Why do we do the things we do?

One highlight arose during my daughter’s parent teacher conference last week (there were many, I love celebrating her) as we reflected on how she often can’t focus on her own work because she observes and attends to what other kids are up to in the classroom. Sometimes she’ll have her activity in her hand, half in motion of completing the task, her hand frozen in midair as she looks around, staring, watching everything else going on around her. While she’ll need to learn the skill of focusing on her own eventually, I want to foster this sharp external awareness she has right now as much as possible.

Acute awareness of our surroundings can obviously be traced back to our ancestral needs for survival, and we can surely agree that such skills are as relevant in our fast-paced world of today. Though at times I suspect we’ve lost key attributes of our awareness (in no small part due to the 2600+ times a day on average that we are looking down, scrolling and tapping our cell phones). And as this awareness also relates to recognizing that the work in front of us or the action we are about to take is not an isolated event, I fear that we are losing the sharpness of our contextual thinking which is key to making critical decisions.

The example of parking right next to cars in parking lots when other spaces are open is as trite as me slipping in the parenthetical aside about smart phones. But it none-the-less demonstrates the point that I don’t think we are a) aware enough of our surroundings and context, and b) we are often on autopilot, unaware of why we do the things we do. So try this experiment a couple of times … when you pull into a parking lot find an area where there are several spaces between cars (three or more spots on either side, but not at the very empty back part of the lot, that would be silly). Park there, (this might already be counter intuitive to you, but hey, maybe you’ll avoid some door dings today), go into the building/store/destination to your meeting, shopping, what have you, and then come out and see what’s happened.

More than likely, despite there being plenty of space for the next car to pull into a spot near you where it to will not have a car on either side of it, someone will have pulled in next to you. Why? Have they been trained by parking directors at sporting events and concerts to only pull into the next available space? Do they see your car there and assume that’s where they must park? Or that’s the safest place to park since someone already has? Do they believe that it would be strange to not park there? Is the next row over still relatively empty as no one has pioneered or tested this same experiment yet? And why did you feel somewhat uncomfortable parking in that empty area yourself?

Most importantly, what I’m getting at here is an encouragement to ask questions: inquire about this experiment and then consider much less trivial examples. Dive into your own critical thinking and self-awareness, unpack your motivations for your actions and decisions that have become routine: do you open your news stream or your email account first thing in the morning because you really want to or have to? Have your leadership habits become just that, habits, as opposed to fulfilling or productive actions?

Look up more than you look down; honor the curiosity of your inner-child; be intrigued by the context of your life’s work as that’s what gives your creativity and innovative endeavors meaning.