Want to Transform Your Life? Reclaim Floodlight Thinking

At a recent two-day conference I taught to over fifty leaders in Amsterdam, we began by participants reading the Ground Rules. They expressed surprise at the fourth and most controversial rule of our collective engagement:

Your phone, laptop, tablet or other digital device must be switched off during the sessions. A phone ringing during a session will be considered disruptive and we will ask you to put it away if you are using it during a session.  There will be time during breaks for you to answer messages. All digital devices must be turned off as they are disruptive to the learning of others. Please bring a paper and pen to take notes.

A Controversial Rule

I reassured participants, as I always do in all of my leadership programs and courses, that if they need to use their phone at any time, they can—outside of the classrom.

“No judgment,” I shared. “I know that there is more to your life than this program. You may have a sick child, or an elderly parent, or a struggling coworker who needs to reach you. If you need to use your phone, just step outside, do what you need to do, and return.”

Based on over ten years of research I reviewed for my book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, I cite studies that the mere presence of a phone or laptop in a learning environment obstructs genuine learning for three primary reasons.

First, as a Stanford University study discovered, seeing a phone or laptop causes stress as it’s a reminder of everything you still need to do outside of the room. Second, it reduces your learning by damaging your cognitive capacity—even if it’s turned off.

Finally, using your phone, tablet, or laptop also decreases the learning—even if it’s just used for taking notesof the people around you. Hence, allowing screens into a learning environment should not just be an individual decision, as most of us assume, but a collective decision—as screens affect everyone present.

You’ve Got to Be Kidding

After the usual incredulous glances around the room, the participants grudgingly settled in. Over the next two days, we engaged in countless screen-free discussions about leadership, how to manage anxiety and loneliness in oneself and one’s team members, work-life balance, the role of gender in leadership and everything in between.

After the conference, I received many messages from participants thanking me and the other professors. They especially emphasized the fourth ground rule. It was the “first step to rehab” shared one leader.

“What a gift the past two days were,” another expressed. “A break from the everyday madness (and our devices!) with inspiring sessions and encounters.”

“It was wonderful and a great gift to myself,” proclaimed another leader. “At least you know how to reach me. But beware since these two days I will not be so much on my phone as before.”

From Flashlight to Floodlight

These three reasons aside, there is another that, as an educator grappling with these issues every day, I must add. An idea I derived from Alan Watts’ interpretation of Zen Buddhism, I consider there to be two types of thinking.

The first is what I call “flashlight thinking.” If you turn off all the lights in a room and shine a flashlight on the wall, you will see a small disk of light. This disk is your next email, text, meeting, phone call.

The other type of thinking I call “floodlight thinking.” If you again turn off the lights and this time place a floodlight on the floor, it will illuminate the entire wall. Is is through this type of thinking that we are able to see the entire picture, our holistic vision of whatever issue we are grappling with.

Our screens constantly pull us out of floodlight thinking and into flashlight thinking. Yet it is floodlight thinking where our transformational potential lies. It enables us to access our deepest creativity, and to view the same issue we’ve been looking at for months, perhaps even years, from a new angle. To maybe even make a breakthrough.

I consider my role as a leadership educator to be to facilitate a collective search for truth in relation to whatever topic I am teaching: leadership, work-life balance, emotion management, interpersonal communication. As we can see from the research, the mere presence of a phone or laptop in the room renders floodlight thinking elusive not only for its owner, but also for others in their vicinity.

Just Presence

For educators and facilitators in our current age of distraction, just as important as having knowledge to share may be the ability to be fully present with their students, clients, or participants. Creating such an environment is virtually impossible (pun intended) unless it’s screen free.

The reason is that we educators are not the only ones tasked with providing presence in the collective search for truth that is a high-quality learning encounter: so is each and every student. Why?

A brilliant study asked participants to pass people on the street while refusing to make eye contact or acknowledge them so they feel what is referred to in Germany as wie Luft behandeln, which means “to be looked at as though air.” The result? The people they passed expressed a few minutes later that they felt more disconnected from society.

Each time we have the opportunity to bring people together for a shared learning experience, it is incumbent on us as educators to create a non-judgmental, accepting environment conducive to everyone being fully present and comfortable with the prospect of sharing their professional and life challenges, dreams, and experiences.

If we are going to ask people to leave their phones at the door in the third millenium in order to learn, we can offer no less.

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