Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge produced by Sounds True. My name is Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit soundstruefoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Jeffrey Davis. Jeffrey researches and works with innovators, professionals, writers, scientists, and social psychologists, who offer him leading insights into the creative process. He’s the founder of the Tracking Wonder Consultancy. With Sounds True, Jeffrey Davis has written a new book, it’s called Tracking Wonder: Reclaiming a Life of Meaning and Possibility in a World Obsessed with Productivity. Before speaking with Jeffrey, I thought I knew what wonder was, but I think I only knew one dimension.
Jeffrey shares with us six facets of wonder, and most importantly, how we can increase our wonder quotient, bring more wonder into our lives and our world, become more wonder-filled. Here’s—I’m going to say it—my wonderful conversation with Jeffrey Davis.
Jeffrey, the topic of wonder has become the focus of quite a bit of your teaching work, your writing. You’re the founder of the Tracking Wonder Consultancy. As a way for our listeners to get to know you a little bit, how did the topic of wonder become so central to how you teach, what you write about, what you focus on?
Jeffrey Davis: Yes, that’s a great question. There’s maybe an inspiration point and a series of inflection points. The inspiration point came while being in South India, studying with my teacher of yoga, TKV Desikachar. I was researching for another project that was exploring the creative process and yoga philosophy and practices. I was curious about this experience that I only had the word for the delight and surprise we sometimes feel when we’re in the creative process. He led me to a book, little known book among some, called the Shiva Sutras. It’s really all about a sort of innate creative force within us.
There was a reference to vismaya, Sanskrit for wonder or a fascinating wonder, a joy-filled amazement that we experience when we’re aware of, let’s say, ultimate reality in this ordinary waking world. The commentaries just lit a whole-bodied yes through me. I realized that’s what I wanted to devote much of the next several years to—my studies and my pursuit. So, that was the moment of inspiration. I realize in retrospect, when I look back at so many critical points from my 20s and even earlier, I was like, oh, that’s always what I was being attracted to, these experiences of wonder.
But it was a few years later when the real inflection points came, because before that, for a few years, I was pursuing all different areas of wonder and wisdom traditions, very little science of wonder at the time. But I was scrambling to find any signs of wonder at the time. It was a few years later, after a series of hardships that my wife and I both endured. We were newly married. She had two miscarriages. In the same spring, I contracted Lyme disease, which is a tick-borne disease that can really devastate you neurologically and physiologically.
I thought I got through it OK after the first round of antibiotics. It turned out I really didn’t. Within just a couple of weeks after that, lightning struck our dream house, farmhouse, here in the Hudson Valley that we had just purchased. Literally sent a fire roaring through my study and studio. It kind of devastated our sense that, oh, we’re going to build our dreams. Maybe we’ll have a couple of wonderlings wandering around someday.
The next day, I came back to the house, which we would not be in for the next 15 plus months while it got gutted and renovated. I came back to my studio to size up some of the books I could salvage out of the 300 that were ultimately destroyed. I was noticing I was really shutting down. I was closing down. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t quite find the tears. I was feeling rage, but not sure what I was angry about. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw this pulsing, this monarch that had flown through one of the holes that the firefighters had knocked in the wall. For just a moment, all of the armor within me sort of dissolved, all the closeness dissolved. I felt open again before this beautiful monarch that had flown in.
I felt open again that, OK, I’m not a big sign seeker, but I took it for what it was worth. It was like, OK, we’re going to be OK for the next—however long this ordeal lasts. That was enough to give me enough hope and sense of openness to make it through those challenges. Now here’s where the series of inflection points really take shape for this project, to answer your question. Because then I thought oh, this is the real practice of tracking wonder. It’s not just when everything’s going really great for you and you’re just playing along your good days. The real practice of tracking wonder is what happens in moments of adversity and consistent challenge and change.
So, I got really curious about my own practices, my own living laboratory. I got really curious about testing out other ideas with our clients and our community. So, that was our living laboratory. I started gathering more the emerging science of wonder to explore this question. How do fulfilled innovators, how do people who really describe themselves as fulfilled and who are making significant contributions in different fields, ultimately thrive amidst constant challenge and change? That’s what got me on to this current project that we’re discussing today.
TS: So, for a listener who says, “The emerging science of wonder? I didn’t know there was a science of wonder.” What is that?
JD: Yes. So, when I started this, I was looking into three areas of research: human flourishing, mindfulness, and innovation. So, human flourishing. Marty Seligman and another psychologist had really foremostly developed what we now call positive psychology, which is a very different orientation to psychology than the previous hundred-plus years, to look at how certain positive emotions might ultimately help us flourish. At the time, there was relatively little science on wonder, in part because it’s so subtle. It is so subtle physiologically, and even neurologically, that psychologists were studying love, compassion.
Dr. Keltner, whom we both know, was on the trail of awe. He and I had early conversations back in 2006 about his studies of awe, but little on wonder. So, some of the science of awe and wonder overlap, but what some of the science of wonder is demonstrating is quite remarkable. So, let me just define wonder maybe for our listeners. OK.
