If you have been a loyal North of Neutral reader over these past years you already know that we are committed to slowing down over the summer months. Recharging our batteries lets us be back with loads of energy for our clients, come fall. Slowing down can mean many things; it might mean working mostly with local clients and limited travel, but it will also mean kicking back and sharing laughter and guacamole with family and friends. And of course, reading some good books!
Here is one that is on our summer reading list:
Check it out if you are interested. We look forward to hearing your thoughts.
by renita kalhorn
Last month, I was in Tokyo, Japan to speak at Pioneers Asia, a tech event for entrepreneurs and investors. Even before I left on the 14-hour flight, my brain was in overdrive: deciding what part of town to AirBnB in, figuring out the best way to get from the airport into the city, and deciphering the fare system for the myriad train and subway lines.
Not to mention preparing for my talk (yep, how to get a mental six-pack), strategizing how to connect with the other participants and finding a gym. Most of the time, I daresay, we’re pretty lax about directing our thinking. But when we’ve got a lot on our plate or the pressure’s on, we don’t have the luxury of wasting mental energy – we need to optimize how we use every ounce of brainpower. Here are three distinctions to keep in mind:
Use your brain for processing, not storing. Dr. Sian Beilock, a psychologist and expert in performing under pressure, explains that working memory is like “a mental scratch pad. It allows you to hold information in mind and work with that information whether you’re trying to figure out the solution to a problem or taking a test or even trying to present what you’re going to say next, and we have a limited amount of it. We can only do and attend to so many things at once.”
So instead of using your brain to remember information – stuff to do, ideas to flesh out, problems to solve — capture it in writing (tapping it out digitally works but writing it down on paper is better). Bullet point the three things you want to say in that client conversation, map out a structure for the partnership. The more you’ve got going on, the more you should be writing down. You’ll free up your brain to synthesize and make connections, not be distracted with worry that things are falling through the cracks.
Use your brain for functional, not emotional, thinking. If you notice that you’re out of milk (and you make a note of it, right?) or you’re calculating the salary for the new CTO hire, that’s functional thinking. If, however, you think “What’s wrong with me, I was just at the store, why didn’t I get it then?” or “This isn’t fair, why is this guy getting paid more than I am?” those opinions and judgments have an emotional charge that can create a redundant and unproductive thought loop.
The first step is to simply start making the distinction between the two. Then, be vigilant: When you catch yourself in a redundant thought loop — like I did in Tokyo, when I found myself ruminating over a missed opportunity to connect with a fellow speaker that I admired — train yourself to interrupt the pattern. Grab a pen and pinpoint what’s really bothering you. Ask yourself: Am I investing mental energy or spending it? Is this going to lead to action?
Use your brain for digesting, not (just) ingesting. The amount of information we’re being inundated with at this point is ridiculous: thousands of emails, nonstop updates in our social media feeds, advertising everywhere. We need to turn off the avalanche and take time to synthesize. This means, says Shane Parrish at Farnam Street, “sifting through information, filtering the bunk and connecting it to a framework that you can use” so we’re not just walking around broadcasting other people’s opinions. Or, it can simply mean taking a moment to sit and let our mind wander.
Something to think about…
by renita kalhorn
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” ~ Albert Einstein.
My dad likes to tell this story from my childhood: I was five or six, we were eating dinner and my mom chastised me for chewing with my mouth open, saying “That’s how pigs eat.” My immediate response: “Do cows do it too?” Apparently, I’ve always been curious about behavior, bovine and otherwise.
Over the years, living in Japan and Europe and working in diverse company cultures, I’ve developed an endless fascination with understanding why humans behave the way they do and it’s a powerful tool in helping my clients when they get mired in a fixed perspective.
One client is a rock star in business development, bringing in high-profile, $20M+ deals for the firm. She was already managing two major projects and when she took on a third, a senior colleague made it clear that he thought she was biting off more than she could chew. “There’s no way you can take on a third project,” he said, “it’s too much, it’s too much.” She took his reaction personally, and assumed he was trying to thwart her success. Me, I had an alternative take: he was threatened by her abilities and rapid promotion in the company, in a panic wondering how he could keep up.
