Scott Barry Kaufman, professor, researcher, and author of Wired To Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, is one of the nation’s leading experts on the science of creativity. He recently hosted Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist working closely with sports MVP’s, internationally acclaimed artists, and Fortune 25 CEO’s, on The Psychology Podcast for a conversation about how cultivating grit and living in the moment can bring lasting success.
Scott: I read an article where the Seattle Seahawks described you as their secret weapon. The “head game” you bring is a unique contribution to the team.
Michael: There are only three things that we can train. We can train our craft and our body—and in sports, that’s where majority of the time is spent—[but] that leaves the mind. World-class athletes, coaches, and performers know how important the psychology of excellence is, so it’s not some secret. It’s making the complicated science of psychology understandable and then doable from a training standpoint.
Scott: Let’s pick some of the science and nerd out a little bit. Why don’t we start with grit because there’s already a connection there between the Seattle Seahawks and [Grit author] Angela Duckworth.
Michael: Coach Carroll saw one of Angela Duckworth’s videos online, which said that grit is the number one determining factor for success. And so he said, “Okay. Let’s find out more about this.” She came out and visited us, and it’s been wonderful to hear from the horse’s mouth, if you will.
Scott: So science shows that there are these self-report questionnaires that measure your consistency of interest and your perseverance towards a goal or long-term. It’s like long-term stamina so to speak. Scoring highly on these questionnaires does tend to predict high performance in certain areas and expertise development. How do you take those kinds of findings and then try to strengthen grit among players?
Michael: We want to see if players have grit, so part of the selection process is figuring out the whole picture of anybody that we’re going to bring into the Seattle Seahawks. What we’re looking for is an understanding of their passion, an understanding of their ability to persevere, and [whether or not] they have long-term goals. We’re not doing it on a subjective questionnaire. We’re doing it through observation over time, interviewing people that know them, whether it’s family members or high school and college coaches. We’re almost trying to create a grit profile for a person, as one of the many metrics for selection.
The environment has a lot to do with amplifying grit, so culture does matter. If the culture has a prevailing thought that “When it’s hard, we do something else,” then we probably won’t be able to train grit. But [we will] if the prevailing message is “We do difficult things. That’s what makes us. Let’s stay in it.” And it’s [the players’] passion that fuels their hard work and perseverance.
“Most people are so terrified of the unknown that they play it safe. Those on the world stage doing difficult things embrace the unknown, because they know that that’s where they become who they’re meant to become.”
Scott: If you really get beneath the surface of these NFL players, what is that passion? Is it to dominate? Is it fame? Love of the game?
Michael: You’re talking about internal and external drive, and it’s both of those. The internal drive is more valuable for long-term goals, [but] the truth is that world-leading people have both. Imagine a scale from one to ten on internal drive and a scale of one to ten on external drive. What I’m looking for is a ten on the internal scale and a nine on the external scale. We want to bank on the internal drive because as soon as somebody gets the external reward, whether it’s attention or fame or money or recognition, then you have to help them recreate a new thing to chase after, and that becomes challenging.
[On the other hand,] you can help people get to the internal drive and celebrate what it feels like to grow, to be tested, to know that you’re going to come up short but still let it go anyway. What I’m talking about is taking risks and putting yourself into the unknown. Most people are so terrified of the unknown that they play it safe. Those on the world stage doing difficult things embrace the unknown, because they know that that’s where they become who they’re meant to become. So we want to light up the passion to embrace the unknown, to lean into it, since that’s where we figure out who we really are.
Scott: I would say embracing the unknown is something separate from grit, so obviously, you wouldn’t say that grit is the only thing that’s important.
Michael: Now we’re back to grit. Those that struggle with embracing the unknown become fatigued and scared, scared of the unknown or of not being good enough, of coming up short, of letting others down, of looking stupid. Fatigue and fear are like a heavy blanket that covers the inner fire of passion. [The key is to] turn off the mind and drop into doing.
Scott: The obvious idea to talk about here is mindfulness, and I know you’ve done mindfulness training with the players, right?
Michael: The two most important parts of mindfulness are increasing awareness and revealing insight and wisdom. Now, those are beautiful concepts with a very simple but difficult approach. It’s a constant process of starting over: to come back to now, to come back to now again. But yes, mindfulness is at the center of what has been an accelerant for me.
“The more we can quiet those critics in our heads, we tend to see greater beauty in the world. And the beauty of our own thoughts can be just as beautiful as what we’re paying attention to outside ourselves.”
Scott: Me too. When you’re on the field and you’re passing the ball, you can’t be like, “I’m very curious about…” You can’t consciously deliberate too much in that moment, so you have to really increase that awareness. I think another thing is having non-judgmental attention. Let’s say you make a bad pass and you’re beating yourself up over it. You’re getting out of the moment, right? Your game is going to suffer.
Michael: We want to try to increase the frequency of getting into the center of now, the center of this moment. I think we’re wrong in the thought that our mind can go to three places, the past, the future, or now. I think the more accurate experience is that there’s the center of now and there are the ineffective fringes of now. Our mind is always in the present moment, but it might not be effective because we’re using resources to think about what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future.
So our work is to come to the center of now and to come back to the center over and over again until possibly, we slip into some sort of flow state or experience, where we’re really at one with the present moment in our body which is a phenomenal thing. But when we start to entertain “What if” and “What could,” then we’re still in the moment, but we’re less efficient, less able to respond to the demands of the environment if we’re driving, eating, or catching a baseball.