TS: That would be great, yes, especially because you said it’s “subtle physiologically.” That brought up for me, how do I even know for sure, in any given moment, that this is wonder? So, a definition, but also a kind of litmus test in my own experience. This is wonder, Tami. Now you know what it is for sure.
JD: That’s such a great question. I hope this conversation actually illuminates more of just what I want this book to give, which is a shared language of possibility, a shared language of the emotions of possibility, which are what I call the facets of wonder. So wonder, I define for entry-point level here, is a heightened state of awareness brought on by something unexpected that delights us, disorients us, or both. A heightened state of awareness like instant mindfulness brought on by something unexpected that delights us, disorients us, or both.
Something, somebody you know, you think you know very well says something to you that’s kind of surprising and makes your head sort of tilt and maybe it delights you. Maybe it helps you see that person in a new way. Maybe it challenges your notions of who that person is. That’s a potential experience of wonder in the facet of connection. Or, a turkey shows up on the streets of Boulder, that’s another potential moment of wonder as well, because it’s delightful, potentially disorienting, right? What’s remarkable physiologically, and out of some studies out of Arizona University, is that these moments of surprise can pause the fight-or-flight response.
We know that positive emotions, such as love, will attract us. We’re attracted toward the stimulus. Emotions like fear repel us. Experiences of wonder can hold us in pause, can pause us in the state of receptivity and maybe even possible appreciation. So, I’ll pause there for a moment just to let you digest that.
TS: OK. Yes, what comes up for me is, I’ll just share something from my own life for a moment, which is often I notice—especially if I’m working a lot and I’m not really taking enough time for my inner life—that the world can become kind of flat to me. Like one more morning, undoing the dishwasher one more time, doing this other—very rote. I want to find out if I’m using the word wonder correctly or not. There is this wondrous, I might use the word sacred or something, dimension that’s always present all the time in all of these things that I’m doing that feel kind of covered over with a gray film because I can’t see it or find it, but underneath it’s wondrous. Is that the right use of the word wonder?
JD: It’s the perfect use of the word wonder for so many reasons, even the way you just laid it out. There’s nothing to, I would say, “pathologize” about the fact that often you go through the world in just the terms that you described. We’re, in part, wired neurologically to slot the world into different categories so we can survive and not have to figure out everything like, oh, dish pan. Oh, that’s a faucet. There’s not this constant relearning every day. On the other hand, just exactly what you’re describing, taking moments to pause and even be aware of one’s surroundings. Then, it does feel as if a veil is lifted.
Those are potential moments of wonder. So, I describe wonder as having this effect on us, and experiences of wonder, that sometimes they will disrupt or dissolve our biased perceptions, right? We have just these natural filters and for a moment, for a fleeting moment, these experiences of wonder can disrupt or dissolve those biased perceptions of ourselves, of one another, of our surroundings, of what we consider the world. We see again what is real and true, what is beautiful and possible.
Sometimes just for a moment, as you’re washing the dishes, suddenly you look around and you just recognize the ordinary beauty and the water flowing and the beauty of just taking care of the dishes. Perhaps you just had a meal with your partner and you’re just honoring that whole sacred moment and for a moment, that is wondrous, and that is potentially expansive if you heat it.
TS: So, is it fair to say that any moment, including this moment, the moment that the listener is in right now, could be a moment of connecting with wonder? It’s possible, any moment.
JD: I just got the goosebumps. I’m going to say yes. Goosebumps are actually, sometimes, the physiological response to having a moment of wonder. I think the reason I got goosebumps is because you really identified something that is really beautiful about moments of wonder, is that they often happen in the space between us. There’s a beautiful relational and social dimension to wonder, that they don’t only happen watching the great sunsets, which is what we may think, and certainly they do happen there, but they can happen right here in the most beautiful, ordinary moments, even in conversation, maybe even particularly in real conversation.
TS: Now there’s a lot I want to talk to you about, Jeffrey. You’ve created a whole, I would call it “cartography” of tracking wonder that’s really interesting. I want to get into it. But first I just want to know, now that you’ve been immersed in studying wonder, tracking wonder, talking to other people about wonder, has your life really become wonder-filled? How are you different now than you were 15 years ago before this became such a focus for you?
JD: Thank you for that question, because I’ve reflected quite a bit on it, particularly the past two or three years, to recognize there are certain days I’m like, wow, the wonder ratio was really up. Of course, it was the now late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist whose work, for the listeners who don’t know, gave us the language of flow. He said something in his follow-up study on creativity that has always stayed with me, “You are what you pay attention to.” You are what you pay attention to.
So to your question, the more I’ve paid attention to wonder, the more I’ve discussed wonder, the more refined have been my sensibilities to recognizing the numerous moments of wonder that arise in my life. So, yes, my wonder ratio really has amplified by virtue of that.
TS: Now your book uses the title Tracking Wonder. Tell us a little bit about this metaphor of tracking, of tracking animal paw prints, but also scatology and all the other things we might track.
