Gabriella Rosen Kellerman is physician, an entrepreneur, and a researcher of workplace wellbeing as Chief Innovation Officer at BetterUp. She is also the founding CEO of LifeLink, and an advisor to healthcare, coaching, and behavior change technology companies.
Martin Seligman is University of Pennsylvania professor and founder of the Positive Psychology Network. He is also the former president of the American Psychological Association.
Below, Gabriella and Martin share 5 key insights from their new book, Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection – Now and in an Uncertain Future. Listen to the audio version—read by Gabriella—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The only world of work in which our brain is really at home in is hunting and gathering.
Hunting and gathering is the kind of work we’re best at, naturally. It’s the world we lived in for more than 90 percent of our brain’s existence, and all of its evolution. Every other kind of work we’ve come up with as a species—whether farming, manufacturing, or knowledge work—is fundamentally a mismatch with that three-pound chunk of pale pink flesh under our skulls.
Those mismatches differ by type of work. For example, the industrial revolution created a kind of work in factories that was boring, overly specialized, and not creative. Only homo sapiens could have invented the cotton gin, but a Neanderthal probably could have operated it! Thus a number of psychological disorders arose from the mismatch.
Today our work is fast, uncertain, and full of complexity. We’ve come to expect that the challenges of next week will eat those of this week for lunch. Hunters and gatherers didn’t have to deal with that. The critical changes they saw were sudden and urgent, so our brains register change as threat. A huge part of the challenge of thriving at work today is overcoming the mental patterns that made sense for hunter-gatherers but no longer serve us today.
The flip side of this, however, is that there are also uplifting aspects of our hunter-gatherer brain that fell out of use in previous labor eras, but to which we get to return today. Foraging is a creative occupation, and our native ingenuity is a huge part of why homo sapiens dominate the planet. After centuries of assembly line decline, creativity is back in demand at work. The hardware underpinning this deeply human capability is still there, waiting for us after all these years. We just need to nurture it.
Innovation is one of five key skills outlined as essential for thriving at work today. Some of these let us counter the mismatch between our brains and our work. Others are about reconnecting with skills that fell out of use, but are once again essential in the whitewater. The five skills are summarized by the acronym PRISM, and they are prospection, resilience, innovation, social connection, and mattering.
2. Psychological resilience, an essential skill for our era, has five critical drivers that we need to master.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from change without harm. At its best, it’s antifragility— the ability to grow stronger with every challenge we face. Think of our immune system, designed to become more robust with every virus it sees.
Thriving at work today is not about overcoming any single challenge. Instead, it’s about proactively building the skills to overcome all of them—change, after change, after change. We can all expect to change roles if not industries every five to 10 years. If we try to optimize for any single change, we miss the chance to build the deeper resilience fundamental to a sustainable career.
“The five most important drivers of resilience are: emotional regulation, cognitive agility, optimism, self-efficacy, and self-compassion.”
To discover the five drivers of resilience, our lab studied how and whether specific individuals and their organizations managed change. Were they able to do so with confidence? Did they become more or less resilient over time? For each of them, we measured 150 psychological constructs at various time points to study what was changing when.
The five most important drivers of resilience are: emotional regulation: the ability to effectively manage our emotions without being controlled by them; cognitive agility: the ability to alternate between opportunistic scoping and focused effort; optimism: the tendency to imagine positive outcomes; self-efficacy: our belief in our ability to accomplish our goals; and self-compassion: the ability to extend compassion to ourselves.
Building resilience means building these five skills. All of us are better at some of these and worse at others. And all five can be developed. The most efficient and effective way to approach the project of building resilience is to understand which of these five we’re already good at, and which we can invest in. Lean into the strengths when you’re in a tight spot. When things are calmer, build up the areas where you need it.
3. Connection is more essential than ever, but three specific barriers make it harder than ever to achieve.
Connection is the oil that makes the engine of collaboration run smoothly. Connection is also a pillar of wellbeing. The problem is, today’s world of work prevents it with three barriers.
The first is time: we don’t have enough of it, or at least that’s how it feels. Our teams are constantly breaking up and reforming and yet we need to work together as productively as possible. The second barrier space: more and more of us are working remotely, from our team members and our customers. How do we build connection when we’re physically disconnected? The third barrier is what neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky calls Us/Them. Our brains register everyone we meet as “Us” or “Them.” Those who are an Us merit an automatic feeling of connection. Those who are a Them, our brain wants to hold at arm’s length. As hunter-gatherers this was helpful, because almost everyone we ever met was an Us. A Them could mean trouble.
