Ellen Langer

Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity

VTR Date: May 11, 2005

Psychology professor Ellen J. Langer discusses her book "On Becoming an Artist."


GUEST: Ellen Langer
VTR: 05/11/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I’ve called today’s program “Reinventing yourself through mindful creativity”, just because that’s the subtitle of Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen J. Langer’s new Ballantine Books creation – “On Becoming An Artist” – and because it’s so clear that, had she determined to do so, this wonderfully enthusiastic, mindful and creative woman could as easily have experienced and written “On Becoming A Musician” … a poet … an actress … an engineer … or what-have-you.

Nor am I surprised … for when Dr. Langer joined me here nearly a decade ago, we had such a wonderfully free-flowing time then talking about her best selling books on “Mindfulness” and “The Power of Mindful Learning”. And though my guest never lived up to her promise to help teach this master of mindlessness some of the many creative things that might once have counted – like dancing — here we are again.

And I want Dr. Langer to explain herself as she begins “On Becoming An Artist” by writing that, “… leading a more mindful and rewarding life is readily available to anyone who can put evaluation aside and just engage in new, creative endeavors”.

But first, I’ve asked her to read to us another of her opening passages. And Ellen, I don’t know whether your object or not, but here it is … so read on.

LANGER: Just for you.


LANGER: “This book is about the roadblocks that stand in the way of our natural creativity. It is intended to be a guide to opening up to creative engagement on a daily basis in all that we do.

“Imagine being very hungry and wandering into a room with a table full of delicious food. If the room were empty of people none of us would need any extra motivation. We’d taste some of everything, eat what we’d like and enjoy the feast. But fill the room with people and we would face a host of concerns that would give us pause. How the others might judge us if we filled out plates; whether we shouldn’t given the circumstances, watch our weight, instead of eating heartily. Or whether to listen to the judgments of others about the merits of a particular dish. Faced with such socially induced concerns, we might well remain hungry.

“In the same way there are socially constructed roadblocks that keep us from experiencing our creative selves. While some may argue that it’s a good thing to curb your appetite at times, I don’t think any would argue that it’s to our benefit to forego the pleasure of our natural creativity.”

HEFFNER: So, good or bad, or indifferent … the room filled with people.

LANGER: [Laughter] Well, I think that most of us are afraid to engage our creativity, our mindful creativity … and I’ll explain what that is in a moment … because we’re afraid of making mistakes. We’re afraid that we’re not going to be as good as other people. We’re afraid that we’re going to be evaluated. And each of these things keeps us from a life that otherwise would be more rewarding.

This, the subtext of the book really is “from mindful art to a mindful life”. And in the book that you mentioned before … what we were able to do in our research was to find a way to prevent mindlessness. But to cure it was very hard. And now with you in mind … since you said that I wasn’t …

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Right.

LANGER: … able to budge you far enough, I have found the way. Which is what we’ve discussed in this book. Which essentially is, if you take this mindfulness … and when I’m talking about mindfulness … it’s a very simple process. This is mindfulness without meditation.

It’s a simple act of noticing new things. When you notice new things … that puts you in the present, which is where everybody wants to be, but rarely find themselves. It makes you sensitive to context and perspective.

So you basically are going to find the novel in the familiar. It doesn’t matter if what you notice is silly, smart … as long as it’s new.

At any rate, once you engage your mindful creativity, your mindfulness in this way, what happens is … as all research suggests is that you live … you’ll live longer, you’ll find improvements in all kinds of performance, your memory, basically anything that you’re doing. And improvements in … not only in your physical health, but in your psychological well-being.

Now my argument is that this is the way we should be all of the time. But we’ve been taught, to our detriment, to be mindless much of the time.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “taught to be” …

LANGER: Well, by the world around us that leads us to believe that there are certainties and there are better ways of doing things regardless of perspective. A world of “is” in some sense, rather than a world of “maybe” or “it depends”.

So that, let me say, for example, if I asked you how much is one and one …

HEFFNER: Don’t ask me hard questions …

LANGER: Oh, come on, tell me … how much?

HEFFNER: Okay. Eleven.

LANGER: Okay. Now … [laughter] … and there’s some way that it is. The point is that if I do ask people silly questions like this, they’re, they’re actually very meaningful because the answer everybody thinks is “two”. But it’s not always “two”, it depends. If you’re using a base ten number system, the answer is two. If you’re using a base two number system, the answer is ten. If you’re adding one wad of chewing gum and one wad of chewing gum, the answer is one.

Okay, so … let, let me tell you a story that’s kind of funny, but was very important to me. Years ago I was at this horse event and this person asked me if I would watch his horse, because he was going to get his horse a hot dog. And I said to myself, “a hot dog, doesn’t he know” and I said this in my best Harvard/Yalese … to myself … “doesn’t he know horses are herbivorous? They don’t eat meat.” And I love this story because he came back with a hot dog and the horse ate it.

