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Human beings evolved as much prey as predators. To survive, our ancestors had to be hyper-vigilant for threat – you only have to miss the sabre-toothed tiger in the grass once for your genes to leave the gene pool.* So, we have evolved to be constantly on the lookout for threats – that’s handy when you’re crossing the road, but most of the time we’re not really in that much danger. Unfortunately the unconscious processes of your mind don’t know that, so they react to minor criticisms, disagreements and mistakes as though they are threats to your very existence.
This is known as the Negativity Bias – neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes our minds as having evolved to be ‘teflon for positivity, but velcro for negativity’. I’m sure you’re familiar with the experience of receiving feedback, and managing to pretty much ignore all of the appreciations, while focusing your attention sharply on the one thing that isn’t enthusiastically appreciative. All of which makes life pretty unpleasant at times – that’s because evolution doesn’t care whether you are happy or not, all it’s worried about is that you pass on your genes.**
Fortunately neuroplasticity allows us to reprogram our brains so that instead of constantly looking out for failure, rejection and threat we learn to look out for success, acceptance and possibility. This is the principle of Solution Focus approaches.
In a simple machine, knowing what the problem is can be a real help – you just replace the broken part and everything is sorted. In a complex system like the human psyche, a business or a community, learning all you can about a problem may make you an expert on problems, but usually won’t tell you very much that’s useful about the solution.
Solution Focused inquiries, like ‘when doesn’t the problem occur?’ or ‘where do things work best?’ bring a different perspective to situations, and start to open up possibilities. They also help the brain to work in a way that stimulates creativity, rather than triggering defensive fight/flight responses.
Learning to rewire the way you approach life isn’t an overnight job – after all you’re working against millions of years of evolution – but you can experience positive effects very quickly. Here’s a little exercise I almost always give to my coaching clients, and regularly do myself.
Give yourself 10 minutes and write a list of What’s working?/What’s better? make the list as long as you possibly can and include as wide a range of things as possible – from the cup of tea that you just enjoyed, to a major work achievement, to someone opening the door for you, anything and everything you can think of – keep asking yourself ‘and what else?’.
You can do this on your phone, tablet or computer, and it works even better if you use pen and paper. Once you’ve finished your Working/Better list you can write your To Do list – make sure all the items on that list are small and specific first steps ‘send an email to Bob to arrange a meeting’ rather than ‘renegotiate the Bob Co. contract’.
What this does is gets your brain firing on all the networks associated with success, connection, and positivity, so you feel well resourced to tackle the jobs ahead – and breaking those jobs down into bite-size chunks helps to avoid the tendency to get overwhelmed. And it sometimes helps you to notice opportunities that you might otherwise overlook.
Give it a try, all you’ve got to lose is your negativity bias.
* Disclaimer – I have no idea whether sabre toothed tigers did actually hunt hominids, but you get the point
** Disclaimer 2 – Evolution is a process, to describe it as caring or not caring about something is ludicrous – but you get the point.
Since the development of scanners that can measure blood flow in the brain without seriously harming people, we have been learning a lot about how our brains work. Some journalists have called this the Golden Age of Neuroscience, although it’s more likely to turn out to be the Dawn of Neuroscience. We’re learning that the human brain is far more extraordinary than we ever thought – as far as we know, it is the most complex thing in the universe.
One of the things we have learnt is that the brain is in a constant process of change: everything we do, think and say subtly alters the network of neurones in the brain, a process described as neuroplasticity. Any given behaviour – let’s say being frightened by a dog – strengthens the connections of a particular sequence of neurones, creating what is called a neural-network. If we repeat the behaviour, then that particular neural network is reinforced – as neuroscientist Donald Hebb put it (back in 1949!) “what fires together, wires together“.
What this means is that every time you repeat a behaviour, you gradually wire up your brain in a way that makes that way of responding to events more likely, and ultimately so habitual that it takes great effort for you to choose another way of responding. So an incident of being frightened by a dog can be reinforced again and again, so that being frightened of dogs in general becomes a deeply ingrained habit.
Of course the early practitioners of Buddhism had no idea what was happening in the brain, but through seeing people’s behaviour and watching their own minds in very subtle detail in meditation, they were able to observe the way in which we gradually build, embed and reinforce our habits of relating to the world. They called this process karma.
