My colleagues and I have been lucky enough to have the chance to help a wide range of companies improve their customers’ experiences. As we’ve done this work, we’ve always started with the customer. Who are the customers? What are their priorities and underlying needs? What are they trying to accomplish? What is the natural path they follow to accomplish those things? What influences the emotional and rational reactions they have to situations they encounter along the way?
As a result of this customer-centric perspective, we’ve ended up thinking long and hard about a couple of basic questions such as: Just what is an experience? What is it that makes an experience outstanding? In what ways can people create more outstanding experiences in their lives? While virtually all of our work has been with companies, in the end, it’s all about people and the experiences they have in their lives.
Earlier this week, I led a workshop titled “Creating the Conditions for Outstanding Experience in Your Life” at The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Many of the participants asked for a summary of the material we discussed and I received several requests from people that wanted to attend the session but couldn’t. So, this post will cover the highlights of the session.
What is an Experience?
Before we can have a meaningful discussion of outstanding experiences, it’s worth spending a few minutes considering “what is an experience?” The answer I propose is that an experience is the way a person makes sense of the world. An experience is the way a person’s mind perceives, interprets, and evaluates what they do and the things that happen to them.
Early in our design work with companies, we developed a model that describes the major components that influence an individual’s experience. We call this model the Cognitive Experience Cycle. Like most models, it is a useful over-simplification.
The components of the Cognitive Experience Cycle are:
- Motives. What do you want? Each of us has some motives we know about; that we can put our finger on; that we can describe to others. We also have a set of deeper, more basic motives that may be tough to put into words but that have a profound impact on our experiences. Many of these deeper motives eventually trace back to the biological imperative to ensure the survival of our genes. Over many generations, we’ve evolved a wide range of motives or drives that have “survival value.” Aside from basic needs for food, water, etc… we are motivated to: attract a suitable mate, affiliate and cooperate with others in small groups, assert our position in a dominance hierarchy within those groups, penalize cheaters, acquire knowledge that improves our predictions about the world, etc… These motives create an overall backdrop for the way we experience the world.
- Goals. Within the context of these motives, we each have goals we want to achieve. Some of these goals are concrete, specific, and well-defined. However, you probably have other goals that are no more than fuzzily-defined wished-for outcomes. While rational economic theory has always assumed that people have well defined preferences, experimental evidence shows that people tend to construct their preferences in the moment. They don’t know what they want until they see it. Most of us also have espoused goals that we’re not doing much to realize. Often these espoused goals are not fully consistent with either our underlying motives or our beliefs about ourselves and what’s possible for us. I’ll have more to say about this later.
- Expectations. We are all “programmed” to continuously predict what will happen next; form plans; and predict the results of those plans. Our ability to predict what will happen next is a skill with a lot of survival value. We’re the descendents of the people who, when they heard a distinctive rustle in the bushes, predicted whether it was a predator or a source of food, and acted accordingly. These predictions in a wide range of situations are strongly influenced by our beliefs about the way the world works and what to expect from its other inhabitants. This includes things like: What course of action will be required to achieve our goals? What can we expect from other people? What are the likely barriers and risks?
- Actions. What actions are we prepared to and capable of taking given our beliefs about what’s required. Some of these actions will be automatic or even habitual; the kind of things we do without deliberately planning or even thinking about them. Some of these actions will be based on the kind of creative problem solving we do in the more novel situations we encounter.
- Interactions. How does the world around us respond to our actions? This includes the things and the people we interact with. While these interactions are the only concrete part of the experience cycle, this reality is relatively minor part of our overall experience.
- Perceptions. While it seems like we interact with the world directly, this is an illusion. There are actually many layers of subconscious filtering and preprocessing that takes place before the light that touches our eyes or sound that touches our ears makes it through to the working memory associated with our train of thought. At any point in time, we are bombarded with literally billions of bits of environmental information. Our brains are the ultimate labor saving device; optimized to filter out and deal with virtually all of that information subconsciously. This allows us to pay selective attention to the small number of things that appear to be most important or most interesting. We apply some amount of “gist processing” to information that is dealt with subconsciously. In other words, we get the gist of what happened without attending to the details.
