The four-minute mile barrier stood for decades. Experts believed the feat could be achieved only in perfect weather — 68 degrees and no wind, and on a hard, dry clay track. But Bannister did it on a wet track in cold weather.

Just 46 days after Bannister’s success, John Landy, an Australian runner, broke the barrier again, with a time of 3 minutes 58 seconds. A year later, three runners broke the four-minute barrier in a single race. Over the last half century, more than a thousand runners have beaten a time once thought impossible.

Two Wharton School professors, Yoram Wind and Colin Crook asked, ‘how did so many runners smash the four-minute barrier after Bannister became the first to do it?’ Their answer was that the mental model is what changed. The runners of the past had been held back by a mindset that said they could not surpass the four-minute mile. When that limit was broken, the others saw that they could do something they had previously thought impossible.

Last week I was working with a group of leaders on how to build mental resilience. When exploring how a fixed idea impacts performance, one of the leaders suggested treating beliefs as we would a scientific hypothesis. A working scientific hypothesis is a provisionally accepted idea proposed for further research, in a process beginning with an educated guess or thought. 

On the other hand, our beliefs tend to represent the truth to us, until disproven. The error in that approach is that cognitive biases will seek out information consistent with what we already hold to be true and so lessen the likelihood of identifying contra-indicators. 

If, instead, we were to hold them as a scientist would hold a hypothesis, we’d remain curious about how and when to test them, and what the result might be. We’d be more open, perhaps, to reworking the hypothesis so as to achieve a more positive outcome.

I use my ‘Compassion Continuum’ in just such a way. It works on the principle that our brain attaches a ‘label’ to our work colleagues, friends and family, easily and early. The ‘label’ summarises their characteristics and tendencies based on those which have the greatest immediate impact on us. For example, Joe, my boss is ‘difficult and demanding’. My long-time friend, Maheshri is only interested in what’s going on in her own life. Paul, my direct report, has poor attention to detail. 

The trouble with the crude ‘labels’ is that negative traits tend to hook our attention and predominate. 

An evenly balanced picture would represent Maheshri as sometimes self-interested and also great fun, with bags of energy and a keenness to help me out whenever I ask. Joe is direct – but he’s also very supportive and highly engaged in my development. Paul is sociable and outgoing and brilliant at building client relationships.

The ‘Compassion Continuum’ is an approach that allows you to discard the labels in preference for a hypothesis, which in turn will shift your mental lens and have you picking up data you’d previouslyhave missed. Here are three easy ways to shift from labels to hypotheses. 

  • Imagine the Continuum runs from left to right, with the negative end on the left and the positive on the right. Note the label you’re currently applying to the individual you have in mind, and mark where it falls on the negative to positive range. 
  • Next, choose a more positive belief (hypothesis) that is or could be true about him/her. Make sure the new belief generates positive emotions and images, rather than simply operating as a benign new label. Mark where that new hypothesis lands on the Continuum.
  • Now, focus on the new hypothesis and aim to test it every time you come directly or indirectly into contact with your ‘target’. Prepare for meetings with him/her by ‘revving up’ your emotions and energy with the new belief. Engage the new ‘lens’ when reading emails from him/her so that your cognitive biases are looking for evidence to test the new hypothesis.

You can apply this practice to new beliefs about you, too. Here are some new hypotheses you might like to apply. 

  • ‘I can give great presentations when I’m fully prepared and have thought about how to serve my audience.’
  • ‘I really do have interesting perspectives to share on this topic with the rest of the team.’
  • ‘I can build my confidence by looking for small ways to stretch myself every day.’
  • ‘I am good enough, and have a lot to offer to the team/my role/this project..’ 

Beliefs are levers. If the existing label opens a trap door on a relationship, why would you use it? Instead, look for empowering and positive levers – thoughts and ideas that are new, and ripe for testing, and have fun as the scientist of your own life. 

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