JD: Yes, thank you for that. So actually, Hilary, my wife—I have to credit her, in part, for that title, because she had actual experience in studying with some of the foremost animal trackers. Tracking animals, not to hunt them down, but tracking them to understand them better. Tracking them to better understand where they might dwell, what are their habits, where are the typical places where they pursue prey, perhaps, but not to pin them down and hunt them. We were taking a walk many, many years ago in the woods and I was explaining to her what I was really devoted to pursuing and she’s like, “Oh, you’re tracking wonder.”
So, it stuck ever since then, but now I can clearly say, this is exactly what you and I are talking about. moments of wonder are subtle. They are a red fox of emotions because it’s like, now you see them, now you don’t. They’re pervasive yet they’re evasive. We do want to bring more of ourselves, more of our faculties than just our rational, analytical faculties to tracking wonder. We want to bring our imagination. We want to bring our intuition, our somatic intelligence, these other parts of us, to actually tracking these experiences.
TS: In the book, you write that if we want to know what tracking wonder means, we have to pay more attention to what you call the six facets of wonder and—ready, here we go—I was going to say “I wonder,” but you probably get a lot of puns and stuff like that. It’s kind of endless once you start really bringing wonder into your vocabulary. But I wonder if you would introduce us briefly to the six facets, and then I have some questions about them.
JD: I would love to. So, I do think, too, for those listeners who’ve had therapy, for instance, and maybe a therapist helped them define certain emotions they’re experiencing, that actually helped them navigate their inner world. Just as in Buddhism, there’s a lot of language about certain states of awareness to understand our inner world. What I want these six facets to do for listeners is actually give them this shared language where they’re like, oh, that’s what that is. So, here are the six facets, and they often function in pairs.
The first pair is openness and curiosity. Openness is the wide-sky facet that really cracks us open to possibility, where we actually foster what I call an “intelligent naiveté” to pursue some new possibilities—really important. Curiosity is a more playful, proactive facet of wonder that questions and challenges the status quo of things, questions the way things have always been done. That’s why I call it the “rebel facet.” I’m confident Tami has a bit of that rebel facet. Those two facets are really important in terms of allowing us to approach challenges more creatively than reactively, more flexibly than rigidly.
The second pair is bewilderment and hope. These are really important for our times. Bewilderment is the disorienting facet of wonder, when our sense of identity or even the ideas we’re pursuing get really confused, which is why I call it the “deep woods” facet. This is where we don’t fight or flee from confusion, but actually learn to fertilize confusion. Hope is the rainbow facet. This is not wishful thinking. I have to admit this was a part of … My challenge is I really dove into the science of hope. I actually had some biases toward hope in equating it to wishful thinking, but so many people I was working with in our community were suffering from crises and adversity. So, I really dove into the science of hope to discover that it’s very proactive. It does involve deliberate daydreaming and goal setting so that you can keep moving toward a better near future. The final pair. So, those two facets, by the way, bewilderment and hope, are essential for building resilience and fortitude without burning out.
The third pair is connection and admiration. I have to say these perhaps are also maybe the most important for our strange times in our culture, divisiveness and polarity, because these are the relational facets of wonder.
Connection is what I call the “flock” facet. It speaks to our yearning to sync up with one another, our yearning to really connect with strangers and people we’ve been become overly familiarized with and find the support and collaboration among them. Admiration is what I call the “mirror” facet. So, I define admiration as a surprising love for someone else’s excellence and character or craft. So, I’ll pause there, let you digest that.
TS: OK, very good. Yes. Obviously, there’s a lot here. I think before I read Tracking Wonder, I associated wonder with openness and curiosity, like those two things that, if you said to me, “What’s a moment of wonder?” To be honest with you, I did not associate wonder with the other four facets that you’re identifying, so I’m more interested in going into the other four facets, if that’s OK. Just because I think it will be more surprise-filled and possibly disorienting and delightful for our listeners, consequently. OK. So, let’s go into this notion of bewilderment.
You talked about this idea that we could fertilize confusion and that somehow that would be useful for us. I was a little bit like, OK, first of all, I don’t really like being confused. It’s not something pleasant. I don’t associate it with being wonder-filled, and I don’t know what you mean by fertilizing it.
JD: Yes. Thank you for that, great questions. I’m glad we’re delving into the less familiar facets of wonder. Bewilderment, maybe this is a helpful entry point for us, listeners. We go to children’s literature, wondrous kid stuff because children are always in wonder. I think children are quite disoriented quite often. The children’s literature often reflects it. Let’s think of the archetypal film version of The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy lands, she has her tornado moment, which is quite mythical, and lands in a whole other world of reality in Oz.
She has that classic statement, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Or, when Alice spirals down the rabbit hole and then the hookah-toking caterpillar says, “Who are you?” Alice is like, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve been so many different people just since this morning.” I think, “Oh, yes, many of us feel that way.” So, bewilderment, many of the listeners, if they just think about the experiences maybe they’ve had in the past year-and-a-half or two years, when their sense of what was real and true got turned on its head or when they thought who they were got disrupted.