- Interpretations. Interpretation has a lot to do with interaction of the current experience with our memories of past experiences. As we perceive aspects of our current experience, our brains are continuously elaborating on the current experience by recalling categories, beliefs, and autobiographical memories of prior experiences that seem relevant. This happens because, as stated earlier, our brains are “programmed” to continuously predict what’s going to happen. If our predictions roughly correspond to the way our current experience is unfolding, we don’t need to pay attention to them. This doesn’t always work so well. Sometimes we stop paying attention to the current experience and just assume that it’s the same old thing we’ve seen or heard before. As a result, our interpretations of the current experience can have more to do with our beliefs and memories than with what is actually happening. Our interpretations might be just the story we’re telling ourselves. You can see how this might get us into trouble in conversations with our spouse, family, friends, or close co-workers.
- Evaluations. What meaning do we attach to our experiences? How would we describe the experience we had? How does it confirm or change our beliefs? In general, the mind is conservative. It’s easier to preserve what it knows than it is to challenge or change our beliefs. As a result, we tend to pay attention to evidence that confirms our beliefs and minimize or throw away evidence that is inconsistent with them. We only change our beliefs when we can no longer reasonably justify them. These evaluations that occur in the last part of the Cognitive Experience Cycle then reinforce our motives, goals, and expectations that begin the cycle all over again.
What Makes an Experience Outstanding?
I suggest we probably each have our own answers to this question. Your answer will have a lot to do with the specific things you’re interested in. However, across the many conversations I’ve had about this question, several common themes have emerged:
- Identity. Outstanding experiences allow a person to reinforce and express a positive self-image
- Challenge. Outstanding experiences allow a person to work at the edge of their capabilities.
- Learning. Outstanding experiences generate learning; a person comes out of these experiences smarter, more capable, and more confident than they were when they started.
- Engaging. Outstanding experiences tend to be absorbing and, in many cases, a person may lose track of time.
In the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow– a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment, and skill-and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.
At a deeper level, experimental evidence also demonstrates that satisfaction is driven as much, if not more, by the process of attaining a goal than the ultimate realization of that goal. Several prominent neuroscientists have theorized and have begun to demonstrate that the interaction of the neurotransmitter dopamine with a small area of the brain called the striatum is responsible for the reward prediction process that motivates our behavior and leads to our feelings of satisfaction (see: Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions by Read Montague and Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Greg Burns).
How Do We Generate More Outstanding Experiences?
Let me start by saying that I will share only a partial answer to this question; one that builds on the Cognitive Experience Cycle we just discussed. From this perspective, I believe there are three interrelated and mutually reinforcing levers for the generating more outstanding experiences in our lives. These three levers are: 1) Taking Purposeful Action, 2) Mastering Beliefs, and 3) Being Fully Present and Open.
1. Taking Purposeful Action
I believe the first steps a person can take to generate more outstanding experiences is to get clear on: 1) What they want, 2) Why they want it, and 3) What’s required to get it. Until an individual understands these things, their “goals” run the risk of being not much more than wishful thinking. They end up drifting.
In the workshop, we walked through the development of a Strategy on a Page for taking purposeful action. This Strategy on a Page (a.k.a., SOAP), is a template for considering and summarizing clear answers to the following important questions:
The last of these questions is particularly critical. Self-limiting beliefs are one of the most significant barriers to clearly setting and working towards achieving goals. We’ll be talking about these beliefs in the next section.
I also shared the following personal example of a completed Strategy on a Page focused on the goals I’d set for myself related to my health and fitness:
An additional perspective related to Taking Purposeful Action is that, for many of the most significant decisions in our lives, we have trouble aligning what we want today with what will actually make us happy in the future. This phenomenon, called Miswanting, can describe situations where we want things that don’t actually make us as happy as we predict they will. It also can describe our desire to avoid situations that, in the end, are not as bad as we expect they’ll be. See Miswanting and the Pursuit of Unhappiness for more insight into this phenomenon and perspectives on how to avoid it.
