Thursday, August 30, 2007

Perfection is Judgment by Michelle Kunz

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now. -- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD)

Doubt yourself and you doubt everything you see. Judge yourself and you see judges everywhere. But if you listen to the sound of your own voice, you can rise above doubt and judgment. And you can see forever. -- Nancy Kerrigan

Perfection is judgment.
Excellence is acceptance.

I encourage you to read the quotes again. The power of this post lies in the depth of our understanding of where judgment begins. As indicated by our expert panel of two, judging starts within.

As in previous examples of how perfection can begin seemingly harmlessly and grow into a block, judgment appears to be desirable and even necessary. After all, we need to know the difference between mediocre and great or perhaps awful. How else can we do this without some degree of judgment? Perhaps if we more clearly define our terms we can choose not only a better word, but a better dynamic for making distinctions. For example, what is the difference between judging and discerning, and how is the energy different around these two words?

Dr. Ellen J. Langer, of Harvard University's Psychology Department, has done a great deal of research into the nature of mindfulness. In a recent keynote address, she delivered some of the startling results of her research:
  • Hotel housekeeping staff in a test group lost weight and showed measured improvements compared to the control group in areas such as cholesterol levels, heart and respiration rates and overall physical fitness. The experiment? Each group was asked to rate their current rate of physical activity and fitness levels (average rating: low). Then the test group engaged in discussions about how they spend their day. On discovery that they spend the majority of an eight hour work day in physical labor, they experienced an attitude shift about their activity levels. After several weeks, new measurements were taken, and the results were dramatic.
  • A variety of experiments report similar findings in situations where people are asked to describe a particular event or item with no further directions. When asked to describe a similar event or item, looking for subtle differences between the two, the ability of the subject to describe the second item increased dramatically. The theory? A context-driven task will produce far greater results than an arbitrary task. People need mindfulness to bring their full powers of attention and observation to the table.

What does mindfulness have to do with judgment?

Dr. Langer warns against the tyranny of evaluation. We all know what this means. Since grade school we have been sensitized and oriented to the results of a given task. How often did I hear in my teaching years, "What do I need to do to get an A in your class, Dr. Kunz?" How shocked they would be to hear me say now, "Show up and be mindful of and responsive to whatever takes place." What they don't understand is that a class dedicated to those principles might engage in the most lively debates on the subject at hand, increasing the possibility of a depth of knowledge unattainable through memorization of facts and figures most tests are aimed at capturing.

Judgment gone awry pushes us into a position of polarity. There is good and bad, right and wrong, my way or your way, up and down. We forget that in reality a vast number of possibilities exist along the way from left to right. They are infinite.

Judgment forces us to value results over process, and therefore we miss the infinite on the way from one pole to the other. We are either finished or not. If this is the way success if defined, we have missed great opportunities for insight, awareness and potential. We are stuck on the treadmill of grinding out activity and no longer value the experience gained along the path if we were to jump off and really walk somewhere.

Why is excellence acceptance?

Acceptance sounds admittedly passive. Why should we adopt an attitude of acceptance when we wish to become powerful leaders?

Because we misunderstand the true meaning of the word. Again, referring to Encarta, it is the fifth definition which conveys a sense of passivity: "without protest." The first four definitions are more active: saying yes (as in accepting an invitation), the act of taking a gift, the willingness to believe that something is true, and finally, coming to terms with something.

Acceptance serves us better than judgment because it is related to mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are aware, context-oriented and responsive. The power of this state lies in our ability to accept situations, events, other people, and ourselves as they are in this very moment with an understanding of what we might do to effect change if we choose to do so. This is the future-oriented thinking of a great leader. Unlike judgment, whose polarity usually locks us into a position of looking at what is wrong, acceptance allows us to see things as they really are -- the truth --, respond without the need to control, embrace spontaneity from ourselves and others, including mistakes which result from risks taken, and look at how the future might be different based on the entire experience.

Great leaders know how to embrace the gestalt of their experience and those of their team members in such a way that all parties feel liberated and empowered to move forward in creative, bold, mindful new directions free from the tyranny of judgment.


Don Frederiksen said...

You cite very powerful links between mindfulness, judgement and acceptance in this post.

I particularly appreciate your insight on acceptance. I agree that acceptance is not passive. It is challenging to accept with mindfulness and the right context. I guess that's why so many leaders resort to judgment instead. It's easy.
Don Frederiksen

Michelle Kunz said...


Great insight on why people (including leaders) default to judgment -- it is easy. It's a short-sighted, temporary easy because long term it creates lack of trust, commitment and unity. If only more people had long term vision, eh?

Thanks for reading, and visit again soon!