Skills for the Future: Break Patterns and Surprise Yourself, says Harvard’s Michael Puett

Tidal patterns, change, Michael Puett, Leadershipwatch

What are the key skills for the future? In our special multi-part series, experts share valuable and surprising insights we can use to build tomorrow’s world. In this part Harvard professor Michael Puett explains the skill of breaking patterns and its impact on your life, your leadership, and on the people you interact with.

The best thing about listening to someone who challenges your day-to-day assumptions is that you learn something about yourself. Michael Puett, Harvard’s tall and boyish-looking expert on ancient China, certainly made me think when he explained how we are ruled by patterns, and how we can live better lives if we learn to break those patterns. I felt sorry when his talk at The School of Life (London, February 2017) came to an end after 2 hours. I would like to meet him again.

Here are the best insights Michael Puett shared with us in London (I leave his high-pitched voice and frequent smiles to your imagination):

The true self does not exist

Puett: “There are some old Chinese ideas that challenge common western assumptions. Ideas that I think we should truly be learning from. Let’s begin with visions of the self that arose in classical China. When we are trying to find answers to the big questions we face, we are encouraged to look within, to find ourselves, to embrace and love ourselves ‘just the way we are’ – and do the same for those around us. But this idea of a true self does not exist in the Chinese tradition. According to ancient Chinese thinking, we all complex and chaotic creatures, interacting with the emotions and energies of the people around us. There is no stable self. We are all equal messes of emotions, of dispositions, tendencies and patterns. Someone yells at me, and drags out of me an energy of anger.”

We all fall into patterns, even when we don’t realize it

Puett: “Also from a very young age, we fall into patterns, and ruts and habits of responding to the world around us. These patterns then begin to define how we experience the world. They become so ardent that they can be repeated for decades, they dominate our lives. And the danger is: this is what we become as human beings. We are like automatic machines, repeating the same patterns over and over again. The self that we think exists is really the result of the patterns we have fallen into. And by the way: a lot of companies are very successfully building their entire business models on this, taking our patterns for granted.”


Recommended reading:

How AI and big data feed on and reinforce our patterns, and problems this creates

Big data and algorithms need our moral compass, here’s why


Now: suppose the old Chinese philosophers are right about this. Suppose they are capturing something about what we are like as human beings. What would be the implications?

Puett: “If they are right, what I do when I look within and find myself, is I am in danger of simply finding a bunch of ruts and patters I have fallen into. And the last thing I want to do is embrace myself for who I am, because these are just patterns I have fallen into. Some of them may work out well by accident. Most of them, however, are disruptive because I am not really interacting with the people around me, without my even noticing. And so our mantra of self-acceptance is not only potentially wrong, because it is based on an incorrect and limited view of the self, it is potentially incredibly dangerous.”

“The last thing you want to do is love and embrace your patterns. The goal is to break them.” Michael Puett

Michael Puett, Harvard Business School, speaking at The School of LifeHow to break your patterns

A Confucian approach, Puett explains, would be to notice your patterns and then work actively to shift them. How? By using the power of rituals, or “anything that forces you to become a different person for a brief moment of time, that forces you to physically see the world from the perspectives of others, perspectives you would otherwise never taken on. By physically forcing you to do this, it creates a break. And that break, over time, opens up the possibility to begin breaking these patterns, and begin to really interact with the world around you, instead of interacting by rote.”

Here’s an example:

You have a difficult relationship with the person you share an office with. Her comments drive you nuts. When she voices her opinion on a subject you shake your head in disbelief, you tell her what you think is right, you hope she’ll learn something from you but all you really do is fight – and it’s just been like this for years. Stuck in a pattern, you think?

Puett: “The answer is yes! It’s not that you and her just cannot get along – there is a pattern at work, a pattern you can break. How? When another conversation sets in, and you know exactly how it is going to go: do slightly different things, bring up slightly different subject, slightly change your tone of voice, begin appealing to slightly different sides of her. Asking her advice on something, for instance, can bring out her more nurturing side. You can then be somebody who is really listening to her. Start playing with these different roles a little. Over time, if you keep practicing, the patterns that have been dominating your relationship for years will start to shift. You will start interacting differently. Each of you, as you begin to see different sides of the other, will begin to talk about tons of subjects you previously couldn’t talk about, or talk about the same subjects in different ways. Little changes, even if it’s just in tone of voice, can make unbelievable differences.”

Recommended reading: ‘The only person you can actually change is yourself

Keep training and surprise yourself

Puett, now smiling through his glasses: “Think of this as a life-long training exercise. When you start creating these breaks, you begin interacting with people differently. Over time, and more importantly, you begin really sensing them. You begin sensing the people around you as the complex creatures they really are;

You get better and better at sensing people’s patterns, your own and those around you, and at sensing what you can do to bring different sides of people out and grow genuine relationships;

You begin to act in ways that help your family, your friends and colleagues to flourish;

You begin to realize you are multiple, not a single self, we all are multiple, we are relationships all the way down, and everything is changeable – even the huge and seemingly intractable societal problems of our time. We constructed the world. We can, by training and cultivating ourselves, change it for the better. We are capable of doing this.

Maybe, just maybe, these ideas from a distant Chinese past are powerful and if we take them seriously, we open up possibilities we cannot now even imagine.”

Michael Puett is Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University. His classes have been so successful that they have been moved to the largest lecture hall available at Harvard. I read his book The Path, which he wrote together with Christine Gross-Loh, and highly recommend it.

What do you think? 2 essential questions:

  1. If Puett and China’s old philosophers are right, and the true self does not exist, why do we keep labeling one other? Why do we keep labeling ourselves, sometimes literally with numbers, letters or colours (referring to HR tools that are used in many companies)? Are we not at risk of focusing on just a snapshot of who we are at a particular time and place, instead of on the person we can be?
  1. New technologies like machine learning, big data and robotics are exciting. But is allowing these technologies to play to and reinforce our patterns such a good idea? Shouldn’t we use the same technologies differently, in ways that help us break our patterns instead (search algorithms could point us to music, voices, points of view that we would normally never listen to, for instance)?

Shoot! And many thanks for thinking along.

Photo: David/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Hanneke SiebelinkHanneke Siebelink is Research Partner and Writer at HRS Business Transformation Services, and author of several books. Find out more about Hanneke and HRS services. If you would like to invite us to your organization, contact us here.

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