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Consciousness, Mindlessness and Your Career

by Harrison Barnes  Follow Me on Twitter


“It is against state policy to pave over a deer,” said an engineer for the department. “If in fact the deer was in the work area, it should have been removed before the work was done.”

Associated Press, August 22, 1996, reporting on road workers who failed to see, and thus paved over a dead deer.

We often fail to notice things in our immediate environment, especially things we aren’t expecting to see. Despite the animal lying right in the middle of the road, the Pennsylvania highway crew paved directly over it. Why? Because they simply didn’t expect to see it there.

Because we are on “autopilot” much of the time, we go through substantial portions of our lives completely unconscious of the people, places, and things around us. As a result, we end up tuning out many things that could make a giant difference in the ultimate quality of our lives. Our careers, social lives, and happiness are largely, in part, shaped by thousands of unconscious decisions and observations we make throughout the average day.

When I was in college, I went on a road trip with a group of my fraternity brothers. We were traveling across the Midwest on a very rural two-lane highway to go visit a branch of our fraternity in another state. We all sat quietly in the car, staring out the window, as we sped towards our destination. All of a sudden, we hit an animal in the road and almost lost complete control of the vehicle. When we turned the car around, we realized we had hit and killed a large raccoon. Incredibly, none of us had seen the raccoon—even though we’d been staring at the road the entire time. The raccoon just wandered right in front of the car, innocently enough, on that lonely two-lane highway, and ended up getting run over. How could none of us have seen the raccoon? It was one of the strangest experiences of my life. Having not seen a raccoon that was directly in front of my eyes was something difficult for me to believe. Although it sounds like an isolated event, we all actually experience situations like this in one form or another, on an ongoing basis.

Scientists who study human cognition would tell you that we probably did not see the racoon simply because we did not expect to. In a famous experiment in 1998 known as The Gorilla Experiment, researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris asked various subjects to watch a video of a basketball game. The video was of two teams, one dressed in black and the other dressed in white. Each team’s players were passing the basketball amongst themselves. The researchers asked the subjects to count the number of times the white team passed the ball.

After a minute, the researcher would stop the videotape and ask how many passes had been made.

During the video, someone in a gorilla suit would walk through the group playing the game and stand in the middle of the screen and thump his chest a few times before walking off again. Over half of the people failed to notice the gorilla. You can see the video here: http://viscog.beckman.illinois.edu/flashmovie/15.php

Chabris and Simons explain that so many people miss the gorillas due to so-called “inattentional blindness.” Our brains are capable of only focusing on a few details at any one time. We end up tuning out everything else and literally become blind to it, even if we’re staring directly at it. When something we don’t expect to see, such as a person in a gorilla suit pops up, we miss it.

Most of us have episodes of inattentional blindness now and then. Why do so many people often fail to see what’s directly in front of them? Inattentional blindness occurs because most of our perceptual processing occurs outside of our conscious awareness. We’re bombarded with so much information–sounds, sights, smells, and so forth, that our minds can’t possibly process everything we encounter. In order to filter all of this information, we use our attention mechanism. Our brain chooses a small amount of the information, to which it shall dedicate conscious perception. The remaining peripheral information in our environment is then ignored, lost, and unremembered. We are unintentionally blind to this information since it never reaches our consciousness.

In a March 2004 article published in Scientific American, “None So Blind,” Michael Shermer discussed the fact that we don’t see everything happening in the world around us, although we often believe that we do:

We think of our eyes as video cameras and our brains as blank tapes to be filled with sensory inputs…This is not the case. The perceptual system and the brain that analyzes its data are far more complex. As a consequence, much of what passes before our eyes may be invisible to a brain that is focused on something else.

During the mid-1990s Simons and another researcher, Daniel Levin, conducted another experiment. In this case, one of the researchers pretended to be a tourist, and he approached random pedestrians around the campus of Cornell University. The researcher would then ask for directions to a library on campus. As the researcher and pedestrian exchanged words, a couple of workmen carrying a door (actually researchers in disguise) would suddenly carry the door directly between the two so they couldn’t see each other’s face. A moment or two later they would resume their conversation.

What the person being asked for directions didn’t realize was that one of the workmen carrying the door had switched places with the researcher asking for directions, and then continued to speak with the pedestrian as if they had been there the entire time. Both researchers were around the same age but were dressed differently. Incredibly, over half of the subjects didn’t realize they were speaking with a different person after the door passed by.

This is yet another example we often fail to notice unexpected changes. This particular phenomenon is known as “change blindness.” Since we know the world around us to be in a constant state of change, one can only wonder: How much of the world around us are we continually missing?

Ellen Langer, a researcher at Harvard University, has written at length about something called mindlessness and its counterpart, mindfulness. Mindlessness is simply our tendency to act on autopilot–without thinking. We do repetitive tasks like tying our shoes in a mindless fashion, for example. One of Langer’s examples of mindlessness is as follows: Let’s say a wealthy looking man rings your doorbell late one evening. He says he’s on a scavenger hunt and desperately needs to find a piece of wood that is 3’x7′, and that he will give you $10,000 if you can find him this item right away. You think of going to a lumber yard but it’s late in the evening and you don’t know where one is, so you turn him down. It doesn’t occur to you, however, that the door you opened is a 3’x7′ piece of wood because you “mindlessly” think of it as a door, and not a “3’x7′ piece of wood.”