HEFFNER: He didn’t know that horses are herbivorous.

LANGER: Exactly. And then I started to think about it and I said, “Well, what does it mean that horses don’t eat meat? Doesn’t it depend?” Depend on how much meat is mixed with how much grain, how hungry the horse is. A host of factors. And that all of the facts that we’re taught about our abilities, our talents, what is art, what is good music, how one should play baseball, what is a good book, and so on. All of our facts, even facts about the beginning of a war.

You know it’s not as if on May 3rd everybody important walks outside and says, “Okay, the war is beginning” … you know, it just sort of … somebody’s made a decision. And then the rest of us are given that information and typically are oblivious to alternative ways it could have been understood.

So part of what this book is about is putting people back in the equation. What I mean by that is asking in some sense, “Who said so?”

Let me give you an example of some of the research … and, and then let me talk about the art more particularly.

If we had students pass or fail a test and before this … it was made up … before this they were told that the test consisted of ten questions selected from 200 questions. They were told that there are ten questions, selected from 200 questions, created by … and then people’s names were given. Or they weren’t given this. So it’s just ten questions, or you’re given some information about the test construction.

Then you find out you fail. Well, the people who realized that this test was created by people … well who else creates these tests? … were fine with the failure. They recognized that the people could have chosen a different ten questions from this pool of 200, you know. So in some sense we’ve made salient information that was readily available to the others, but what the powers-that-be often lead us to believe is that these things have some ontological status, they’re god-given and not for us to question.

And so, we don’t and often accept a world, a life that’s less exciting than it might otherwise be.

One more of this … example of us putting people back in the equation … we had people who were asked about their nurse … you’re supposed to be in a hospital … you’re given a scenario … you’re in the hospital, and your nurse, Betty Johnson is … will be there in an hour and a half, for example. Versus “your nurse” … no name …

HEFFNER: No name.

LANGER: Okay. Now there’s another nurse right outside and the scenario reads that you’re on a bed pan and you’re very uncomfortable. And … how long does it take you to ask this nurse to help you? And when they’re reminded by discussion of their own nurse, that she’s a person, who’s occupying the role of nurse, people are much more willing to ask for help.

If there’s a sign outside that says, “Keep Off The Grass”, and if you … not in New York … many people would keep off the grass.

But imagine that the sign instead said “Ellen says keep off the grass”. Well, then you’d say “Who is this Ellen, maybe I can negotiate with her. Maybe she won’t mind if I walk on the grass this time.”

The point is when we recognize that the world that we live in is a social construction and people change their minds, that there are ways of negotiating, that when people come to a decision, the fact that it’s a decision means there was uncertainty at some time. So everything becomes more malleable, much more control for people.

So if you were going to go paint … and I’ll let you speak in a moment, I promise, Richard …

HEFFNER: I hope so.

LANGER: … but if you were going to go paint, which is the way … what I started to do about five years ago. And you look at many, many different kinds of paint brushes. And the first thing many people would feel is overwhelmed, as if they’re supposed to know when you use this kind of brush versus that kind of brush.

When you recognize that it was just other people who made this decision, just by some trial and error in the same way you can discover for yourself, that it becomes less daunting.

So it makes sense in some ways, if you were going to use a very large canvas … not to use a tiny brush. But some people, who become famous in “outsider art” had the … were compulsive enough and had patience … which I never have … to use a small brush on a very large canvas; taking a very long time to complete the painting.

You know, but you’re not … if you’re given rules that are conditional, and this is what we spoke of in the past … that lead you to be guided by them, then these rules, these ways of doing things can help you engage the world. When they’re given to you as absolute statements … what they often do is keep us a step back.

HEFFNER: Ellen, don’t we bring these rules in ourselves?

LANGER: Well, often times. But we’re oblivious to the fact that it could be otherwise. So, for example, a friend of mine … I had made this painting and showed it to a friend. And it was a painting on glass. And she said, “Oh, I love the painting.” Remember I’m new to all of this, and I have no training … so when I hear things like that, I was excited. But she hates paintings on glass. So I go ahead and I paint it again on a canvas. “Oh, it’s, you know, really good [laughter], but you should have done it on a larger canvas.” Well, ever eager to please, I go ahead I get a larger canvas [laughter] and I do it again.

And this whole process of painting for me … what I do is … I would paint as, as an artist … I would step back and examine it as a psychologist … and, very interesting things became apparent to me.

The first thing with this was that it became less and less interesting to me. As I repeated it. It also became less and less good to my eye. So then I go ahead and I do a study … where we have people draw, copy it, copy it again … versus they’re told draw, copy it, this time make it new in very subtle ways that only you would know. Which is our instruction for being mindful. Make it subtlety new.

