Mara Gleason Olsen: Co-founder and director at One Solution.
At Forward Thinking Workplaces, we discover the people, insights, and strategies that lead to Forward Thinking minds, leaders, and workplaces of the future — today!
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Mara Gleason: I believe that all three of those things happen when people understand where their experience is coming from, which is why I’ve been so delighted to stumble across a set of principles that explains where the human experience comes from. One of the reasons the workplace is often considered the opposite of what you just said is that people don’t feel heard. People don’t feel there’s space for innovation—and just generally, many people really dislike their work.
The number of people describing their workplaces as toxic is increasing. Stress and burnout have become routine. Now I don’t think that’s one person’s fault. I don’t believe that it’s the boss’s fault. I don’t think it’s a nasty co-worker’s fault. I believe that it’s an innocent symptom of a misunderstanding about the human experience pervasive throughout all aspects of society right now. But it’s especially pronounced in the workplace.
When people don’t understand that their experience is coming from their own mind, they tend to feel very victimized by external forces.
That means things like the boss, a deadline, budget cuts, or even just the traffic getting into the workplace stress them out. If you were to ask the average human walking around the streets today, what is hard about their job, most people would give you a list of those external forces. Their list would include either people or circumstances that they feel are completely out of their control and have nothing to do with them. But what’s interesting is the principles that we’ve uncovered about how the mind operates and how it creates life experiences from the inside out. It totally flips people’s understanding of life on its head.
Prior to learning an understanding referred to as the three principles, I thought that my good feelings and my bad feelings came from things that happened to me or people around me.
When it was introduced to me that there’s a universal kind of operating system for all human beings regardless of workplace, culture, race, gender, creed, religion, regardless of anything, just a basic set of principles, kind of like biology, that explains how we create our feelings, it was a revelation to me. For example, we have a heartbeat and have cells doing these magnificently complicated jobs inside our bodies. There’s also a human operating system explaining how humans create their perception of reality, which is thought. The fact that we are thinking all the time. That’s thought the first principle.
Then there’s consciousness, the second principle. The fact that we are aware. Humans are aware, but they’re not aware of the outside world. That is what was so new to me. They’re aware of thought. I’m feeling, having awareness in my sensory system in my body, in my feelings, of my own thinking (not the outside world). But it’s so seamless and instantaneous that it appears I’m having a feeling and an awareness of the world out there and other people.
Then the third principle of the mind is that thought comes from an energy source. Just like our heartbeat isn’t something we wake up and manually do every day, there’s no on-button that we must worry about pressing. It’s just an automatic force of life. Mind is the universal automatic force behind life, meaning we will keep having new thoughts. The more people begin to understand that their experience of life is internally generated—not externally generated—the more they realize that they can basically go back to the well to look for new thoughts. That capability is built in—the potential to have a new thought at any moment. It’s like, what do they say when you buy a new toy? Batteries are already included. Well, your mind is already included. The potential for new thought is already included in the human makeup. We have to know where to look for it.
When I’ve worked for companies and introduced the 3 Principles, there’s been this magnificent transition in the individuals and the general workplace culture as people begin to look to see how their experience is created from the inside out—not the outside in. They know, "Oh, I’m experiencing thought, and I can keep looking for a new thought!” Not only does that help people be less victimized, stressed, and burned out, but it also gives them a roadmap to innovation.
Creativity and innovation are just fun words for new thought, in my opinion. New thought is the engine behind creativity, the engine behind innovation. The thing that kills creativity and innovation is old thought. Helping people see some principles that explain the basic human operating system gives them the roadmap to creativity and innovation. It gives them the roadmap to having a richer and more enjoyable work experience because they’re not feeling so stressed and as if that stress is being put upon them.
One of the most beautiful things I see transform in companies—when the people in them learn these principles of how the mind creates our experiences—is that most people are living in a LOT OF THOUGHT and don’t know it—or don’t know that it’s optional.
Thought feels externally imposed, so most people you speak to in your average workplace say they feel like they have too much to do, too little time, and too much noise in their heads. That creates a very unpleasant feeling in a person because we’re living in the feeling of our thinking. But it also makes listening nearly impossible.
