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.


  1. barbara, i'm definitely going to think about this one, as i'm a devoted follower of both you and seth. but so far, iv'e noticed my lizard brain would just sit on a sunny california rock forever...if i didn't push back!
    wellness talkradio

  2. I agree with your point of view...the collapsing is necessary to 'get it out of the system'. But maybe the merging is more of a woman's alchemical journey. Men are conditioned to 'fight'. Something to ponder.

  3. Although I'm also a Seth Godin fan, in this case I have to agree with Barbara.

    At 61, I'm no stranger to success and failure. And, yes, I think a period of mourning, even "wallowing", is a good thing after a failure.

    When you feel like "No one in the history of time has ever been this stupid, misguided, and foolish", then it's NOT a great time to start over. (With what??)

    But if you allow yourself to WALLOW in your misery a while, and Google "really bad country song titles" - and maybe make up a few yourself - after a while it *all* just seems silly. Even you.

    THEN you're ready to get back to work.

    "Dragging yourself up by your bootstraps" takes energy and perspective. Being kind to yourself and allowing time and space to mourn will give you both.

    Maybe that's what Seth meant.

    Push back again - but just not right away.

    Jennifer (@jaybezo) Blair

  4. So good and so personally helpful. Wow. What I needed to read, today. Thank you. - Laurie

  5. Yes, Barbara gets it right, as usual. We can't fight nature, and resistance just gets stronger when we try. I have been a witness to the really thrilling results Barbara's students get when they follow her advice on resistance. I'm sure Seth is a smart person, so I hope he will be open-minded enough to consider Barbara's wisdom.

  6. Yeah, cool that Seth Godwin "stole" the term from you! Imitation is sincere flattery. Congrats for being on the cutting edge with the other star bloggers!

    The way Alexander Technique recommends to deal with resistance is quite similar to your observations, Barbara. It has a different name - "inhibition." It's a complex phenomena to describe & make generalizations about, because self-preservation protections are sophisticated and tricky! Inhibition specializes in dealing with resistance.
    So, perhaps you can find further interesting inspirations to try out on particularly tricky self-protecting systems.
    You can search the word, (Jeff Hall's blog has good descriptions) but here's what I (mostly) wrote & made available to describe how inhibition can be used at its own tool, (separately from Alexander Technique)
    As you'll see, in the "guerrilla" version of using inhibition, it recommends finding the tiniest progress that flies "under the radar." Just as you have found that works for people.

  7. I think you're spot on with the process of growth. It's a wave, like Seth Godin's own "dip", there's the high of the initial crest of success/genius, then there's the trough of the dip where things are at their lowest, then those who have the resources and think the idea is indeed valuable, persevere, and pull everything slowly up again, to reach an even higher peak. (And repeat! :-)

    My main concern with Godin's use of the term is that he blames the "Lizard Brain" (which is really the Id, of instinctive passion) for the problem that's actually caused by mainstream culture and the much more complex brain part that is the right prefrontal cortex, a.k.a., the superego. It's the part of the brain that's internalized the social meme of "Just do what we tell you and don't stick out, and you'll be find." that's directing the behavior of the people who give up too easily.

    Either way, I do agree with both of you in that embracing failure is the way to go. Because failure is really just success at learning how the universe works!

  8. Art school seems very unaware of these phases which is strange, as from a student's perspective one sees just how many peers go through all three, each semester.

    At my current school we all have the 'fall' around the same week: everyone suddenly is not inclined whatsoever toward working, we drag our feet, become desultory, morph into fed-up cynical mopers. Tutors become 'very concerned'. But then hurrah we get a surge and manage to complete our ideas in the last few weeks (where much of the output comes into play).

    It seems art teachers should allow for this cycle (especially phase 2), and they usually do, but some schools have either far too many progress checks, limited amounts of time for each project (how does one keep going through all three phases in under two weeks?? It's EXHAUSTING!), or teachers expect one to be working or researching full time which in a creative major just isn't always humanely doable. My previous school in the u.s. didn't allow for downtime or moping at all.

    And there I thought I was the only one who had intense crashes after my crazy initial ideaphorias (no one else really seemed to, but then no one else seemed to have ideaphoria either).

    Had no idea about phase 3, which explains why I remained in my depressive slumps and didn't ever go back to my ideas. Would think I'd have to start something new at the last second, not realizing my other things were completely salvageable and were only in their beginning states and could/should be developed.

    Always knew far too well about phase two... but wondrous now knowing better of phase three! probably will change my life. :) !

  9. Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. Going back to read all my Genius Urges from many years back. They don't change much, just a few tweaks here and there. Time to put on those comfy sensible shoes, roll up those sleeves and calmly plot, plan and research a plan of action. So yay to the Lizard Brain for sunning and lazing itself in depression and inertia, I enjoyed the bubblegum for the brain. So now there is Hope for The Hopeless One... Slow and Steady wins the Race. Wonderful and thanks again.

  10. Thank you for explaining this process because now I understand why it is so hard for me to read back my own notes and understand why I was so excited and totally over the moon with an idea. So today I learned to write large notes or even essays when I am on a high again, wallow and get to work. At the moment I am in a working-fase and I love it.

  11. Oh my gosh, fantastic! I just came out of a Phase Two and couldn't believe how very close I came to actually eating crackers in bed (watching old episodes of The Office). Whew. Now I think I have the courage to continue with Phase 3. I do love Seth Godin as well, but am glad to take some of the relentless struggle out of the lizard brain picture. Thanks, Barbara!

  12. two things I have to say are: Thank you! This speaks so closely to most of my life. Secondly, you are brilliant. Absolutely brilliant, and 100% right.

  13. Godin is so confident and intelligent that I generally take what he says at face value. I'm sorry for my skepticism, and I sure am glad I read this whole post, because I've experienced phases one and two many times, but more often than not, I let phase two swallow my drive. I love the idea that it's a natural function of our brains and that by waiting it out, we can revisit our detailed notes and start putting those idea nuggets to work.

    I appreciate your argument and your courtesy in engaging in disagreement. You have a new follower!