Anyone can be curious when something novel or unexpected happens: you know, if someone walks into the office dressed like a centaur. Genuine curiosity, however, means being able to bring an open, receptive mindset to even the most familiar of situations — buying coffee at Starbucks every morning, seeing the same characters in the weekly team meeting — and engage in finding subtle differences from the previous 100 times.
Curiosity is powerful, like a turbocharger for our mental muscles. It helps us build confidence, perform better under pressure, influence others and be happier. Here are three magic phrases to remind you to take a curious stance:
“Isn’t that interesting?” Not the first thing we might think to ask, but in that moment when we flub up the data in an investor pitch or go blank fielding a question from the CEO, asking ourselves: “Isn’t it interesting that I’m screwing this up?” or “Isn’t it interesting that I’m having this reaction?” is an advanced curiosity move. It allows us, says psychologist Pamela Enders, “to create a little distance, a little objectivity so that we’re feeling a little above or outside of it.” Zooming out downplays the fight-or flight reaction of our amygdala or the emotional part of the brain and allows us to access and connect with the thinking part of the brain.
“I wonder if…” Most people don’t respond well to being told pointblank what to do differently, says Alana Winter, founder of MI6 Academy, who’s facilitated personal development and leadership training for hundreds of entrepreneur CEOs around the world. And you don’t really know with absolute certainty what will work for someone else anyway. So coming from a place of curious ’not-knowing,’ and asking “I wonder if you tried…” or “Have you thought about doing [this]…” (instead of a presumptive “you should…”) can be a subtle but powerful way to get someone to be receptive to a different behavior.
“What are three things that are intriguing?” No matter how exciting our long-term goals, the daily routine can be kind of tedious or mundane. Todd Kashdan PhD, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to A Fulfilling Life, suggests instead of trying to stay positive, we stay intrigued. “Look for three things about this moment that are happening. It could be the thought process you’re having, it could be an unusual mole that somebody has. It could be the idea of how fast and fluid I am, I rarely write on a piece of paper, I’m so used to the computer, and my handwriting is so fast and so horrible, like a penmanship paper from kindergarten. Those kinds of little strategies keep you focused and attentive to what’s happening. It might not be positive but you’re intrigued and that’s going to keep you going during mundane tasks.”
The side effect, however, might be greater happiness. In a 2007 study, Kashdan and Colorado State psychologist Michael Steger found that when participants monitored their daily activities and emotions over 21 days, those who frequently felt curious on a given day also experienced the most satisfaction with their life—and engaged in the highest number of happiness-inducing activities, such as expressing gratitude to a colleague or volunteering to help others.
Another bonus of curiosity: it helps us be compassionate. Once my client realized that her colleague’s behavior was likely more about his insecurity than it was about her, she could feel less animosity towards him and come up with multiple options for managing their relationship.
How’s it going with the New Year’s resolutions? Or maybe, knowing the less than 39% success rate, you decided not to make any.
Still, who’s not familiar with the unsatisfying cycle of behavioral change?
Step 1: Decide to start a new habit.
Step 2: Do it once, a few times, a whole week.
Step 3: Get sidetracked with stressful work situation and totally forget about it.
Step 4: Be reminded of it by a friend, spouse, CNN and/or Oprah.
Step 5: Feel disappointed in yourself as a human being and vow to have more willpower.
Good news: You’re doing what humans do. And you don’t need more willpower.
As you probably know, the brain is all about efficiency. It loves being on autopilot, doing the same things the same way we always have so we don’t have to exert energy making decisions. In fact, our subconscious programs are running the show 95% (or more!) of the time. So when we want to do things differently – to manage stress better, to wake up earlier, to be more present in conversations — it doesn’t like that we’re trying to interrupt the usual programming, and puts up resistance.
That’s why when you think about making a change, you hear that little voice saying, “You need more sleep.” “Let’s just take a quick look at Facebook/Twitter/Instagram first.” “You can start tomorrow.” “There’s not enough time.” (This is a good one because it sounds virtuous; don’t fall for it. Interrupting your autopilot will, by definition, be inefficient — so plan for it.)
In the same way you’d think, “That’s so not me” if someone gave you a sequin-laced jacket and you’re an eco-friendly, Vibram-wearing minimalist, your brain wants to reinforce the message that “it’s not like you, anne, to be doing this [new habit].” The beliefs you have about yourself, your self-identity, drive everything you do and your behavior will only change if it’s aligned with your self-image.
