Mental Imagery, Meditation, and Bullshit

In my prior career as a consultant, an executive named Quinton was one of my favorite clients. In fact, he was a pivotal influence on me during a very transformative phase of my development. I considered him a mentor. One of his favorite expressions was “Show me. Don’t tell me.” I can’t tell you the number of times that I approached to Quinton with what I thought were great ideas or brilliant insights, only to have my bubble burst by his use of this phrase. “Telling” is talking. “Showing” is doing. Well, damned if he wasn’t right. The role of a consultant is to offer advice (“telling”) which frequently falls short of executing (“showing,” or “doing.”) As a consequence, it is understandably irritating for clients to be told what they should do. It’s like telling someone who is overweight that they should diet and exercise. Thanks, Einstein.

The hallmark of good advice is that it fundamentally changes your behavior after you receive it. To this day, the image of Quinton saying this regularly pops into my head when I find myself in abstraction-land, detached from reality on the ground. I decided that an initial step for actualizing “show me” was to “start with the why,” as my good friend Ryan is fond of saying. Now when I express ideas and insights to others, I ask myself what is the point? What is the deeper meaning and what should we do with it? While this initial step is important, I acknowledge it is still a lot closer to “telling” than “doing.” And yes, the irony of me expressing these thoughts through a largely unidirectional, written medium is not lost on me. But here we are.

I share this story to underscore the point that ‘how’ is more important than ‘what.’ At the core of my professional identity is the mindset of Student for Life. So when I learn something interesting from someone else that I never would have come up with on my own, I want to know how the person figured it out. Then I can put into practice the meta lesson. As the proverb goes, I don’t want to be fed a fish. I want to learn how to catch my own.

It was in this spirit that I approached my colleague Ladd a number of years ago for advice. Ladd has an elite-tier mind that he is very effective at channeling to action. He had just introduced a whole new approach to operational consulting that blew me away. It wasn’t sexy stuff, but it was very eye-opening. And forget the content (the “what,”) what was most powerful was a new problem-solving frame (the “how”) that it afforded. It opened my eyes to new approaches and methods. I wanted to know how he had come up with this. Ladd was constantly referring to “The Literature” — a word that I found mystifying in this context. When I pressed him on how I might immerse myself in this so-called Literature, he pointed me to a seminal reference textbook which I bought and read. It was long, dense, and tough-going to get through, but at the end of the day it was just a book. Given sufficient time and attention, I could read it. Having done so, I learned how Ladd had arrived at his conclusions. Though largely derivative, his thinking was a model for me to learn from. He was able to adapt the frames and methods from one domain for application to another. And having put myself through the same reading journey with a similar lens, I came to understand how he produced what he did. I was able to move beyond the ‘what’ of the content to the ‘how’ of insight generation. I carry this learning with me to this day. Thanks, Ladd!

I walked away from the experience determined to read more and impart what I learned to others. Which brings me back to Quinton’s advice. I decided that whenever I discovered insights worthy of sharing, I would make a concerted effort to include the primary sources that inspired them. To this end, I began communicating the names of the writers who had influenced my thinking. So you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when my colleague Ty pulled me aside one day with a critique. He indicated that my name-dropping of authors came across as putting on airs. In light of the motive I expressed above, my initial reaction was defensiveness. I was trying to be generous, for Pete’s sake. It can be unpleasant to receive such feedback, which makes it worthy of careful reflection. Reflect I did. I ultimately concluded that he was absolutely right. I wanted to look clever and prove how cool I was to have realized my insight. I was showing off. Don’t get me wrong, I also was trying to expose my meta lessons for the benefit of others. Paradoxically, both of these things were true. So what to do?

My efforts to resolve this dilemma required some iteration. I started by avoiding citation entirely and simply sharing my ideas. But, like I had done with Ladd, others would approach me with questions about my sources. So I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. That said, pride can be both a virtue and a vice. This makes vanity not a problem to solve, but a perennial risk to mitigate. At this juncture, I should point out that Ty’s feedback wasn’t just limited to the name-dropping of authors, but also to my use of unfamiliar words. Companies hire consultants for their expertise. When you look smart, you sell more work. So I had developed the habit of trying to demonstrate how clever I was with fancy vocabulary. On the one hand, this is sometimes warranted. Using a non-everyday word can pack a lot of compressed information into a tight punch. But often, the use of an unnecessarily fancy word reflects an inauthentic effort to seek higher status. Ty has a very sensitive bullshit-detector and it manifests with a very noticeable wince. If someone puts on airs in Ty’s presence, he physically recoils. I have a very vivid image of this recoil which now frequently pops in to my head when I am speaking or writing. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

A brief detour to meditation. In most mindfulness* practices, you are supposed to focus on experiences in your body as they arise — your breath, physical sensations, and the like. These are often referred to as “objects of attention.” This sounds simple, but for the newbie proves to be infuriatingly hard. Your mind repeatedly gets distracted by thoughts which makes you feel frustrated and unsuccessful. As an aspiring meditator, I had a minor breakthrough while listening to a discussion between Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein (not showing off — just dropping names for those who might want to look up 😉.) Goldstein mentioned that objects of attention need not be limited to bodily sensations, but also can be these distracting thoughts themselves. Thoughts often take the form of mental imagery. If you are trying to focus on something particular like your breathing and a thought arises, you make note of it, let it go, and then return to the focus. Experienced meditators will encourage the uninitiated not to worry about the duration of breath focus intervals. In the early stages, your focus will last for a second or two at best. The power comes from noticing the distraction and then returning to the breath. For me, an unanticipated upside of exercising this muscle is that I now more consciously notice random, distracting thoughts arising when I am not meditating. I can see them in higher resolution and reflect on what they mean.

Which brings me back to Ty’s wince. I mentioned how I catch this image flashing in my head when I am writing or speaking. It happens whenever I use unnecessarily abstruse** language and I have to ask myself: is this the best word choice? Sometimes I decide that a fancier word can pack more punch. More often, I try to use something less pretentious. Thanks, Ty!

Let me try to tie this all together. It is said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This applies not only to societies, but also to individuals. Learning things like “talking is easy; doing is hard” and “don’t be a bullshit artist” only matter if they translate into behavior change through cultivated practice. Meditation aids this habituation process through heightened awareness of internal triggers. I once read that the function of memory is to learn from the past. Imagistic memory fragments like Ty’s wince or Quinton’s reprimand are surfaced in conscious awareness through my meditation practice and are akin to my prior self projecting himself into the present for a brief moment to say “hey Dum-Dum, you’re about to make that same mistake again.”

* I was going to use the word Vipassana, but it made Ty wince in my mind’s eye so I changed it. Ty also isn’t fond of the word mindful, but it’s in my nature to poke people so that’s what I chose to replace it with. 🙂
** Joking

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