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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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Last Updated on June 26, 2020

10 Things To Remember When Everything Goes Wrong

10 Things To Remember When Everything Goes Wrong

Problems and heartaches in life are inevitable. However, there are some things to remember when you’re right in the thick of it that can help you get through it. When everything seems to be going wrong, practice telling yourself these things.

1. This Too Shall Pass

Sometimes life’s rough patches feel like they’re going to last forever. Whether you’re dealing with work-related issues, family problems, or stressful situations, very few problems last for a lifetime. So remind yourself, that things won’t be this bad forever.

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2. Some Things are Going Right

When things are going wrong, it’s hard to recognize what is going right. It’s easy to screen out the good things and only focus on the bad things. Remind yourself that some things are going right. Purposely look for the positive, even if it is something very small.

3. I Have Some Control

One of the most most important things to remember is that you have some control of the situation. Even if you aren’t in complete control of the situation, one thing you can always control is your attitude and reaction. Focus on managing what is within your control.

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4. I Can Ask for Help

Asking for help can be hard sometimes. However, it’s one of the best ways to deal with tough situations. Tell people what you need specifically if they offer to help. Don’t be afraid to call on friends and family and ask them for help, whether you need financial assistance, emotional support, or practical help.

5. Much of This Won’t Matter in a Few Years

Most of the problems we worry about today won’t actually matter five years from now. Remind yourself that whatever is going wrong now is only a small percentage of your actual life. Even if you’re dealing with a major problem, like a loved one’s illness, remember that a lot of good things are likely to happen in the course of a year or two as well.

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6. I Can Handle This

A lack of confidence in handling tough times can add to stress. One of the best things to remember is that you can handle tough situations. Even though you might feel angry, hurt, disappointed, or sad, it won’t kill you. You can get through it.

7. Something Good Will Come Out of This

No matter how bad a situation is, it’s almost certain that something good will come out of it. At the very least, it’s likely that you will learn a life lesson. Perhaps you learn not to repeat the same mistake in the future or maybe you move on from a bad situation and find something better. Look for the one good thing that can result when bad things happen.

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8. I Can Accept What’s Out of my Control

There are many things that aren’t within your control. You can’t change the past, another person’s behavior, or a loved one’s health issues. Don’t waste time trying to force others to change or trying to make things be different if it isn’t within your control. Investing time and energy into trying to things you can’t will cause you to feel helpless and exhausted. Acceptance is one of the best way to establish resilience.

9. I Have Overcome Past Difficulties

One of the things to remember when you’re facing difficulties, is that you’ve handled problems in the past. Don’t overlook past difficulties that you’ve dealt with successfully. Remind yourself of all the past problems you’ve overcome and you’ll gain confidence in dealing with the current issues.

10. I Need to Take Care of Myself

When everything seems to be going wrong, take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest, get some exercise, eat healthy, and spend some time doing leisure activities. When you’re taking better care of yourself you’ll be better equipped to deal with your problems.

More Tips to Help You Carry On

Featured photo credit: NeONBRAND via unsplash.com

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