Boost your Brain: Towards a healthier, happier, and more capable mind
A longtime friend and colleague of mine has this saying when describing what it takes for any new idea or project to take off: “90% of a rocket’s fuel is used at launch!” 🚀
That statistic shows up again and again in my personal and professional life (I’ve even looked it up just to be sure). And yes, to reach low Earth orbit, a single stack rocket burns an estimated 88.4% of its total fuel during the initial stages of take-off.
This has never been truer in my professional life than these last six months with the launch of Mizzen Education, Inc., a brand new 501(c)(3) charitable organization known formerly as Mizzen by Mott. Along with an amazing team, I can say with confidence that we’ve tapped into most of our technical, relational, emotional, physical, and spiritual reserves to ensure a successful launch of an organization that we all own, love, and are proud of. We have indeed used 90% of our fuel!
One week before Thanksgiving, I drove from St. Louis to the Ozarks to spend time with some of my favorite people in the world at the Missouri School Age Conference. Going back to that rocket fuel analogy, I had a good 10% of my fuel left to get to my destination. During this two-hour drive, I decided to have long stretches of quiet (to conserve my energy and not run out of precious brain fuel). It wasn’t easy. My mind kept wandering back to the great work that we’ve been doing as a team; I also kept replaying the previous day’s board meeting and some of the things I said (or didn’t say) that worked (or didn’t work). As we debriefed following our first official Mizzen Education board meeting, I shared with my team that my mind was sort of short-circuiting with an important decision I needed to make. The team responded, “Just don’t think about it for a few days and the decision will come to you.”
Photos of Lake Ozark, Missouri (photo credit: Carlos Santini)
Inspired by my team's wisdom, I'd like to share three insights as we approach the time of year that calls for reflection and rejuvenation.
HOW WE THINK
How often do you think about how you think? Personally, I don’t really give it that much thought! (See what I did there? 😀) I’ve come to discover the importance of paying attention to our cognitive approach— everything from small interactions with others to high-stakes decision-making.
A 2016 Cornell University article positions thinking as more than just a neurological exercise.
“To try to understand the mind and what it does as this isolated computer stuck in our skull can be a distorting idea,” points out Starr, offering the example of people who use their fingers to count. “It’s really important to understand how the mind uses the body and the physical environment to think.”
- Laurent Dubreuil / The Intellective Space: Thinking beyond Cognition
The article points to research based on the idea of “embodied cognition”, describing how our bodies and features of our environment work in tandem with our brains to engage with complex problem solving and day-to-day “figuring stuff out.”
I can look back and make connections between my physical well-being and my thinking and problem solving processes. During my mini road-trip through Missouri, I looked back at the “short-circuiting” my mind was experiencing and realized how my physical anxiety, lack of sleep, air travel, and other factors depleted my ability to think clearly and solve challenges!
Former First Lady Michelle Obama offers a simple and elegant solution to the “cluttering” that happens in our minds in her book, The Light We Carry (Chapter 5): "The Power of Small." She shares her approach of immersing herself in small yet intentional acts to clear her mind through simple AND engaging work that activates the mind and body.
“Look for something that’ll help rearrange your thoughts, a pocket of contentedness where you can live for a while,” Obama says. “And by this I don’t mean sitting passively in front of your television or scrolling through your phone. Find something that’s active, something that asks for your mind but uses your body as well. Immerse yourself in a process. And forgive yourself for temporarily ducking out of the storm … The hard problems and wearying thoughts will always be there … the answers slow to come.”
-Michelle Obama / The Light We Carry
FIND AND CREATE PLACES AND SPACES
Remember that old Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away” series of ads? They started back in 1998, ran for over a decade, and featured folks looking to skip town after an awkward blunder. It wasn’t enough for the characters to get away from their situation by hopping in a car or walking away; they were willing to drive to the airport, go through security, and fly! That’s commitment!
I’m not advocating to run away from our problems. I am, however, suggesting that our minds experience healing and recovery when we distance ourselves from the everyday processes, challenges, and routines that can clutter and fog our thinking and dim our personal and professional light.