According to Langer, we make numerous other mindless mistakes in our daily lives. For example, have you ever written a check in January with the previous year’s date? Have you ever walked into a room without knowing why? Have you ever started talking to a mannequin while thinking it was actually a person? We make numerous assumptions about people, places, and things based on our past conditioning, and this often makes us mindful. If we see or meet  a woman who is a leader, we might assume she is a “bitch” and therefore we might operate from this believe. In other cases, if we encounter someone who’s rich, we might believe that, by virtue of being rich, he’s evil.  We draw a tremendous number of conclusions based on mindless thinking, which ends up affecting our interactions with people and the world.

Most of us are mindless. We go through various actions each day and are unable to think through them completely. Much of the time, we expect to see things, yet we don’t. How many times have you done this?

Mindlessness isn’t stupidity. Instead, it is following out behavior that made sense at one time and no longer does. No matter what we do, we do it either mindlessly or mindfully. For most of us, our suffering in life can be the result of mindlessness. In contrast, mindfulness (the opposite of mindlessness) means:

  • Noticing new things
  • Being in the present
  • Being sensitive to context and perspective
  • Being rule- and routine-guided
  • Being engaged with one’s surroundings and noticing new things
In contrast, mindlessness is an inactive state of mind characterized by the use of distinctions and categories we drew in the past. We become mindless over time by doing things in a second nature sort of manner. We also become mindless by having certain expectations about the future, which we don’t change. According to Langer, someone who is “mindful” as opposed to “mindless” possesses:

  • The ability to create new categories
  • An openness to new information
  • The ability to be aware of more than one perspective
  • The attention to the process of one’s actions above and beyond the outcome and expected results
  • The ability to trust intuition
Mindfulness is also visible in the products of our labor. Work that’s done with focus and a high degree of awareness is more valuable and generally of a higher quality than work which is completed in a mindless fashion.

According to Rose Tarlow, a top interior designer once worked on a home renovation for famed entertainment mogul David Geffen in Beverly Hills. She traveled around the world, purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars in oriental rugs for Geffen’s home. When she placed the rugs around his house, and Geffen saw them, he remarked something like the following: “Are you kidding? These rugs are old and the patterns on some of them don’t match at all. Why are you putting all of this junk in my house?”

Geffen, who didn’t know anything about tapestries at the time, didn’t realize that the value of the rug is often derived from its age, and the “mistakes” in it. In a complex, fine tapestry, a mistake shows its authenticity, and reveals the amount of thought, care, and creativity has gone into its creation.

In the market for super expensive oriental and Persian carpets, carpets that are complex and have mistakes in them are far more valuable than carpets that are created by machines and bear no flaws. We know a rug with mistakes in it has been the product of someone’s mindful attention, whereas a perfect, machine-made rug ultimately appears more “mindless” to us; therefore it’s of less value. We respect and appreciate something more if it’s made as a product of actual thought, rather than by a carpet loom, robot, and so forth. Other cases in point:

  • A handmade car is worth more than a car made by a robot.
  • A handmade piece of furniture is worth more than a machine-made piece of furniture.
  • Hand painted tiles are worth more than machine painted tiles.
  • We spend more time eating and enjoying a Godiva chocolate than a normal chocolate.
In virtually every case in a market, products of deeper conscious thought are worth more and are respected more than products created from a shallow consciousness. When we say someone needs a vacation, it’s usually because he appears to be walking mindlessly through life. We want to draw his attention back to what he’s supposed to be doing. A person who’s focused on what he’s doing is more likely to do a far better job than someone who isn’t focused. It’s important for us to be focused and aware of our surroundings on an ongoing and continual basis. When we go on autopilot, we miss important opportunities to improvement in everything we do.

I have been meditating for years, at least 30 to 60 minutes per day. One of the most fascinating things about meditation is how in large part it’s about accessing the areas of our mind and life that are unconscious to us–those areas that run on autopilot. The idea is to get into a position for post-meditation mindfulness. A goal for our work, too, should be to bring more conscious thought to the work that we do. The more conscious we are of our work, the more our work is going to be valued. Whenever there’s the least resistance, we are typically the most comfortable. However, when there isn’t a lot of resistance, we’re also more likely to be acting mindlessly. When you challenge yourself and bring spontaneity and variety to your work, you are more likely to be mindful and successful.

People and their actions are guided by the past. Events in our lives often become controlling factors that directly affect our future. At one time, we made a variety of small decisions, which continue to impact our lives now. Our childhood conditions us and we often make decisions based on what happened in those formative years. Some of us have run on autopilot ever since our childhoods. If you were condemned as a child, you are probably experiencing a feeling of condemnation again and again, because there was that starting  jolt when you were younger. That created a blueprint, which you are probably following today.

You need to bring conscious awareness to your work and to your life. The more you take notice of your surroundings and situations, the more conscious you become and the better you will do in all areas of your life and career.


Being unconscious of our surroundings causes us to miss out on many opportunities. We fail to notice many things immediately around us simply because we aren’t expecting them, and thus involuntarily tune out many potentially great opportunities. You must bring conscious awareness to the thousands of unconscious decisions you make in your business and personal lives. The more notice you take of the things around you, the greater your consciousness and potential for success.

Click here to read more of such interesting articles from our CEO Harrison Barnes.

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