How to change your mind

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Just before diving into East of Eden, Lily absorbed a novel of almost the opposite kind — short, contemporary, overstated — unclassic in every way. She really liked it and wanted me to read it.

Unlike most people, I put down most books I start. There are a million books to read, and I don’t know why people force themselves to finish books they are no longer enjoying. Lily knows I do this with a hair trigger, and she wanted to make sure I gave this novel a fair effort, giving it time to grow on me before I passed judgment on its jokey tone.

“You have to wear a certain hat when you read it,” she said. “Your board-game-playing geek hat.”

I did, and when I began I could see why she said that. It’s called Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Every character is a caricature. The prose was a little too up-to-date for my normal tastes: repeated references to tweeting and industrious ex-Googlers — one character is reading the Steve Jobs biography that was released shortly after his death. Copyright 2012.

I made sure I was wearing a somewhat silly hat for the first thirty pages or so, and I’m too hooked on the story to put it down now. But I did need to make a conscious effort to get into a not-so-serious headspace when I began, or I might have jumped to something else.

The metaphor of putting on a particular hat to approach a particular endeavor is as old as any. They typically correspond to archetypes or professions — you can put on your stoic laborer’s hat before tackling some yardwork, your monk’s hat as you sit down to meditate, or your scholar’s hat before sitting down to study for an exam. But there’s no definite category of qualities that can be represented in a “hat.”

While eating salad on Lily’s balcony one evening last week, we talked about how she’d used different hats — the proverbial type — as a way of deciding what tone of thought to bring to a particular situation, with the idea of becoming more conscious of where her head is right now. When she’s feeling down, for example, she deliberately puts on her mopey, self-pity hat, and suddenly the whole episode seems more ridiculous than serious. Hats help us see where we’re coming from, or where we ought to be coming from. 

I immediately related to this idea, and quickly became excited about other ways to use hats. I guess I already had, but never had such a useful metaphor for it. At work that morning, I had successfully defused a mounting stress explosion when I responded to an decidedly unreasonable request by consciously assuming the role of “The Technician Outfitted with High-Tech Tools and Specialized Knowledge Valued by Many.”

When I decided to play the moment under that role, the stress quickly evaporated. I simply did the job, dropping my indignation. I fulfilled the request, got paid an hour of overtime and went to meet Lily for dinner.

The hat I had been wearing until that moment was one I never noticed putting on: the “Overworked, Taken-for-Granted Corporate Peon” hat. One hat was clearly better for me (and in this case, everyone else) than another. Presumably, this is always true.

Hats can also correspond to something more specific than professions or general moods. Even before Lily inspired me to think of mindsets in terms of hats, whenever I went to get something from the store, I’d assume a mindset of an Ordinary Citizen Going to Market. The setting might only be an ordinary Safeway, but it changes the experience for me. The walk there seems purposeful. I have business to conduct. Walking into the produce section, I feel abundance and gratitude at all the wonderful foods available to me at this huge market, when normally I’d feel apathy, or maybe a bit of resentment at having errands between me and what I really want to do with my time. Hat-changing is a simple shift in thinking, but it can create a completely different experience out of the same event.

Two other hats I wear regularly:

  • When cleaning my apartment, I put on the hat of the Proud Custodian of This Luxurious Space. This changes the feeling of housework from an annoying task to a loving one. Again, gratitude is an inevitable byproduct, as are an immaculate home and a clear mind.
  • When I sit down to write, I sometimes remember to put on the hat of the Slightly Tortured Tea-Drinking Writer. This takes the edge off those moments when I’m stuck, and gives them a hint of romance. Rather than quit, I sit and gaze out the window, and it doesn’t feel good but still feels kind of right. Moments like that are the lot of the slightly tortured writer, and I am living it. With that hat on I’m more likely to continue than to quit writing for the day.

One ancient practice, which could be thought of as the wearing of a particular hat, is to always meet others on equal ground. This means you disregard any feelings of superiority or inferiority when speaking to another person. You respect their personhood and you respect your own, and you don’t worry about whether they see it the same way. You still follow any relevant customs, but you don’t let yourself look up at anyone or down on them. This is as useful while talking to children and panhandlers as it is talking to your boss or your doctor. Anyone can do it. It doesn’t take much practice, you just have to remember put on the hat first.