So how do we change our self-image? Grab a post-it or index card and write down this statement: “I am someone who _____.” Fill in the blank with the new behavior you want to adopt: I am someone who exercises in the morning, for example, or: gives people the benefit of the doubt, runs efficient meetings, stays poised under pressure, sets firm boundaries, wears bright-colored fitness tights (my sisters will get that reference).
Start with one thing. Keep the card somewhere where you can see and read it several times a day, like the bathroom or your wallet.
Give it 10 days. Either you’ll read it regularly — or you won’t. If you do, you’ll start to notice subtle changes in your behavior. You’ll find that you’re not that interested in a second glass of wine, for example, or you’re willing to try a yoga class with a Crossfit buddy.
And if you don’t read it, you’ll know you started in a place that was too far from what is “like you.” Tweak the behavior so it feels more believable and try again, no self-flagellation required.
Rinse and repeat.
“This feels too nice and polite to come from a ‘mental toughness coach,’” was my coach’s feedback when I asked him to review an email I had sent introducing myself to a high-profile entrepreneur.
“Well, yes,” I thought. “I am asking for his time and attention, I want to be respectful.” In fact, I was reaching out with an offer to help and, in the process, I was tripped up by what Jean Tang describes in “Sorry, Not Sorry,” as women’s “age-old, primitive drive to avoid taking up space: in physicality, in intellect, in will, in complication.” My obsequious attempt to minimize the “intrusion” was a subtle (and insidious) form of people-pleasing .
(Men do it too, of course: “John Cleese once told me I would never be happy unless I stopped “being so f***ing polite all the time,” British actor Stephen Fry has said. “I have spent much of my life trying to please people, trying to be what they wanted me to be rather than what I actually wanted to be.”)
As usual, it stems from biology and societal conditioning. In the days of our cavemen ancestors, displeasing others could mean being thrown out of the tribe. And as children, reliant on our parents/caregivers for survival, we instinctively have the same fear — and do what it takes to get smiles, not frowns.
So we learn not to disturb the status quo. To avoid doing what might offend or disappoint.
Jerry Hicks tells a story from his days of being a circus acrobat. One afternoon, he walked by the lion’s cage and, sticking his hand inside, began petting the lion on the back of the neck. The lion purred and reveled in the attention. After a few moments, however, wanting to get on with his day, Jerry realized his dilemma: the lion was not going to be happy when the petting stopped. In the same way, we create a conditional relationship with others: as long as I maintain the conditions that please you, you’ll approve of me.
So we don’t speak our truth. We’re apologetic when we haven’t done any harm. And we don’t live the life that we really want.
How can you wean yourself off people-pleasing?
– Ask yourself, “What’s the payoff?” Because no matter how much we think we dislike a situation, if we’re choosing to let it continue, there’s something we’re getting out of it. One of my clients, a CFO, had her hands full managing a high-profile organization, a growing team and her husband’s serious health condition. And yet she couldn’t say “no” to the neighbor’s request to take care of his cat while he was on a business trip. When she thought about it, she realized the payoff was the gratification of being needed — of being the one to come to the rescue.
– Pinpoint the “moment of dread.” Is it seeing someone frown, their expression of disappointment? Is it the feeling of conflict when someone tries to talk you into doing something? Identify the specific moment — when I was selling health insurance, it was seeing the look of annoyance when I said “health insurance” —and have a plan for what you’ll do when it happens. For me, it was a matter of understanding it wasn’t personal and habituating myself to it. Acknowledging someone’s feelings is also powerful: “You seem disappointed,” you can say, without caving in or reverting to people-pleasing mode.
– Find out what they really want. One start-up entrepreneur asked me for advice on how to handle his parents’ opposition to him starting his own software company. They were not happy he had left a high-paying job at Airbus – something they reminded him of by posting his last pay stub on the refrigerator — and he was torn between honoring their wishes and pursuing his own dream. I suggested he start by trying to understand where his mother was coming from: what were her real fears and concerns? Once she felt heard, they could begin to have a more productive conversation.
Pleasing others is a conditional game. If it means constantly putting aside your own desires and self-expression, the price is too high.