Then what happens is we have other people evaluate … tell us which of these different drawings they prefer and overwhelmingly people prefer the mindfully created piece.

That our mindfulness is visible on the canvas, it’s visible in music, it’s visible as you’re walking down the street. To give you two fast examples of this … we had orchestras … and it’s very hard to be a musician in that you’re playing the same pieces over and over again … the job has a lot of status; they’re making nice salaries and many people are bored …
alright, but it’s hard to leave.

Now, we take these orchestras and we give them a simple instruction … make it new in very subtle ways that only you would know. Versus they’re told to remember the best time they played this piece and try to play it that way again.

Then we record the pieces, we play them for people educated in music and overwhelmingly they prefer the mindfully played piece. And the musicians preferred playing mindfully.

So that when you say “we bring it on ourselves”, which is what I’m, in a long winded way, responding to, I don’t think so if we’re oblivious to the fact that we could have chosen otherwise and that we’ve given up a lot by not mindfully engaging what we’re doing.

HEFFNER: It’s so strange that you write this and profess this at this time when seemingly everything in our society is moving in a different direction.

LANGER: Well that makes it even more important …

HEFFNER: You’re talking about inner direction.

LANGER: Yes, I’m talking about a way to achieve the happiness and fulfillment and the physical health is a very nice sidebar advantage. It’s very important for people to be able to do this especially because … or when times are hard.

But it’s also because there are so many of us Baby Boomers who have put off engaging in tasks like painting, music, golf, cooking, gardening … thinking, “Well, I’ll get to that later.”

Well now is yesterday’s later. And I want to show people that they should do it because there’s a way of going from mindful art to this mindful life. And what stands in the way, and this is what the book is really about … are these roadblocks. The roadblocks that are basically, are largely person-based … that I’ll share with you …

HEFFNER: All those people in the room?

LANGER: The people in the room. That’s one. But, as I started to say before and I don’t think I finished, that if you … if we can get rid of the roadblocks and you mindfully engage your creativity, then the moment you walk away from that task and you feel differently, a bell should go off saying, “Wait a second there’s something pushing me into a mindless mode.” And then you can change it.

You see the problem with all the mindlessness that people experience is that when you’re mindless, you’re not there to know you’re mindless. So you can’t easily correct it.

So if I ask people even a simple question about how often they’re in the present, because everybody wants to be in the present … everybody thinks they’re always in the present … because again when you’re not there, you’re not there to know you’re not there. This is the way to get there.

So one of the roadblocks that I think is, is one of the more interesting ones to me, though obviously I think they’re all interesting, or else I wouldn’t have written about them, is our understanding of mistakes.

Now if you ask most people “Is art objective or subjective?”, most people say, “Yeah, well art is subjective.”

And if you think about it, what does it mean to make a mistake in art. How would you even know in some of the paintings that we see … you know, say you look at a Jason Pollock … how would you know if there were some small mistake there.

But be that as it may, a mistake is actually a cue to be
in the moment. If the weatherman said, “It’s going to be 60 degrees” and it turned out to be 63 degrees, he’d be wrong. If he said, “It’s going to be about 60 degrees”, then when it turns out to be 63 degrees, he’s not wrong.

And the point is that the more rigid the plan, the easier it is to make a mistake. Now what most people do in life and in their art is, when they make a mistake, they try to quickly go back … fix that mistake.

And we’ve done studies where we have people, instead
of going back, incorporate that mistake in what you’re doing. Now if you’re going to incorporate it into what you’re doing, since you didn’t expect it to happen, you have to be in the moment dealing with it.

And so we have in several different kinds of tasks, we have people where we’ve subtly forced them to make mistakes and instruct one of the several groups to incorporate it and go forward and those are the products, the end results of those products driven by a mistake … that leads you to be in the moment … are rated more highly and more useful and the people who produce them are happier with their efforts.

HEFFNER: Happier? Aren’t those people who are not in the moment happier?

LANGER: Ah, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re experiencing anything. It’s sort of … if you imagine … and the, the example that many people can … one of the few ways you know that you’ve been mindless is … when you’re driving, for example, and all of a sudden you find yourself someplace you didn’t expect to be. You weren’t particularly happy, you weren’t particularly miserable … for all intents and purposes, you weren’t there.

HEFFNER: The … you had said to me before … you said here before, when you were talking about mindfulness … you said, “I don’t mean meditation … I don’t want you to be mixed up about that.” Why did you say that?

LANGER: Well, this is … my work is all about mindfulness without meditation. And meditation is fine and it’s certainly not inconsistent with anything I say. But meditation is engaged in order to promote post-meditative mindfulness.