A 2018 LinkedIn blog provides practicals on how changing our scenery can lead to greater clarity. Written from the perspective of a grant writer experiencing writer’s block, the author shares some simple “getting-away” tactics:
Clarity : I find, when I walk away from my computer, I gain clarity. I can think more clearly when I am NOT thinking about the task at hand. I know, it seems counterintuitive, but I can think more clearly about a problem when I remove myself from the situation. I gain clarity, which, when I return to my computer, helps me complete my task or solve my problem.
Energy: When I am troubled by a problem or feel drained, I move to a different room, walk around the house, or just stand up. Immediately, I feel more energetic. I guess my heart starts pumping due to the change in position, but it really helps keep my energy level up!
Perspective: When I am arguing with my husband, I tend to rant and rave. I have found, however, when I walk out of the room and take a deep breath, I can better put things in perspective. I realize how grateful I should be (very!), and how stupid the argument is. With this new perspective, the difference can be resolved without so much yelling.
Creativity : As I said, I often experience writer's block. It is very frustrating. However, when I put a load of laundry in, or make a cup of coffee, or do some other task that takes me away from writing, I am more creative when I return to my computer. Ideas flow and the words just come to me.
I experienced “getting-away” by hitting the road on my grand Missouri adventure. Although the author offers that small changes in location can activate creativity and achieve greater clarity, I find that creating greater space and finding further places has done wonders for de-cluttering my thinking...thus creating a more capable brain!
Repeated thoughts lead to new neural pathways in the brain.
WE BECOME WHAT WE THINK
We’ve heard the saying “we are what we eat.” Well, you can add “we become what we think” to that list of sayings. Right before hitting the skies for St. Louis, we held our first official Mizzen Education board meeting. The team spent weeks preparing to share the full scope of our work to our amazing board. We talked about everything—our “why”, growth and data, inner workings of our content/partnerships and engagement/experiences departments, financials, and other business happening of the organization. The board leaned in, had great questions, and was genuinely engaged. The meeting was a success and the team felt proud, accomplished, and drained all at the same time.
After landing in Missouri later that evening, I spent the night in St. Charles. I could not fall asleep for the life of me! One of the main reasons was a circulating thought in my head that would not go away: there were a few things that I could’ve done better in the meeting. I started seeing myself as my thoughts dictated—I was becoming what I was thinking.
There’s an interesting phenomenon in the brain that’s *almost* too wild to believe. Research shows that when we engage with a thought in our mind, and repeat it, they carve a little groove in our brain. They carve a physical pathway that makes it easier for the brain to take that inner voice and give it a home!
This is described as Neural Pathway Behavior. Our brain creates neural pathways that ultimately impact how we respond to certain scenarios for the rest of our life. In my situation, thinking that I did something wrong in that board meeting comes from years of repeatedly telling myself that there has always been things I didn’t do well in previous presentations. By having that same thought repeatedly, in the same way, it has become my dominant neural pathway.
I have become what I thought!
The fix? We need to rewire our brain for positive thinking. This takes practice! Every time we think positively, we reinforce new neural pathways in our brain that eventually become automatic processes. So for my situation, I’ve started to spotlight and underscore what I’ve done well. I’ve learned how to take positive feedback and appreciation from folks when they are in the room for any talk, workshop, keynote, or presentation I give.
We’ve heard it ourselves and we’ve told others to “pat themselves on the back.” This is a physical representation of positive reinforcement of our neural pathways that lead to good thoughts. This doesn’t mean that we look past or ignore constructive, or not so constructive, criticism and/or feedback. It just means that we allow for positive reinforcement to headline our mental recap.
So go ahead and pat that beautiful mind of yours! 🎉👏
As we enter a season of rest and reflection, take notice of your mind. If you’re like me, and I know many of you are, recognize that you’ve been expending a lot of physical, emotional, relational, and cognitive effort. Recognize that this takes a toll on your beautiful mind. Find some time this season to a) pay attention to how you’re constructing your thoughts, b) find spaces and places for your mind to heal, and finally c) repeat positive thoughts in your head to build positive neural pathways for yourself in order to create and nurture a happier, healthier, and more capable brain!