Ellen Langer

In my most recent book, On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity, I make a suggestion that we return to a mantra that children use, “who says so?” especially when we are stopped in our tracks by convention. The world around us is a social construction, put in place by people to meet their needs at the time. Sometimes it works for us and sometimes it doesn’t. When the powers that be would like us to mindlessly follow the rules, the command is stated in an absolute way. “Heroine is bad for you” “milk is good for you.” It doesn’t occur to us to ask questions.

If we ask, “Who says so” and then recognize the issues at stake when the decision was first made, we might be more likely to recognize that if we are in our nineties and in pain, heroine might be just what we need. If we’re lactose intolerant, milk may be a poor choice. Typically those in charge made a decision to have things as they are. Decisions were made for us at every turn. They decided how many hours a work week should be, that chairs should be a particular height, and so on. The hallmark of a decision is uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty, there is no decision. That means that how things are could have been different and the potential difference could have been better for us.

As I write in the book, imagine a sign on a lawn that says, “Keep off the grass” vs. one that says “Ellen says keep off the grass.” To the first we blindly obey, while to the second we may pause and recognize that Ellen may no longer care whether we walk on the grass; maybe we can negotiate with her; maybe she doesn’t even live there any more. When we put people back in the equation, we question authority and we’re less likely to accept the way things are. The absolute then may give way to change.