Sunday, February 28, 2010

I disagree with Seth Godin about Genius and Lizard Brain

Do you ever get a great, inspiring idea so good it's thrilling? And you start thinking about how good it is, and start thinking about the steps you might take to make it happen, and you really are high.

And then something happens. You slow down, or someone hears it and puts a pin in your balloon, or you get weary thinking of the amount of work it will take, and here you are barely keeping up with your existing To Do List. And that turns into a feeling that the idea wasn't really as good as it looked. In fact it was unrealistic. You almost think that whenever anyone's that happy about something they're probably being foolish. At least, you are. Self-doubt takes over. That great idea looks like it will never actually happen. Never could have happened.

If so, you're facing a very common experience. Everyone goes through it. And lots of people try to solve the problem of the slump. There's a huge industry based on Motivation. Football coaches try to rev up their teams at half-time, and speakers try to persuade you to be positive. Some call this slump your 'Lizard Brain,' the part of you that's primitive and scared, and everyone comes up with some kind of solution, because a slump in motivation, the presence of what I call 'the Resistance Monster,' can cause big problems. If you can't find a way to get that motivation back again, you could lose your job, flunk out of school, or let your business die on the vine.

One of my favorite writers, a very smart, innovative thinker named Seth Godin, gives his advice on how to deal with it. He says that when the lizard brain kicks in and the resistance slows you down, the only correct response is to push back again and again and again with one failure after another and sooner or later, the lizard will get bored and give up.

I wrote and told him I think he's got this one wrong. I said that I think we should save the calories and let the synapses rest. Because I believe that we're programmed to crash after a high as a way of keeping us out of danger and letting us build up some energy. (He answered very graciously, suggesting that my ideas were very interesting and probably come more from a woman's thinking than a man's. I just might agree with him on that.)

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my Theory of The Three Stages of Excitement:

Excitement (caused by one of those delicious fits of inspiration we all have from time to time) is actually half fear and half joy. When a good idea hits you like lightning, it's fabulous. I do believe it's definitely, by any definition, a flash of genius, but one that's available to everyone.

So, first you get high on the joy, and then, when you get past familiarity, you suddenly realize you're too far out there for safety (according to your inner survival mechanisms) and you get scared, or you lose confidence, and that's when you crash. Then you usually give up. I think a lot of really good ideas get unnecessarily wasted this way

I see excitement as having 3 stages and no one seems to mention the third. (It's not a return to the excitement.) Here's one way to describe it:

Phase One: You're on a real high and when you're high, it's almost exactly like falling in love. When you're in love, you're a genius. You can see, hear, smell, understand what no one else can. That's why no one else seems to get it that your newborn baby is the most beautiful baby that has ever existed. You're not crazy. You can actually see details that they miss. Their babies, because you're not in love with them, look rather ordinary to you. Nature is no fool. She's got survival down pat.

Save that vision! In Phase One I advise all my readers/listeners/audiences to write down each and every detail, not in notes, diagrams or outlines, but in long declarative sentences that explain how you came to each conclusion. You'll need to understand them later when you're in a different mood, so don't assume that brief notes or outlines with mean anything to you later.

Phase Two: Fear trumps Joy. Or someone hurts your feelings and takes the wind out of your sails. When your primitive survival mechanisms begin to wake up, you become more sensitive than usual to fear, doubt, hurt. Your survival gear is crude but it's powerful and it knows how to stop you from doing anything reckless -- or anything at all! It gives you what can be called a micro-depression.

You experience it as a crash. And when you crash, you have all the attendant frills of any 'real' depression: you lose energy, you lose interest, and you no longer calculate or plan in action terms, or in the present at all. And something funny happens: you suddenly feel very wise, all-knowing, far-seeing, even cynical. You feel you understand everything and see life in long, philosophical terms. You start to speak in terms like 'never,' 'always,' and 'how could I have been so stupid?' 'It has always been so. It will ever be so,' or even, 'Those who hope are fools."

That's what's being called Lizard Brain these days. That's where motivators tell you that you have to become positive again. And they tell you to believe in yourself and get back into action or the universe with turn its back on you. Some say yo must try really hard to make yourself positive again. In all honesty I believe that, unless it's half-time at a football game, that doesn't really work very well. Seth Godin, thankfully, doesn't ask us to try to rearrange our brains and force positive thoughts.

What he does do is advise us to battle this phase. I can see why: it appears that you either fight it or you give up. But beware of appearances because I don't think those are the only two alternatives at all.

Another look at The Crash
At Phase Two of excitement, the crash, I think we're supposed to (temporarily) give in. Relax. Feeling stupid? Call yourself stupid and despise happy, excited people for not realizing that life sucks. Lay about watching disgusting TV shows and eating crackers in bed. Whine to your friends on the phone. Bathe less.

If you give in to Phase Two without holding back, you'll find yourself soon getting bored with it. When your energy begins to build up a little, and all that delicious self pity starts to bore you. You're ready to pick up the empty food cartons and tidy up a bit, and you start feeling a bit better. But you try to remember not to fall for another sucker punch and to stifle your unruly tendency to enthusiasm and excitement.

Of course, that never works, what typically happens instead is that you wait until you get excited about another great idea and go through the process over again. If you're someone who has a lot of good ideas, this could happen over and over again.

But I believe that you're not finished with the original genius idea you had in Phase One!

Because when you've had enough of Phase Two, and almost as if nature meant for it to happen this way, you will move into a very important, almost never mentioned phase - what I call Phase Three. And that's the best phase of all. But if you don't know about Phase Three, you could miss it and waste a lot of your best ideas.

Phase Three: Now you've gone through two of the three phases of excitement and now the process pays off. Because Phase Three is the payoff. That's when you're in the right frame of mind to lay out a plan, roll up your sleeves and execute it. Without the high, without the crash, but with real respect for a good idea and the steady energy that makes things happen.

But I believe you won't have that energy unless you crashed when you were supposed to. I think that's what Phase Two is for.

If you wrote them down the way I hope you did, you now can dig up those carefully written, completely understandable notes you wrote in Phase One and read them in sober daylight, with real interest -- and with neither a negative bias, or heart-banging excitement.

Because Phase Three is where all the work actually gets done. It's always been like that: slow and steady. The Genius has burned bright, burned out, and left great instructions. The Burned Out one has hibernated and gathered energy. And now the Intelligent Hard Worker is ready to get to work.

Why is this so important? Because I'm convinced that once you realize there's a Phase Three, you won't wear yourself out battling Lizard Brain anymore. And you won't discard really good ideas, either.

My two cents.