“Part of my evolution as an entrepreneur has been to realise the importance of not losing focus. I have a list of 13 key things that I’m focusing on this year. Every day I look at that list and remind myself that these are the most important things for 2017. Everything, unless it’s an urgent operational issue, must link back to one of the 13 things on my list, or I don’t do it. That’s how you push the needle.” — Jonathan Liebmann, founder, Propertuity, which has a property portfolio in excess of R1 billion.
What’s the secret to success? Some would argue that insanely successful people possess traits like having a vision, showing gratitude, being honest, learning from failure and having a high emotional intelligence.
While these traits definitely play a role, the real secret to success comes down to science, particularly advancements in neuroscience, and how you can condition your brain to achieve your dreams and goals.
The neuroscience of success can get complicated, but it’s really about how your brain functions in three different areas: Reticular activating system (RAS), the release of dopamine and your memory. If you’re not a science person, I’ll try to make this all as painless as possible.
The Reticular Activating System
Located at the base of the brain where it connects with the spinal cord, there’s one of most important parts of the brain: The reticular activating system.
RAS influences cognition and is basically a filter for the roughly eight million bits of information (subconsciously) flowing through our brain. In other words, it eliminates the white noise. When a message gets past the RAS filter it enters the cerebrum and is then converted into conscious thoughts, emotions or both.
As Ruben Gonzalez, author of The Courage to Succeed, explains, “Even though the cerebrum is the centre of thought, it will not respond to a message unless the RAS allows it. The RAS is like Google. There are millions of websites out there, but you filter out the ones you are not interested in simply by typing a keyword.”
So, what messages get through? Pretty much just the ones that are currently important to you. For example, if you’re focused on preparing for a speaking engagement, your RAS is going to filter in the thoughts that are going to make your presentation a success, such as the tools and resources you’ll need to deliver a memorable speech.
As Gonzalez adds, “This means the more you keep your goals ‘top of mind,’ the more your subconscious mind will work to reach them. That’s why writing your goals down every day, visualising your intended outcome and regularly saying affirmations is so important. Doing those things truly does help you to focus your subconscious mind on what’s important to you.”
Dopamine feedback loops
While RAS can help you focus on your desired outcome, the release of dopamine is what makes success feel good.
Mark Lukens, founding partner of Method3, wrote, “When we succeed at something, our brains release chemical rewards; the most important of which is the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical best known for the role it plays in addiction and drug use.”
Dopamine, despite this negative association, “is a natural part of how our brains function, producing the sensation of pleasure whenever you taste coffee or chocolate, or when you achieve a big win.”
Thus, it makes sense that “dopamine is strongly connected to motivation, driving us to repeat the behaviours that create that rush, even when we aren’t experiencing it.” The dopamine response is short-term but since our brains remember how awesome it was before, we strive to seek it out over and over again.
That’s when dopamine loops enter the picture. After you’ve experienced repeated success, your pleasure reduces.
“This can drive us to seek out ever-greater thrills,” adds Lukens. It’s why video game players are constantly engaged, it’s the reason why you check your phone every minute after updating your Facebook status, and it’s what motivates us to accomplish more.
For instance, if your goal was to acquire three new clients within two weeks, your next goal would be to acquire six new clients in one week. Everything else is the same, except the more challenging, and rewarding task of doubling your clients. As an added perk, this helps you weed out the work and goals that aren’t motivating you or your team.
Neuroscientists who have studied the way the brain retrieves memories can also determine success.
Think about that for a second. That time you went mountain biking and had a nasty spill? That was a bad experience that might discourage you from mountain biking again, at least for the foreseeable future. The same is true of business failure. You are more hesitant about taking that risk again.
Scientists have found that we can edit those bad memories to remove the negative associations. In fact, this memory therapy is used to treat PTSD sufferers. You can also edit good memories to propel you towards success.
To weaken bad memories, bring that memory back and then let it get smaller and dimmer, like you’re watching a small black-and-white TV fade out. Then insert new details that scramble the memory. For instance, think about the time you bombed during an investor pitch. Now imagine that your audience was dressed in something that made you laugh. Do that five or ten times and that memory will make you chuckle.
To strengthen memories, recall the good memories as bright and loud as possible, like watching a movie in an IMAX theatre. Keep reminding yourself how that experience made you feel. Use that to motivate you.