Those can be moments of bewilderment because wonder can decenter our sense of self. Wonder can decenter our sense of self so that, ultimately, we can re-center our sense of self. Now, you’re right. Most of us want to flee from confusion. Most of us are profoundly uncomfortable with confusion and uncertainty. I know myself, I have a high tolerance for ambiguity and confusion, and I used to think it was a character flaw. Why can’t you just get with the program and know everything and be certain about everything?
But I recognized it’s actually an advantage because I work with so many people and organizations advancing their work, dealing with mounds of uncertainty and confusion, that it’s actually made me a good ally to help them navigate the confusion. So, fertilize. Actually, let me just review four things about bewilderment that might be helpful entry points for listeners. One, rather than flee from the confusion or fight the confusion—when we fight the confusion, we just want to get a quick answer to something—rather than that, start by feeling it.
This is where we come back to that heightened state of awareness you were alluding to earlier. Actually feel the confusion. I have clients actually describe, sometimes even draw the confusion metaphorically, and they used language like floating. I feel like I’m floating. There’s no ground underneath me, or I’m spinning. That’s important just to acknowledge and bring that somatic intelligence to the experience. Then we can celebrate the confusion. I don’t mean that glibly.
I mean that it could be a moment that you’re on to potential transformation, whether it’s personal or professional or just with the ideas you’re sitting with. Then, we fertilize the confusion. Well, even before we fertilize the confusion, we want to do some things to pause seeking quick answers. So if you’re confused, kind of in two categories—confused about who you’re becoming. You just lost your job or you quit your job, which has been quite common lately. You’re not sure who you’re becoming.
Rather than seek the quick answer, try to find activities to help you pause and live in the question of: Who am I becoming? That’s challenging, but we can talk about how to do that. Fourth is what you are alluding to, which is fertilize the confusion. Could I give an example?
TS: Please. Yes.
JD: OK. I hold inner circles of about six to eight business owners, professionals, academics. They all have in common that they’re wanting to advance certain ideas or kind of complex projects, but they need more visibility with those ideas. With that comes more vulnerability. Inevitably, Tami, one or more of them experiences their own tornado moments. Quite often, just as soon as they say, “This is what I’m going to experience.” There are these series of tornado moments.
So, in one of my inner circles once, somebody just was—I can’t give away too many details—but she’d just like, “OK, this is really where I’m taking my work in the world.” Within a matter of weeks, she realized that her partnership wasn’t working, a long-term partnership wasn’t working. She’s going to have to make some decisions there. Realized that where she thought she was going with her business wasn’t working, and became really physically ill. All of this kind of working together.
So, she came for a spotlight and she’s like, “I just really don’t know where I need to go next.” So, I gave her a couple of suggestions related to bewilderment. I said, “Don’t do anything too quickly for a while. You are sick right now.” She was in the spotlight from the sick bed. And I said, “OK, here’s my prescription. For 10 days, visit your sick bed at least once a day for an hour.” Do you remember when you were a child? When I was sick, sick day was great because it was just me and my imagination and my drawing pads and so forth.
So, I said to her, “To fertilize your confusion here, you’ve got this question about who are you becoming now and who are you in relationship? Where’s your business going? Live those questions, bring out your color set of markers and sketch pads.” She’s like, “Right. I actually have those. I haven’t pulled those out in quite some time.” I said, “For once a day, for an hour, I want you to explore these series of questions.” Again, they’re private questions for her. She did so for 10 days.
I didn’t know what to expect, but in those 10 days, every day she was drawing these elaborate mind maps that ultimately gave her insight, like deep, profound insight into where she was going in all three parts of her life, her personal identity, her relationship, and her business. Now again, I can’t give away too many details for privacy, but I hope that gives you some sense of how it comes into play in practice.
TS: Yes. I’ll tell you the question that’s coming up for me. I talk to people, friends, people I’m just meeting and they’ll share sometimes, “I’m going through a really big transition. It’s like a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of thing.” You can tell they’re going through some type of huge, to use the word you use, decentering. The center that used to be the center of their life is no longer the center of their life. They’re painting it in spiritual terms that it’s a dark night.
It’s clearly, in their own view as they talk about it, a time of suffering. They would not say, oh, I’m in an experience of deep wonder about this transformation I’m in the middle of. People don’t say that. So, what it brings up for me is, what is the accurate emotional valence? Am I going to start to just switch off to like, oh, this is a wonder-filled time instead of a deeply disorienting, terrible time?
JD: I love that question. Thank you for this. You always ask such good questions. So, let’s think of the sacred geometry of overlapping circles, what we call in secular terms, the Venn diagram. But it’s really quite sacred. Overlapping circles, positive, negative. Positive emotions, negative emotions. Light, dark. Bewilderment is right in that space in between, and it deliberately looks like an oval opening of a cave, a birth canal. That’s where wonder resides, that’s where bewilderment resides, and that’s potentially where transformation resides.
So, to answer your question in very concrete terms, bewilderment is neither positive nor negative. You’re going to experience both and neither framing—this is suffering, or this is OK and wondrous—are accurate or real. If you really feel bewilderment, it feels like floating. It feels disorienting. It feels like you’re going through the woods.
