When was the last time you got to look down on your life and the world from a completely different perspective?
I recently had the incredible privilege of riding a hot air balloon over Luxor, Egypt in order to see the Valley of the Kings and Queens from the air. Interestingly, the memory I keep returning to was NOT gliding over ancient Egyptian tombs and temples. Don’t get me wrong. It was completely magical to see a temple complex emerge out of the jumble of desert rocks on the horizon with temple walls, columns, and statues reaching improbably skyward across the millennia. Mind-blowing. Awesome. Wondrous.
No, the memory that has stuck with me was how different the entire world looked from my new vantage point.
It was shocking just how dramatic the line was between where the lush, green irrigated river valley ended and the desert began. The verdant green was like a swipe of paint against the beige, barren backdrop. Flourishing with sugar cane and wheat on one side. Dry sand and rock with hardly a hint of life on the other.
It was surprising how chaotic and narrow the tangle of city streets feels when walking around or rumbling through them in a minibus – swerving to avoid donkey carts, pedestrians, tuk tuks, and bicycles every few meters. Lanes and traffic signals are a vague suggestion. There's constant beeping as if cars are trying to echo locate. And then from the balloon, it quiets down. A pattern to the buildings and traffic emerges that you simply can’t see from the ground. This road bends around so that a cluster of apartments can encircle an open courtyard with a garden and shared living area. Those vehicles are flowing down the wrong side of the road there because of a car stuck in the mud around the corner.
Finally, I didn’t expect just how loud and raucous it was to actually ride a hot air balloon. I thought it would be ever so silent up there in the sky, gliding effortlessly, borne by hot air and swept along by the wind. I thought the captain wouldn’t have much control beyond moving up and down by adding more or less hot air (or possibly throwing a passenger off the side to lessen the weight). Instead, it was LOUD – 80 decibels when the propane burner was going full blast. And BUSY – with an entire ground crew of 8 men swarming around with ropes and muscle to get the balloon off the ground. And CONTROLLED – with the captain pulling ropes, testing the wind, adjusting the heat, and lots of other activity that could actually steer the balloon where he wanted it to go.
From that different, hot air balloon, perspective, I saw patterns I couldn’t observe from the ground. I came to realizations that I hadn’t understood before.
And that’s the thing. We get so caught up in the everyday of work, home, and family that we don’t see the bigger picture. We are busy, stressed, overwhelmed, and tangled in our to do lists. We get swept into rushing about from the minute our eyes open to the moment our head hits the pillow. We stumble into procrastination and low motivation right when we have way too much to do. And sometimes we crash face first into burnout and exhaustion. It’s like being in the chaotic jungle of Egyptian streets, awash in over stimulation, unable to see the larger pattern.
What’s happening in our brains is that in our everyday lives, we’re using the brain’s executive attention network over and over and over again. It’s an interconnected network of brain areas at the front and sides of your brain used for directing your attention to a problem and then using working memory and other mental assets to find solutions. It’s how we set goals and achieve them. It’s how we resolve conflict. It's really awesome, until the executive attention network gets overused and overwhelmed. It's like a car that's driven miles and miles every day, for months on end. You refuel, but never get regular maintenance, change the tires, or get an oil change. Just like that car, our brains will not work the way it can when in peak form.
Different brain networks are activated when you take a different perspective. You could go up in a hot air balloon (highly recommended) but you can take a different perspective in much simpler, cheaper ways.
Start by by finding an hour, or even ten minutes, to walk outside or do something artistic. Ever notice how you can’t find a missing puzzle piece and storm off in frustration only to come back to see it right in front of you? A simple brain break can activate new brain networks – like the creative, mind-wandering default mode network which allows us to see patterns in a new way and find solutions and insights that were once elusive. Psychologists call this the “incubation effect.” When you walk away from a problem you are stuck on, and let your mind do something completely different, you often come back to a solution that escaped you.
Alternatively, you can practice mindfulness. No, I don’t mean becoming a monk on a mountaintop. Mindfulness is teaching yourself to look at yourself from a different perspective, one without judgment, attachment, or expectation. Instead, you become present, observant, aware, and attentive, but distanced from the tumult, just like you are in a hot air balloon. There’s a ton of cool neuroscience on what happens in the brain when you practice mindfulness, including the possibility that you can strengthen your default mode network.
You can also get a different perspective by looking through someone else’s eyes. Imagine how your colleague Catherine would think about it and how she might feel emotionally. Or better yet, talk to her and ask her directly. That activates the mentalizing network – a different set of interconnected brain areas involved in inferring how others might think and feel.
Or you can get a different perspective by going on vacation, traveling to a new place, or investing in a retreat (quick… enrollment for the Heroine’s Journey Women’s Leadership Retreat ends Friday, April 22!). One of the best decisions of my life required me to get away to see things from a different perspective. After I completed my PhD, I had this incredible, fully funded, NSF fellowship to do ground-breaking research at Cambridge University in the U.K. But my then boyfriend, now husband, didn’t get into the London School of Business so we deferred my fellowship. We traveled to India, Thailand, and China. And it was on that trip when I realized that my purpose was rooted in encouraging the light in others to shine. I loved scientific discovery, but I was passionate about helping others grow through teaching, mentoring, and writing. From within the hallowed walls of academia, I couldn’t see the bigger picture beyond them. I needed that different perspective found in travel and a true break from the everyday to find my center and purpose. It was there that I could understand what was truly meaningful and fulfilling to me.
So, if you are stuck, I encourage you to seek a different perspective – a brain break, someone else’s eyes, mindfulness, travel, a retreat, or a hot air balloon ride. Your brain will thank you.
This wonderful article from University of Pennsylvania cognitive scientists share a number of recent studies on perspective taking, and suggest that practicing perspective taking more regularly makes perfect. It’s a skill anyone can learn with regular practice.
And though this review article in Nature is primarily focused on mindfulness, it is quite relevant to perspective taking as a whole.
If you desperately want a different perspective, or know of a woman in your life who needs that right now, then allow me and fellow executive coach, Tutti Taygerly, sweep you away with a weekend retreat in Mendocino. Hurry though, enrollment for the Heroine’s Journey closes on Apr 22, 2022so you only have two days left to enroll.
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If you are seeking a guide to take you on your very own hot air balloon ride so that you can look down on your life from a completely different perspective, reach out today. I have one spot for individual leadership coaching available starting mid-May.