Related: The 5 Secrets Of Business Success
Hacks to rewire your brain for success
You can rewire your brain to become more successful. In fact, according to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, it takes just 30 hours of training based on specific neuroscience techniques to improve your memory and cognition, speech patterns and reading comprehension.
I know. That may sound like a lot. But, that’s just an hour a day for a month to achieve life-long success. I think that’s totally worth it. And, most of this training involves simple daily tasks.
Implement these eight simple hacks to achieve life-long success.
1. Exercise and meditation
Exercising releases endorphins, which can help with problem solving and boost creativity. Meditation can help you achieve inner calm and break down any mental barriers or limitations.
2. Consume a diet rich in omega-3s and healthy fats
These can help keep dopamine levels in your brain active, as well as increase cerebral circulation.
3. Precision affirmations
“We’ve all heard of affirmations: Repeating positive statements to ourselves in order to believe them,” writes John Assaraf, the CEO of NeuroGym.
“While that may sound good in theory, there is often a severe lack of specificity that can hinder results.” Instead, “make a clear, definitive statement about yourself as if it is already true, your subconscious mind takes over and will act in accordance with that belief.” This “will imprint these beliefs into new neural pathways.”
4. Say your ‘Chief Aim’ every morning and evening
Based on Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, “A definite ‘Chief Aim’ is a specific, clearly-defined statement of purpose,” writes Dr. Julie Connor. “It has the power to guide your subconscious mind. It transforms your attitude from pessimism into positive expectation.” Write down your own ‘Chief Aim’ and say it out loud every morning and evening. When I started my invoice company, I started every day by saying that I would become the best at this. Not quite there but getting there.
5. Get plenty of sleep
Get between 6,5 and eight hours of quality sleep every night so that you’re more attentive and focused.
6. 15 minutes a day
Carve out 15 minutes of your day to learn something new or master a skill you already have. It will have a positive impact on your brain.
7. Remove yourself from negative and stressful environments
According to Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinology professor at Stanford University, “Stress can not only be stopped, but reversed once the source, psychological or physical, is removed or sufficiently reduced.” In other words, the physical environment around us plays a very important role in the health of our brains.
“Visualisation is a powerful tool to retrain your subconscious mind, because it allows you to feel and experience a situation that hasn’t happened yet — as if it were real,” writes Assaraf. In short, “If you are able to genuinely ‘see’ yourself as financially successful in your mind, your subconscious will process that as reality.”
Re-engineer Your Performance Culture To Avoid Disruption
52% of the companies on the Fortune 500 in the year 2000 no longer exist today. Simply put, they were disrupted. If you want to survive and thrive, you need to learn to be the disruptor, and that starts with your employees.
“It’s been discovered that traditional performance reviews trigger the same threat networks in the brain as those that are triggered when we are being attacked by a lion in the wild.”
Developing a performance culture
Performance management is not just about a system, it’s a culture. At its very core it shows what a company values and what it does not. It’s a means through which we reward and encourage certain behaviour and provides a process that enables us to correct behaviour that is not considered helpful in the business.
If a company rewards both quality of client relationships and sales targets for example, it displays a different culture to a company that only rewards sales targets. The way in which companies reward behaviour, be it individual bonuses, team bonuses or incentive trips demonstrates what values they hold.
It’s therefore imperative that businesses begin this process by first defining what they want their performance culture to look like. What does ‘good’ look like and how do we recognise it? I recently read that the best way for top talent to figure out if they want to work for a potential employer is to ask the interviewer how they reward and recognise talent.
This will indicate the type of culture a business has and whether you may be a good fit. From a business perspective, it will determine what types of employees you attract, and how customers are treated by your organisation.
There are a lot of reasons why more than half of the Fortune 500 companies from the year 2000 no longer exist today, but one of the most important is that their decline is simply indicative of disruptive times.
In disruptive times we experience changes in the workplace that fundamentally shake up and change how we do business. The most disruptive times force us to take an honest look at ourselves and reconsider what we need to change to survive. Those that do not adapt often die. But it’s also true that in moments like these industries, societies and cultures move forward.
Be in-tune with your company’s performance culture
One of the biggest areas of reflection for businesses in recent years has been our traditional methods of managing performance. Performance management is considered to be one of the most important functions of a business, no matter the industry or size.