There’s moments of excitement and there’s moments of potential terror and deep fear. But the practice is, how do you keep navigating the deep woods? Or let’s say the choppy ocean, to use a different metaphor. How do you navigate the choppy ocean when you have left behind the familiar shore of the life you had set up? You’re moving toward another shore that you don’t even know where it is or what it’s going to be. So, how do you navigate that choppy ocean without sinking under?
The metaphor of the dark night of the soul can be useful, but not if it’s all framed in suffering, because that is where we will potentially be paralyzed and go under.
TS: So, if I hear you correctly, sometimes wonder can be a positive experience when we’re feeling delight and sometimes it’s not positive or negative, it’s something else. It’s just an opening of discovery. Is that correct?
JD: It is. I have to say, this is even—and I’d have to talk to people like Dacher [Keltner] about this, and the psychology, because he has studied quite in depth, the physiology of certain emotions. But let’s think about this. When psychologists use positive and negative emotions, they’re not actually ascribing a moral value like good and bad. It’s actually positive in part because positive emotions attract us toward the stimulus. Negative emotions repel us. Many experiences of wonder hold us in that pause of receptivity, taking it in. This is where that increased sacred awareness comes into play. Can I be fully present and aware even in this seemingly dark moment? Does that make sense?
TS: It does. It does. Yes. Now, Jeffrey, you do a lot of work with people in business and you’re bringing in wonder interventions at the workplace. How could this pair of bewilderment and hope come together at work to help people?
JD: Great question again, because the new world of work is profoundly bewildering. What I hope for listeners who are in the workplace or leaders, executives, managers, as well as employees, that this gives them a new language and hope as well. So, part of the re-skilling necessary with wonder interventions is to help employees and leaders and managers become more comfortable with confusion, actually openly acknowledging when they’re confused. This does not equate to incompetence. So, let me frame it this way, too. I know you’ll appreciate this because I don’t want to get too much into my admiration of Sounds True, but I will say what I have admired about Sounds True is doing things with integrity and challenging conventional business models.
But I’ll just put this in these terms and like the 20th century paradigm of how to “make it” in the business world was, you needed to be the expert or the smartest person in the room or appear to be the smartest person in the room, the one who knew things and knew more than others. What I would suggest that can be advantageous is not to be incompetent, be fully competent in your field, but to increasingly know what you don’t know, and to increasingly acknowledge what you’re confused about. Can we, as a team, for instance, actually fertilize some of our confusion together and bring about some collaboration to really—let’s just open it up and get into what we really don’t understand about employee benefits or how to engage employees.
Because this is such a common language, we’re often approaching it with conventional terms. Hope, so hope is very proactive and is immediately applicable in a company setting. I think 10-year, five-year and three-year planning is still useful, but not as useful necessarily as it used to be. What can be very helpful and hope-inducing even for employees is to set short-term goals, to set their sights on just where can I get to in the next three weeks or the next six weeks, and be very concrete with those goals. Then, the next thing is to surround yourself with other hopeful people—other people on the team who share that three-week or that six-week goal.
How do we collectively share that goal and support you and support us with that goal? That’s really important. But the other wondrous part in the science of hope is actively daydreaming. This is where it gets a little counter in most company culture, to actually encourage employees, encourage leaders to actively deliberately daydream on the next possible future horizon, even if that’s just six weeks or six months. So, I hope some of what I’ve said has—
TS: Yes, actively daydreaming needs set time aside to just see what comes up, like, different than brainstorming.
JD: Yes, very much so. This, in part, comes from the science of Jerome Singer. Singer shifted his own colleagues’ attitudes toward daydreaming IN psychology. Psychologists, not surprising, have their own set of biases. For a long time, they were biased toward praising the capacity to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. They saw daydreaming as kind of mind wandering, which can get us into negative patterns of ruminating. But Singer, he calls it constructive daydreaming. We’ve called it at Tracking Wonder for quite some time, deliberate daydreaming. It is when you actively set aside time to daydream. This is what I do on a regular, almost daily basis.
I go out to a spot where I actually see a horizon, a ridge of mountains, and I actively daydream about the next possible future horizon. We have clients do this, we have teams who do it. They don’t necessarily go out to mountain horizon.
TS: OK, but I’ve got to ask you a question, Jeffrey, because I spend time every day, now that I’m working at home, lying on the couch, doing something. I don’t know if I’m actively daydreaming or if, perhaps, I’m doing something else like lethargically relaxing. I don’t know.
JD: It could be a fine line, right? If an employee at Sounds True was just lounging on the couch and said, “Well, I’m just deliberately daydreaming, Tami.” Deliberate means intentional, so you go forward with a question. That you want to live, so to speak, that you want to daydream. You formulate the question that you’re daydreaming, or you formulate the goal and how will I actively, how could I actively get there? How could we, as a team, actively get there?
Whether it’s a sketch pad or something else to actually document some of the tracking of the daydreaming helps it be deliberate and not get into passive rumination. This is some of the negative downer patterns I talk about in the book, where we could get into negative catastrophic daydreaming. Yes.