***

The conversation with Lily reminded me of an interesting idea I’d been exposed to by accident three years earlier.

When I lived in a small town on New Zealand’s North Island, a German roommate lent me a book called Lateral Thinking by a Maltese doctor named Edward De Bono. In it he alternated between explaining creative ways to approach problems, and name-dropping the corporate clients he had helped with these techniques. The main premise of the book was that human thought is highly conditioned and tends to follow certain predictable linear patterns that bring us to a limited set of conclusions. There may be superior thoughts just outside of the reach of our normal thinking reflexes, and they may be accessed by using techniques that challenge these common logical pitfalls.

The book’s arrogant tone aside, De Bono’s ideas were fascinating to me and I couldn’t wait to put them to use. The most interesting one was called the Six Thinking Hats, which he later expanded into a book of its own.

You take any problem, and look at it through six distinct modes of thinking, but only one at a time. Each mode is represented by a colored hat. You might spend ten minutes wearing each one, writing down your thoughts as you go.

The White Hat is concerned with facts, and doesn’t explore possibilities or conjecture — what do you actually know, and what information are you missing that you could use?

The Red Hat is concerned with intuition and immediate emotional feelings — what are your initial gut reactions?

The Black Hat is concerned with hazards and potential downsides. Every aspect is to be looked at cautiously and defensively, with the spirit of the Devil’s Advocate.

The Yellow Hat is concerned with benefit. While wearing this hat, you consider potential gains and positive outcomes.

The Green Hat is concerned with creativity and possibility. This is where new ideas are brought up and alternative approaches are brainstormed, without discriminating between good and bad ones.

The Blue Hat is concerned with making sure the other hats have been duly worn. It is put on at the beginning and end of each six hats session.

The exercise is effective because you wear the hats one at a time, so every direction of thought gets a fair chance to develop. Normally, a pessimistic person might, for example, tend to undermine any positive thought with an immediate fear response. Under the six hats approach, downsides are discussed separately from the upsides and alternatives, and so the different directions of thinking are much less likely to interfere with each other.

My roommate moved out suddenly one morning, and politely removed the book from my shelf in the shared locker, ending my initial exploration into lateral thinking.

***

Even without re-investigating the structured practices prescribed by De Bono, I’m giddy with the possibilities of the hat metaphor. I’ve been trying on different hats all week.

All this hat-wearing works so well because a hat is just a mindset, and we’re always wearing one whether or not we put it on consciously. If I’m going to be wearing the Indignant Overworked Employee Hat, I’d at least better know that it’s on my head. Everyone else can certainly see it.

Whenever you decide to don a particular hat, two significant things happen: you become immediately aware of your mindset, and you choose what mindset you want to try on right now. It also usually brings an element of fun into whatever you’re doing, even if you choose a grumpy or selfish hat. Your moment suddenly makes a lot more sense, because now you have a relevant role to fulfill, even if it’s just being a grump.

If you think your mood will prevent you from putting on certain hats, put on the one you think fits best right now. If you’re feeling lazy and mopey, decide that right now you’re going to officially don the Lazy Mope hat and dive right into your moping without any internal contradiction about it.

I find that isn’t often the case — I’m often able to turn a mood around by deciding to put on a sensible hat, like I did at work the other day. It’s an example of Gretchen Rubin’s biggest takeaway from her Happiness Project: act the way you want to feel, instead of first trying to feel the way you want to act. But if the best you can do in a given moment is wear the Lazy Mope Hat like a star, then at least it becomes like a choice. That goes a long way.

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Photo by Bev Goodwin

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{ 47 Comments }

Pete July 15, 2013 at 7:35 am

I sometimes tend to get distracted when I’m reading… when my mind is still working on other problems and wants to keep its focus elsewhere. Halfway through that article I put on my “Learn something new” hat and felt an immediate shift in focus. Interesting.

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Tony Gaitlif July 15, 2013 at 8:05 am

I’ve been wearing the Indecisive Dis-Empowered Lethargic Nihilistic Whats-The-Point I-Wish-The-Ring-Had-Never-Come-To-Me Hat for the past two weeks now.

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David July 15, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Which one did you have on before that?

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Abhranil Das July 16, 2013 at 11:22 am

You know, you look a lot like Obi Wan Kenobi in this photo.
And you’re always talking like him.
Keep up the blog. It’s a lot of fuel in my life.
Love from India.

