You’ve probably had this feeling at some point: One minute you’re thinking logically and rationally, then when you’re asked to perform a task, some mystery switch flips on, leaving you in a state of suspension. Suddenly, you're stuck, unable to take the first step toward achieving that goal.
The good news is you haven’t lost the ability to tap your own intellect. The problem is that your brain has worn a groove in the unproductive fight/flight/freeze state of frustration and helplessness. It happens when we are working with our "critter brain," a layer cake made up of our primitive, reptilian brain and our emotions- driven mammalian brain. So named by Carl Buchheit of NLP Marin, it defines a state of mind that expresses knee-jerk emotion, even as it’s focused on safety and survival.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to operate in this state, says author Christine Comaford. "Safety, belonging, and mattering are essential to your brain and your ability to perform at work, at home, and in your life overall," she writes in her new book SmartTribes. "So if we learn that we can survive by feeling worthless, by becoming invisible, by procrastinating until the last minute and doing ‘good enough’ work, even by chronically doing a less-than-stellar job, that program is the one our critter brain is going to associate with survival."
That’s no place for creativity and innovation, Comaford tells Fast Company. Instead, she believes we would all do better operating in the "smart state," the place in our prefrontal cortex that allows us to solve problems, think in the abstract, grow, and change.
She should know. Tapping the power of her own prefrontal cortex, Comaford has packed a plethora of career experiences into the last three decades including a stint as an engineer at Microsoft, starting and selling five companies, working with both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and investing in startups such as Google (for $2 a share!).
Though she confesses she’s an "achievement addict," Comaford says she owes much of her success to her ability to also achieve stillness through meditation. It started when she was just 16 years old.
Running away from home —and a father who told her she wasn’t very attractive and not terribly smart— Comaford landed in New York and found work as a lingerie model. Though it validated her looks, Comaford quickly became disenchanted with the culture of conspicuous consumption that permeated the 1980s. "I looked around and said, ‘Are you f*%$ng kidding? Money and power, is that all there is?’ " she recalls, laughing. So she began casting her net for something with a higher purpose.
"I can’t give myself credit to say I was super wise," Comaford admits, but even though she dropped out of high school, she had learned a lot about world religions from self-directed reading and visiting churches and temples. The next logical step? Taking religious vows as a Buddhist monk. At 17, when many of her peers were partying and hooking up, Comaford says ruefully, "I was celibate and fasting." More important, she was meditating. "That mindfulness baseline from my past really helps me have greater clarity when [coaching] people go through their minds and understand energy." Comaford contends, "So much of success is about energy management."
It Only Takes Five Minutes.
While Comaford believes managing energy is rooted in achieving a meditative state, she admits, "Not everyone is ready for the word mindfulness, and not everyone is ready for, god forbid, meditation." However, she says, "I find a lot of executives who, once they understand how to manage their energy, once they understand how to still their internal dialogue energy, get much better at making decisions. They work less and get a lot more done," she says. Think: Ready, set, pause.
Though it may sound contradictory, Comaford says there is a way to fast-track mindfulness. It takes only five minutes a day and plays to a common theme in our information-deluged culture. Start by picturing a TV screen with a news ticker running along the bottom. The news bytes are your infinite supply of thoughts. If you let them drift by and focus instead on the space between the information, Comaford says, "You will start to hear silence." Practicing this every day for six weeks, Comaford maintains, will grow your prefrontal cortex, your "smart state."
How to Be a Smarter Leader
That’s why she layers a lot of neuroscience research and practices into her work with leaders. You can hardly argue with the data, she says. "Fred Luskin at Stanford says we have 60,000 thoughts per day and 90% of them are repetitive," she exclaims. "When we shut up inside —because our mind will go on its weird OCD hamster wheel track—we cut through all the noise and see things so clearly."
Once they gain clarity within their own mind, it’s easier for leaders to manage their teams. It can be as simple as issuing better directives for team members to follow. A vague request (I need a report on sales) from a reptilian manager only concerned with survival and profit can send people straight into critter brain mode. Clear directives (I need a report on third-quarter sales from the northeast region by Tuesday) give reports a greater opportunity to succeed, or at least a more specific opportunity to ask for help.
You Don’t Have To Be A Star, Baby.
Comaford says you don’t have to be a leader to reap the benefits of your prefrontal cortex. For those of us who prefer to be team players, Comaford says it’s important to just be "the most kick butt" at whatever you contribute.
By using stillness, you can become someone who uses these tools to bring [the leader’s] vision to bear. "A kick-butt executor—that is a really great role," she says.
How to Achieve the Zen of Freelancing
As we turn increasingly into a nation of self-employed contractors, it’s hard to feel that sense of safety, belonging, and mattering that comes with being connected in a shared workplace. That’s why Comaford says it’s important to remember your value.
"If we compete on price, we are forever hosed," she asserts, noting that while working independently, it is all too common for freelancers of all stripes to undervalue their services because they fear they won’t land a plum project or client. "Remember there is always a Walmart competitor who will smash prices to smithereens," she says. Instead, she recommends using the stillness of meditation to discover creative ways you can differentiate your work from the competition.
How to Get Out of Your Own Way
Still stuck? Comaford recommends doing a quick exercise where you ask 10 people to tell you the three adjectives they use to describe you. "If they aren’t what you want, change them," she says. "The cool part of mindfulness," she points out, is to gain a better understanding of what you are projecting to the world.
It will also help you hold your own value, she posits. "What we get when we get to know ourselves is tremendous confidence," she explains, "We don’t have to sell anymore; we just present what we have and if no one wants it, we are okay with that."
[Image: Flickr user Oskar Seljeskog]