Stop Waging Psychological Warfare - On Yourself

11/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Recently I received an advanced copy of The Leap, a thought-provoking and inspiring new book by my friend Rick Smith. I met Rick through his work with World 50, the uber-influential executive networking company he founded a few years back.

The Leap is most powerful when it pushes readers to bust through their own personal glass ceilings, to use one of my favorite phrases. To use Rick's phraseology, we get stuck in a "Now Trap" because our brains are constantly trying to protect us from an uncertain future. So instead of leaping forward toward our dreams, we get mired in psychological warfare between our creative and reactionary aspects.

The key idea here is that the very idea of "potential" is created in our minds. The limits to that potential are created in the very same place. We are the biggest thing holding us back from greatness. Not only do I agree with that, I've experienced it on a profoundly personal level, part of the story I told in Who's Got Your Back.

As the following exclusive excerpt from The Leap illustrates, it is our willingness to tackle head-on the forces that hold us in place that allows us to achieve our greatest potential. Rick dispels the myths that hold us back, and challenges us to once again dream big. Enjoy!

Excerpt from The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel your Career from Good to Great, by Rick Smith

At first glance, we humans would seem to be built for innovation and entrepreneurship. We're the species that dreams big things, the one that imagines a different future for ourselves, and it all begins with our neural architecture.

For 500 million years, the human brain (and the proto-human one that preceded it) did little more than poke along, not changing materially in size or shape. Then, beginning about 2 to 3 million years ago, our gray matter started to explode. Today, in what amounts to a wink in geological time, we have doubled our average brain volume from that benchmark break point.

But volume is the least of it. Cranial studies and other evidence show conclusively that what grew most dramatically in the brain over the last several million years was the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that allows us to visualize the future and anticipate coming events.

Today, we spend on average 12 percent of our time--3 hours each day, or roughly 10 years in an 80-year life span--contemplating what is to come. This is what makes us different from every other living thing: We live in the present but keep a foot in the past and the future.

Put another way, a cheetah or a great white shark or even our close DNA cousin the orangutan has to prove itself every day. We don't. We store up canned goods and water in case the power goes out; buy homes on time, via mortgages, in anticipation of rising values and future earning power; save money for our kids' college education so they can have a better a life than us; and invest in IRAs, Keoghs, and 401(k)s to help feather our own old age.

Torn Between Opposites
The planning-dreaming-poet side of the brain, the part that's ready to leap toward wherever opportunity might wait, is one facet. But there's another, older, survival-driven part of the brain that works in almost exact opposition.

Encouraged by our huge new frontal lobe, we envision big things to come, but when push comes to shove, our older brain fights like mad to defend the current state of our lives. We court risk in our imagination, then run from it in our daily lives. We are almost compelled to plot out alternative story lines for our lives and careers and families, but we are compelled even more powerfully to avoid what we imagine. That's the great irony of humankind: we are at once the animal capable of dreaming and the one that holds itself back from achieving its dreams. True, we are wired to think about the future, but in critical ways, we are wired to think about it incorrectly.

Stuck in the present, we fret over how far up the corporate ladder we can climb, whether we will ever make VP of Sales, or what our compensation will be a dozen years out, when we really need to be asking ourselves is what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. If we're not fulfilled, if we're not in touch with what we intuit our potential to be, the rest--titles, offices, salary--is all window dressing and empty calories.

The frontal lobe speaks loudly enough in our private daily counsels that we all know this to be true to some extent. We long for the change that will make us fully in touch with out essential selves. We ache for work that will leave us fulfilled and content. But the rest of our brain, conditioned by millions of years of human and prehuman experience, anticipates failure, not success. And because it does, it sends a very different message: The upside of dramatic change isn't worth the effort and exposure involved.

In effect, we imagine the future not so we can embrace it, but so we can avoid it.

Buying into Your Own Status Quo
In effect, you have created a status quo and bought into it; studies have consistently shown that the bigger the bet and the more you fretted over it, the more certain you are that your reasoning is sound and the outcome you have predicted highly likely. That's the way the brain works. It makes us sweat and strain over our decisions like a crew of ditchdiggers; then, once the decision is made, the brain invokes a psychological defense clause that says, Well, that sounds like a great bet to me. I'll stick with it through thick and thin.

So it is with jobs and careers and even life patterns. We often invest so heavily in them, and buy into the logic of our investment and decision making so thoroughly, that we see abandoning them at the one extreme as a kind of psychological suicide and at the other as an unnecessary dare, given that the future (as our flawed brains paint it) is so likely to re-create the present. Rather than face up to the potential of positive, dramatic change, we silence the argument within ourselves, and in doing so, we spare ourselves the pain both of a difficult contemplation and of potentially realizing that our assumptions about the future have been fundamentally flawed.

In various branches of science, this is known as a closed system. In more everyday terms, it's like walking into a dead-end alley. Maybe we should think of it as the "Now Trap." What is closes in around us. What could be seems impossibly distant. And the space between them appears far too risky to navigate. No wonder our personal ruts seem so hard to escape--they are, in fact, Now Traps every one.

The Roads Not Taken
These are the pranks the brain plays on us. This is the way it builds the Now Trap that holds us in the ruts of our lives and careers. The brain provides us with a massive frontal lobe to imagine the future, then tricks us into believing that whatever lies out there for us will not be all that different than the present. The brain gifts each of us with enormous potential, then convinces us that the risk of pursuing our potential is greater than the reward of achieving it. It allows us to envision what we might become, then tells us we lack the talent and skills to get there.

We can't help longing after the choices not made, the roads not taken, more than the choices we do make and the roads we do take. That again is part of what being a human being is all about. We're the decision-making, decision-regretting animal; we have the capacity to rue as well as to anticipate and to envision alternative futures for ourselves. But unlike the poet Robert Frost, we can't quite bring ourselves to take those roads less traveled, the ones that make, in Frost's words, "all the difference."

Our psychological immune system is poised to jump. It wants us to make the Leap. It can deal far more easily with too much courage than with too much cowardice. It's more comfortable with our stumbling forward than with our hedging our bets. But the brain won't let us do that without a fight that most of us are not prepared to make.

Thus we wage psychological warfare on ourselves. But--and this is the critical point--we don't have to. The Now Trap is formidable, but it's not Houdini proof. We simply have to start looking at life through a different lens. The fact is, the woods are full of ordinary people, everyday Joes and Janes, who have broken free from the Now Trap and transformed rut-stuck careers into deeply fulfilling callings--work that not only has brought them great personal satisfaction but has also had a great and lasting impact on others.

Above all else, remember this: whatever traps we may feel stuck in are largely of our own making. What we have built we can also undo. What we can dream we can achieve.