There’s often a lag between what science knows and what society knows. A famous (and tragic) example is when people started toying with germ theory. Early experiments proved that the simple act of washing your hands after autopsies helped doctors keep their patients alive.
Even after rock-solid data proving that, it took a generation or two to catch on. Science knew it worked, even if doctors hadn’t caught up.
I’m pretty sure science has known about neuroplasticity – the brain’s awesome power to rewrite itself – for longer than I’ve been alive. Even so, I remember learning the opposite as a child. I learned once you reach the age of (say) 20, your brain is locked in.
You can refine your brain – teach it new tricks – but, they said, you couldn’t change its structure.
Two of my life philosophies – “trust the science” and “don’t underestimate nature” – seemed to come into conflict here. It didn’t make sense that the brain could be so… rigid. That seemed to underestimate (and contradict) what people are capable of.
I did a little digging and found that there was no conflict. The brain can, in fact, rewire itself in any way, at any age. Phew, what a relief.
Which then led me to the question:
Spend any time on social media and you’ll come across some amateur positive psychologists. I’ve seen this on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram – and probably others – so I have to assume you know what I’m talking about.
This is where someone says something like, “you have to love yourself to find love”.
The corporate world has its own favourites. There, you won’t find people telling you to love yourself – but you will find people talking about having “a bias towards action” and “thinking outside the box”.
Are these powerful, lifechanging snippets of wisdom? Or are they trite, empty clichés that don’t mean anything?
By now, many people have realised their New Year’s Resolutions were too ambitious. Their changes were too drastic, turning it into more of a wishlist than a set of goals.
Hey, it happens. One of the trickier things with self-improvement is keeping it realistic. It’s easy to dream up amazing things you want. Having a plan to get them is harder.
Everyone wants more of the good things. Happiness, love, charisma, success – which is your desire? Maybe you chose all of them.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you of the “evils” of desire. Desire is awesome but if you meditation long enough, you’ll either discover the truth of that for yourself or you won’t. Either way, me telling you isn’t going to help things.
Instead, I’ll tell you something much better.
That line above might be all you need to know about motivation. Working towards your goals is easy when you’re rested, inspired and working on fun stuff. Those times don’t last, though. If you want to do anything meaningful, you’re going to struggle at points.
As simple examples, think about extraverts and introverts. Classic introvert professions, like being an author or researcher, require you to charm and schmooze people. Extraverts need to know how to lock themselves away and fill in forms, build websites and write articles.
You can’t avoid the stuff you hate.
I don’t mean to make light of something awful. Well, that’s not true – if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. But I am a fan of the notion that good things can emerge out of evil things.
Yin and yang, and all that.
There are parts of your toaster that were probably first designed for intercontinental ballistic missiles or something. There’s a metaphor in that – if you want to be sane and happy, repurpose bad things for good.
Kind like what I did with psychological warfare. I found an “enhanced interrogation technique” used all over the world to break people. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl. I hope to never be on the receiving end of something this cruel.
Even so, I found the good in it.
Surely any strategy to boost your motivation must be difficult. It has to be gut-wrenching, soul-crushing and blood-curdling. Filling your mind with a burning desire to take action can’t be simple…
Well, I’m not so sure. I mean, look at me – I’m highly driven and also lazy.
If so, I’m not the only one living it.
Listen to any of the great mathematicians and you’ll hear the same thing. They work hard, even obsessively, while taking every shortcut they can.
Some writers talking about their craft describe a lifestyle a stoner would envy.
Sure, sure, there are counterexamples. Some writers and mathematicians work hard. And few business leaders or athletes rose to the top by loafing around. These people can’t waste time psyching themselves up, though. If they need a conscious strategy to ignite the reservoirs of energy and drive, it can’t be too complicated.
I like to daydream, probably a little too much. It’s fun and relaxing to lose yourself in your thoughts. Not to mention that’s how I get my best ideas.
Just because it’s pleasant and useful, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.
When you lose yourself in your thoughts (which is a good description of what really happens), you disconnect from the world. You miss everything that’s happening in front of you. Given the real world is where all opportunities lie, that’s a steep price to pay.
And it’s one you don’t have to.
Because instead of getting lost in your thoughts, what if you learned to navigate them?
Arthur Dent, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, knows a lot about the neuroscience of leadership and motivation.
Sure, he’s lazy and not all that bright.
He kind of saves the world… in the movie version, at least… but mostly by going along with events. He rarely takes charge or asserts himself.
And yet there’s one thing he does that, if you’re struggling to take action and get stuff done, you’d be wise to mimic.
Recently, I read that the higher up a hierarchy someone is, the more likely they are to conform. It’s a strange thought. You don’t rise to the top of a corporation or the military by blending in, yet once you’re there, your personal life matches those around you.
Rich executives often drive the same car, live in the same sorts of homes and belong to the same clubs.
You might be able to think of counterexamples. So can I. It’s a trend, not a rule – and what a strange trend it is. Reaching the top requires boldness, drive and a strong sense of your own identity. You’d think the leaders of these organisations would be the least likely to conform to any group.
And it got me thinking…
I wonder how much of life involves resolving apparent paradoxes.
How suggestible are you? Just how prone to emotional manipulation, marketing and hypnosis are you? If you’re like most people, you probably think you aren’t.
Sure, you know marketing works – that’s why it costs so much to run ads. But it doesn’t work on you. You make all your decisions rationally.
That’s because you’re too strong-willed to be manipulated.
If you believe this, then listen up. There’s two things wrong with that:
Firstly, believing you’re not suggestible makes you more suggestible. If you think you make all your decisions, you never doubt your own thoughts. Someone who questions their own motives and logic will catch manipulation far more often.
If you think you’re an island fortress, you’ll never look for intruders.
Secondly, being suggestible makes you stronger.