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Tony Gaitlif July 16, 2013 at 1:41 pm

The Blithely-Ignorant-Of-The-Pig-Farm-Opening-Beside-My-House Hat.

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John July 15, 2013 at 8:15 am

Nice way of looking at situations that come up in everyday life and having the right approach to them. Whenever I find myself in a situation that is stressful or is about to cause tension among others, I try to put on my “even tempered” hat and ask myself a few questions such as: does the outcome of this trivial matter really mean anything? Will we remember this situation in even a few weeks?

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Brent July 15, 2013 at 8:24 am

http://markmanson.net/read-faster

This guy puts down most of the books head reads as well. His blog and your blog, David, are two of my favorites. =]

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David July 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm

50 books in 50 days… sounds like an experiment for next summer.

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Edith July 15, 2013 at 11:35 am

Really great post!

I need to wear a “I will die some day and all this won’t matter” hat.

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onebreath July 15, 2013 at 12:15 pm

This is a great metaphor. To me, it sounds like a simple and effective way of bridging acceptance… as you allude to in mentioning removing internal contradictions. If you are feeling mopey and consciously put on your Mopey Hat, in essence you are admitting this is how you feel and removing the usual haze of resistance to this state. In so doing, I believe you allow yourself to fully experience that emotion, and likely move through it m
ore mindfully, even if that isn’t the goal.

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David July 15, 2013 at 5:02 pm

>in essence you are admitting this is how you feel and removing the usual haze of resistance to this state.

This is the heart of it, and not just for the negative-state hats. When you put on any hat it brings you into the moment, and you’re forced to admit that this is the form life is taking right now, and you don’t need to escape it.

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Trisha Scott July 15, 2013 at 12:31 pm

First, and most importantly, I so loved Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore! LOL.

When I first realized that I was always just watching what was happening in my life rather than getting all caught up in what was happening as others seemed to be doing (I think I was about 5 at the time) I thought I was nuts. It does, after all, run in the family. Everyone else seemed to really be totally believing their roles! What was wrong with me?! I did my best to be IN the story but it never “took”. Imagine my astonishment and glee when I found that was actually the sane stance in negotiating this “being a human” thing! But I love the hat metaphor. Makes it real simple to “turn on a dime.”

Thanks for another wonderful and insightful post David.

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Brian July 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm

This one jumped out at me.

Putting on the hats is akin to identifying with the objective. The Id can be a resilient enemy or powerful ally. I see this technique as channeling our sense of identity into alignment with tasks which might not – initially – feel worthwhile, or as a means to supercharge those tasks which DO feel worth our time.

Reading “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” I wore the tailored, “I’m-a-gearhead-and-this-is-brilliant” hat. Attempting to finish “Walden,” however, I found myself in “I-already-know-the-things-we-own-own-us-get-on-with-it” hat.

Needless to say, I finished the former and not the latter.

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Terri Lynn July 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I love this! I would love to see a children’s book with this theme. Great way to teach responsibility.

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Cynthia T Hanson August 17, 2013 at 7:53 am

A children’s book would be so wonderful I think I might just write one

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Terri Lynn July 15, 2013 at 2:43 pm

oh, and ‘Lily’ sounds amazing.

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Velvet July 15, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Ooh boy do I need this today. I have a variety of hats, but the most well worn is a cynic who is done listening to others make excuses. Perhaps if I can locate the one that makes me amused at the antics other people will use to sidestep their responsibilities, all of this will seem like a slightly inconvenient folly put on by well meaning, yet ultimately lazy folks who know better but refuse to grow up. Nope…still not there yet. But I love this post. And the idea. And at least I am aware that I am wearing the mean hat now :)

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George Gurdjieff July 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm

What a timely post for me – and seemingly for others as well. As usual, you touch on a profound aspect of what it means to spiritually evolve. For myself, ‘Wearing the right hat’ is about choosing the right attitude that supports this effort. When doing things I don’t enjoy, rather than bitch and moan (which happens more often than I care to admit), I try to work as conscientiously and as diligently as possible without complaining, until a change in circumstances arrives or I complete the task, to the best of my ability. What I like about your post is the practical example of the simple act of reading a book, that you offer. Thank you David.