The outcomes of how we manage performance may be the most impactful events in how we get the best out of people, define and execute strategy and ultimately survive as a business. As times change and we move into the next industrial revolution, the pressure has started to mount on many companies that have to reengineer a dated system.
They are being asked to align it with the actual dynamics of work and reflect the nuances of how business has changed. This is even more important when we consider that most of today’s traditional yearly target-review processes stem from the first industrial revolution, which occurred a century ago. A survey of global executives recently admitted that they had only a 4% approval on current performance management processes.
Performance reviews trigger fight or flight
If we consider that most employee performance review techniques are linked to a basically antiquated system, then how we understand the brain can determine what modern-day performance management should look like, starting with how we review our employees.
A major breakthrough in neuroscience has led the field in reengineering performance. It’s been discovered that traditional performance reviews trigger the same threat networks in the brain as those that are triggered when we are being attacked by a lion in the wild.
When these networks are triggered the brain does not prioritise its higher-order thinking and rather resorts to instinctual, unconscious behaviour in order to ensure survival. This has commonly been known as the fight or flight response. In this state the brain’s best thinking is not prioritised as the brain relies on the quick and instinctive thinking needed to ensure survival.
What’s important to remember here is that the brain uses the same neural networks for both physical and social threat. This explains how the same areas of the brain light up when we feel socially threatened in a performance review and when we hurt ourselves physically. It also explains why social isolation is used as an effective form of punishment in prison.
How to achieve a successful performance review
The challenge with performance conversations is that a crucial outcome of the conversation is for the brain to be at its best to prioritise its best thinking. A successful performance review occurs when individuals think reflectively about performance feedback and are able to adjust behaviour and move forward with a plan of action.
The problem is that most performance conversations do not achieve this result successfully because traditional performance reviews trigger a threat response that prevents the brain from being at its best.
Our work at the NeuroLeadership Institute has cumulated in a model of social triggers that can be used to better understand how these social triggers play out. The SCARF model was developed by Dr David Rock and focuses on what triggers a threat state in the brain and what can be leveraged to put the brain into its best state. These could be summarised in the questions:
- Am I being valued and respected? (Status)
- Am I in the loop? (Certainty)
- Do I have a sense of control? (Autonomy)
- Do I belong? (Relatedness)
- Am I being treated fairly compared to others? (Fairness)
A typical performance conversation is started with something along the lines of “Come in, let’s do your performance review,” or if you would like to start the conversation, “I need to give you some feedback.” This may trigger all five of the SCARF triggers and put the brain into a natural fight/flight mode.
There is no sense of what the conversation is about and no degree of control and there is a clear distinction made between manager and feedback receiver. However, by being aware of these triggers we are able to structure the same conversation in a different way.
You could begin the conversation by saying, “I need to give you feedback about X and I need 20 minutes of your time. What time is good for you today?” This conversation puts the brain into a state where it can prioritise its best thinking and is better prepared to actually think differently when given the feedback — the desired outcome of most performance management conversations.
How you can re-engineer your performance culture
At the NeuroLeadership institute we have found that many of our clients are trying to reengineer their performance culture and change the three most critical stages of the performance cycle.
These are Goal Setting, Performance Feedback and Rewards. The changes have largely been influenced by an understanding of threat states in the brain. There are a number of ways that companies are experimenting with changing performance that include removing performance ranking and decoupling bonuses from performance discussions — some of the things that actively trigger the brain’s natural threat network.
We recommend starting the change where you are in your performance journey. Some industries and cultures are more fertile for more radical changes, while others are not. In some cases, you cannot take away ratings or individual targets as the business model does not allow for it.
Some cultures are not always ready for 360o-feedback right away and some remuneration schemes are not always ready for group or shared bonuses. Further technical and system constraints may also impact what is possible. One thing everyone is ready for is to improve the quality of conversations and have them more often.
Why are you conducting performance reviews?
When we think about the performance conversation, we have to remind ourselves what the point of it is. They often deteriorate into conversations that attempt to justify performance or fight for an increase.
This is why a lot of businesses are decoupling bonus or remuneration outcomes from the outcomes of conversations. When we do so, what do we really speak about then? Performance and behaviour change, not a fight or an attempt to justify a salary or performance.
