Marshmallows and you.

A friend forwarded me a recent article about Walter Mischel.
Inventor of the legendary Stanford marshmallow test.
A 1960s study on self-control where 5-year-olds were offered a choice.
An immediate reward of one marshmallow (or cookie or pretzel).
Or twice that amount if they waited 15 minutes for the researcher to return.
Most children tried, yet failed to resist the temptation.
Only one third lasted the agonizing 15 minutes.
I’ve known about this test, and I believe in Mischel’s subsequent conclusions.
Namely, that children’s ability to delay gratification correlates with better life outcomes.
But the writer of the article, or perhaps Mischel, got something glaringly wrong.

“He [Mischel] explains that there are two warring parts of the brain: a hot part demanding immediate gratification (the limbic system), and a cool, goal-oriented part (the prefrontal cortex). The secret of self-control, he says, is to train the prefrontal cortex to kick in first.”

Indeed, we are of two minds.
The feeling mind, the elephant.
And the conscious mind, the rider.
But don’t fool yourself.
The elephant will always “kick in first.”
So either keep the elephant away from stimuli that provokes it.
Put blinders on the elephant.
Or tame the elephant, train it how to react to various stimuli.
But here’s the really tricky part.
Knowing when to grab and savor the marshmallow.
Knowing when to let your animal run free.
Yes, it may take you off a cliff.
But you may also feel the wind in your hair and blood pulsing through your veins.
And isn’t that why we’re really here?

Go out of your mind.

Two recent studies on depression made me think about organizations.
One found that young adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder have hyper-connected brain networks.
Especially in the areas associated with rumination.
They run problems over and over in their minds.
Never arriving at a solution.
The other found that depression is alleviated by feeling like part of a group.
Not just socializing with people, but strongly identifying with them.
Over the years, I’ve discovered those same insights.
With organizations.
Depressed, dysfunctional ones ruminate.
The classic symptom being reports and meetings.
Meetings to discuss performance.
Meetings to discuss problems.
Meetings to discuss meetings.
All of those meetings are really nothing more than collective rumination.
And, as the author of the first study made clear, “As rumination goes up, cognitive control goes down.”
Strategy and execution become muddied, disconnected.
Thriving, healthy organizations are also hyper-connected.
But not in their minds.
To the outside world and to each other, in purpose and vision.
They strongly identify with their audience, and focus relentlessly on improving their lives.
So if you find yourself and your organization ruminating, stop and engage with the outside world.
You’ll go out of your mind.
And, eventually, come to your senses.

What do you believe?

I did an interview about belief.
Someone didn’t believe what I had to say.
How ironic.
I made a comment about the root of the word “belief.”
That is was from an old word “lief,” which means to wish.
That statement didn’t sit well with one of the listeners.
Because “it implied that a person’s belief system was nothing more than wish fulfillment.”
And so he looked up the root of the word and found something different.
Something that made him feel better about himself and his beliefs.
That’s how belief works.
Yes, it’s based on what you perceive to be the facts.
Like what your senses tell you or what you find in a book.
Or even what the majority agrees with.
But those perceptions are conditioned by your perspective.
By your point of view, upbringing, traditions and social experiences.
And that’s why “history is written by the victors.”
So really pause to consider what you believe, and why.
And when you’re trying to decide whether or not to believe someone else, by all means check the facts.
But remember, you’re bound to run into a contradiction.
And when you do, follow the advice of Ayn Rand:
“Check your premises.”
Carefully examine the agendas of your sources.

The process is the goal.

I watched a beautiful little film called Still Mine.
It’s based on a true story about 89-year-old New Brunswicker Craig Morrison.
Morrison sets out on a journey to build a more suitable house for his ailing wife.
Using the same methods his shipbuilder father taught him.
But on the way, he runs into problem after problem after problem.
After watching the film, and wiping away a tear, I thought a lot about struggle and accomplishment.
I remember, as a boy, accompanying boxers to an inner city gym.
I’d watch them pridefully endure horrible conditions and physical torture.
Finally realizing that their hardship was an integral, and desirable, part of their identity.
Later in life, I saw comedians bomb.
Artists destroy hours of painstaking work.
Writers, including yours truly, paralyzed in a fog of doubt.
But the best endured.
Because they loved the process.
They were one with the work.
They had something they had to “get across” to the world.
Thomas Mann wrote, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
That’s true of everyone on an inspired journey.
Basketball was more difficult for Michael Jordan.
Politics was more difficult for Abraham Lincoln.
Civil rights advocacy was more difficult for Dr. King.
Teaching the truth of our humanity was more difficult for Jesus.
The greatest don’t see an endpoint.
They’re driven by the realities of the here and now.
By the process, not the proceeds.
For them, the struggle is an integral part of their journeys, of their identities.
In fact, and they probably don’t even know it, the process is their goal.
For the journey and the outcome are one and the same.