Over time, of course, the meaning and interpretation of words drifts. Nowadays people tend to talk of karma as some kind of cosmic retribution system – it is even embedded in the Hindu caste system: if you are born in a lowly caste, then this is your karma for having been bad in your previous life – and some people have even applied this absurd reasoning to disabled people.
Sadly, some cruel and exploitative people are never punished; some kind and generous people live lives of great difficulty and distress. Your karma is your mind – your particular set of reactive habits to the world and your experiences: feeling threatened by people in authority, or the psychologically damaged person on public transport; getting angry (or collapsing) when people disagree with your opinions; whether you like or are frightened of dogs.
Karma was not, and is not, a description of a great cosmic process, but an incredibly sophisticated way for a pre-scientific society to make sense of the development of neural-networks in the brain. And the fantastic thing is, it’s never too late for you to create new neural-networks that are more helpful, more kind, more creative, and happier. John Lennon was wrong, Instant Karma isn’t necessarily gonna get you.
I’ve been musing on cynicism a bit this morning,
after reading Aboodi Shabi’s excellent blog post on the subject, and it strikes me that cynicism is the puer’s response to betrayal – but perhaps I ought to translate that from psychobabble.
Naive idealism is a sign of emotional immaturity, and such naive idealism can achieve great things, but it inevitably crashes into the disappointment of reality sooner or later. There is a possibility in this process of disappointment of us learning something about the world and our relation to it. If we’re able to take this path, then we can begin to work with the challenge of having ideals and working to see them more fully articulated, whilst accepting just how difficult a process this might be – staying open (as Abood says) to the possibility of possibility.
All too often, sadly, we fail to learn from our disappointment, and our knee-jerk response is to move from believing that everything can be changed and made new, to believing that nothing at all can be changed and we may as well give up. As I write it occurs to me that one might be able to see the movement from late 1960s hippy idealism to the complacency of prog rock to the nihilism of punk as an articulation of this process in popular culture (just a passing thought – feel free to disregard or kick holes in it as a theory).
If you’re interested in this stuff then I strongly recommend reading James Hillman’s fantastic article on Betrayal.
A couple of days ago the musician Thomas Dolby had a dream, and asked for an interpretation on his blog. I’ve just spent quite a long time writing a response to this, that summarises what I’ve learned about dreams and dream analysis over the years, and thought I’d post it here – largely so that I can feel like I’ve done something more useful this morning than just trying to ingratiate myself with a musician of whom I’m a fan!
I haven’t asked Thomas’ permission to repost his dream, and I make a few references to its content so if you’re curious you can here it here, although the points I make below can be applied to any dream, whatever the content.
Also, since the original post is on a blog that is for Thomas’ fans rather than for people interested in personal development I started my post with the following:
WARNING: The following offering contains long words, and risks being a candidate for Pseud’s Corner.
Dream analysis is a subtle and fluid matter, and is often crassly and rigidly over-simplified. It’s not possible to make definitive statements about the meaning of dreams, especially without a clear sense of the emotional tone that accompanies each episode in the dream. So-called Dream Dictionaries are mostly a waste of paper.
While there are some obvious archetypal aspects to the symbolism of this dream, polar bears and Arctic ice have become such emotionally weighted symbols in the discussion of global warming that their resonances have shifted in recent years.
I’m reminded of Jung’s comment that you should learn all you can of the world’s mythology, but forget it when you are with a client. Thomas, as an artist I’m sure that you appreciate the benefits of a shifting sense of meaning in the use of evocative symbols, and how much is lost in trying to tie this down to a single interpretation.
Hillman argues (in The Dream & The Underworld – which is a tough read, and I haven’t been able to finish it) that rather than seeking to make sense of our dreams with our waking consciousness, we would be better served to seek to make sense of or waking experience with our dream consciousness. In some ways this is similar to the perspective of Tantric Buddhism.
The point I understand Hillman to be making here, is that we tend to assume that the way in which we perceive things when awake is the only and correct way of seeing them. In fact, the way we make sense of things is often a stronger indicator of the structure of our own psyches than of “objective’ reality.
