The Winner’s Brain

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately about neuroplasticity: about how our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences literally shape the neural, chemical, and physical structures of our brains – molding them into more or less effective drivers of our physical and mental health and success.

One of the things I just finished reading is a book called “The Winner’s Brain”, and here a few things in the book that stood out for me:

1. I talk a lot about the importance of soliciting feedback – simply because of the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. But what I learned in this book is that the parts of your brain that are involved with proficiency of a task are also the same parts involved in proficiency awareness. In other words, there’s a very real reason why we may be bad at something and not even know it! Hence the importance of feedback.

2. I’m a real proponent of “showing up in the world as our true selves” – but also that adjusting to different situations by calling upon different versions, or personas, of our selves can be appropriate and beneficial. The authors of the book acknowledge this, but also state that narrowing the gap between our public and private selves allows us to judge our social interactions more accurately, as well as cause others to see us as more confident and authentic people. A good reminder to not take our adaptive skills too far.

3. I write a lot about ways of cultivating and fostering motivation, but I’ve also learned that motivation has a lot to do with removing barriers as opposed to solely focusing on pushing forward with what you have. Makes good sense.

4. I also focus a lot on the field of positive psychology and the documented benefits of a positive perspective or disposition. The thing that really stood out to me in this regard is the authors’ conclusion that “happiness precedes success”. An elegant little statement, confirmed by solid research, highlighting the fact that we can choose to be happy – and that we’ll experience greater levels of success by doing so.

5. Last but not least, and I say this all the time, exercise and meditation is really where it’s at. The book confirmed again what we know to be true: that if you do nothing else to take charge of your own destiny, the best thing you can do is exercise and meditate.

These five points are not all the authors say about shaping your brain for better health and success; but they’re the things that jumped out at me at this particular point in time. I’d encourage you to do your own research about what else is being discovered, and about how and why these sorts of things work. (Naturally, a great place to start would be picking up the book.)

But at the very least, try focusing more on the five things outlined above, and see what kind of difference they make to your life!

There is one caveat, though: these things take time and practice to really make a difference. Remember, we’re talking about literally reshaping and modifying the brain on a physical and chemical level. Developing more adaptive perspectives and behaviors certainly creates some quick and powerful gains; but sustaining these gains requires persistence and work!

(Don’t be afraid of the work, though – just keep it fun… Remember the point about staying positive 🙂

Get Discouraged!

Discouragement is the result of all those little thoughts, fears, and assumptions that add up to a real sense of emotional and physical discomfort. For some it’s debilitating: stopping them in their own tracks out of habit; while others keep moving on immediately as if it never happened. In both cases they fail to actively identify and challenge the maladaptive thoughts and fears that feed it.

We’re told all the time to not get discouraged. What that means, obviously, is to not give up when we feel defeated. And we shouldn’t give up – but we should also remember that feeling defeated, and scared, and insecure are all natural human reactions. If we deny the experience of discouragement, either by letting it stop us in our tracks or by ignoring its existence, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to self-reflect and self-correct. We either don’t move at all, or we risk moving forward in a maladaptive way.

All feelings serve a purpose. Our physical or emotional reactions are rich with data that we can use to adapt, adjust, and evolve. We can identify the thoughts and assumptions that feed the experience of discouragement, and hold them up to examination. We can then replace the faulty ones with more realistic and/or energizing ones; and then resolve to act more purposefully.

Picking ourselves up and moving forward after acknowledging our discouragement also teaches us just how far our resiliency can be stretched. So we shouldn’t discourage discouragement: we should embrace it and use it as the powerful tool it is.

A Healthy Dose of Optimism

I heard a great quote recently that got me to thinking about what it means to be optimistic: “If life doesn’t give you at least a little sugar as well, your lemonade’s gonna suck”. In other words, a positive attitude isn’t always sufficient in and of itself.

So what’s the difference between a healthy and unhealthy optimism? The former, in my opinion, embodies a more realistic perspective on things with a sense of hope and possibility attached to it. The latter, I’ve come to see, is simply a ‘happy-face’ mask designed to hide ignorance, fear, and denial.

A healthy optimism entails the willingness to see the ugly things as they really are – to feel discouraged and angry when appropriate – but also remembering to engage fully with the beauty that does exist. Focusing on what is right and good in the world, without turning a blind eye to the rest, can give us the encouragement and strength we need to make right the things that need to be made right.

Are you typically an optimist or a pessimist? Or maybe you consider yourself more of a realist. Or maybe it depends on the situation. It really doesn’t matter: the point is that it helps to take stock of the assumptions we tend to make, and the ways in which we typically choose to approach the world. We need to maintain a hopeful but balanced perspective in order to lead change effectively.