Reflective: Does reflecting actually help?

Reflective: Does reflecting actually help?

by Suswati Basu
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Trigger Warning: This episode contains themes of suicidal ideation.

It’s the last episode of the season, so it makes sense to actually look back at the past 52 weeks! Reflecting apparently helps you to develop your skills and review their effectiveness, rather than just carry on doing things as you have always done them. It is about questioning, in a positive way, what you do and why you do it and then deciding whether there is a better, or more efficient, way of doing it in the future.

But does it actually help?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Careers Advisor Soma Ghosh from The Career Happiness Mentor.

Nic Wagstaff, award-winning global expert in burnout and boundaries at Inspire – Rewire.

Award-winning high performance coach, meditation teacher, and author Claire Morton.

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but what if there’s a more fulfilling path? Happiness comes and goes, says writer Emily Esfahani Smith, but having meaning in life — serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you — gives you something to hold onto. Learn more about the difference between being happy and having meaning as Smith offers four pillars of a meaningful life.

Some people take the time to stare deep into your eyes to ask you who you are and how you are doing. Jerry Colonna, known as the “CEO whisperer,” is one of those people.

Books looked at this week:

Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness

Jerry Colonna: Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 52 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

I can’t believe it, this is the last episode in this series. Exactly one year ago, I began this journey in a bid to overcome my public speaking jitters. Since then, there’s been numerous topics covered to assist in different areas. From resilience to perseverance, as well as looking at how we can become better people through our actions in helping one another and the world. Thanks to all the people who got involved and the authors who agreed to be interviewed.

So it’s only natural that we talk about reflecting today. Why it’s important and how we do it. On that note, here is careers advisor Soma Ghosh, who I spoke to a year ago, to see how she’s doing.


On to the first book with The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution editor Emily Esfahani Smith. Here she is at a Ted Talk.


The book encourages readers to discover themselves by searching for a purpose in life, connecting with others, engaging in transcendence, and learning from past traumas. By self-reflecting on these topics for the past year, we can see whether we’ve had a meaningful year.

Apparently having money does not necessarily give you a meaningful life. A study conducted by the psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener in 2014 found that even though people from countries such as the United States and Sweden were generally happier than those in poorer countries such as Togo and Sierra Leone, the suicide rate was significantly higher in the wealthier countries.  

As for the reasoning behind this, the study discovered that although modern life has its material and psychological benefits, the constant focus on the individual can sap life of true meaning. In fact, when it comes to the concept of “meaning,” the study found that nearly a quarter of Americans couldn’t say what makes their lives meaningful.

In order to start your journey toward living a more meaningful life, you should maintain these four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence ie. Contributing and connecting towards something greater than yourself. These categories constantly reemerge whenever people describe what makes their lives meaningful.

Fundamentally, it’s a human need to feel a sense of belonging either in relation to another person or a community. However, in modern society, many people live very isolated lives.

Back in 1945, the psychoanalyst René Spitz found that mortality rates in orphanages were unusually high because, ironically, children were often deprived of human contact in order to prevent the spread of germs and diseases.

Through his research into the matter, Spitz was the first to identify that a lack of belonging can result in death. Modern-day researchers have discovered the scientific reasoning behind this: chronic loneliness can compromise the immune system, which can lead to premature death.

Although having a sense of belonging is clearly essential to human life, social isolation and individualism are both on the rise. Increasingly, people tend to spend less time with their loved ones and more time in front of their phones and computer screens.

To support this claim, take these findings from the General Social Survey. Back in 1985, a number of Americans were asked to recall the number of people with whom they’d had deep conversations in the previous six months, to which the majority answered three. In 2004, that answer dropped down to zero.

That’s why it’s so important to honor belonging, the first pillar of meaning. Surveys often conclude that people consider close relationships to be critical sources of meaning, and research often shows that those who are lonely consider their lives less meaningful.

Smith says purpose is found through self-reflection and helping others. The developmental psychologist William Damon believes that your purpose should be a far-reaching goal that involves some kind of contribution to the wider world. As long as you have a goal and a make a meaningful contribution, you could live purposefully as, say, a zookeeper or a parent.

