By Maryanne Mooney and Karen McMillan
There is a growing awareness that ‘awesome’ experiences challenge our thinking and help us to shift up a level in our development. These experiences are actually essential to our evolution as humans and as leaders.
The effect of awesome experiences
Leaders and managers in politics and business are the humans most charged with addressing and resolving many of the complex problems we face as a species. We have been busy adding skills and competencies to their tool box to meet the increasing demands of their roles, but so far paid scant attention to their evolution and development over time – cognitively, emotionally, socially and morally.
Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota found that awesome experiences effected how people think:
- People’s experience of time shifted – they believed they had more time available and so felt less rushed and less impatient.
- Because their perception of time lengthened, people were more inclined to want to spend time helping others.
- After such experiences, subjects were more likely to prefer experiential goods (like going to cultural events) over material ones (such as a watch or petrol card).
- The group experiencing awe also viewed their life as more satisfying at that time.
- We are busy people in a busy world.
- We are easily distracted and preoccupied with our own needs and desires.
- We are proud of our scientific and secular heritage and are suspicious of anything spiritual or mysterious.
- Our brilliant technological advances have perhaps made us a bit blasé.
- In order to allow ourselves to experience awe, we have to be prepared to let go, to surrender to the experience and to cope with the feelings of confusion and disturbance – not exactly a set of capabilities encouraged in a world that values control, competence and winning.
Why have we not seen awe as beneficial before now? The awe research study
We have been surprised and encouraged by the reaction to the concept of awe from business leaders. In a preliminary study, we asked 100 male and female managers and leaders, from public and private sector organisations, whether they have experienced awe and whether any of those awesome experiences had assisted their growth and maturity as human beings.
Of the people interviewed:
- 97 per cent said they had experienced awe and all were able to readily give two to three examples.
- All claimed that the experience had shifted their perspective.
- Many describing how they felt small in relation to something massive and that time seemed to slow down.
- They also described feelings of being more connected to humanity, the world and the universe.
- People in this sample did report that awe is less frequently experienced at work, perhaps because work is so often controlled, routine and predictable.
- Awe seems to require an element of surprise and surrender – allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed – not so likely when we are busy being efficient, productive and busy.
How can a leader experience awe?
Humans experience awe when:
- Confronted with overwhelming power.
- In the presence of the very famous, exceptionally skilled or morally admirable.
- Viewing natural objects that are vast or exceptionally complex and hard to grasp.
- Viewing or experiencing works of art that are grand or epic.
- Seeking to understand or accommodate cognitively challenging issues or concepts, such as a grand theory or the connection between seemingly unrelated events or ideas.
After each awesome experience, people do need the opportunity to process what they felt and consider how it might impact how they see themselves and the world around them. In some of our discussions with people, it would seem that while most can describe feelings of being in awe, not all of us then take that experience to the next level – where it can shift our perspective and facilitate development.
Insight is crucial to awe development
Without insight, awe is just an emotional reaction. If we link insight to the awesome experience, we can encourage our brains to make an evolutionary leap forward. The good news is that we can work to create those conditions whereby insight might emerge.
We can improve our cognitive fitness and capacity for insight by:
- Thinking and talking together to explore options.
- Regularly seeking new challenges and avoiding the routine.
- Exercising our bodies as well as our minds.
- Giving ourselves space to reflect.
- Minimising distractions.
- Cutting down on unnecessary clutter.
We can prepare our minds to be more receptive and open to the impact of an awesome experience. We can then allow the experience to jolt us into the insight which takes us to the next step in our development.