TS: Yes. All right. Very good. Well, let’s briefly talk about the last two facets that you identify, connection and admiration. Now, the place where my attention really got piqued—and you’ll probably know where I’m going here. Under admiration as a doorway to wonder, it’s easy to think of the people that we just think are fabulous and how wonder-filled that is, but you actually say there can be a fine line between admiration and envy, and that we can use envy as a gateway to wonder. That’s what I wanted to hear more about.
JD: Absolutely. So, there is a benign, good type of envy and there’s certainly a toxic envy. I think we know what the toxic envy is. We go onto Instagram, we think somebody’s life is perfect or we see somebody’s success or achievement, and we get envious, maybe jealous. We have a little schadenfreude, which is, if we see somebody fail, we’re like, oh, good, they failed. That’s schadenfreude. But there are some studies that actually show that a positive or benign envy can actually be very motivating for us, ourselves, to excel.
I catch myself doing this quite often with some of my colleagues. I have some of my clients actively identify certain people in their fields who, perhaps, are leading certain conversations or advancing certain ideas in the same field that they want to. I said, follow them. Look at what they do, but then identify the that, that you want to be like. I’ll give you a personal example that I think can clarify things for listeners, that I give him the book as well.
One of my psychologist friends who I’ve known since 2010, he has three daughters. I have two daughters. He is like Captain Fantastic and he’s super buffed, which I’m not. He is always showing posts of himself with his daughters. One of them is having airplane pilot lessons, somebody else is jumping off cliffs into water, all this bungee jumping. I thought, I want to be a father like that. Well, if I stopped there, I could really get into a toxic downward spiral of envy, like I’m not good enough.
This is my inner Piglet mind saying, “I’m not good enough. I’m not a good enough father.” That’s not helpful. It’s not productive. So, I identify that “that.” I want to be a father like that. What is that? Oh, I want to build my two daughters’ courage and strength and grit. So that’s led to certain activities, not like my friend’s, but it has led me to put my daughters in challenges that suit them and that suit me. That’s the way, really, that watching him, it was envy turned into admiration, and helped me be better at what I do as a father, in my way, for my two daughters. That translates directly in the business world as well.
TS: Now, just to ask a clarifying question here, do you think it’s possible that when we find ourselves feeling something that you could say, I think that’s toxic envy. I think so—that we could just kind of step back a little bit and without too much heavy lifting, turn that into benign envy that we could work with, so that we can take our toxic envy and transform it?
JD: Absolutely. Thank you for asking this question. So, Dr. Keltner and Jonathan Haidt also coined the phrase tugendfreude, it’s the opposite of schadenfreude. So, when you see somebody doing well and really making it or excelling in a certain way, rather than feeling the toxic envy, you pause again. There’s the pause of wonder, and you shift, and you actively express good thoughts toward them. Maybe even sending them a note of appreciation or admiration can be a step in the right direction.
Yes, I do this often and I’ve had my clients do it often as well. So yes, it’s a beautiful example. You feel the toxic envy, you identify it, you pause. You’re like, actually let me foster more positive emotions, appreciation for that person, congratulations for that person. What that does is not only, it’s not just like bypassing negative feelings, it’s actually potentially elevating you to say, OK, what has that person done well? How could that lift me up as well?
TS: All right. So, you mentioned that since you’ve been in this wonder field, immersed in the science of wonder, that you’ve increased your wonder ratio in general. And for the listener who’s like, I want to increase my wonder ratio. I want to do it. Jeffrey, can you give, let’s start with just three, three wonder-ratio-improvement techniques that our listeners can try.
JD: I love it. Yes. One is, try this: in the morning, pause a few minutes, maybe with your favorite beverage, and really check in and center yourself and ask yourself, what am I devoted to? What am I devoted to today? What that does is it can open you up, switches that default pattern of, I need to check my phone notifications and texts. I need to go through my to-do list. You’ve just opened yourself up to potentially standing in wonder with something and it creates a beautiful new reframe for everything that you do during the day. That’s the first thing.
TS: OK. Let’s pause on that before we go on to the second or third, for a moment.
JD: Please, yes. Go ahead.
TS: You know what I notice is that word devotion, devoted. What am I devoted to? That word just hits me in my heart immediately. I immediately almost start to cry. It’s a really powerful word. Tell me your sense of that and why it’s so powerful as a wonder gateway.
JD: Thank you. So, I alluded earlier in our conversation that when I look back at all the different things to which I was attracted, I realized I have been on this path for a long time. In my early 20s, a mentor gave me a copy of Erich Fromm’s, The Art of Loving. It was great a book from 1956, this existential psychologist, and he talks about loving as a practice and he says we often are focused on falling in love, but what about the practice of standing in love? So, that’s always stayed with me.
It’s in the context of devotion that I’ll get to, because one of the premises of Tracking Wonder, both as a company and a community, and in the book, is that it’s one thing to fall in love with a fantasy of an idea, of a partnership of, oh, I’ll write a book. It’s another thing to stand in love and stand in wonder with a dream you’re devoted to. We say that every big idea begets a series of challenges, so can you really stay devoted to that endeavor or to your calling, what you’re called to? So, let me unpack devotion and why I choose it.