There is a massive disconnection in humanity right now, and people are so hungry to be heard—to feel like they’re sitting across from someone present—to feel in the moment. All those things we talk about that we try to get through activities and techniques like yoga and meditation. If people could understand that they’re living in a world of thought, that’s of their making. They don’t have to do that. Then an enormous amount of it falls away. They become quieter and more present-minded. Then listening starts to happen. I sometimes think that is the first thing that changes when people learn these principles—they start listening outside of their old thinking habits. That alone dramatically changes the workplace’s feeling as more people listen with less thinking on their minds.
What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?
Mara: I remember saying to my Dad once, who is still sharing the principles in his company with new employees and many who have been learning about it for years. He once asked me, “Mara, how would you define leadership?” I thought for a moment and said, “I think leadership is bringing out the best in others by bringing out the best in yourself.” I don’t think it’s humanly possible to bring out the best in others if you don’t bring out the best in yourself.
I don’t know why human eyeballs face outward. It would help if they face inward!
I think that’s the funny thing about humans. I always joke (and I don’t really mean this), “I don’t know why human eyeballs face outward. It will help if they face inward!” I say that only because I think everything about us wants to look outside us first. What made me feel that way? How do I fix that person? What needs to be better in my life out there? As if those things are somehow real. From studying the mind and human experience, I've learned that the only thing we’re ever experiencing is ourselves and our mind. The clearer my mind is, the clearer the world looks.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Mara: I would put it very simply; it’s the same thing people lack and long for life anywhere in the world, which is a good feeling.
I could say that in a million different ways—more connection, more feeling, more in the moment, more inspiration, more recognition, and so on. You could say so many words, but I would sum it up by saying people want more good feelings. They want to feel better at work and in life. I’ve never met a human from anywhere—and I’ve worked with violent gang members who are doing lifetime prison sentences to CEOs with millions and millions of dollars in their bank account—and underneath the wrapping of those individuals on the inside is the same desire, which is to feel nice in life. I don’t mean happy all the time; that’s not what I mean. I think a more good feeling can just be a peace of mind.
I think sometimes people strive for happiness. It’s misleading. I’m not happy all the time, but I enjoy my life. I have a lot of peace of mind, and I think that’s what people are looking for. If people only knew how their experience of life was being created from the inside out, everyone could have peace of mind no matter where they are and what work they were in. I know that upsets some people. I know there are so many different exceptions people want to see, but I have been blown away by how unconditional peace of mind can become in my last 11 years of doing this work.
How many people would start by saying it with absolutely 100% certainty that the circumstance or the other person was making them miserable? When they learn how their minds work and find peace of mind from within, they feel free. They feel happier. They feel more contentment. They feel more peace, and they have more good feelings. It’s not a conditional good feeling. It’s an unshakable, internally derived good feeling.
To put it simply, a good feeling comes from a quiet mind. People don’t appreciate that because they’re looking for so many things outside of them to give them that good feeling. When they truly experience a quiet mind, it’s like, “Oh, wow!” I don’t even need the things I thought I needed!”
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Mara: It’s going to sound ridiculous and unorthodox, but what I would ask is this, “If you weren’t doing this with your time, what would you be doing?” I think it’s incredibly revealing. People don’t let themselves ask themselves that question because they don’t see it as a possibility. And I wouldn’t stop there.
If I were running an IT company and said to my employee, “What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?” and they said surfing. I wouldn’t then walk away saying, “Well, ok, too bad, that’s nothing related to IT. I guess you got to make a choice, either stick with this boring job or go surf.” I think it’s just interesting to see where people let themselves go in their thinking when asked that question. The reason I’d ask that question—not because the answer specifically matters—I’d be looking for what makes them come alive. Then I would love to find out what it is about that thing that makes them come alive. Because what I’ve learned in sharing these principles with people is that they’ve innocently attributed freedom of mind to a specific activity.
For example, “Oh, I have this job I do, but what I love is woodworking.” Or, “Oh, I have this job, but what I love doing is playing tennis.” Or, “What I love to do is tinkering around with gadgets in my house.” Whatever this thing is is people telling you what makes them come alive. What they would love to be doing all day, every day—that’s where their mind is free. That’s where they don’t overthink. That’s where they don’t care what anyone else says. They don’t care about an outcome. They are just in a flow or in the moment. Any activity that a human says is what they love doing is where their mind is free.
