Focus on the Mission
Posted by Joseph Anderson
What do top performers do that puts them ahead of the rest? I believe the answer is quite simple.
Years ago when the US was heavily involved in the middle east, I worked with one specific group of people who made an impression. I remember them acutely for several reasons, the most notable was how quickly they learned to both climb and pick up almost all of the new skills we’d throw at them. We would teach them crevasse rescue, aid climbing, ice climbing, or whatever and they’d systematically go for it attaining new skills with incredible efficiency.
Now I’ve worked with plenty of groups and individuals on both sides of the achievement spectrum but these guys were different. At the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was but I remained super curious. What is it that allows someone to pick up a new skill and apply it? The answer we’re used to hearing is “they’re just smart,” or “gifted” but I don’t buy it.
During the first or second day of the course, just making small talk I asked one of them, “So how do you get in? How were you guys chosen to be Army Rangers? It’s pretty damn competitive I imagine.”
The fellow that answered carried a tone that suggested that he was just as curious as I was and explained, “Well, as the boot camp progressed we slowly watched guys drop out or be asked to leave and it was really weird, because it gradually occurred to me that the ones that remained weren’t necessarily the big tough guys, or the ones we all assumed would be chosen. The ones that remained were more” …”well”…..”like me.”
At the time it made sense in an intuitive sort of way. There was certainly something about these guys that was uncommon. Whatever it was, it allowed them to inhale and put to work new information more effectively than most people. But what was it?
That was almost 8 years ago however just the other day I was listening to a story on the radio that brought to light what the Army Rangers most likely possessed that most people do not.
The radio program described a historic fallacy that most of us tend to use a dominant “hemisphere” of our brain – the left, more analytical and information based side of the brain (learning) or the right side for spatial recognition and movement (doing). This tends to determine what we are naturally good at or what we’re not so good at and ultimately steers the general direction we take in our career, our hobbies and in our life. However, recently scientists have been able to discern more specifically which part of the brain “lights up” i.e, which part are being used with increasing understanding and why.
So what has become clearer through recent brain research is that working at advanced, elite, or expert levels of anything, whether you’re performing heart surgery or trying to run the 4 minute mile, causes both hemispheres to light up like a Christmas tree. And get this, Learning and using a new skill does the same thing to our brains. Because working at the highest fringes of your discipline and practicing a new incredibly difficult skill is cerebrally the same action.
So if you’re like me then you’re already thinking: Cool! That sounds great, what’s the trick?
An so here’s the part of the program where I turned up the dial and told my kids “SSHHHH!”.
Big spoiler here, This is extremely difficult to achieve. Why? Because we’re human. Literally we don’t just use our left and right brains to process information we also use the lower brain AKA the Amygdala AKA, the emotional brain. This is grand central station for not just negative emotions but all emotions. Every thing you’ve ever felt has been due to you’re Amygdala. But check this out, most decisions you ever make are based on decisions determined by the Amygdala. Why? Like I said: Because we’re human.
The study that the radio program focused on was to explore a small intricate detail of the big picture and more specifically the negative emotions and how that affects the use of you’re left and right hemisphere. What the author found was that just a simple prompt like “YOU”LL NEVER!” or “YOU CAN’T!” or even “NO!” actually reroutes brain activity away from the “Get things done” part of your brain towards your amygdala creating a negative emotional response and thus lending towards self perpetuated incompetence in whatever task your striving for excellence in. This can happen when you hear a negative prompt from an outside source but not for everyone. When you tell yourself a negative word there is no way around it. Brain activity hopelessly obeys and diminishes for anyone that puts them selves down.
A simple conclusion we can draw is that our brain structure is literally built on where it is safe to go.
What is equally as fascinating is what happens when people are prompted to say the opposite. Like “Yes”, or “I can do this”, or anything for that matter in the positive.
Here’s what happens: Nothing. That seems like a bum deal, right.? You say a bunch of lame stuff to yourself and almost instantaneously you feel really crumby about it while making you literally dumber at the same time, but then you say really nice encouraging words to yourself and NOTHING?!!!??
Not exactly. The flow of information is simply not interrupted by the amygdala.
Here is the coolest part: The Amygdala lights up once you’ve accomplished that crazy, unlikely task that nobody thought was ever possible. The harder the task the more it lights up. But it’s a positive emotion now. Success feels good. You are rewarded by the Amygdala. That’s why most people choose their careers based on what they’re good at. The brain needs to be able to easily and fluidly transfer information back and forth between the left and right hemisphere in order to feel good: Vegetables first than desert.
So here I am, 8 years after working with that one group of guys and I’m listening to this random program on the NPR and it all clicks. It suddenly makes sense to me what stood out about that specific group of Army Rangers back in 2007. It was their complete lack of self inflicted negativity. Where most students usually display at least some level of doubt as new tasks increase in difficulty whether outwardly through words or inwardly through posturing, these guys approached every task fully and completely. Doubts? That wasn’t part of their circuitry.
It made perfect sense that the most important trait for an elite team of military specialists whose job is to go deep behind enemy lines and accomplish some high-octane operation was to not bring any Negative Baggage to the task. You can’t be down on your self at any level for this kind of job. And the same thing goes for anyone hoping to be a world-class athlete, or brain surgeon or anything for that matter. Do you think high performing people tell themselves how worthless they are in mid show? No, because either they never formed that habit like the majority of people have or early in the show, they rewired their brain. Surely people at even the highest levels of functioning posses even minute levels of doubt. But the fact remains that as the level of human performance increases negativity becomes physically less possible to maintain in order to complete the task.
So does that mean top performers never fail? No, and that’s exactly the point. As that week long training in April of 2007 progressed I did hear a little more about what is involved in the Army Ranger selection process. So if you are hoping to one day be in the special forces listen up. They don’t want to see if you fail. They want to see what you do when you fail. Do you throw tantrums? Do you tell yourself that you suck? Do you get angry and blame others for what happened? Because that’s what they’re looking for: Baggage. The tiniest amount of self-loathing can literally botch a whole operation.
So the conclusion? Don’t be distracted by your self. Focus on the Mission.