Agile Learning for Executives and Rats

Rat in Maze photo

Back in the 1960s at Clark University, I conducted learning experiments with rats. Here’s what I learned from rats that changed my life: A pause in “business as usual” activity is the gateway to new learning and better performance.

How did a little white lab rat teach this me this? From them, I learned…

Just as we do, rats get into ruts. How? They get rewarded for the same behavior over and over, and it becomes “wired in.” Let’s say a rat is trained to run down a straight corridor in a T-Maze. At the end of the corridor he has a choice: turn left or right to get food. In hundreds of runs he always found his food on the right. He’s learned this thoroughly enough, a psychologist would call him an over-trained rat. “Over-trained,” because even if you now shock him when he goes right and reward him when he goes left, he’ll still go to the right first.

Most importantly, this over-trained rat will never learn to go left as his first choice. Never! Unless…

…you change the maze, so there’s some variation before his choice point. You put a little jog in the maze (show below).


Why does this variation help learning? Because having to navigate the maze in a different way, his automatic pattern of running down the maze and going right is interrupted. Now, he can access new learning.

Question: How do we refresh our brains, so we can drop our automatic responses and learn something new?

Answer: We insert time to reflect into our busy schedules. The quality of thought and attention we put into the pause makes all the difference. See tip below.


Before a meeting, pause. Refresh and re-set your system. This works on everything from deciding what to eat to how to optimally lead a team.

Here’s how.

  1. Slow down your breathing
  2. Let your visual focus move from narrow to panoramic.
  3. Tune into your body sensations.
  4. Investigate the source of tension you carry in your body.
  5. Drop the tension and focus on what you want to accomplish.
  6. Ask yourself: If this meeting went well, what would be accomplished by the end? Can you use this meeting to develop people, strengthen team functioning, increase commitment? How can you accomplish these things with the least effort, the least force, so it emerges from participants?
  7. How can you set the frame for the meeting, so these things naturally unfold?

If you would like more detailed instructions on how a coach teaches an overwrought IT executive to re-set his mind-body system to become a better leader, check out Dragons at Work.

True Refuge – Tara Brach’s New Book

Tara Brach

Since her first book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach’s experience of meditation and life has deepened. In True Refuge, she offers us the fruits of her practice.

Many teachers point to lofty places. Precious few let us in on their own struggles as Tara does here. As an author and a teacher, her voice is assured and kind. That kindness extends to herself as she contemplates her own challenges with a transparency and generosity of spirit that make her teaching invaluable.

Reading it, I found a friend and ally beside me as I contemplated where I was stuck. Tara connects with us in our trouble, shares hers, and shows us the way home. We discover a place of refuge that has always been there. She introduces us, as the Tibetans say, to “the mind’s secret, too easy to believe.”

Using the simple, practical method of R. A. I. N. every problem, disappointment, and joy, is a portal to awareness.

She tells the story of a Superior Court judge in Washington DC who felt “overwhelmed by the crowded courtrooms and the magnitude of suffering he observed day after day.” After practicing the meditation Tara gave him, he told her, “Each person who approaches the bench these days has become a real person, someone who deserves my respect. More than that… each is really ‘not other’ than me…”

I am thrilled that someone in the justice system possesses that kind of awakened consciousness. It’s one thing to find peace on the meditation cushion. It’s quite another to integrate that experience into our daily lives at work.

In many shamanic traditions, the shaman is not aloof. He or she toils in the fields with others. Tara is that kind of teacher. She is one of us and a dedicated spirit who points out the path as she walks it herself.

I Was Herded by the Grapevine – The functions of gossip

Functions of GossipOne of my clients worked for the boss from hell. Her boss gave staff members goals that pitted them against each other. As you might imagine, the office was rife with gossip.

Because the boss was despised and feared by many, telling stories about her felt particularly delicious, and it also offered a measure of protection against her “let’s you and she fight” leadership style.« Continue »

Why I no Longer Teach Execs How to Meditate

After 46+ years of daily meditation, I am willing to admit all the positive things they say about it are true. It lowers your blood pressure, boosts your immune system, makes you emotionally resilient, decreases anxiety, and makes you more available to life. If there were a drug on the market that did all of those things and had no side effects, its sales would be in the billions.« Continue »