I’m so glad that it almost brought you to tears only because it resonates with me that way as well. The word originates in the Sanskrit Vac, V-A-C, Vac. It’s one of the oldest Sanskrit syllables. It means, in some way, sacred utterance. Later, the force of Vac becomes the force of Sarasvati in some of the Hindu iconography. Vac gives rise in English to voice, vocal, vocabulary, vow, vocation, that to which we’re called. So, when you check in with your devotion, you really are checking in with that deep calling, that depth to which you’re called.
I don’t know. When I ask you, Tami, what you’re devoted to, what comes up for you? What would you vocalize?
TS: Yes. I’m devoted and it’s so meaningful to me, to my wife and my family, which are my two fur children. I’m devoted to Sounds True, deeply, and to a set of values and bringing those values into every part of my life. I could say more about that, but it’s a deep orientation of my soul.
JD: Yes, and I feel that. You are so devoted to awakening yourself and others, and it translates in all those different areas. One of the people in my inner circle last year, she took this practice to her husband. They each now share their own personal devotions, their couple’s devotion, their family devotion and her team’s devotion as well.
TS: The link to wonder when doing that is because when we identify what we’re devoted to, that’s a doorway into—
JD: Possibility. Devotion is wonder infused with desire and commitment.
JD: Yes. Yes. So, yes, that’s one of the key practices. The second I would suggest is detect some of your default patterns and habits throughout the day. We all have them. When you are in your work mode, your to-do mode, and you start to notice how you’re shutting down, my invitation to listeners to is to detect when you’re starting to shut down, when you’re getting hungry or tired. Instead of checking out on social media or your emails or your texts, step away from a screen, step outdoors for just a few minutes, look up at the sky, no matter what the weather. Just for a few minutes, disrupt your default afternoon patterns in one way. You may have to set a timer to remind yourself to bring you out of your default patterns.
The third is maybe something in the evening, to actually make it a practice to look back on your day and ask yourself, what were three highlights today? What were three small moments? They could be sensory moments. They could have been a moment of conversation, something someone said, and write those down. That’s a wonder intervention that can be really powerful for framing your day.
TS: I want to ask you a question about your second wonder intervention about these default patterns. I’m curious if somebody has the experience. I often have the experience. My default patterns are my default patterns because I find them kind of comforting. They resettle me. So, I lie on the couch with my iPhone, which is similar maybe to someone watching television or something like that. I don’t want to go outside. I don’t want more stimulation. I don’t want more anything. I don’t know if I even want more openness and wonder. I’m just like, I need a couple hours just to sit here and be an internal—I don’t know exactly if I’m a grump, but I just, I know I’m closing down, but I need that time.
What would you say to—this is the story. What do you think about that? Am I narrowing the wonder in my life? Or, am I just kind of resetting myself and that’s OK.
JD: Good question. I’m not sure yet. I would spend some more time with you unpacking that. Closed states are not bad states. When we’re highly focused on something and we’re eliminating distractions, that’s a cognitively closed state we need. It’s not potentially wondrous, but that’s OK. Being in digital distraction is an open state, but it’s not particularly wondrous. Actually, I’m just touching on some of this new research that a lot of the increases in depression and anxiety are coming from an overstimulation of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of curiosity. It is what keeps us going. But when we’re just like stimulating ourselves, it’s like brain candy and then we feel like we’ve got a sugar hangover.
So if your, let me just say, for your instance, right? We all have variations. Let’s say, if you just like unwinding, doing nothing and doing nothing well on the sofa and just looking through your iPhone for a little bit is fine. It resets you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if it’s keeping you in a state of potential debilitating distraction or over-rumination, where you’re stuck in a pattern of fret or regret, that’s a good signal. A good signal to like, let me disrupt this. Let me detect the default. I feel what that feels like. Let me seek out something surprising, and then let me extend that moment.
TS: I’m curious, Jeffrey, have you worked with people who say to you, “I’m depressed. I’m depressed right now. I don’t know if this Tracking Wonder stuff is going to work because I don’t really have an appetite for wonder right now, because I’m depressed.” How would you work with someone who presented that emotional confession to you?
JD: Yes. Yes. First of all, most people don’t come to me with that probably because they have not been drawn to wonder. They usually don’t come to me saying I’m not attracted to wonder, but I understand what you’re saying. Because I’ve worked with plenty of people who are symptomatic of depression and not chronic depression, but sometimes acute depression. Certainly I experienced it. I experienced my version of languishing and mild depression over the past couple of years during the pandemic, as did many people for different reasons. So it does show up in that, even though that’s not always what presents itself to answer your question.
So, when it shows up, we work with it. We don’t bypass what we’re experiencing. We don’t bypass whether it’s showing up as depression or anxiety or confusion or fear or irritation. We don’t bypass those emotional experiences, but we also know that we don’t have to dwell in those emotions nor frame our whole reality around those emotions. So, if there’s an entry point, which is what I’m looking for in another person, if there’s an entry point to experiment with an intervention, whether—and I would usually start with, in that scenario, with openness and curiosity. I would actually start there before I went into, say, bewilderment.