Scott: I could see that being the case, but I’m trying to see how it links up to our latest neuroscience. Different states of consciousness can be differentiated at a neuroscientific level, but you’re saying that that’s irrelevant to the point. You’re saying they’re still conceptually all different parts of the same bullseye circle. It’s all the same bullseye, just different gradations of awareness.
Michael: That’s exactly right.
Scott: But what does that buy us if we shift from this prior understanding of, “Now I’m in the moment. Now, I’m in 10 years from now in my head. Now, I’m 10 years ago,” versus a shift to this metaphor [of a constant present moment]? What’s the benefit?
Michael: It helps me to understand that my responsibility to my loved ones, to my craft, and to myself is to be in the present moment as often as I possibly can, especially when I’ve made a commitment to play piano, be in a conversation, or draw something on a canvas. When I start to have these fragmented hard drives running in the background of “What could go wrong?” or whatever, it helps me to remember that, “No, no, my job is to come back to this moment.”
Scott: I think that’s good. And at least 50% of life doesn’t require being present to our outside awareness, so there’s still great value to being present to our internal awareness or present. “Mindful daydreaming” can be just as valuable, right?
Michael: Even better is if you do it without judgment, because who knows where it’s going to take you? It’s that little critic that says, “That’s nuts. That’s no good. That’s stupid.” Most of us have that little critic.
Scott: The more we can quiet those critics in our heads, we tend to see greater beauty in the world. And the beauty of our own thoughts can be just as beautiful as what we’re paying attention to outside ourselves.
“Our greatest insights creatively tend to come when we’re not focusing on the problem.”
Michael: I’ve come to understand two basic forms of mindfulness. One is single point focus, and that’s like focusing on one thing over and over again. The other is contemplative mindfulness, which is observing without judgment. So that can be observing something outside of yourself and watching where your attention goes. With your eyes closed, you’re usually observing thoughts and looking forward to how one thought will shape or shift or link to another thought. And when you take the critical lens off, it’s like this wild ride… it really is imagination.
The third type that I was recently exposed to is mental imagery. I was learning from a teacher in mindfulness, and he said, “You’ve got to consider imagery about compassion.”
Scott: I like that. It’s like controlled breathing meditation in which you have a specific thing that you focus on, whether it’s a mantra or your breath. Then, there’s open monitoring awareness meditation. And then there’s this loving kindness. I like that, these three, and I mix and match all three depending on what my needs are. There’s some interesting research showing that controlled breathing meditation shows the fewest reductions in creativity in divergent thinking, whereas open monitoring awareness shows increases in divergent thinking. Of course, loving kindness always shows increases in compassion.
When you work with the players, do you help them [reach] different states of consciousness depending on what their specific goals are in the moment?
Michael: Deep focus is required, and it’s the noise from the environment and the noise from within that creates the distraction, so training deep focus is a really powerful skill.
Scott: You’re doing the world of high performance expertise, but when you study creativity, you find that creativity does not come from deep focus in the moment. I think you’re underestimating the power of that noise, that controlled chaos of creativity. Our greatest insights creatively tend to come when we’re not focusing on the problem. It’s when we have already amassed all that knowledge and have focused, but it’s that toggling back and forth that leads to great insights, not just deep focus. Do we disagree?
Michael: Single point mindfulness training is one way to train deep focus, but [you’re right,] I wouldn’t say that we want to move away from that silly, distracted, sleepy space in our brain. Deep focus is the entry point along with challenge and risk into flow state, and during flow state, the most optimal state a human can be in, imagination is wonderful. So if we think about increasing the frequency of flow state to amplify creativity and imagination, maybe deep focus is one of the ways to unlock it.
Scott: I get your point about the importance of it, but mind-wandering is also really important.
Michael: I love it. The way that I think about it is let’s have as many tools that we can possibly develop, and when I need a hammer, I have a hammer, when I need a screwdriver, I have a screwdriver. Then, when people are trying different mental tools, they have better control to let go or to lock in. When that happens, we see some beautiful things take place.
Scott: Absolutely. That’s the key—flexibility of attention.
Michael: How do you help people with both variance of attention which is locked in intense, long-term duration, as well as the ability to shift the muse without judgment? Are you using mindfulness as well?
Scott: Yeah, I am. Mark Bertin has done mindfulness training with people with ADHD and has shown really good improvements. A lot of people treat mindfulness and mind-wandering as if they’re opposites [when they’re just] different, parallel dimensions.
Michael: It’s contemplative mindfulness without judgment that allows for the wandering and anticipation, the excitement and anxiousness. Without the deep focus first, I don’t think that we can get to that non-judgmental awareness of the stitching [together] of thoughts and concepts to reveal insight and wisdom.
Scott: Right, so you view deep focus as the necessary, but not sufficient condition?
Scott: I like that. One of my favorite pastimes is mindful daydreaming, where you sit down on a beautiful grassy field at night and look up at the stars. I like to close my eyes and just look at my wandering thoughts as different stars in the sky. I look at them non-judgmentally, like I don’t judge stars. I don’t say, “Oh, that star is bigger than that one.” I just stare at all these thoughts wherever they arise.
Michael: Yeah. There’s a time and place to wander and a time and place to lock in, and if we’re not training those different attentional facets, then our default drive becomes what we’re born with, and that might not be good enough to express your potential. That’s why training is the way to frontload, so that when you’re in the environment that you want to be in, you can bring the best version of your attention.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.