Innovating with Meaning: It's Time for a Prison Break!

If there ever was a time for a "can-do" attitude to help find innovative solutions to our personal and collective troubles, this is it! Many of you may remember the words uttered not too long ago by former U.S. Senator and economist, Phil Gramm, who downplayed the idea that the nation was in a financial recession; instead, he "diagnosed" the situation as a "mental recession," likening the country's (and its citizen's) ills to what we all know as mental depression. In this regard, Gramm provocatively said that "We have sort of become a nation of whiners…complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline."

Although we don't happen to agree with Senator Gramm's diagnosis, we do believe that Americans, like all people, must consciously and deliberately resist the human tendency to become "prisoners of their thoughts." Only in this way may we increase our capacity to cope effectively and creatively with whatever comes our way in lifefrom the smallest disappointments to the most formidable of life's challenges. And this includes our capacity, as individuals, as organizations, and as a nation, to deal with the current economic crisis.

In this connection, moreover, it is through our search for meaning that we are able to reshape our patterns of thinking, "unfreeze" ourselves from our limited perspectives, find the keys and unlock the door of our metaphorical prison cell. When we search for and discover the authentic meaning of our experiences, we discover that life doesn’t just happen to us. We happen to life and we make it meaningful.

In his Foreword to our bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, Dr. Stephen R. Covey (bestselling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) introduces the following three lines that he came across in a university library while on a writing sabbatical in Hawaii:

  1. Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
  2. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.
  3. In our response likes our growth and our happiness.

Importantly, these three lines relate directly to the first principle that we introduce in Prisoners of Our Thoughts, "Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude," which is based on the wisdom of the world-renown psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl (author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning). Dr. Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, is perhaps best known for practicing and espousing "freedom of will," especially in terms of one's choice of attitude, as a point of departure on the path to meaning. In Dr. Frankl's own words, "Everything can be taken from a man butthe last of the human freedomsto choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's way." In other words, in all situations, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude.

Of course, for many, if not most, people, exercising the freedom to choose their attitude is easier said than done! Just in case some of you are also wondering if you can exercise the freedom to choose your attitude, here is a quick exercise that, we promise, can and will help you to do so.

Whenever you confront a situation that is especially stressful, negative, or challenging for you, we want you to list "ten positive things" that are or could be associated with (or could result from) it. That's right, we said ten "positive" things! Stretch your imagination and suspend judgment, listing whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly, far out, or unrealistic your thoughts may appear to be. Feel completely free to determine or define what "positive" means to you and recruit family members, friends, colleagues, co-workers, etc., to help you with your list, if necessary.

After you've completed your list, look at it closely, and let the positive become possible in your frame of reference regarding the situation. Sometimes this is very hard to do. It requires a letting go of old ways of thinking, fear, pain, remorse, disappointment, frustration, perhaps even grief and anguish.

Experience has shown that this simple exercise opens you up to deep optimism no matter how challenging your circumstances. In all cases, people come to acknowledge that they are free to choose their attitude and view their circumstance(s) from many different perspectives. And, no matter how desperate the situation or condition confronted, everyone ultimately acknowledges that something positive could result from it. Importantly, through this exercise, people learn an effective way to release themselves, at least partly, from their self-imposed thought prisons.

Remember, although we may not be totally free from the various conditions or situations that confront usin our personal and work livesthe important thing is that we can choose how we respond, at the very least through our choice of attitude. And even if you don't see the cognitive or emotional benefits of maintaining a positive attitude toward a situation you are facing, please consider the physiological benefits. One of the real powers of positive thinking is that it is good for your health!

Now ask yourself: Are you a prisoner of your thoughts? Are you choosing your attitude or just letting "life" happen to you? In order to innovate, all of us need to know how to break out of our inner mental prisons or our set ways of looking at our work, our organization, our industry, and even our personal life. So, from now on, we challenge you to Innovate with Meaning by choosing a more open viewpoint and a more positive attitude!

NOTE: More information about the "Ten Positive Things" Exercise, including illustrations of how it has been and can be used, as well as about the core principle upon which it is based, is available in our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts.

Blog Co-Authors:

Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com) and Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation (www.seedsofinnovation.com). They are co-authors of an article, "Innovating with Meaning," in Leadership Excellence Magazine (November 2008) and the book, Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming).

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