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Tivajoy July 15, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Another amazing discovery you shared, David. Very inspiring… And stylish. I love wearing hats, and now I can think about them differently. I really, truly enjoy your articles/posts that are true inspiration… We get to discover this wonderful life through your viewpoint for a moment, and your writing is really incredible. I look forward to every Monday morning, as I wonder what you will write about next.
Keep up the terrific work.

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Tomek July 15, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Maybe this was Dr.Seuss’s secret ;)
http://www.drseussart.com/hatsoff/

I really appreciate your blog and spirit. Thanks for thinking & writing, David.

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Zaire July 16, 2013 at 12:26 am

Sometimes I feel that you can read my mind. I’m in a bout of blue-greyish mood for no particularly good reason. And then I open this page and it says “How to change your mind”. Reading on, I feel validated to put on the “go ahead be blue” hat until I feel like I want to move on with something else :P

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Nitin July 16, 2013 at 1:29 am

But by putting only one hat on at a time, dont you run the risk that the other aspects of the situation are not taken into account and you get into trouble? I mean, suppose you enter a situation where your gut feels weird/ or you have conjured up the fear response. To avoid this, you enter with a positive outlook, say the yellow or green hat per your scenarios…what happens if you ignore the risks?
My point is this sort of do x in y frame of mind, may not capture the complexities of everyday life..

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Garrett July 16, 2013 at 9:50 pm

It sounds like you spend time wearing each hat during the course of analyzing the matter, so you’d look at the issue at hand from both a positive outlook and a cautious outlook.

I wonder how easy it is to actually put into practice. For instance, someone inclined to be pessimistic or extremely cautious may have a tough time momentarily putting those feelings aside until it comes time to put on the black hat.

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Nevill Wilder July 16, 2013 at 1:49 am

If only we could all simply be aware of and honestly acknowledge what hat we’re wearing, a lot of unnecessary drama could be avoided. Sadly, we are all guilty of wearing garish hats like the “I’ll just let this frustration about a bunch of small thing pile up and cause me to make your life awful later” hat or the “I’m going to complicate my own life because I can” hat. The worst part about any ugly hat is that we’re so embarrassed about them and end up denying that they are even wearing a hat at all. While it is easy to say that we would notice wearing such a tacky piece of headwear, the ability required to take a long look at what’s on your head is beyond all of us at certain junctures. Luckily, even knowing that something is resting on your head can make it much easier to notice that you’re wearing a hat that you would have never put on intentionally. Once you know that, you can throw that ugly thing into the fire and put on the hat that you really want to wear. Such opportunity can only make your life better. Yet another reason to look in the mirror more often than not, eh?

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Sarah July 16, 2013 at 3:50 am

I’m always in the market for ways to consciously improve my mindset. Lately I’ve been struggling with the Indignant Employee mindset too, and am excited to try on my hat next time I’m feeling like that. Thanks for another great post!

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DiscoveredJoys July 16, 2013 at 4:05 am

My ‘sucking-up-to-the-Boss’ hat was always too small and would quickly fall off. Provides a metaphor for my working life.

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claire July 16, 2013 at 5:38 am

just to ditto that. great to read. i liked what you said about housework! thank you david, et al. :)

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claire July 16, 2013 at 5:42 am

(p.s. my comment was sent to ‘ditto’ what sarah said. haha.)

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Fred July 16, 2013 at 7:17 am

A company for which I worked for 5 years was recently acquired by a much bigger company. I left the acquired company about 18 months ago.

I regret not having used the 6 hat process prior to leaving the company. My decision was entirely emotional (“they don’t value me, therefore they don’t deserve me”), and the result was a set of losses that can never be regained – income, the ability to add this remarkable event to my CV, and participation in the joyful group love that comes at the end of a long, difficult journey. I quit when it got tough.

Lesson learned.

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cj July 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

David!! An absorbing post as usual. Knowing the situation has always been helpful to me. And I find I can still be myself even with various hats. The colored hats you mention from De Bono seem to me a form of single tasking.

It is easy to relate this to my music and the guitar. I play a new piece that is challenging for me with my note hat at first, getting perhaps some of the nuances because I have played for so long. Then I put on my rhythm hat, my dynamics hat, my expression hat, etc. When one gets really good at something, they can sometimes where more than one hat at a time without too much dissonance.