We have found that it’s useful to separate conversations. A salary discussion should ideally happen once a year and check-ins and progress conversations should happen more often. There should be more conversations about performance in a year, done in a brain-friendly manner.
It can sometimes be more stressful for the feedback giver than the feedback receiver and that is why we often delay a conversation until it’s necessary to have one and it becomes a tough conversation.
Figure 1 demonstrates the benefit of having more frequent conversations. When you have regular check-ins you are more able to catch behaviour when it is moving off course and correct the trajectory of growth so that targets are achieved and there isn’t a big surprise between planned and actual performance.
Why Stress Can Actually Be Good For You
For years we’ve been told how unhealthy stress can be and how important it is to manage our stress. Turns out, everything we thought we knew about stress might actually be wrong.
As a high-performing entrepreneur, there are few things more irritating than being told to work less and manage your stress. You’re building a business, which by its very nature requires a lot of time and is stressful.
Here’s the good news. Health psychologist and author of the best-selling book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, Kelly McGonigal, has one mission: To help people be happier and healthier. For many years this meant sharing the message that stress makes you sick. It increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Basically, she turned stress into the enemy.
But thanks to some ground-breaking studies, Kelly changed her mind. As it turns out, stress doesn’t kill you. Thinking that stress will kill you is the real killer.
Don’t view stress as harmful
Kelly’s opinion of stress started shifting after a ground-breaking study in the US tracked 30 000 adults for eight years. At the start of the study, participants were asked how much stress they had experienced in the last year, and if they believed stress was harmful to their health. They then used public death records to find out who died.
Here’s the bad news: People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% higher chance of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful.
People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful to their health were no more likely to die than people with absolutely no stress in their lives. In fact, the focus group who had experienced stress but didn’t view it as harmful actually had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study.
Change your response to stress
Other studies have revealed that changing your mind about stress can change your body’s response to it. You can make stress good for you. In one Harvard study, participants were placed in a stressful situation but told that the stress response was good and would help them cope with the situation. Briefed that all the physical signs of stress were helping them to stay focused and perform at their peak — including a heightened heart rate — the participants had a different physiological reaction to someone who believes their stress response is bad.
In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. Constricted vessels are a factor in cardiovascular disease; chronic stress is sometimes associated with heart attacks. It’s not healthy to be in this state all the time.
But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Their heart was still pounding, but their cardiovascular profile looked more like what happens in moments of joy and courage. Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at 50 and living well into your 90s.
Stress also releases oxytocin, which fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen relationships by making you crave physical contact with your friends and family, enhancing your empathy, and making you more willing to help and support people you care about. So, when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it’s motivating you to seek support.
How will knowing this side of stress make you healthier? Oxytocin also acts on your body. One of its main roles is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory that also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. It even helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage.
Pulling it all together
The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and act can transform your experience of stress. When you view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.
Stress gives us access to our hearts, from the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and to the pounding physical heart, working so hard to give us strength and energy. When you view stress this way, you’re not just getting better at it, you’re actually making a profound statement that you trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and that you don’t have to face them alone.
Watch Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk on how to make stress your friend:
It’s OK To Not Be OK
First, acknowledge your feelings. Then, follow these tips to do something about it.
We live in an age of image projection. Instagram gets over 95 million posts per day. You can find hundreds of thousands of pictures of engagement rings, new puppies, exotic dinners or washboard abs at any given moment.
Even LinkedIn is probably sending you dozens of notifications each month reminding you to congratulate your high school acquaintances on their job-iversaries. It’s easy to get caught up in the general tendency of creating an illusion that we have our lives perfectly together. After all, people are watching. So, what happens when you are not OK?
When depression sets in, when negative self-talk gets too loud or when you get let go, get dumped or lose a loved one. What do we do when we don’t have a solution?
During hard times, most people want to skip past the moment of acknowledging that they aren’t OK and go straight to working toward a resolution. Resolutions – even tough ones – make us feel in control.
Admitting that you’re struggling doesn’t feel as manageable, or fit in with the sense of perfection that most people get blasted with on social media. But the ability to sit with a feeling of failure can be one of the most important skills you learn, both in life and in work.
The power of saying “I’m not OK”
Embracing tough moments, instead of swiftly moving past them, can be incredibly powerful when practiced correctly.
