Myopia,” for how the railroad industry mindlessly destroyed itself by continuing to see itself as a railroad industry instead of a transportation industry. The article was rather famous for several years in the business community; I can remember my then-boss handing me and the other speechwriters a copy of the article and told it was a quotable resource for speeches. But even then we understood that it was one way to look at what happened to the rail industry – and only one way.
Some of the other evidence for mindlessness she cites includes a wife “unlearning’ how to balance her checkbook because she’s turned that activity over to her husband, an anecdote about the author’s nieces, and the example of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. There is other evidence she cites I’m more comfortable with, but these examples are more anecdotes than evidence. I suppose she might say I’m trapped in the mindlessness of not being open to new information, but Miss Havisham? I love the novel but it is a novel, no matter how much truth it might contain.
There’s also a statement she makes that I have to question, and the statement, made in an almost offhand way, is that advertisers conspire to make us mindless. That is a pretty broad generalization. Most advertisers (including the federal government, political candidates, companies and even public interest groups) are not so much focused on making us mindless as they are on us buying their product, service, belief or position. That one offhand statement made me pause and question what I was actually reading here. There are costs to mindlessness, to be sure; I’ve seen them and experienced them. But I don’t think Langer makes a compelling case here.
But I continued on to Chapter 5, “The Nature of Mindlessness,” and I found her to be back on firmer ground. She describes mindfulness, the opposite of mindlessness, as a continual creation of new categories of thinking and thought, paying attention to both the situation and the context; welcoming new information; openness to different points of view; and the importance of process rather than a slavish devotion to outcome.
My own business career has been a perpetual state of tension between outcome and process. Business people like outcomes. Outcomes are things like sales, profit and return on investment. And sometimes we forget that there’s a process that precedes every outcome, as Langer points out.
A typical conversation I’ve found myself having over the course of decades concerns this tension. The organization has something it wants or needs to announce publicly. Communications people are often told “here’s the news” and proceed to write the news release and plan other communications.
But there’s a question that needs to be asked first – what is the desired outcome? Does the organization want a lot of attention, only a little attention, or a lot of attention by a small (or large) number of people? Defining the desired outcome results in the creation of a process to achieve the outcome. Announcing the news in a traditional news release may do exactly the opposite of what’s desired, but a mindless belief in the effectiveness of news releases may actually contribute to not achieving the desired outcome, or achieving the wrong outcome.
Mindlessness and mindfulness are everyday occupations.
To read more posts on these two chapters of Mindfulness, please visit The High Calling, where our discussion is being led by Laura Boggess.