Ellen Langer

We each have a choice: to live our lives mindfully or to live them mindlessly. Most of our limits are of our own making. Mindlessness is the human tendency to operate on autopilot, whether by stereotyping; performing mechanically, by rote; or simply not paying attention. Although exceedingly common, few people (unless they’re practicing Buddhists, perhaps) realize the extent to which they live mindlessly.

Uncertainty engages the mind.

Radical in its implications, this original and important work may change forever the views we hold about the nature of learning. In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer uses her innovative theory of mindulness, introduced in her influential earlier book, to dramatically enhance the way we learn. In business, sports, laboratories, or at home, our learning is hobbled by certain antiquated and pervasive misconceptions. In this pithy, liberating, and delightful book she gives us a fresh, new view of learning in the broadest sense. Such familiar notions as delayed gratification, “the basics,” or even “right answers,” are all incapacitating myths which Langer explodes one by one. She replaces them with her concept of mindful or conditional learning which she demonstrates, with fascinating examples from her research, to be extraordinarily effective. Mindful learning takes place with an awareness of context and of the ever-changing nature of information. Learning without this awareness, as Langer shows convincingly, has severely limited uses and often sets on up for failure. With stunning applications to skills as diverse as paying attention, CPR, investment analysis, psychotherapy, or playing a musical instrument, The Power of Mindful Learning is for all who are curious and intellectually adventurous.

We think we should already know what only firsthand experience can teach us. . . . In learning the ways that all roses are alike, we risk becoming blind to their differences. . . . If we are mindfully creative, the circumstances of the moment will tell us what to do. . . . Those of us who are less evaluatively inclined experience less guilt, less regret, less blame, and tend to like ourselves more. . . . Uncertainty gives us the freedom to discover meaning. . . . Finally, what we think we’re sure of may not even exist.

Research: In business, we are conducting research into mindful leadership, mindful contagion (i.e the effect of one person’s mindfulness on another), and mindful decision-making. Included in mindful decision-making is work that compares the effects of single versus multiple goals and work that considers ways to reduce the time it takes to become psychologically prepared to engage in a new task.

Langer defines “mindful learning” as having three characteristics, “continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective” (Langer, 1997, p. 4). She asserts that this ability to cognitively shift contexts “increases flexibility, productivity, innovation, leadership ability, and satisfaction” (Langer, 1989, p. 133).

Seven Myths about learning that encourage mindlessness:
1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature
2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time
3. Delaying gratification is important
4. Rote memorization is necessary in education
5. Forgetting is a problem
6. Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there”
7. There are right and wrong answers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Ellen Langer interview

People in companies don’t get it. They continue following the rules that were invented for another time. How do we push them to the next world?

See On Becoming. It starts with the individual. When mindful, less judgmental of others as well as self. Less fear translates into taking less risk. Relationships build; competition dwindles.

Hierarchy is meaningless without context. A group of children, blindfolded and playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey will best be served by choosing the blind child to direct them.

The motivation is already there. It’s invigorating.

Self-help books tell you to be in the present. Well, okay, we’re already there. Better advice would be to increase awareness of the present, to notice new things.

Take the personal to the universal. Take advantage of opportunities.

When I was learning to drive a car, there seemed to be so many things to keep track of, it was hard to drive. Doesn’t being mindful take me back to that? Making driving second nature lets me focus on other things.

No, that’s mindless. The only times mindless is appropriate is when you’ve hit upon the absolutely best way of doing something and nothing ever changes. Vigilance is hyper-focus; it leads to stress. If she’s riding a horse that stumbles, she needs sort of a soft vigilance in ply. You need to be potentially mindful.

“Ellen J. Langer” <langer@wjh.harvard.edu>

site bio

Contact Information

Harvard University
Department of Psychology
33 Kirkland Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

Office: 617-495-3860

preparing Mindfulness at Work

notes from preso
2007/06/01 13:15 Ellen Langer, “Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Learning and Creativity”, Rotman Lifelong Learning Conference, Toronto

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted on the Coevolving Innovations web site by David Ing.