Framing the situation correctly is validating; you acknowledge that your feelings are justified, and that even though your situation is not ideal, you accept there is nothing wrong with the fact that you’re struggling. This is not about accepting and ignoring, this is accepting and moving through.
A study from Montana State University found that people who are authentic and honest with themselves can overcome feelings of shame – which would otherwise cause them to devalue themselves.
Dwelling on a feeling of failure is paralysing. It will keep you from asking for help when you need it or making good choices.
Understand that sometimes your emotions take precedence over finding a solution. We often discount the value of feelings especially in the workplace – but you need to remember that in the end, emotions are simply information.They are facts of life like any other. Emotions exist, and when you’re making decisions, you’ll have to factor them in.
Everyone has points in their career where they make a major mistake or feel overwhelmed by their workload. Women in particular are usually taught not to talk about it.
But according to the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, suppressing negative feelings can cause an “emotional load” that causes you to burn out faster, give up more easily and ultimately be less successful.
As an entrepreneur, professional woman and recovering perfectionist, I’ve realised I need to give myself permission to be not OK sometimes. I accept that there isn’t a solution right now, and I tell myself that that’s OK. That attitude is what has given me the stamina to accomplish everything that I have, even when times felt dark.
4 Ways to ground yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed at work
Enduring uncertainty isn’t easy. It’s a professional skill that needs to be fostered like any other. I have four main tactics I personally use in order to stay centred during challenging times.
You may have heard it a hundred times from your yoga teachers, but it bears repeating: Breathing is the single best way to get yourself centred. There are many different therapeutic ways to breathe, but here’s a simple one I enjoy: If possible, lie on the floor, knees up but feet planted. Otherwise, find somewhere where you can be seated.
Take one hand and put it on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale for three seconds breathing through your belly, then an additional two seconds filling the chest with air. Hold the breath for a moment and exhale through the mouth completely.
Breathing effectively can literally cure the physical aspects of anxiety. It’s an underrated skill when we talk about what contributes to professional success, but it can make a huge difference.
2. Find a mantra
You might not consider yourself a “mantra” kind of person, but positive affirmations have been consistently shown to make a major positive impact on confidence and performance.
That said, there’s no need to start memorising inspirational quotes or learning Buddhist scripture. Create your own mantras, ones that resonate for you. Figure out what it is that you need to hear in order to feel stronger.
Some things I find comfort in saying are “I am whole. I am safe. I am here.” Or as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” These are just simple sentences, but I find them to be powerful in their ability to bring me to my current state.
I am huge fan of going for walks when work gets hectic. It’s a valuable way to let your body influence what your brain is doing, instead of the other way around. Try using the power of your steps to help calm your mind and reconnect with the immediate present, so you can keep things in perspective.
The way you hold and move your body can also legitimately influence your sense of person ability. In social scientist Amy Cuddy’s famous TED Talk, she talks about how body language influences confidence.
I teach the power of posture and a strong mind-body connection in the first part of my four-part workshop series, Developing Executive Presence. The goal is to help students develop their own authentic presence as a base necessity for the workshops that follow.
4. Talk about it
Sometimes, you just need a third-party opinion in order to keep things in perspective. Reach out to your loved ones, friends or even coworkers.
Holistic psychotherapist Kat Dahlen deVos has some great thoughts on the subject: “Sometimes, when we are experiencing fear, sadness or any other painful emotion, our tendency is to feel very alone – like no one understands or can relate to us.
As a result, we isolate, which can actually increase the intensity of our suffering by activating our stress response (a.k.a ‘fight or flight’). When we’re talking to a loved one about what we’re going through, we’re doing two things that can actually help us to move through the difficulty: Allowing our vulnerability to be witnessed, and building the capacity to tolerate painful experiences.”
Other people might be able to make a point that you hadn’t considered, or they might just listen and validate what you’re feeling. Either way, talking honestly about how you’re feeling will ground you, and it might even convince your listeners to be more genuine with themselves about their emotions, as well.
We’re conditioned to think that we always need to give a sense of perfection, but in my experience, that hurts more than it helps us. Humans are flawed, and they struggle in their work life just like in their regular lives. The people who end up being the most successful aren’t the ones who don’t struggle. They’re the ones who know it’s OK to not be OK.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
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