The Power of Reflection

Do you ever have the nagging feeling that you don’t have time to really think anymore? You’re not alone. A variety of factors have conspired to rob us of time for reflection about ourselves, our lives, and the problems and issues that our clients face.

Today, our minds are rarely silent. The average businessperson receives hundreds of e-mails and voice messages a day, and vacations for many of us are action-packed weeks more likely full of family activities than opportunities for repose and contemplation. “Multi-tasking” is considered a badge of honor by hyperactive overachievers. Commenting on this phenomenon, Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, said, “Whenever I have a free moment now, I turn to e-mail. It’s probably taken away the last few minutes in my life that were available for reflection.” For many modern-day client advisors, solitude unfortunately comes only during long airplane rides, and then the time is often spent working on a laptop computer or making calls from the plane’s phone system.

Regular reflection, however, is a hallmark of great professionals. It allows you to recharge your mental batteries, see things in a new light, and tap into your creativity. Almost all of the great advisors that I have studied have found ways to get away from it all—mentally if not physically—and contemplate their and their clients’ most pressing and intransigent issues.

J. P. Morgan, who was the first relationship banker and the greatest American financier of the 19th century, was an advisor to five US presidents, the Pope, and an assortment of royalty. A notorious workaholic, Morgan drove himself and his banking partners relentlessly. He regularly escaped the hubbub of the financial markets, however, by retreating to his yacht, the Corsair. Moored far out in New York harbor, away from the frenetic pace of the Wall Street, the yacht provided Morgan a seclusion where he would take in the sea breeze, relax, and think. When trying to resolve a difficult negotiation or industrial dispute, Morgan might bring executives out to his boat for several days as his guests. There, he would listen while they talked for hours. Usually, a compromise would slowly be reached as Morgan brokered a solution.

“I lived in solitude in the country,” said Albert Einstein, talking about the sources of his great ideas, “and noticed how the monotony of quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Some researchers in the field of creativity, in fact, believe that insight occurs during the reflection and relaxation that follows a period of intense activity and work.

Isaac Newton, who was a scientist, educator, and advisor to the British government, performed what is generally considered one of the greatest acts of synthesis in scientific history when he developed his laws of motion. Did this happen while he was ensconced in his office at Cambridge University, where he had become a full professor of mathematics while still in his early 20s? No. When the plague swept through Cambridge, Newton fled to his family’s remote rural cottage in the countryside. There, alone and with plenty of time on his hands, Newton explained in one fell swoop the basic physical laws of the universe—knowledge that had eluded mankind for thousands of years.

Reflection helps you to tap into your unconscious, something that highly creative people seem to do more easily than others. My father, who used to be a prominent psychiatrist, believes that this is the secret behind the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of changes. The I Ching, reputed to be the oldest book in the world, is meant to be a kind of oracle. You throw coins (yarrow stalks if you’re a real traditionalist!), and depending on the pattern that emerges, you are directed to read a certain passage in the text of the I Ching. My father believes that the rather vague commentaries that constitute the “answer” to your question in fact stimulate our unconscious and allow us to tap into ideas and thoughts that are normally inaccessible. No doubt ancient oracles functioned in the same way. Dreams can also tap into this unconscious creativity. Former Beatle and songwriter Paul McCartney, for example, dreamed the opening melody to his mega-hit “Yesterday.” In another dream his mother, Mary, came to him and said, “Let it Be,” spawning yet another favorite Beatles tune. Anyone remember those classic Pepperidge Farm commercials with the old man driving a wagon (this is really dating me)? Advertising great David Ogilvy dreamed this scene, and then turned it into an award-winning advertising campaign for his client!

Some professionals I know set aside annual time for reflection. Best-selling author Ken Blanchard (The One Minute Manager and many others), for example, takes a “mini-sabbatical” each summer at a country house, working solely on his next set of ideas and his writing projects. Similarly, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz spends most of each summer on Martha’s Vineyard, working on his latest manuscript. Taking off such large blocks of time is difficult for most of us—in practice we have to aspire to some regular, daily or weekly space for reflection. It can be helpful to have a quiet place you can retreat to from time to time, even if only to the public library or a park. Thomas More, chief advisor to King Henry VIII, built a small, secluded study on his property in Chelsea, away from his main house. He wrote that a man must “choose himself some secret, solitary place in his own house as far from noise and company as he conveniently can, and there let him sometime secretly sit alone, imagining himself as one going out of the world.”

Every good client advisor should have such a “secret, solitary place.” Whether it’s a shack in your backyard (the place where Roald Dahl wrote all of his best selling children’s books such as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), a walk on the beach, or a long shower, you need one.

What’s yours?

Hubris or Humility?

During the late 1990s I was a bit skeptical about the endless lionization of certain CEOs, and it looks like a few of them are now getting their comeuppance (“something unpleasant, regarded as a just punishment for somebody”). I am reminded of two very pertinent words, both beginning with “H”: Hubris and humility. Hubris is excessive pride or arrogance, and you don’t have to be a CEO to suffer from it. I’ve known, in fact, quite a few consultants, lawyers, bankers, and other professionals who felt that the only person they had something to learn from was themselves. Truly great professionals, however, have humility, which is the quality of being modest or respectful.

Humility is one of the prerequisites to being a good listener. Unfortunately, humility tends to diminish as one’s success grows. As one financial consultant put it, “When you’re at the top of your game, you tend to stop listening. I have to make a concerted effort to ensure that I listen as closely to today’s client as I did with my first one over 25 years ago.” In contrast, one management guru told executives at a recent seminar that his new book contained “the only original management thinking to emerge in the last 30 years.” He talked at the group for several hours and then departed, having learned nothing himself.

Many great client advisors have grown and become more open and empathetic through humbling experiences that they went through. Dr. Michael Gormley, a leading consultant to other doctors in London and physician to the British royal family, spent a month at an alcoholic rehabilitation center (as a physician, not a recovering alcoholic), undergoing the same emotionally wrenching group therapy that all the patients went through—and the experience, difficult as it was, became a major catalyst in the development of his own empathetic skills. “On the first day, one of the patients came up to me and said, right to my face, ‘You’re just a jerk from Cambridge medical school who’s come here to observe us and thinks he’s perfect.’ It was a very difficult month for me, but that experience humbled me and really developed my ability to empathize with patients.”

Thomas More, lord chancellor under Henry VIII, usually wore a hair shirt (an undershirt, painful to wear, made of bristly, itchy horsehair) under his satin and velvet robes in court. He wrote that “to be humble to superiors is a duty, to equals a courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.” I don’t recommend a hair shirt to my readers, but it was an appropriate gesture at the time for someone wishing to remind himself continuously of both his religious convictions and his empathy for the poor. This link between humility and learning was captured beautifully by Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “One must become as humble as the dust before he can discover truth.” Don’t confuse hubris with conviction, which is a core attribute of great professionals. Gandhi, for example, had extraordinary conviction and was at the same time extraordinarily humble.

Cultivate your humility. Your clients will like you better and respect you more.

Back to top