[Greeting from Chris Hart, regional manager of the Four Seasons]

[Roger Martin]

Ellen Langer: academic, yet accessible

* Mindfulness
* Professor of psych at Harvard
* Getting a movie made about her, and she’ll be played by Jennifer Aniston

[Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Author, On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (Ballantine, 2005); The Power of Mindful Learning (Perseus, 1998); Mindfulness (Addison Wesley, 1990)]

[Ellen Langer]


The costs and consequences of mindlessness

Image; can’t see it — it’s a cow — then can’t see anything

* Almost everything we know is wrong
* This limits innovation, health and happiness
* We want to retain uncertainty, and learn how to exploit the power of uncertainty

We learn things in a simple perspective, but then standing in a different place, it becomes something completely different

We learn, and then learn to be mindless

Gorilla video

Roast beef, cutting off slice to put into another pan

Behaviour makes sense at time 1

* Then, at time 2, don’t waste time

Skid in car, impulse is to ease on brakes, but with anti-lock brakes, push firmly

Unsigned credit card, then comparing signatures

When you’re mindless, you’re not there

Airport without passport

Air Florida flight from D.C. to Florida, deicer off, caused crash

* Checklists, but after a while, they become mindless

Believe all of suffering is the direct or indirect effect of being mindless

* In 30 years of research, have been increasing mindfulness
* Increase competence … increase lifetime

Attention: object to attention deficit disorder

* Teachers: when you pay attention to it, stand still
* Compare: observe what’s different about it, actively noticing new things

Define mindfulness without meditation: active noticing new things

* Puts you in the present
* If you don’t, then you don’t know that you’re not there
* They guide what you’re doing


* Otherwise, past is over-ruling
* Mindlessness comes by default

Mindlessness coming from doing it over and over again

* Learn basics, so it becomes second nature
* Who’s basics?
* If second nature, it’s mindless

Saying “use your intuition” says that people go back to their experiences

Work versus play, who decides?

* Have a good time, put in extra time
* Fatigue can be from mindset

Study of chambermaids, asked what exercise they get

* They said they don’t get exercise, because it’s associated with leisure
* They’re doing more than the surgeon general
* One month later, nothing change, except that they see their work as exercise

Don’t have the faintest idea of how being trapped in these exercises

Learning conditionally

* Cure is the hard part

e.g. cholesterol: a measure 12 years ago

Look for familiar in the novel, the novel in the future

Look for universal versus personal attribution, e.g. it’s different

Specific cure:

* Try creative mindfulness
* People can see it, we wear our mindfulness or mindlessness

Roadblocks to mindful creativity

1. Stop pretending

* Dolphins swim faster to the trainers who are mindful
* Children know who is mindful
* Adults learning scripts

Started painting

* Don’t know what I’m doing, putting heart and soul into it

Is mindfulness in the eye of the beholder, or on the canvas?

* Both
* People prefer mindful drawings

Symphony musicians trained to be mindful

How to become more mindful?

* We have a fear of making mistakes
* Fear in one context is a success in another

A mistake is a cue to be in the present

* Puts you into a different consciousness
* Handmade rugs are more expensive than machine made, with the major difference being the errors
* If don’t know where are going forward, will be mindful
* If you make a mistake, incorporate it in

Absolutes: keep off the grass

* Experience was person-created, and then come into an ontological status
* When we put people into the equation, it’s easier to deviate from the status quo
* Become like a 2-year old: who says so?

Recognizing the social construction of reality, rather than implicitly imputing ontological status, leads to control

When we’re not mindfully creating, is there a way that we can enjoy more?

Children: when we expect them to change, we notice more

* Has to do with stability of the underlying measure


Business calculations in a spreadsheet?

* Numbers are a way to hide ambiguity
* If you want to pretend there’s more authority, obfuscate by taking people out of the equation.
* If want the opportunity to engage, all the ways before you were decisions that might not be done today

Measure mindfulness?

* Yes, there’s a scale, and it’s oxymoronic
* Believe that all people are capable of virtually the same thing, albeit in slightly different ways
* Behaviour makes sense from the actor’s point of view
* Things that I have problem changing are things that I value


* No matter what you do, it will be better if you’re really there.
* If practice and you’re aware of what will vary, it won’t hurt you.

Fitness and wellness.

* There are both direct and indirect effects to health on mindfulness
* Mindfulness is enlivening