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Levi Mitze July 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm

I love this. Never heard of the concept before. It’s brilliant! I’ll definitely be trying on (consciously) a few hats today. Thanks!

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Nikki July 16, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Hi David,
I have been enjoying your blog for a while.
I was wondering if I might inquire to see if you know/would share your Myers-Briggs type.
I don’t know if you put any stake in it; I am just curious. You seem to be a nice mixture of rational and curious about self-improvement.
Nikki

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Nathan Buss July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Hey David, I own and have read the 6 hat book you are referring to. I think you said a roommate took it. I wouldn’t mind sending it to you if you want? ( this is my “how can I be of assistance to you?” hat) Let me know!

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Kararch July 16, 2013 at 6:15 pm

hey thats a nice metaphor for explaining this concept! I have heard it before but they called it “frame” or “framing a situation”, referring on how to enter a situation – in what mood, what kind of person.
First seen in “Mystery method” by mystery

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Tonja July 16, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Hi David, I have been reading your blog for about a year and this is probably my favourite post! While the concept you presented is profound and potentially life-changing, I feel like you served it up while wearing your “light-hearted and witty” hat! Entertaining and thought-provoking! It is nice to see this side of you. After reading about how you eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, I was starting to worry that you were getting a little too serious…:)

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Nevu July 17, 2013 at 6:12 am

Hi David, I think this could be really helpful to put into practise. Its just the wind which blows off my hat and leaves me back in the unfocused nowhere state.
How do you keep the hat on long enough to get the stuff done and know when to change the hat again?

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David July 17, 2013 at 6:50 am

I think it’s just a matter of deciding you’re going to wear a particular hat right now and getting a feel for it. I usually feel my physical posture change, and that new posture keeps me in the mindset.

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Ilsa Walsh July 19, 2013 at 6:34 am

Hi David. I love this post. As a former learning and development consultant I delivered many training sessions about De Bono and the six hats. It was very revealing which mindsets were challenging for different people and where their “default position” lay. There were also many people whose self awareness was really not developed enough for them to take on the different hats at all. Interestingly the most challenging hat for people to wear was usually the green. I think we are so used to judging, analysing and evaluating that it can be very confronting to generate new ideas and let them be as they are. I loved your further exploration of a hat for every occasion.

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Jessi July 19, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Love it. Who’s Lily?

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Brad July 20, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Completely random question. With 17,000 subscribers do you feel like everyone is fighting for your attention? Does everyone want to ask you questions? I’m curious.

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David July 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Yes, there is a high volume of questions and requests on my time, but the problem is more that I don’t have a very good system for handling the various types of correspondence (email, comments, FB, etc). As a lot of readers have learned, my email turnaround time is very slow.

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Brad July 20, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Way to diffuse that stress explosion! I forgot I was wearing an underpaid Peon hat the other day and didn’t handle my stress bomb so well. But this reminds me of something some of my coworkers did. They bought cheap plastic firefighter hats and whenever something really urgent was thrown at them they would literally put on the hats. How cool is that?

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Jess July 26, 2013 at 9:29 am

So many hats!! Need to burn my stressy hat, swap it for my chilled one =P great post – love your blog!

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John July 27, 2013 at 4:26 am

I have a manager whom is fond of saying “Wearing the Managerial hat” when explaining away the illogical, impersonal procedures of the dysfunctional organization in which I am employed. I have taken to asking him to wear “his Human Hat” for a new look at the issue. Unfortunately he has misplaced his and instead stands opened mouth with no words forthcoming. At least he may have begun to look for his lost fedora.

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Emma July 27, 2013 at 6:35 pm

This is a really interesting topic. I think it’s about consciousness raising and stepping outside our limited perspective on life.

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jon baca July 31, 2013 at 1:28 am

cool idea David. Its the power of mindfulness! Beimg aware of how youre feeling and what angle youre coming at a problem from, and then taking it a step further and choosing to maybe come at from a new angle or really embrace the one youre on and going for it. Im gonna try the hat metaphor

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angelina September 15, 2013 at 3:41 am

my classmate’s ex-wife makes $61/hour on the internet. She has been without a job for seven months but last month her payment was $17887 just working on the internet for a few hours. you can check here ———> http://www.jobs47.com

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