Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Matter of Perspective

I once heard the story of a farmer who lived on the outskirts of a village.  One day, as he was working around his house, a stranger came up to him and asked what the nearby town was like, as he was looking for a new place to live.  The farmer asked this stranger, in turn, what his previous community was like.  The stranger replied that it was a negative place whose citizens were rude, bitter, and mean.  The farmer told the stranger that he would find the nearby village to be very similar to his previous town, to which the stranger determined to keep on going, searching for a better town.  Later that day, another stranger came up to the farmer and asked what type of community was nearby, as he was looking for a new place to live.  The farmer asked this second visitor what his previous community had been like.  This second stranger responded that his previous community had been very supportive, friendly and caring, and that he was hoping to find a new community to live in.  The farmer responded to this second stranger that he was in luck, that the local village was much as he had described his former town to be like.  This second stranger determined to enter the village and become a new resident there.  

This story reflects the impact that your perspective can have on how you perceive things.  I was reminded of this story last week, as I had the opportunity to listen to Shawn Achor speak while at the International City Manager’s Association meeting in Seattle.  Shawn is an author, speaker, and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research.  During his presentation in Seattle, he focused on the impact that our perspective has on how we view and interpret the world around us. 
He noted that our brain can process about 40 bits of information per second despite receiving 11 million pieces of information coming in from all sources, including nerve endings.  This means that we end up being selective in which pieces of information that come our way we choose to pay attention to.  This selection process is often unconscious; if we choose to listen to a series of negative news stories in the morning to begin our day, that negative attitude, or perspective, will lead us to evaluate the day’s events based on our morning attitude.  As we confront those 11 million pieces of information each second, the negative morning attitude we developed will be an unconscious selector of the 40 bits our brain chooses to process.  Achor’s point was that if we, however, make a conscious decision to pay attention to positive items at the beginning of the day, that choice will impact our ability to see the day’s events in a positive light.  We will unconsciously be more inclined to process more positive pieces of information throughout the day.

Shawn Achor noted that this simple process of consciously influencing our beginning perspective each morning, of choosing a positive lens to view the world through, will not only influence how we perceive the events of the day, but will have a ripple effect on everyone we come in contact with.  The attitude that we display to others is noted by them, whether consciously or not, and as we display a more positive attitude towards those around us, we can have a positive impact on them as well.  To demonstrate the impact that this type of change can have, Shawn talked about a hospital he worked with that asked its employees to make a practice of smiling and saying “hello” to anyone who came within 5 feet of them.  Over a period of time, this simple behavior change had a significantly positive impact on patient care results, as well as employee workplace attitudes.
Shawn also spent a significant amount of time discussing the factors that influence long term happiness and success.  He talked about how 90% of long term happiness is determined by how you process information.  He also discussed how 75% of job success is determined by the belief that your behavior matters, having a solid social network to support you, and learning how to deal with stress in a meaningful way.

The session left me wanting more.  As a result, I bought one of his books:  The Happiness Advantage:  The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.  I want to read this for myself, and take the time to think through how I can apply this concept in my life.  In addition, I plan on using it as one of the books that our Leadership team devotes to discussing over the coming months.

I wanted to conclude by revisiting the story of the farmer who was questioned by two new potential residents.  The farmer was wise enough to know that his local village had its strengths and weaknesses, and that the two strangers would likely view those strengths and weaknesses through the same perspective they had made previous evaluations.  Achor would note that the two individuals have very different mindsets on how they view the world around them.  Shawn Achor would also note that the two strangers, and you and I as well, have the ability to consciously choose to use a new perspective to view our community through.  I have been challenged to evaluate how well I am doing at having the appropriate lens as my focal point.