April 25, 2024

Three Powerful Life and Work Lessons From the Solar Eclipse

For several hours April 8th, across a large swath of North America, 50 million people stopped everything to stare at the solar eclipse. Stores closed, many districts canceled school and, in the areas where totality was visible, internet traffic dropped by 40%. Media reported lost productivity of $700 million countered by an economic windfall of $6 billion.

As captivating as these numbers may be, they miss the point. In a world besotted by productivity and profits, we work hard to avoid idleness, going to great and often manufactured lengths to keep busy. And then something comes along (dare I say, once in a blue moon?) that causes us to slow down and realize that there's a big, beautiful world out there. That the nagging challenges of every day are small in comparison to the mysteries of nature and the majesty of the universe.

As memorable as it was, the eclipse was more than an astronomy lesson. It was an extraordinary chance to step back and…stop. Just as a muscle strengthens in recovery, our best performance requires us to take breaks from the grind. But we can't wait for a rare event to force us to do that. Here are three powerful life lessons to glean from the afterglow of this week’s eclipse—before we get sucked back into the spreadsheets, tasks and trivia of everyday life.

Make Time To Pause And Reflect Every Day

In a busy workday, moments to pause and reflect are few and far between. And even when they emerge, we are heavily biased toward activity. A studyof soccer penalty kicks drives this home. Despite clear evidence that goalies who stay in the center have a 33% chance of stopping the goal, in all but 6% of shots, they lunged right or left. The reason? Goalies felt better losing a goal if they moved than if they had stayed still. Moving felt better, even when the strategy was suboptimal.

The workplace is no different. We are measured by our actions and results, celebrated for our efficiency and speed. Standing still feels wasteful. While reflection presages smart action, it doesn't come naturally: it takes practice. Good reflection pulls from past experience to shape and sharpen future action. Start with a dedicated 10 minutes to review your day. Better still, debrief with colleagues at the end of an important meeting. Reflecting together amplifies your insights. Consider your accomplishments and ponder the obstacles. What might have been different? What do you wish you had more time for? Unless we slow down to process our actions, consider our successes and learn from our failures, we risk losing valuable insights and missing the winning shots.

Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Wonder And Awe

For the million times someone uses the word “awesome,” how often do we find ourselves actually awed? Awe is having a moment in the research world these days. According to Berkeley professor, Dacher Keltner, awe is “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world” – something like a solar eclipse. Through awe, we ground ourselves in the understanding that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, larger in scale and scope than even our most vexing challenges.

This doesn't mean we have to see something mind-blowing everyday. But it does require an effort to appreciate the larger world, understand its beauty and complexity and to relish the moments to practice looking for surprises in unexpected corners. If awe feels a little ambitious, cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity. Take a walk in nature, look a bit closer at the first flowers of spring or listen to the birdsong. Get lost in a book or take yourself down the rabbit hole on a topic you are curious about. Or simply daydream. So much comes alive when we soften the boundaries of our thinking. And it pays dividends: research tells us that awe and wonder calm the nervous system by releasing oxytocin, deepen our breathing and make us happier.

Remember That We’re In This Together

At a time when loneliness and burnout are at an all time high, sharing an experience with others is pure gold. When we do—especially one as magical as the eclipse—it’s amazing how much kinship we feel with those around us, even perfect strangers. One scientist, looking at interpersonal impacts of the 2017 eclipse, analyzed language changes in Twitter feeds to find that people who experienced totality were more humble, grateful and open to others. He even saw a marked increase in the use of “we” instead of “I.” The effect didn't last very long, but it was powerful and visible.

A good shared experience doesn’t have to be an event of galactic proportion—it can work its magic everyday. The power of something as simple as lunch with a friend has a tonic effect on our sense of connection. For teams or groups, shared rituals emphasize common objectives and social experience, and have a powerful effect on belonging and performance. The idea of group ritual may evoke cringy dances or team cheers; that's not necessary. A great experience can be a regular retreat, a collective volunteer project or a regular discussion of current events, films, literature or even sports. One company I worked with started each meeting with a centering exercise—a three to five minute meditation led by a rotating member of the team. The physical effect of shifting their focus, aligning their breaths and grounding their presence prepared them to tackle challenging topics with more equanimity.

In a world preoccupied by conflict and polarization, we could certainly use more eclipse in our lives, working its magic across every divide: the color of our skin, the passion of our political views or the culture of our ancestors. For a brief moment, we are one, bearing witness to a phenomenon that both stretches our collective imagination and reminds us of our shared humanness. We can file it away and move on, waiting decades for the next one. Or we can try to create our own moments of awe that add some eclipse magic to every day, making us happier, more connected and, ironically, even more productive.

First Published in Forbes.com.

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