Today, of course, pretty much everyone we work with is a Them. It’s not just about race, gender, or ethnicity, although all of those things certainly apply. It’s about function—sales is a Them to marketing and design to engineering. It’s about tenure and generations and time zone and on and on. So how do we overcome these barriers?
4. All of the barriers to connection presented by our modern world of work can be overcome with evidence-based tricks.
These barriers are real, and significant. But fortunately, we have a lot of fascinating and sometimes counterintuitive science on connection that can help us with each.
We will talk about overcoming the barrier of time here. There are two important components to overcoming the barrier of time. The first is the perception of a lack of time itself. Two people can have the same responsibilities and schedule, but one can feel they have no time to spare and the other can feel they have plenty. Feeling we have no time is called time famine, and it turns out to be a pretty bad mindset if our goal is to connect. When we feel rushed we don’t help people in need. We overlook opportunities to build rapport.
“Doing kind acts for others, even just for 15 minutes, converted people from time famine to time abundance.”
In a fascinating study called “Giving Times Gives You Time,” a trio of professors from Harvard, Yale, and Wharton investigated ways of helping people shift from a mindset of time famine to its opposite, time abundance. They tried giving people time back to indulge in self-care; time to just hang out and waste; or time to do something kind for others. It turns out that doing kind acts for others, even just for 15 minutes, converted people from time famine to time abundance.
When you are feeling short on time and it’s getting in the way of your relationships, proactively take on doing something kind for someone else. When you’re done, savor the positive emotions. You’ll notice a feeling of having more, rather than less time. Sit with it and embrace this new-found perspective.
The second piece of overcoming the barrier of time involves a similarly counterintuitive finding on how long it takes to connect. Arguably the profession most starved for time, but where connection is also most essential, is medicine. Doctors see 13 or 14 patients a day, for 15 minutes. In that time, they are supposed to examine the patient, read up on their history, form a treatment plan, and also somehow build a relationship. It seems too much to ask.
For that reason, a host of studies has been done looking at how long it takes for doctors to make patients feel seen and heard and cared for. It turns out to take less than one minute of kind words for a doctor to connect with their patient deeply enough to influence health outcomes and lower patient anxiety. Even increments as short as 10 seconds can make a difference.
Who among us doesn’t have 10 seconds to spare to connect with a colleague or customer? “It was so nice to catch up with you today. Let’s please do it again soon.”—three seconds. “I really admire how you navigated that question.”—two seconds. “I can tell you worked hard on this. Thank you for all of your effort. I’m so glad that we’re in this together.”—five seconds. Rapport can be built steadily, in small increments, over time, even by people who feel they have no time to give.
5. We are all creatives now, and we always have been.
Automation means that more and more of the rote parts of our roles are being taken over by machines. What is left for humans to do is thus inherently more creative. In addition, the complexity and speed of change means we’re constantly facing novel challenges, particularly at the edges of the business. Novel challenges require novel solutions.
Successful organizations will leverage every employee at every level as a potential innovator. The question is how. Many of us don’t identify as creative, or know how to inspire creativity in our teams. One of our big findings on how to build creativity is what we call creativity hygiene. This is similar to sleep hygiene. People who want to improve their sleep can do a number of things like avoid screens before bed that can help them fall and stay asleep longer. Sleep, like creativity, involves non-conscious processes which means we can’t just order ourselves to sleep any more than we can order ourselves to be creative. We can, however, arrange our conscious behaviors to facilitate those non-conscious events.
“Successful organizations will leverage every employee at every level as a potential innovator.”
There are few tenets of creativity hygiene. First, seek novelty. Break up your routines. Take a different ride home. Browse in a different section of the bookstore. Sit next to someone new at lunch. The daydreaming network of our brain is where a lot of our best ideas come from. When we seek out new experiences, we fertilize the soil of that network so it can generate richer outputs.
Second: Embrace ambiguity. The murky uncertainty of the early phases of the creative process can feel uneasy to some of us, and we want to end them as quickly as possible. But when we shortchange the divergent parts of creativity, we put a ceiling on just how imaginative our solutions can be. Know that it’s normal to feel a little uneasy in ambiguity, but you can get used to it and even start to enjoy it. Try stretching this ambiguous phase just a little bit longer each time you hit it.
Third: For leaders, build up your team’s creative confidence. Our belief in our own creative abilities is called creative self-efficacy, and the higher it is, the higher the quality of our creative products. Teachers, parents, and managers have a tremendously powerful influence on our self-belief. As leaders we can notice even small innovations and recognize the team members who came up with them. When we do that, we help them build self-confidence as creatives which will enhance the quality of their creative output.
Creativity, like resilience and social connection, can be cultivated and will help us soar higher than we ever could have imagined in this whitewater world of work.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, download the Next Big Idea App today: