The Awe & Power of Tracking Wonder
When was the last time you took in the wonderment of the world around you? The simple sound of a babbling brook, the thrill of a lightning storm, or the beauty of a lunar moth (if you have the fortune of seeing one). We live in a world obsessed with productivity and filled with distractions. Most people today work well over 40 hours a week. And according to DataReportal, the average American logs in about 7 hours and 11 minutes daily on smartphones, computers and TV screens. Multiply that for the number of hours a year. Is this how you want to live your life? How do you stay on track and focused with so many distractions?
When Jeffrey Davis turned forty, he began to ask that very question. “How can I live with even greater purpose? How can I find hope among the ruins of mid-life? How can this life be carved even more artfully?”
“When I’d take walks or sit with those questions or glimpse at my newborn daughter, the one word that kept tapping my shoulder was–wonder. What is wonder exactly? Can adults actually cultivate something so ethereal? How exactly can it be the source that helps us creative innovators open to possibility, focus on what matters, and collaborate with freedom more than fret?”
These questions took Mr. Davis on a 15-year journey to reconnect with wonder to reclaim more meaning, more joy, and more creativity. That led to his mission today– to teach us that wonder is the key to a better, fuller, more creative life. And people are listening.
For over 25 years, Jeffrey Davis has worked with thousands of the world’s leading change-makers and creatives to unlock their best ideas through the pursuit of curiosity, innovation, and wonder. He has taught and inspired a devoted group of innovators, creatives, and entrepreneurs making a difference in the world by doing “business-as-unusual.”
Inside+Out: Jeffrey, how exactly, did you come up with the idea, and the name, for your business?
Jeffrey Davis: It’s been a journey. In 2004 while researching a book on the creative process, I came across an obscure book of philosophy. It referenced how when a person experiences “ultimate” reality in this ordinary world, that person is filled with wonder. When I read that, I knew in my bones I wanted to commit at least the next few years to pursuing wonder – understanding it and trying my best to re-learn how to live it. My research took me into a nascent science of positive psychology, wisdom traditions, and a living laboratory (my own life, relationships and our clients).
After experiencing a series of personal adversities within a matter of weeks, I became increasingly curious about these burning questions for myself and the people we serve: How do people who pursue bold ideas ultimately thrive amidst inevitable challenge, change, and hardship? What does wonder have to do with it?
Early in this journey, my wife and I took a walk through the woods of the Catskills, and I was telling her about my obsession. I told her I wanted to understand wonder without “pinning it down.”
“Oh,” she said, “it’s like you’re tracking wonder.”
The more I got into the research and the lived experience, the more I realized a pain point among many people I was talking to and working with. People who pursue bold ideas can be highly “productive” – but so many of them were suffering from a “Get Things Done” mindset as if just “hacking productivity” were the key to a fulfilling life. We were getting kind of obsessed with metrics but seemed a little off-kilter in terms of what we were “measuring.” We launched Tracking Wonder – the endeavor, company, consultancy, and (now) international community – in 2010 to present a counter-voice.
For over 15 years, my areas of study in mindfulness, innovation, high performance have led me to research, work with, and interview literally thousands of change-makers across all fields and industries. It’s been such a surprising honor. This body of work has led me to this discovery, which drives everything I create and deliver: Beyond grit, the proverbial 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, a high IQ, or air of sophistication – wonder is the singular emotional experience that lets us persist through complex and creative endeavors without burning out or burning bridges. We work with individuals and teams to leverage their bold ideas without burning out along the way. I’ve had the pleasure to work with authors, innovators, change-makers, business leaders, knowledge workers, and a variety of organizations and teams.
What led you to study the science of creativity?
I define creativity as the capacity to generate and act on both novel and useful solutions to challenges or problems. That could mean how you get your child to sleep without tears or how you innovate the next sleep solution. “Creativity” is not the sole province of poets and painters (although I relish that province). If you’re trying to come up with a new and rewarding way to hold meetings with your remote or WFH team or if you’re imagining how to enliven your drab family life, chances are you’re acting and thinking creatively.
I’ve been studying creativity almost since I was out of grad school. That led me in my twenties to immerse in the literature of creative problem-solving and later in empathy-based design thinking. I’ve long sought ways to help myself and help others understand how we can activate our innate creative capacity for we can design business, products, events, and our lives with integrity.
Frankly, the pragmatic idealist in me knows that – given this globe’s mounting challenges – we cannot afford as a species not to awaken our creative capacity.
You have a new book out aptly called Tracking Wonder. Tell us more about it and its inception.
It emerged in the journey I described above. In the first years, there was hardly any science of wonder to speak of. I wanted to challenge my own assumptions about what I thought about wonder – to literally track wonder while eventually shaping about called Tracking Wonder. So, I gave myself the challenge to reference a minimum of 250 citations in a variety of fields and different points of view. Just to get myself lost in wonder, so to speak.
This process has led to a far richer understanding of wonder than I ever could have imagined in 2004. I define wonder in plain language, so people appreciate how accessible it is:
Wonder is a heightened state of awareness brought about by something unexpected that either delights us, disorients us, or both. A bald eagle could land in your backyard (as it did here a few weeks ago!) and your eyes will widen and your fight-or-flight response to that surprise will pause. But wonder also can de-center and disorient you when your whole sense of reality or your identity gets disrupted. This is bewilderment – which is a facet of wonder. I see much of what we have experienced since 2020 through the lens of wonder and bewilderment. Tracking bewilderment can help us fertilize long periods of confusion until we reach breakthroughs. I didn’t have that appreciation or language in 2004.
“Wonder is a quiet disruptor of unseen biases,” writes Jeffrey Davis. “It dissolves our habitual ways of seeing and thinking so that we may glimpse anew the beauty of what is real, true, and possible.” This is the most beautiful – and timely – the quality of wonder in my view: For a fleeting moment, wonder can disrupt our unseen biases so we can see again what is real and true, what is beautiful and possible. We can see again the true, beautiful nature of ourselves, another human being (stranger or familiar), a complex endeavor, or our perception of our own reality and life situation. Who these days doesn’t want more of those kinds of experiences in relationships, at work, and at home?
Of the six facets of Wonder – if a person had to start with or focus on one – which is the most important to cultivate for work, relationships and life?
Well, that depends. Openness and Curiosity are the most accessible and foundational. When you daily foster more openness to new ideas and experiences + when you daily pursue your curiosities instead of your passions and daily question your own status quo way of doing things, this is what can happen: You normalize instead of pathologize creative challenges. And you start to approach those challenges with less reactivity and more creativity. (favorite anagram = reactivity/creativity)
What is one question you’re constantly asked? Or, what’s the biggest misconception about your business?
The biggest misconception is that wonder is frivolous kid’s stuff when in fact it’s radical grown-up stuff and that creativity is artsy-craftsy stuff.
I’ll cite Melvin Konner. Melvin is a cultural anthropologist responsible in part for bringing forward the Paleo diet concept (from which I have benefited). He’s examined mounds of research in evolutionary biology, and as he contemplated the history of our species and the future of our species, he wrote that wonder is “the hallmark of the human spirit… The very evolution of our species and the survival of our planet requires more wonder. It’s our choice.”
Tracking Wonder has 5 wishes:
- Bring Wonder Home. There are bountiful ways we can be in more wonder with the people we are most familiar with and live with.
- Return Wonder to the Motor of Human Learning. Wonder gives rise to curiosity, creativity, and compassion. It’s at the heart of our learning. In this era, educators and heads of human resources alike can reconsider how to develop the skillsets of wonder.
- Bring Wonder to Work. We humans spend vast hours at work, but many of us at last are deeply questioning the ways we work, how we value productivity over people, and the institutions that drive the work. I’m heartened that numerous leaders and business owners are challenging long-held assumptions and imagining how to bring wonder to work as a new metric for well-being.
- Bring Wonder to the Mind. Much of our culture pathologies the mind’s complexities. We’d like to see more people in the fields of mindfulness and psychology help people understand the human mind for what it is – complex, mysterious, and wondrous.
- Bring Wonder Back to the Planet. If wisdom begins in wonder, then wonder I’m convinced begins in nature. Environmentalists, ecologists, animal rescuers, and others with influence can help more people remember their innate connection to the natural world. What we are in wonder with, we are more prone to care for.
And believe it or not, when I’m working with an apparel company or a digital agency’s team or a thought leader in children’s literature, we’re often taking into account one or more of those themes in our work.
Why did you decide to do a podcast and how did you grow that audience?
I wanted a medium that would help us reach more people. I also wanted a creative medium that would invite all parts of me out – the intellectual curiosity, the humor, the love of conversation, the storyteller, the dot-connector, the philosopher-poet.
It took us four years from the time I had the idea to actually launch the podcast. Why? 1) I always have multiple endeavors going on, and we always must prioritize. So this one simmered on the back-burner while I studied the field. 2) I had to have the production and business systems and the post-production & design team in place so the production process wouldn’t drive me crazy or distress me.
Do you have any tips for someone thinking of starting a podcast?
Yes. Two members of one of our annual Inner Circle MasterMinds are developing podcasts.
- Think ahead. Some people rush into launching their podcast and then make themselves miserable in the process.
- Have a deep “why” – that will help you face and finesse the challenges ahead. If you’re doing it because you think it’ll make you money quickly and build your audience quickly, you likely will neither succeed nor enjoy the process. See below. If you love parts of the creative process, you’re more likely to be resilient. If you love making a difference and bringing people delight or new ideas, you’re more likely to be resilient.
- Seriously consider creating seasons for your show. You get to decide how many shows make up any one season. Then you can close the season and re-open another season when you’re ready.
- Follow what makes you curious about the medium, the marketing, and the craft. Hosting and interviewing is a craft. Post-production and audio editing is a craft. Marketing with integrity is a craft.
- Make the format 5-10% yours. You don’t need to come out with something 100% original. That’s fatiguing. But study the formats available and see how you can give your own spin. We took the conventional interview format and shook it up. I shaped seasons around themes and questions. For some shows, I brought on two people who might have complementary or even contradictory points of view on a theme. For every show, I provided a reflective intro, interlude, and closing. I wanted a “narrator” who would disrupt the conventional interview with something other than commercials.
Do you have a staff? If so, how do you inspire them? What is your company culture?
We have a small core team, and we also partner with others for specific ongoing needs. We have weekly huddles. This almost always includes my coaching so that we’re being authentic and practicing our Tracking Wonder mojo. With remote communication, we try to keep it genuine, real, and open.
- Bring Your Genius to Work – We each possess a distinct force of character that, if recognized, keeps leading us to our most impactful work in the world. We aim to bring out that genius in each team member, client, and community member.
- Grow with Integrity – We make decisions to grow as a company based on our core identity and core values. We each foster a growth mindset. This means we approach challenges with a curious desire to acquire new knowledge and hone new skills.
- Track Challenges Creatively – We know that every big idea begets a series of challenges. We’re less problem-solvers than challenge-trackers. When things don’t go as expected, we aim to respond more with creativity than reactivity.
- Open Up Before You Size Up – We know there’s a human tendency to box in ideas and people. We aim instead to stay open to new ideas and the people who present them. When miscommunication arises, we aim to ask questions before jumping to conclusions.
- Experiment Toward Excellence Not Paralysis in Perfection – We admire work done surprisingly well. We each aim to bring our best talents and character to a task or endeavor. But in aiming toward excellence, we conduct experiments. In so doing, we risk failing. At times, we even dare to produce rubbish if it helps us ultimately make gold.
- Do It Together, It Beats Doing It Yourself – We know that bold ideas are not made real by solo geniuses locked in silos. We’re driven more by healthy collaborations than cut-throat competitions. Life is too short to assume there’s a finite marketplace pie that we must dominate.
How do you grow your business? How do your customers find you?
Complex question. Our priorities change each year as the business evolves and our reach expands.
- We aim to over-deliver generous, consistent value by publishing hundreds of free articles on Psychology Today, TrackingWonder.com, LinkedIn, and elsewhere.
- We view social media channels as opportunities to engage, stoke curiosity, start conversations, and deliver value and delight. Not just as channels to push stuff or egos.
- I stay engaged each week with our international community by delivering a weekly Dispatch with value.
- We over-deliver value and delight in offering free events.
- We build community, lateral learning, and alliances.
- We build relationships through our ecosystem of partners, clients, customers, and audiences.
- With our clients, we aim to over-deliver value and delight.
- I show up where appropriate to deliver value and delight (I hope): interviews, keynotes, events.
- All of this leads to interest and word-of-mouth.
We’ve been at it for a long time. For those readers in the early years of an endeavor, do not think you’re supposed to have everything figured out now and that you should be doing everything I just listed. Instead: Know why you’re doing what you’re doing and that what you’re doing suits your genius. Create and deliver for the people ideally suited for what you do. Pursue your curiosities about business & people – not your fixed passion. And learn-by-doing.
Why is your business located in the Hudson Valley?
That’s where I wound up. Amazingly so. When I was a tow-headed boy in Fort Worth, TX, my mother regularly took me to the art museums – the Modern Art Museum and the Kimball especially. Early on I learned about the Hudson Valley School of Painters and fantasized about living in those paintings. Someday, I thought. When I came to Woodstock one summer for a residency at the Zen Mountain Monastery and Byrdcliffe Writer’s Residency, I stayed. When my wife Hillary and I bought our 1850 farmhouse – with my version of Walden Woods and Pond out back – I said, “I want to die here.” The Hudson Valley and Catskills are the first places where I’ve felt “home.” I relish being in a neighborhood among fifth-generation farmers, laborers of all kinds, people of varied backgrounds, as well as the latest influx of artisans and entrepreneurs. And I’ve never lived somewhere where the same pair of Canadian geese return the same week each March to our pond to nest and hatch goslings.
What about this area/town makes it unique to live + work?
It’s made up of diverse people – and I want it to stay that way. I’m not interested in living among people who look, think, act, or even vote like me. People can take wonder breaks from work, walk on ridges and rail trails, and catch views of the Shawangunk Ridge or the Catskills. In this particular area – where exists the nation’s second-oldest surviving family farm – a variety of micro-ventures related to food, craft beer, herbs, honey, and more have arisen among the very reliable and affordable auto mechanic who’s been in the neighborhood for forty years.
Next week, I’m going into the city to jam with a client who’s going to see the Broadway show Freestyle Love Supreme because she works with the co-writer of that show. So I can wake up with a walk around the pond and then close the day with a client on Broadway. That’s a perk.
What impact does your business have (or strive to have) on your town/community?
A few years ago, a friend of mine and I bemoaned the fact that there was no cafe in the Rondout Valley where you could just drop in and see your friends serendipitously. So, I started the meetup HV: CREATE. A friend opened her café before hours one Friday morning a month for people to meet for conversation around the science of creativity, work, money, and community. 8:30 on a Friday morning. I thought maybe 7 people would show. In the first month, over 40 people showed up. Then, 60. Gradually, for over three years, a consistent and rotating group of 20-30 showed up. Beautiful relationships and endeavors sprung from it. As the demands of my business – and having two young daughters at home – grew, I had to give it up.
Now that the book TRACKING WONDER is launched, we hope to focus on four initiatives including finding a way to deliver learning experiences to local businesses, creatives, and entrepreneurs. That latter goal might look like: Creative entrepreneur labs HV: CREATE 2.0. But I’m really more curious about how to create community among the people who’ve lived here for five+ generations and the people who moved here five months ago. I’m an idealist.
Who or what inspires you professionally? Personally?
I admire quirky creative people who are not afraid to evolve their identities and work overtime. That includes well-known figures such as David Bowie, David Byrne, Lady Gaga but also many of the people I’ve had the honor to work with – everyday geniuses of creativity. They inspire me every single day.
Tell us something about yourself people may be surprised to learn.
I can get into a poetic sensibility that lets me write nuanced poems with sonorous lines, and the same day I can project manage a complex endeavor in a spreadsheet. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Uncle Walt
What’s next for you? Sneak peek of new direction or product?
Distributing my Deepen Your Focus & Flow at Work course more broadly (8K people across the globe have taken it – but we think more and more people need workable ways to reclaim their daily focus). Developing a more robust online learning community platform (away from Facebook). Delivering our Wonder Interventions@Work training and wonder labs to more companies & teams. Creating even more space and freedom in my life outside of work to relish the Hudson Valley and its people with my family and friends.
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Visit the Tracking Wonder Website to connect with Jeffrey Davis
For Everyone: Focus & Flow@Work
For Corporations: Wonder & interventions @Work
Join this Creative Hub: Wonder @Work Community