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4 Things to Learn From One of the Greatest Psychologists of All Time

4 Things to Learn From One of the Greatest Psychologists of All Time

Paul Ekman is the world’s most famous face-reader. Every psychology student knows his name and even beyond the field of psychology, Ekman and his work is recognized. Ekman dedicated his whole career towards the understanding of emotions and the associated patterns in the human face. Due to his accomplishments he not only belongs to ‘Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2009)’ but he is also one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

You might know his work through TV shows like Lie To Me, which is based on his studies, or you’ve read one of his famous books Emotions Revealed and Telling Lies, which teach you how to read faces and detect lies. Besides this he works with secret agencies like the FBI or CIA and advises movie companies like Pixar. The now 80-year old Ekman already met the Dalai Lama three times and talked with him about emotions.

Despite travelling and numerous responsibilities, he took some time to talk to me. As an aspiring psychologist I am more than familiar with his work and there are already dozens of high quality interviews about his research as well as several books. Therefore I decided to reach out to him and talk with him about more universal topics. More specifically we talked about: the importance of a mentor, how to actually find one, learning, reading, writing and what it takes to become an outstanding psychologist. From our conversation I learned the following things:

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1. The Importance of a mentor and how to find one

Ekman said it is definitely very important to have a good mentor and it had a decisive influence more than once on his own life and career. His mentors led him through critical moments and supported him with guidance. Ekman also listed a lot of different qualities he learned from them, not at least he learned excitement about research and the necessary care.

Though the process of finding a mentor seemed to be rather guided by luck or the right circumstances in Ekman’s case. Robert Berryman, one of his first mentors, was running a lab at his University and Silvan Tomkins, which was his most important mentor, reached in a similar paper at the same journal. The editor of the journal then connected Ekman and Tomkins and this resulted in a long friendship and mentorship between the two.

So obviously Ekman got his mentors rather by chance as opposed to consciously reaching out to them. What needs to be considered is, that fifty years ago it was definitely harder to contact or learn about possible mentors. Nowadays this is far easier, so you shouldn’t rely just on chance, but make an effort and reach out to possible mentors (check out this video to find out how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQPGQCeqB-I)

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2. You don’t have to have the same views as your mentor

While talking about his mentors and their impact on his life, Ekman mentioned several times that he either had different views, didn’t fully adapt a certain mindset or shook off the influence later (eg. the Skinerian influence of Berryman). Though he still said how important it was to have a mentor in order to learn things like persistence and perseverance as well as care, when it comes up to research. From Robert Berryman, Ekman especially learned about the excitement of research.

His mentors also encouraged him to take on new studies or pursue certain endeavors.  Silvan Tomkins for example led him to the decision to study cross cultural studies.

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So a lot of the learning that occurred was not simply on a content-level but rather on a meta-level. He rather learned about learning, attitudes and working habits. Tomkins even doubted that Ekman would be able to create a coding system of the face. Where in the end he succeeded (he invented the Facial Action Coding System- FACS). This shows mentors are tremendously important, but it is also necessary to free yourself and follow your own path at the right moment. Though finding this right moment, when to follow your own path and when to listen to your mentor is a hard task.

3. Learning, Reading, Writing

I asked Paul Ekman how he learns, reads and what percentage of his time is still dedicated towards learning new things. Often people are very surprised to hear, that even coryphes that accomplished everything you can think of and are already in their eighties still dedicate a significant amount of their time to mastering and learning new things. Same with Ekman, he still dedicates around 10% of his time to learning new things. A few years ago he even invested between 30-40% of his time to learning. This seems incredibly remarkable thinking of the fact that he is the greatest living-face reader, already in his 80ties and he still bothers with learning new things. But maybe this is exactly what helped him to accomplish all these things, the urge to learn and develop at all stages of life.

When he reads he always goes for hard copies to mark things. Also one effective way, as he figured out, to learn new things is writing about them. Since in order to write about something you need to have a deep understanding of the field.

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4. Four things to a great career

When I asked Ekman, “What differentiates good psychologists from those who make truly great contributions?” He answered simply that he didn’t know. Though he said there are four things that were essential to his own career.  These four things are: serendipity, perseverance, aim and timing. Serendipity is important because you sometimes need this lucky strike, where you just find something. In Ekman’s case somebody asked him a question that he hasn’t thought about himself and he didn’t know the answer to, but he thought it was interesting and followed through and researched it. At this point perseverance becomes important. You have to have the endurance to thoroughly research the question and master the necessary skills on the way (and apply deliberate practice as Cal Newport would call it – http://calnewport.com/blog/2013/04/08/deliberately-experimenting-with-deliberate-practice-looking-for-subjects-to-test-my-advice/ always talks about). Ekman further said that it is essential to have the right aim and he even emphasized that you should aim as high as you can. Though the last point is probably harder done than said, but while doing all these things the timing needs to be right.

Featured photo credit: kqedquest via flickr.com

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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