Gestalt dream analysis often encourages the dreamer to explore the dream from the perspective of each of the actors/components in the dream. As the polar bear is an aspect of your psyche, what is his experience in the dream? how about the seal? or even the snow and ice?
I’d encourage you to hold as open a relationship to the dream as you can, with multiple possible interpretations all held provisionally. If there is still a strong emotional resonance to the dream, then you might explore it in composition. If it’s just something about which you are intellectually curious, then I’d suggest that it probably isn’t particularly psychically significant.
For anyone seriously interested in this stuff I recommend checking out Freud & Jung’s perspectives (in that order – there are some pretty straight-forward summaries which are easy to get hold of), and then (if you’re feeling intellectually robust) reading a bit of James Hillman. It’s also worth checking out Fritz Perls/ Gestalt, & I’m told Ken Wilber has a typically thorough analysis, but I haven’t read it myself.
I hope this is of some use and interest, if you have further perspectives to add I’d be delighted to hear from you.
In his recently published book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’, Malcolm Gladwell draws attention to research that suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to become excellent in performing an activity. His rule of thumb is that this equates to something like 10 years of doing the activity for three hours a day.
One example he gives is of a German music college where staff were asked to divide the students into three categories: the potential stars, the likely professionals, and those who would probably not become professional musicians. In interviewing the students, it became clear that their level of prowess on their instruments directly correlated with the amount of time they spent practicing. There were no brilliant musicians who simply winged it with little practice, and there were no students who put in the practice hours but just weren’t as good as their peers.
Gladwell uses this, and a range of other examples, to make the point that many of the people we think of as being outstanding – in fields ranging from composing and performing music to computer programming – are exceptional not because they are born with some innate genius, but through what they have made of themselves. They have had the determination to spend huge amounts of time developing their expertise, combined with the good fortune of having the opportunity to do this.
I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a few weeks now, and have some suggestions about their significance both for leaders in organisations, and for everyone else.
The most obvious point that Gladwell is making is: if you want to be really good at something then do lots of it. I think this is great advice.
At the same time, I’m not convinced that simply doing lots of something is enough on its own to develop excellence – or perhaps I should say that you can only develop a certain sort of excellence through unthinking repetition. I’m sure each of us has spent a lot of time in our lives washing dishes, or undertaking other routine tasks, but I’m not sure many of us have become expert at them.
I was reminded of this recently when I was asked “when was the last time you got in a car and thought ‘this is an opportunity for me to drive better than I did last time’?” I confess that my answer was never – or at least ‘not since I passed my test over 25 years ago’. The sad truth is that I haven’t spent 25 years becoming a progressively better drive, I’ve just become really proficient at being a mediocre driver!
So, if you want to become a better leader (driver, dish-washer or whatever) you need to do more than just turn up and do the same as you always have. What you need to be doing is consistently asking yourself questions about how you could be improving, what you could be learning from your successes and failures, and those of your peers and competitors. Just putting in the hours isn’t enough on its own.
You won’t get better just by hoping
On the other hand, you really do have to put in the hours. If there is something that you aren’t very good at, and you want to improve then there is no substitute for practice and experience. Unless you work at it, you’re not going to get any better at dealing with difficult customers, badly run meetings, your own states of mind, etc, etc. I’m afraid there really isn’t any way around this one – although of course you can always practice through role plays and in other less crucial contexts, so that you’ve improved your skills when you have to face real situations. As Gladwell observes, these people didn’t get excellent by working hard, or even working very hard, they worked very, very hard!
You need some skill and some interest
And of course, you do need to have some talent and interest too. There’s a virtuous circle here: it’s much easier to put in a lot of effort when you’re engaged and interested in what you’re doing. I’ll always be a better singer than drummer, not least because I’m much more interested in singing than drumming, and so my energies have naturally flown in that direction.
I had a client once who was crestfallen that he wasn’t going to be manager of the year. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining to him that his brilliance as a theoretician and problem solver had led to him developing a set of skills that were essential to the organisation, but not at all people focused. He could become manager of the year, if he worked very, very hard at it over a number of years, but it was hard to see that the effort require to achieve this would serve either him or his organisation well – it would mean that he had little energy left to do anything else.
So, while it is always useful to be widening your range of skills, if you try to sail directly against the wind you’ll almost certainly take on so much water that you sink.