A survey involving 2 million participants found that those who considered their jobs to be meaningful were involved in careers such as English teachers, radiation therapists, school administrators and other roles that involved serving others. Even if your work doesn’t directly serve others, see how your work affects people ie. Switching your focus may make your work meaningful again.

Next is the art of storytelling: it refers to the way people create stories from their own different life experiences. Humans feel compelled to tell stories, as this is how people make sense of the world. Individuals create meaning from telling their life stories to other people in a certain way.

Psychologist Dan McAdam has been studying the concept of life stories and meaning for over 30 years. He believes that a person’s narrative identity, or the story that they create about themselves, is constructed by focusing on the most significant events that have taken place in their life and interpreting them in numerous ways.

From his research, McAdam found that those who tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good, often tend to live more meaningful lives.

In order to generate meaning through storytelling, it’s best to reflect on how an important event has shaped who you are and the course of your life. The process of doing so is what academics refer to as counterfactual thinking. This is when you engage in “what-if” questions such as, “what if I hadn’t gone to college?”

Research has shown that counterfactual thinking can make people appreciate the benefits of the path they have taken, as they’re forced to think about how their lives would’ve panned out had that pivotal event not happened.

The fourth pillar is all about experiencing a higher reality in which everything is interconnected, looking how transcendence can dissolve the barrier between yourself and the world around you.

Psychologist William James describes the mystical experience of transcendence as being uncontrollable, lasting no more than a few hours and not entirely possible to put into words. But transcendence has the power to reveal truths that will remain with you.

Another psychologist, David Yaden, believes that during transcendent states, a person feels connected to everything that surrounds them. It is in this moment that a person loses any sense of anxiety, feels complete peace and optimal well-being and derives meaning in life. Oddly enough you can also experience your own insignificance as well which is sometimes called ego-death. This is believed to be a means to prepare an individual for the final loss of self. Death can feel like a terrifying prospect, but Buddhists feel that life is cyclical, and it doesn’t perish when it disappears.

Transcendence serves the purpose of making people feel that everything is interconnected and that they will always exist in the universe in one form or another. It is a state of mind that gives meaning to life.

Smith feels that deriving meaning from trauma depends on how an unfortunate experience is interpreted. Growing from these experiences is called post-traumatic growth.

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, experts in post-traumatic growth, have identified the different ways in which you can grow after a trauma. The first is that your relationships can strengthen; second, you can go on to discover new purposes or paths in life; third, you can discover a newfound inner strength; fourth, you can become more spiritual; and last but not least, you can feel a renewed appreciation for life.

The social psychologist James Pennebaker noticed that people who had experienced trauma in their childhood and kept it a secret had more health problems than the ones who spoke to others about it. As part of his practice, Pennebaker encouraged his subjects to spend 15 minutes each day, for several days in a row, delving into their deepest emotions and writing about the most upsetting experience they’ve had. Those who completed the exercise said they experienced less symptoms of anxiety and depression, ans reportedly had stronger immune systems. Using insight words such as “I know” or “because” they were able to take meaning from their experiences.

So Smith says if you ever suffer through any adversity, it’s best to try and make sense of your experience, such as by reflecting on the event through expressive writing, and thus derive meaning from your trauma.

The good news is there has been a societal shift towards exploring cultures of meaning that work to build connections, celebrate purpose, provide spaces for storytelling and value transcendence. For example, the oral history project StoryCorps is supported by the two pillars of belonging and storytelling.The project gives ordinary people the opportunity to tell their life stories in front of an audience in the StoryBooth, an intimate space in which two people meet and honor one another through the act of listening. Their conversation is recorded and the recording is then given to the participants, while also being archived to give the stories an air of immortality.

By listening to other people’s stories, you can take the first step toward cultivating meaning both within your own life and within society at large.

Given we’re at the end of this season, nothing else but the movie Never Been Kissed comes to mind. Drew Barrymore who plays the character of Josie, does a big reveal during prom where she admits actually being an undercover journalist. Having had a very troubled high school experience, it was definitely an eye-opener for her. Sorry for the spoiler!


Changing direction, our final book is from CEO and co-founder of coaching firm Jerry Colonna with Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. Through the process of radical self-inquiry, Colonna asks us to reflect deeply on all things that have shaped us and continue to influence our professional behaviour. Here he is speaking at MIT, but there is a trigger warning for themes surrounding suicidal ideation.


Colonna believes that it’s only by dealing with questions such as what has shaped you as a human being that you can grow as a person and leader. And it’s only in this way that we can rethink and redefine our approach to leadership, and create a less toxic, more forgiving workplace.

This process is often difficult for CEOs and business leaders. To rise to the very top of an organization, or to make it as an entrepreneur, requires a certain degree of mental toughness. This means hiding deeper feelings, locking up vulnerability – focusing only on the practical how of running an organization and forgetting the more fundamental why. 

What can happen, then, is that underlying psychological problems begin to accumulate and make themselves felt in the workplace. This might manifest in overbearing professional oversight, a lack of connection with the team, or irrational, emotive decisions.

To understand these problems, leaders need to go right back to the roots of who they are. They need to move beyond the illusory stories they tell about themselves and look at the difficult truths that have shaped them.

When the author conducted his own radical self-inquiry after a personal crisis in 2002, he found that his feelings of professional anxiety were linked to his poverty as a child growing up in Queens. Even though he’d become successful, he was still troubled by the latent memory of having little to eat or the ferocious arguments he witnessed his parents having over money. What was driving him, but also fuelling terrible anxiety, was this old fear of being left with nothing.

So rather than digging desperately through management books to solve seemingly inscrutable problems, we need to pause, take a deep breath – then peer beneath the surface into who we really are.

Colonna also says that the way we deal with a crisis defines us as leaders and as human beings. Such moments of crisis are the great tests of leadership – if we can emerge from them with grace and steadfastness, then no matter the severity of the blow, we’ll become better leaders, and better people. This is what leadership expert Warren Bennis calls the crucible moment. It’s only under extreme pressure that we learn that we can face the worst with courage, humility and inspiration. We come out the other side with new confidence.

It’s always best to face the crisis head-on. Take the tale of Milarepa, the tenth-century Buddhist saint and teacher. One day he left his meditation cave to gather firewood, then returned to find it full of demons. He waved his arms at them, trying to shoo them out. But they stayed put, and simply multiplied. So he taught them Buddhism. And the demons sat down and were quiet. 

But they didn’t leave. So Milarepa asked them, “What are you here to teach me?” Stumped, the demons began to disappear, except for one enormous demon with great fangs. Exasperated, Milarepa put his head in the demon’s mouth and said, “Eat me if you wish.” With that, the demon vanished.

Milarepa surrendered to his demon and was rewarded with this freedom. As a leader, you too can choose to face your demons head-on. For instance, if you’re in a business partnership that has become toxic, the best thing to do is put your head in the demon’s mouth, so to speak, by confronting your partner. You’ll either resolve the relationship, or it will break. But either is preferable to stumbling on in toxicity.

So we must learn to stand still apparently. When the author asked his client, who was a young CEO desperately missing his partner, why he didn’t make time to see her for example, he told Colonna that he was trying to outrun the past. “I’m afraid that if I don’t work hard, I’ll end up back there,” he said. Back there was his childhood, in a faraway country destroyed by war, where he’d also been bed-bound with cancer for many years. 

Though this is an extreme example, it’s illustrative of a feeling many professionals have. You have to keep moving, keep doing – otherwise, you’ll slip back to some dark place. But this endless movement leads to a toxic work environment.

If you’re always rushing ahead, it can leave others with the impression that they’re not moving fast enough. The faster you seem to be moving – burning through meetings, conferences, interviews, etc. – the slower everyone else feels. And the slower they feel, the more they think they must catch up. The result is a work culture in which no one takes a moment to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Instead, you must have the courage to be still. So for a moment each day, practice mindfulness and just listen to yourself. Where is it you are heading in such a rush?

Truth is always your friend. The culture of deceit begins at the top, so it is at the top that change needs to happen. And that change is personal, before it is anything else. It begins with facing reality, and having the courage to turn away from the delusionary dreams that have kept things heading slowly, like the Titanic, toward disaster.

Consequently, a new culture of honesty needs to pervade our workplaces. This is what the author calls broken-open-hearted warriorship, where leadership figures are unafraid to be vulnerable, truthful and strong at the same time.

