My grandmother didn’t know how to develop a leadership brain, but she did know how to develop a strong mind with lots of spunk and grit. She was a crack shot with a shotgun. She never allowed me to say “I can’t” when she told me to do my chores. Come summer, she was the kind of person who would rather burn her front yard than mow it.
My grandmother never had more than an 8th grade education, but she knew something that researchers at world-class universities are just now understanding.
And that is, every time we say the words “I can’t” we are creating a feedback loop in our brain that impacts the way we’re going to behave in the future. We’re reminding ourself of our limitations. What we’re really saying, “I don’t have the confidence to do this.”
Have you ever said to yourself:
✔️Public speaking is not my thing, so don’t blame me if it goes badly.
✔️I don’t like to perform under pressure so don’t blame me if I screw up.
✔️This project is too much, so don’t blame me if it’s not a success.
Every time we repeat phrases like these, they produce a negative feedback loop in our brain. It gets stronger every time we say it.
There are many different regions of the brain, and an MRI scan can show what parts of the brain light up when we think. If you make a fist, your hand would represent the cerebral cortex — the thinking part of the brain. This is the part of the brain that finds new ways to think and generate solutions; it is more logical in it’s approach.
But the moment something creates fear or discomfort, we move into another part of the brain. The thumb underneath your fist would represent the limbic system — the reactive or emotional part of the brain.
The limbic system may be small in size, but it’s powerful because it controls our survival instinct. When we’re confronted with an obstacle that threatens us, we move from the cerebral to the reactive limbic system and it creates the “fight” or “flight” reactions that have kept humans alive for centuries. I describe the limbic system as our feeling brain because it’s the home of our small but powerful gut instinct. It helps us deal with emergencies and threats to our life.
The feeling brain is 100% self-protective and it’s not a good place to be when we need to make decisions as we face adversity. We don’t need to flee from every challenge just because it scares us. The feeling brain can’t discern between anxiety about a threat to our safety, and anxiety we experience when we speak in front of a group of people.
All it knows is that if we’re in discomfort and feel anxious. Instinctively, it tells us to flee or withdraw, so we obey and say, “I can’t.” To develop a strong mind, we have to switch gears to consciously move out of the reactive limbic system and into the thinking cerebral brain. When we face adversity and obstacles, it’s vital for the two parts of our brain to work together so the best decisions can be made.
Here are 4 steps to develop a strong mind:
1. Prioritize Information
You create a strong mind when you prioritize information because it forces the brain to interact with information rather than simply react to it. One excellent way to force the limbic system to interact with the cerebral brain is to create visuals with whiteboards and then list your projects. Visuals help the two parts of the brain sort out the day’s activities together. Otherwise, we risk the chance of them fighting against one another for attention and energy.
After you’ve prioritized, you develop a strong mind when you strip away all the fuss and focus only on the most important projects. Bill Gates said something he learned from Buffett was to keep things simple. “His ability to boil things down, to just work on the things that really count, to think through the basics — it’s so amazing that he can do that. It’s a special form of genius.”
Tip: If possible, assign a theme to each day. When you focus on one specific type of work each day of the week, it helps you stay accountable and monitor progress. It also helps you stay focused on work.
2. Use Your Brain To Manage Stress
As an FBI agent, I had to develop a strong mind because I was frequently confronted with stressful situations.
Research has shown that law enforcement personnel develop a strong mind when they learn how to manage their fear and anxiety. It’s not that they don’t feel discomfort; it’s that they have been trained to manage that discomfort so they are hardier and more resilient.
Tip: Here are two ways to manage stress:
Be grateful. Gratitude emanates from the limbic system, and because of this, we can use gratitude to influence other emotions such as anxiety and fear.
Write down what you feel. When we write down, and then think about those emotions, we can boost our ability to counter the negative emotions we experience at the time. If we keep a journal, it moves us from the limbic system into the cerebral. It’s important not only to think about why we are grateful, but also to focus on the feelings attached to our gratitude.
3. Label All Emotions, Not Just the Good Ones
Now that you’ve written down and identified your emotions, the next step to develop a strong mind is to label them. All of them, not just the nice ones. Many people only want to admit emotions that are warm and fuzzy or ones that make them look good. We’ve all had to learn how to turn shit into sugar so be honest with yourself.
When we label our emotions, it does not increase them. In fact, when you label your fear or anxiety, it lessens your discomfort. It’s very important, however, to keep the label to one or two words because if you open up dialogue about it, you will only stir up the limbic system.
Tip: When you reflect on your feelings and label them, you use your thinking part of the brain to control your emotions instead of allowing them to control you. You move out of the fight/flight mode so you can think about the issue at hand.
4. Train Your Brain To Remain Positive
We develop a strong mind when we change our interpretation of a situation. Since we have an innate bias toward negativity, we process bad news faster than good news. This is because our feeling brain is always survival-driven. This also explains why we’re driven to avoid losses far more than we’re driven to pursue gains. Our emotional responses flow from our appraisals of the world.
My grandmother knew that it was not lack of fear that creates a successful response; it’s how we deal with fear and anxiety. For FBI agents, leaders, or grandmothers everywhere, let your discomfort be a reminder that you need to seek out the positive in your situation. Sometimes you need to look really hard, but it’s always there.
Tip: Social psychologist Barbara Frederickson recommends that when you’re under pressure, you can develop a strong mind if you pause and reflect on five things in life that are truly important to you. Pause after each one to ponder them for several seconds. Ground yourself in the simple reality that no amount of hassle or worry can rob us of what matters most.
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