2. Mastering Beliefs
George Bernard Shaw said, “Our lives are shaped not as much by our experience as by our expectations.” Our beliefs limit and enable what’s possible for each of us in our lives. Regardless of what we’re willing to admit… our behavior is always fully aligned with our core beliefs. In fact, we cannot activate, maintain, decide about, prefer, plan for, or pursue any goal which is not grounded (implicitly or explicitly) on a set of underlying beliefs.
For example, every one of us has powerful beliefs regarding intelligence that are formed early in life. While some people have a deeply held belief that intelligence is a fixed trait, others believe that intelligence is more malleable. This fundamental distinction has a profound impact on many dimensions of our experience. Carol Dweck describes some of the implications in her book Self-Theories:
- The belief that intelligence is a fixed trait causes many people to worry about how much of this fixed intelligence they have. People with beliefs about fixed intelligence tend to focus on performance rather than learning. They get worried about looking smart and avoiding looking dumb. Even if the person is confident in his or her capabilities, their beliefs require a steady diet of easy successes. They’ll tend to look for opportunities to demonstrate their intelligence rather than challenge or increase it. They might pass up opportunities to learn if those opportunities involve the risk of making mistakes that might make them look inadequate. They also tend to quickly disengage from experiences when those experience present obstacles.
- On the other hand, some people have a deep-seated belief that their intelligence is malleable. They don’t deny that differences exist; it’s just that they believe that everyone can increase their intellectual abilities with effort. They want to learn and don’t waste time worrying about looking smart or looking dumb. In fact, they’re likely to pass up opportunities to look smart in favor of opportunities to challenge themselves and to learn. Even individuals with lower overall confidence in their current abilities can still thrive on challenge, throwing themselves into difficult tasks and sticking with them… knowing they’ll come out of that experience smarter. The challenge of mastering new skills is what makes these people feel smart.
Beyond intelligence, we each have beliefs that pertain to other aspects of who we are and the way the world works. For example:
The trick is to actively uncover and master your beliefs rather than be controlled by them. This is both critically important and easier said than done. Your beliefs are so much a part of how you think that it can be difficult to recognize them. It’s like a fish being unaware of the water it’s swimming in.
While it is difficult to directly identify self-limiting beliefs, it is possible to recognize times that you’re feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or depressed regarding something you’d like to accomplish. When you notice these feelings, a productive exercise is to stop, reflect, and write down answers to the following questions:
1. What am I feeling?
2. What is the situation?
3. What is the internal monologue I’m having with myself about this?
4. What assumptions and self-statements are embedded in that monologue?
5. If these assumptions and statements are true, what are the implications?
It’s important to answer question 5 with additional assumptions and self-statements not feelings, like I’d be unhappy. You may need to repeat question 5 each time getting closer to statements that are core beliefs about the world and yourself. Once question 5 gets closer to a set of core beliefs, the next step is to consider:
6. Are these beliefs I’d chose for myself? Are they productive ways to think?
If the answer is no, the most important steps are to:
Develop a comprehensive list of every bit of evidence you can find that contributes to proving the case against this self-limiting belief.
7. Clearly state the positive beliefs you’d chose in this situation
8. Regularly (e.g, daily) reflect on the chosen belief and supporting evidence
For example, in order to accelerate progress towards my health and fitness goals described in my Strategy on a Page above, part of every workout has included time spent reflecting on the more productive set of beliefs required for me to be successful.
3. Being Fully Present and Open
Our beliefs also have a profound impact on the way we perceive, interpret, and evaluate our interactions with the world and its other occupants. Dr. Leonard Orr said this succinctly as, “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves.”