In a workshop that he ran, a female employee revealed she had been diagnosed with a rare blood cancer and had only told a handful of people. She was afraid her investors would pull out, but instead they rallied around her. Vitally, she’d broken the spell of deception and was rewarded for it.

People are irrational. That’s it. Both ourselves and others, so we have to learn to live with it. There are parts of us, bits of leftover, residual psychology, carried with us from childhood. These old habits, fears and complexes were forged in us when we were young. This mirrors what software developers (borrowing from the writer Arthur Koestler) call “ghosts in the machine,” referring to bits of outmoded code dormant in the current version of a program. While it was once useful in the program’s development, this defunct coding can interfere with current operations.

For instance, the author coached a business partnership, a man and woman who couldn’t stand each other but needed each other professionally. As he interviewed them, he found that, deep down, the man reminded the woman of her father, and the woman reminded the man of his mother. They’d been drawn together as business students, many years ago, and were now driving each other nuts. They’d both unconsciously replicated patterns and old complexes.

Now, to survive as a business partnership, they needed to accept this bit of old coding. Rather than storming out of meetings and hollering at each other, they learned mindfulness. They learned how each of them was complicit in this dynamic and overcame it.

Sometimes life doesn’t pan out the way you plan, hence we need to embrace the unknown. Take the author’s story. From journalist to magazine editor to venture capitalist, he’d moved from one thing to another, always having to know his next move professionally. Without pausing, he made sure his days were filled with plans and strategies, which led him to professional prestige and material riches. 

However, in early 2002, he found himself balanced on the rim of the still-smoking crater of Ground Zero in Manhattan, contemplating suicide. His life had become regimented, lacking something integral. But rather than ending his life that day, he went on a personal journey. He traveled: he crossed the ice caps, rafted across Chilean rivers and learned to meditate. Crucially, he embraced not-knowing. Rather than living for an endlessly scheduled future, he learned to take things one at a time, and embrace the infinite potential of the present. 

And so the logic of the “do-over,” in which we forgive, forget and move on, is something that he applies to life now. Rather than getting hung up on something, he gives himself one of these do-overs – he hits refresh. This is a crucial aspect of the pathless path, the one we take when we move forward refreshed, open to change, attentive to the moment. It means being mobile, ready to say yes to fortuitous events.

The author says we must embrace our personal Crow and Loyalty Soldier. The Crow is the niggling voice at the back of our minds. The one that says we’re unworthy of success or love, and don’t deserve to belong anywhere. However, the author believes this voice comes from caring about our actions in the world because we’re invested in what we do. So we must learn to accommodate our flawed, but good humanity.

The Loyal Soldier embodies our survival strategies. We might see him as the voice that makes us too cautious or unwilling to stand out. The instinct for self-preservation – is a natural part of us all. Rather than trying to reject him, we should learn to accommodate him in a spirit of acceptance. We should remember that he’s just like a protective parent saying, “Don’t hurt yourself.” 

So, by acknowledging our Crows and Loyal Soldiers, and not beating ourselves up if we have a negative thought or a moment of doubt, we can be more at ease with ourselves and face the world with courage and openness.

As well as allowing individual members to open up and flourish, the best leaders also allow the group to work as an organic whole. This means corporate leaders who can understand their teams intuitively and with compassion. 

So to sum up:

Smith says in the Power of Meaning that you don’t have to travel the world, end world hunger or quit your job to live a meaningful life. You can find fulfillment by guiding your everyday life in accordance with the four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. Just say hi to the everyday people you may see but not necessarily interact with.

In Reboot by Colonna, he says to grow as leaders, we need to be more mindful human beings who pay close attention to the things that have shaped our present behavior. This will improve and deepen the way we interact with colleagues and how we lead the team as a whole. Above all else, it pays to become more humane, courageous people, because that is the path to less-toxic workplaces and companies that act responsibly regarding their employees, communities and the environment. Hence he suggests make time for yourself outside of work!

And what a year it has been, meeting amazing new people this year, please do catch my Instagram live from yesterday talking about this year @howtobe247.

I’m pleased to present Nic Wagstaff who is an award-winning global expert in burnout and boundaries at Inspire – Rewire and award-winning high performance coach, meditation teacher, and author Claire Morton on their reflections. And if you enjoyed this, see you next year for season 2!


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