There you are in another meeting or conversation where people are once again pointing out what is wrong. This is a favorite pastime for human beings. We identify what is wrong with others, what is wrong with ourselves, what is wrong with modern society, kids these days, the political system, the marketplace, the local professional sports franchise, and reality television.
This focus on threats and obstacles is a function of our inherited animal biology. There is a survival system in your brain that is designed to see the world through the lens of problems and limitations. This was a critical evolutionary advantage when carnivores lurked in the bushes and we were a potential meal. This part of the brain was designed to turn on for short bursts when there was a suspicious pattern in the environment, and then remain inactive for long periods of time. Here is the rub. We have also evolved the capacity to imagine threats where none exist and keep the survival brain running at a low hum much of the time. This means that we can spend a lot of energy identifying situations -- often trivial -- as problems.
And there is more. The survival brain assumes that whatever you have done in the past has led to you being alive now. Therefore, it creates thoughts and sensations to get you to behave as you always have, and it rewards you for doing so. This system produces compelling reasons to engage in habitual behavior as well as resistance to the unfamiliar. While this process helps us develop some useful skills, it can also keep us from adapting and growing when necessary.
When we blindly respond to every thought and sensation produced by the survival system as the truth, we can put considerable time and energy into unnecessary struggle. On the other hand, consciously observing your thoughts and sensations strengthens a connection to the parts of the brain that see the world through the lens of purpose and possibility. Further, consciously focusing attention on what is most important develops cognitive, emotional, and behavioral self-control.
The skill of dropping a ruminative cycle about what is wrong and putting attention on what is possible and what works is invaluable in any circumstance. When it comes to taking useful action, you can count on your survival brain to produce convincing reasons to procrastinate. When you observe these reasons as nothing more than gossip among survival-based neurons you increase both your peace of mind and productivity.
And let's face it, we do not need more leaders who can repeatedly (and smugly) highlight what is wrong. What group benefits from someone who spends a majority of her time focused on how bad things are? One of the primary functions of a leader is focusing on what is most important, what is needed, and what works. Energy that is focused elsewhere is lost energy.
Accessing the most useful parts of your brain is not magic, and it does not require the belief in some unknown force or power. This is not an exercise in positive spinning or pretending challenges do not exist. Being mindful and purposeful is a discipline -- a practice that leads to skill. A mountain of research in human performance and well-being shows that deliberately practicing being mindful and purposeful strengthens pathways and areas in the brain that contribute to happiness, confidence, interpersonal connection, and self-control.
Here is the bottom line: you have been given an evolutionary gift -- a part of your brain that is designed for growth, exploration, connection, and thriving in any situation. Are you deliberately training this part of your brain to its full potential are are you strengthening other parts of your brain by habit and default? What are you practicing right now?
Dave Mochel, CEO of Applied Attention, teaches individuals, teams, and organizations how to optimize the human brain for performance and well-being. The research-supported practices he teaches lead to personal fulfillment and health, strength of personal relationships and organizational cultures, overall productivity, and effectiveness in leadership. Dave teaches one on one, on site, remotely, and in retreats and seminars.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org