Are you open to experimenting and testing out something for just five days, seven days, and you track the intervention and see what works and then report back the results. If they’re open to that, then we’ve got an entry point. Then we’ve got room to have a tracking party, so to speak. Yes.
TS: Tracking party, I like that. OK. Here’s the last thing, Jeffrey, that I want to have you touch on. The subtitle of Tracking Wonder is Reclaiming a Life of Meaning and Possibility in a World Obsessed with Productivity. I’d like to understand more how the current landscape of our time, where people are asked to work so many hours or they feel like they’re now working all the time from home, et cetera, how that affects our wonder quotient, if you will.
JD: Yes, I really appreciate this. I’m really taking lots of deep dives here. We’re gathering lots of data from our Wonder @Work assessment and survey. What’s interesting, and just like looking at that multipoint survey, is that people describe satisfaction in a lot of areas of wonder in that survey. Where they have the lowest rankings—say, sometimes on average, four out of 10—are in the areas of depression and anxiety and in the ability to turn work off. They can’t turn work off regularly. The third is, at the end of the day, they feel exhausted. All three are related.
I frame our culture of toxic productivity in certain ways, and just looking at this culture we have inherited and some of us have perpetuated it regardless of our situation. This culture really values perfectionism, no errors, no mistakes versus playful experimentation. Even though ironically, we now know that a certain degree of playful experimentation can lead to a more productive and fulfilled and healthy workforce. Culture tends to value always being on. I can cite a number of examples from even just a few years ago.
There was, I think an Uber driver who, she kept driving, even as she was delivering her baby, as she was having her baby. She was valorized like a really loyal—
TS: Holy God.
JD: Yes. Right. So, we see this, oh, yes, crush it and so forth. If anything, I hope the past two years has started to shift some of that narrative versus valuing, let’s say, deliberate daydreaming, as we’ve been exploring. Even though now we’re learning that deliberate daydreaming can ultimately lead to better productivity, more fulfillment, healthier lives. Toxic productivity values human beings in terms of efficiency, units of labor instead of well-rounded, emotionally complex human beings. So, yes, we do live in a world obsessed with this type of over-productivity.
What I really hope is that this book and this body of work is an antidote to that world. That, if anything, I guess maybe the closing is that what gives me hope, too, Tami, is that part of my research has led me into the domains of cultural anthropologists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, who are giving us a very different narrative of our human history of what has helped us not just survive but ultimately thrive over the millennia. It turns out that it’s not survival of the fittest, that we don’t have to be cutthroat competitive and aggressive to make it in this world.
They are painting a whole different picture of what has helped the species actually survive for millennia. They’re actually more cooperative, generous, and yes, wondrous, which is the first of all of our emotions. Yes.
TS: Why do you say it’s the first of all of our emotions? Why do you say that?
JD: Yes, and I’m not the only one, actually. Martha Nussbaum, psychologist of emotions, also attested that. René Descartes, actually in 1649, in one of his first studies, the five key emotions, also described it as the first of all emotions for a couple of reasons. It gives rise psychologically to all of the other emotions. It is the emotion we’re more than likely born with, which is why I say it’s our birthright. Regardless of circumstances, we are born with a certain kind of wonder— it’s not the wonder you and I now experience—but a certain kind of wide-eyed wonder.
It gives rise to love. It gives rise to compassion. Where it not for wonder, we likely, psychologists surmise, would not have these other emotions. Certain anthropologists, like Melvin Konner, look at even chimpanzee behavior as they stand in awe of and wonder toward a waterfall. We’re looking at them to understand human behavior. It’s possible that our ancestors, some five million years ago, had these early experiences that then gave rise to our ability ultimately to thrive over millennia. This is what gives me hope.
We have so many challenges in this world, so many challenges that these experiences of wonder aren’t going to be the antidote, but they are a possible counter-antidote to our typical solutions in this world of hyperproductivity.
TS: Then one final question here, Jeffrey. You write in Tracking Wonder that it’s possible to gift wonder to someone. How could our listeners here at the end of our conversation, take something away so that they could gift wonder to someone else?
JD: I love that. Think of somebody you care about who, perhaps, could use a little surprising delight in their life. What’s one small gesture you could do for them? What’s one small thing you could do to stoke their curiosity and surprise them in a way that helps them see that you see them? That could be just as simple as sending them a handwritten note in the mail.
TS: Gorgeous. I’ve been talking with Jeffrey Davis. He’s the founder of the Tracking Wonder Consultancy. With Sounds True, he’s written a new book. It’s called Tracking Wonder: Reclaiming a Life of Meaning and Possibility in a World Obsessed with Productivity. Jeffrey, thank you so much. Great, great work you’re doing. You’re really giving us ways to notice and bring the wonder that’s here, right here into our life and increase our wonder quotients. Thank you.
JD: It’s been an honor and a pleasure. Thank you, Tami.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at soundstrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.