In a recent interview I conducted with my friend and mentor Dr. Robert Cooper, he shared something that really hit home with me: “We live in a tiny corner of our possibility as human beings,” he told me. “The good news is, the brain doesn’t get it. The brain tends to only compare itself to the best of what’s common, not the best of what’s possible.”
My first thought was that this is a bit tragic — imagine all that we could accomplish as a species if we actually realized our potential. Think of all the great discoveries and human achievements that remain to be unlocked simply because we don’t fully utilize the amazing brains we’ve been given.
But this feeling soon gave way to excitement and optimism. Because our ability to change and step-up our game is actually completely within our control.
Dr. Cooper is a neuroscientist, bestselling author and executive coach whose teachings have impacted my life probably more than anyone else’s.
What I love about Dr. Cooper is that he takes incredibly complex, nuanced neuroscience principles and distills them into dead-simple, actionable advice.
In our conversation, he went in depth about “upwiring” — the idea that we can hack our brains and remake them in a directed, purposeful way, and more fully realize our potential as human beings in the process.
Here are the secret brain hacks that Dr. Cooper and his colleagues have discovered, and that you must practice in order to master productivity, become a better leader, have better relationships, and build lasting value in your business.
Our brains are working against us.
The first step is to acknowledge that our neurobiology isn’t designed for success in modern business — or modern life in general for that matter. In fact, our default tendencies actually stand in the way of our growth.
Through tens of thousands of years of evolution, our brains have evolved certain “hardwired” proclivities. We’re prone to crave continuity, tranquility, safety, and abundance. On the flip side, we’re programmed to avoid situations that are hectic, dynamic, or where we’re pushed to our limit.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense — these fixed traits helped us survive the treacherous tundras, savannahs and forests of our prehistoric ancestors. But, they do little to serve us now.
If we’re not careful, our brains default to these hardwired tendencies and we retreat into behaviors and mindsets that inhibit our growth.
So what can we do?
The good news is that while our brains default to modes that work against us, they also contain within them an enormous potential for growth and change.
Luckily for us, there’s a strategy for tapping into the vast possibility of our brains. And it’s called upwiring.
The magic of upwiring.
There’s a well-established law in biology that states that it’s impossible for living organisms to stay the same — we’re always either rising and growing or we’re fading and falling. This law applies to our brains as well. Each one of our 100 billion neurons is faced with a choice to grow or die. This result is phenomenon known as “livewiring.”
Dr. Cooper explains: “Every single day… every one of your neurons is remaking you – you’re reforming the structure and function of your entire nervous system in real time. That’s livewiring.”
For Dr. Cooper and his colleagues, this begged the question — if we’re always remaking our brains in real time, in which direction? Are we crafting better brains or worse ones? Are we downwiring or upwiring?
Through his research, Dr. Cooper and his colleagues discovered that with practice, we can harness the livewiring phenomenon in a directed, purposeful way. The concept of upwiring was born.
Sounds simple enough. But how exactly do you go from awareness to action?
It’s actually a lot easier than you think. Here’s how to do it:
1. Lead with curiosity.
Curiosity, according to Dr. Cooper and his colleagues, is essential in this process.
In neuroscience, this is known as the “Need for Cognition,” or NFC. In order to realize the benefits of upwiring, we have to approach everything we do with a desire to know more about ourselves and how we react given certain stimuli.
One simple strategy is to visualize your behavior from a third person perspective.
“Imagine a small version of yourself on your own shoulder, observing what you would normally do,” says Dr. Cooper. “That observation power will allow you to start to override what you automatically do.”
It might sound like a strange practice, but this outsider awareness frees us from our internal biases, and empowers us to choose how — and who — we want to be.
2. Learn to employ the split second pause.
This is probably the single most important strategy I’ve learned from Dr. Cooper, and the one that has impacted my own life the most.
In order to override our hard-wired default tendencies, you have to insert a split-second pause before you react to challenges, setbacks or opportunities.
What this pause empowers you to do is take control of your reactions, rather than be a slave to the hardwired tendencies of your brain.
“Before you react, insert an instance of delay,” Dr. Cooper explains. “You’ll get your bearings and choose your response.”
It’s lightning quick — within a split second — but this pause will make all the difference. Suddenly, you’ll be in control of how you respond to external stimuli from people and events.
In order to make use of this technique, you have to first determine the areas in your life that you want to improve (something you can identify through the third person visualization exercise above).
The next step is to visualize what it will look like when you pause during these events. Imagine the look that your significant other gives you that raises your defenses, or the email subject line you dread getting from your boss, the one that causes negative emotions to spiral out of control.
Now imagine pausing before you react to those situations. It’s as easy as that.
Practicing this visualization will enable you to insert these pauses instinctively in the moment, and you will be able to choose how you react.
3. Understand what it’s for.
This might be the more abstract side of the strategy, but a reminder of what you want achieve through upwiring will do wonders.
In other words, you have to remember your purpose.
In a culture in which social media has artificially elevated the opinions of others, and where so many of us — including business leaders — judge their self-worth against these opinions, it’s important to remember that life isn’t a popularity contest. Life is about something much greater.
Dr. Cooper reminds us:
“The bigger game beneath all of that is this drive to create the most valuable, enduring imprint on the world that lives after you’re gone.”
It’s so simple, yet so powerful. Sure, you can play the game of likes, page views and re-tweets, but if you’re not making a real, tangible impact on the world, what is at all worth? Keeping this in mind will serve you will both in life and in business.
This was really only the tip of the iceberg with Dr. Cooper and his research. To hear more, definitely check out out my full length interview with Dr. Robert Cooper here.