But most of us, myself included, assumed it was something in the activity itself before learning these principles. The activity did something special to me. Therefore I had a lot of enjoyment while I was doing that activity. I think there’s so much room to explore where people might be able to come alive—to be in the moment.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Mara: Ask the same question above. I only say that because I think in offices and work environments, people tend to put so many boxes around things like, “Well, this is what a manager would ask of an employee, and this is what an employee would ask of a manager.”
I think we’re all just humans, and we forget that. I don’t know that the question should change. We tend to think the question should change, but in truth, it’s, “What makes humans come alive?” Let’s all talk about that more.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Mara: It’s funny because we just mentioned cats, dogs, and babies in an earlier conversation. I’m going to suggest we stop asking ourselves questions and be. I always say to my clients when they say, “Doesn’t this matter, and doesn’t this matter?” They’re overburdening their mind with so many questions and never answering them. It just creates a lot of chatter in the human mind. It creates this sense of deficiency or lack. People are saying to themselves, “Well, I have to figure this out, and I don’t have enough of that yet. And what about this, and what about that.” I always look at small children, and I think they’re not asking themselves questions themselves like, “How am I doing today?” or, “Am I a bad person because I did that thing?” They’re just in life, and when they do ask questions, they ask questions about the world—not about themselves.
People overburdening their minds with so many questions and never answering them. It just creates a lot of chatter in the human mind.
In young children, you can see it starts at five, six, or seven years old. They start becoming self-conscious creatures and start realizing they have an identity. That’s when we start asking ourselves questions. When you look at a baby, it’s learning by the sheer state of being in wonderment—not actively seeking out an answer. I think there’s something so lovely—if adults could just let go of all the questioning and be in a state of life and wonderment without needing to know answers. You get answers and learning about life, but it’s not necessarily what you thought you were going to get, but it’s just as rich if not richer.
I would also add to this one of the things that shifted for me when I learned some principles explain the human experience. Mind is a built-in intelligence, so it almost looks cute to me now. I’ll speak for myself—I don’t mean to be patronizing towards anyone else. It’s almost cute to me that I try to figure things out with my personal thought system. “Oh, what should I be doing with this?” It now looks very innocently cute. Isn’t that sweet? There go my personal mind and my personal thinking. My personal thought system trying to come up with answers. Because whenever that personal thought system goes quiet, I live with the intelligence of mind at my back. Everything I’ve gotten so far in life has just been an automatic result of being human and having the intelligence of life built into me. Every time I’ve struggled, it’s because my little personal thought system has started making up stories that I don’t know enough. I don’t need to ask myself more questions.
Every time I’ve struggled it’s because my little personal thought system has started making up stories that I don’t know enough. I don’t need to ask myself more questions.
Syd Banks had the quote that, “Humans have the knowledge of all things and just don’t know it.” That statement has always struck me. My little ego part is saying, “Really, all things… all, all things?” I don’t want to get greedy about it, but I realize that’s more of a spiritual statement when I get out of my personal mind. It’s like when you get quiet, you realize you know everything you need to know. The rest is just chatter. We make up a whole bunch of ideas about where we should be—what we should know. There’s something about just resting in a deeper, more universal, more fundamental intelligence. That state comes to us in a state of being.
In an earlier conversation with you, I shared my experience of observing things starting to change around me as I started leading myself and “being the change.” Can you share your thoughts on why this happens?
Mara: I think there’s something so profound in that, and I’ll try to talk about it simply because I think it can easily get lost and sound too abstract, but that’s the profundity of seeing humans are levels of consciousness because most people are looking for what do I do? Tell me what to do? What’s good leadership? Would you please give me the things that you do? The things that the great leader does. There’s really no juice for the squeeze in doing because doing is just a natural ripple out of a state of consciousness. And to your point, anytime someone leaps in their own personal understanding of their own mind or has their own shift in consciousness, they do differently without even realizing it, and then things change.