The brain works hard to preserve the consistency of what it already believes to be true. It does this on a subconscious as well as conscious level. There are good reasons for doing this. We are continually bombarded with billions of bits of information. You can consider the brain a very effective labor saving device. It continually predicts what it expects to see and, based on those predictions, sorts through and filters the flood of perceptual information in order to allow us to pay attention to a relatively small number of things that appear most important. A side effect of this process is that the brain often discards valuable information about what’s really going on in order to simplify our interpretations of this information.
What we expect to see has a powerful influence on how we perceive and interpret what is there. For example:
Psychologist Richard Gregory’s Charlie Chaplin Mask video demonstrates a powerful example of how our top-down beliefs subconsciously change our bottoms-up perceptions in a way that reinforces “seeing what we expect to see.”
There are also numerous examples of how, once we have a belief about what we’re seeing, our perceptions tend to be resistant to change:
The essence of Being Fully Present and Open starts with being aware of these perceptual filters and how our beliefs reinforce automatic assumptions.
In a fascinating CIA paper titled “The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” Richard Hauer describes not only the issues surrounding the perception and interpretation of information but also outlines an approach to overcoming this bias. The approach, called the “Analysis of Competing Hypotheses” forces analysts to more deliberately evaluate evidence for alternative conclusions rather than searching for evidence to confirm a pre-existing hypothesis. I’ve found that following a simplified version of this approach to be invaluable on a personal level. It avoids the tendency we all have to just look for and see the evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs. The basic steps of this approach are to:
- Identify a wide range of competing hypotheses
- Gather evidence for and against each of these hypothesis
- Prioritize each hypothesis on the basis of evidence that disproves rather than proves it
There are many examples of beliefs that don’t reflect reality. For example:
“I know horoscopes can predict the future… I’ve seen it happen.”
“Couples that adopt are more likely to conceive a child… this happened to two couples I know.”
Evidence of the type mentioned in these statements is certainly necessary for a belief to be true. If a phenomenon exists, there must be some positive evidence of its existence – “instances” of its existence must be visible to oneself or to others. But it should also be clear that such evidence is very hardly sufficient to warrant these beliefs. Unfortunately, people do not always appreciate the distinction between necessary and sufficient evidence, and they can be overly impressed by data that, at best, only suggests that a belief might be true.
Consider the common belief that infertile couples who adopt a child are subsequently more likely to conceive. A major reason for such unsupported beliefs is just paying attention to the instances that confirm the belief. This is the easiest thing for the brain to deal with. However, to adequately assess whether adoption leads to conception, it is necessary to compare the probability of conception after adopting: a / (a + b), with the probability of conception after not adopting c / (c + d). cells “a” and “d.”
In addition, we exhibit a tendency to focus on positive or confirming instances when we gather, rather than simply evaluate, information relevant to a given belief or hypothesis. When trying to assess whether a belief is valid, we tend to seek out information that would potentially confirm ours belief, over information that might disconfirm it. This creates two kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies:
- True self-fulfilling prophecies… in which a person’s expectation elicits the very behavior that was originally anticipated. For example, behaving in an unfriendly and defensive manner because you think someone is hostile will generally produce the very hostility that was originally expected.
- Seemingly self-fulfilling prophecies… that alter another person’s world, or limit another’s responses, in such a way that is difficult or impossible for the expectations to be disconfirmed. For example, if someone thinks that I’m unfriendly, I might have little chance to correct that misconception because he or she may steer clear of me. Another example would be when little-league baseball players are thought to be incompetent only occasionally get to play… right field… providing few opportunities to overcome the unfortunate reputation.
In summary, I believe there are three interrelated and mutually reinforcing levers for generating more outstanding experiences in our lives: 1) Taking Purposeful Action, 2) Mastering Beliefs, and 3) Being Fully Present and Open. I’m sure this will continue to be a field that we have a chance to continue to explore as we continue our work. I’m looking forward to getting comments from any of the workshop participants who care to contribute. And remember:
The quality of life is not measured by the number of breaths you take…
but by the moments that take your breath away!