Can We Learn to Reflect Like Einstein?

Cathy GassenheimerWe all talk about the importance of reflection and the need to do it! But do we make it a priority? Reading one of Daniel Pink’s occasional newsletters recently, I was reminded of the importance of reflection on a regular—if not daily—basis.


Well, for the answer, let’s first look to one of the giants of education, John Dewey. Dewey reminded his students and readers that we do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.

A recent Harvard study validated Dewey’s thoughts many years after he shared this insight. The report, written by Di Stefano, et al. in 2014, found significant and lasting benefits in habitual reflection, included these findings:

  • Learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection – that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.
  • Reflecting on what has been learned makes experience more productive.
  • Reflection builds one’s confidence in the ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy), which in turn translates into higher rates of learning.

So, it is clear that reflecting is important and can have beneficial effects—not only for the reflector, but also for those impacted by the reflector. Feeling somewhat smug, I smiled to myself and thought about how glad I was that I reflect.

Not so fast!

That smug feeling went away – and the reflection bar became much higher – as I read more of Pink’s newsletter. He noted (pointing to this Business Insider article) that geniuses like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and others intentionally reserved a block of time—1-2 hours per week—for thinking and reflection. How about that for a stretch goal?

I’m not sure that I can spend two hours at a time reflecting yet, but I can certainly build on what I am already doing.

Here are some things that I will try to do more intentionally:

  • In the morning before turning on my laptop, I will pull out an index card and think about what I want to accomplish today.
  • During the day, I’ll take time—even if it is only 5 minutes—to reflect on what I’m learning, doing, or thinking.
  • Before I leave the office, I’ll look at the card, make adjustments and reflect on what was left undone.
  • When driving long distances, I’ll spend time thinking about what I’m learning or what new insights I might have experienced, what I can do to become a better person, a better colleague, and a better facilitator.
  • On the weekends, I’ll read with the intention to reflect on what I’m learning or understanding better.

Admittedly, these are more episodic reflection moments, and I see that I could do more and be more intentional. Suggestions anyone?

Maybe a framework can help

As I reflected on how I could become a better reflector, I was reminded of my friend and colleague Jackie Walsh’s penchant for frameworks. That’s it, I thought. I can create a framework for reflection! So, here’s my first attempt at a reflection framework, built with questions (Jackie loves questions!):

  • What have I learned this week and how can it inform my work (or life, or attitude, etc.)?
  • What have I left undone that needs attention?
  • In what ways have I added value to our collective work? What more can I do?
  • In what ways have I intentionally or unintentionally had a negative impact on our collective work? What can I do to change it?
  • What do I need to learn to be better prepared for the next professional learning experience or project?
  • What can I do to be a better colleague, especially to those who report to me?
  • Have I given enough attention to those I love this week? If not, what can I do to make amends?

So, there’s the beginning of my reflection framework. I’m interested in getting feedback from you about it. What have I left out? Does anything seem like it doesn’t fit? And, what tips do you have for carving out more time to intentionally reflect?

By taking the time to purposefully reflect, we can all become better thinkers and better people. And, perhaps we will discover what the research report referenced earlier in this blog post contends: The impact can be lasting!