Mine is what you do online in some sense. At the moment. Now I find there are many people who have difficulty sitting still for five minutes once a day. And so to meditate by sitting still for twenty minutes twice a day is often hard for them.

I think it would be good for people to, to do both. But if … but one has, in some sense, does not require the other at all. I think that to distinguish between them is only important so people realize that you should be doing this all the time. This is not separate from your life, this is a way to live your life, to be there. It’s the feeling of engagement, the feeling, you know, that when you see somebody … like myself and I can’t stop talking now because I’m all excited about this. And that’s something that a lot of people say, “Gee, I wish I could get that.”

And what I’m saying is well anybody can have it, if you actively notice new things, you feel engaged, that’s what we want and by removing some of these roadblocks, these things that … where we fear making mistakes, where we think we have no talent, where we make comparisons with other people, we have misguided notions of decision-making … those are some of the roadblocks that I talk about in the book in an attempt to help people see that a mindful life, full of this creative engagement is available to all of us.

HEFFNER: Why do I think “She’s pushing, pushing, pushing. Why won’t she leave me alone?”

LANGER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: You do make demands, don’t you?

LANGER: I make a demand that you be happy and achieve …

HEFFNER: No matter what.

LANGER: Right. Well, unless … unless you’re willing to say that being unhappy is really the only way you’re happy. That’s fine.

HEFFNER: You’re serious?

LANGER: Then it’s a matter of semantics.

HEFFNER: Suppose you’re not making that judgment?

LANGER: Yeah, ah …

HEFFNER: You’re really imposing upon your reader …


HEFFNER: … that she or he be creative.

LANGER: No, no. What I am doing …


LANGER: No. I don’t … I don’t see it that way. It certainly wasn’t intended that way. What I am intending is to make something available to people … the people who’ve said, “Gee, I’ve always wanted to ….”, but are afraid of making mistakes, afraid that they have no talent.

Okay, so I’m giving them permission. I’m taking … another group of people … some from the first group … some new people to add to that … who want the benefits that the 30 years of research, close to 30 years that we’ve done have shown.

They want to feel more alive, they want to feel engaged, they want to improve their memory, they want to be more creative, they don’t want to feel burned out. They don’t want to have accidents, so on and so forth. And showing them a way to get there. And, ahem, do you know, I think that we everything that I do, since I like to take what I do seriously, but not take myself too seriously … that the, the book should be a fun book to read. And …

HEFFNER: I gather creating, becoming an artist … whatever that means was fun for you.

LANGER: Oh, yeah. I mean what happened was … if you had asked me five years ago … “do I think that I’d ever take up art?” … I wasn’t one of those kids who could draw or paint … I mean it was … that was for other people. I would have wagered all of the money I had and future earning … because it was such a safe bet. And once I got involved in this … when I tell the story at the, at the beginnings as to how it all unfolded, it has been so much fun and I guess that what I’ve always done, or wanted to do, regardless of how successful or not it might appear … is share. You know that … the feeling that, oh … I came upon this … gee, it’s different from what I thought it would be, maybe other people would benefit by knowing that as well.

And then, because of my professional identity I do the research to back it up … to say yeah, there’s evidence behind this. But the bottom line is that the passion so many people seek is very, very available to them.

HEFFNER: How goes mindfulness as an academic study. Two minutes …

LANGER: [Laughter] I can’t do anything in two minutes.

HEFFNER: … that’s all we have left.

LANGER: No. I think that now people all over the country are studying mindfulness and they’re studying the neuroscience of it. There are people who are studying it in terms of its effects on our language, in business, it’s … it’s very popular right now.

HEFFNER: Is the neuroscientific aspect of it very important?

LANGER: Oh, well … not to me. I mean not more important than anything else, it’s all equally important. I think that surely that anything you’re doing on an overt level … they are going to be psycho-physical … physiological changes. So that part is not surprising. I think that the results will prove to be useful in many ways.

But the point is we don’t have to wait for any of that. That all we have to do is actively notice new things, to not confuse the stability of our mindsets with the stability of the underlying phenomenon. Things are changing and we want to … we should embrace that uncertainty. And so, I think that by removing these roadblocks you should go and start cooking, eating differently, gardening, golfing … or, as I did, enjoy this painting … which has been fabulous fun.

HEFFNER: What are you going to do new next?

LANGER: Well, you mentioned, when you introduced me, all of these different activities … so I …

HEFFNER: Which one?

LANGER: Probably, all of them. You know, we’ll be … if you’ll have me back on the show each year … I’ll engage in one of them.

HEFFNER: Ellen Langer, that’s a bet.

LANGER: Okay. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Okay. Thanks so much for joining me this year, talking about “On Becoming An Artist”.

LANGER: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.