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Your Brain's Secret Mission

It’s hard not to see your brain as the enemy when you’re suffering from internal resistance. You make plans, you decide exactly what you need to do, and then in the moment your brain pipes up, You know what? I don’t think we're going to be answering that email today. I think we’ll be napping instead.

Your Brain's Secret Mission
Your Brain's Secret Mission

On the one side, there are all the good reasons for getting the email finally sent. On the other side, there’s just your brain yelling NAP! NAP! NAP! In total defiance of the fact that you had a perfectly good night’s sleep. No wonder we wind up thinking of ourselves as just inherently self-destructive.

But the only reason the situation looks so one-sided is that we don’t give our brains a chance to tell us what other logic might be at work. And there has to be some kind of logic here because we never do anything that our brain doesn’t see as advantageous to us in some way, even if the benefit is difficult to see. The most seemingly self-destructive actions must promise some type of payoff, or we wouldn’t have the motivation to do them.

On some level, we know this, because we actually do ascribe a motivation to the nap agenda. We just think the agenda is obvious. It’s more pleasurable to nap than to write a scary email, therefore our brain is opting for pleasure: case closed.

That obvious case doesn’t really hold, though, when you're talking about the kind of stakes involved in internal resistance. Sure, we might prefer to nap than take the trash out, for example, and this seems like a tradeoff we could expect the brain to make. There’s not really that big a difference between taking it out now or later, today or tomorrow. Even if we miss this week’s pick up, we could scrape through to the next. The nap winning out makes sense.

But when the difference is between a nap and, say, taking action toward one of the main goals of your own and only life, the pleasure payoff of a nap just doesn’t compare. The only way that decision winds up playing out in favour of the nap is if our brains believe there’s a benefit to the nap option they haven’t told us about. Something outside our awareness has to be skewing the incentives nap-ward.

To see what I mean, think about the example I just gave: you might be ‘lazy’ enough to trade a nap for taking the trash out in normal circumstances—but if you knew you were going to be beheaded if the trash was one minute late to the curb, you’d find your supposed laziness evaporated pretty fucking fast. And if I watched you procrastinate taking the trash out every week until, one day, you leapt up and hustled it out the door at dawn on trash day, I’d know some kind of big new incentive had gotten attached to timely trash removal.

The email-vs.-nap scenario is much the same, with one crucial twist: in that scenario, the hidden extra incentive is attached to the nap, not to the thing we’re supposed to do. It’s the nap agenda that has all the weird, compulsive weight behind it. It’s as if we think we’re going to be beheaded if we DON’T choose the nap over the email.

Which means the question we need to ask is: What is this nap—or Netflix binge or third beer or whatever —keeping at bay? What kind of emotional beheading does my brain predict will occur if the email gets written, the grant application sent, the draft finished?

Or, to put it in a more general way: What is my brain trying to protect me from here?

When we ask this question, we immediately shift the ground in such a powerful and beneficial way, even if we don’t yet know the answer. First, we get to throw out the whole ‘Guess I just do stupid shit to hurt myself’ explanation, which is huge. Not only does that belief feel terrible, but it also presents the problem as something inherent and permanent. Second, we get to move from blame to analysis, and analysis is something we’re good at. Basically, we now have a comprehensible problem to solve, rather than a character flaw to endure.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, we don’t have to keep feeling like our own worst enemies. Our brains are not hell-bent on self-destruction. They’re just trying to protect us in a way we haven’t understood yet.

Identifying your brain's specific mission and releasing its grip on you is a key part of Blazing Talents, my small-group programme. But you can get started on revealing your brain’s hidden agenda—and deciding if you want to change it—right now, using this guide:

THE MAGIC-WAND THOUGHT EXPERIMENT (get a download-able, fill-able PDF copy to keep)

  1. Imagine I have a magic wand I can use to remove all the internal resistance in your brain. Beginning tomorrow morning, you will no longer be able to avoid anything related to how you want to use your talents. If you plan to write an email, you’ll write it. If you want to prep the hell out of your audition or pitch or interview, you will. If you want to revise the screenplay this weekend, it’s as good as done. Now envision what it would be like to live an entire day under these conditions, from when you wake up until you go to bed. Notice how it feels to think about EVERY day being like this: no internal resistance available to put the brakes on, forever. What are the thoughts, feelings, images, stories, etc. that come up for you? What’s positive and what’s negative? Note down everything that comes up for you.

  2. Read through what you’ve written and pay attention to what jumps out at you. Where does the strongest negative emotion seem to be concentrated? This is a good indication of where to dig further.

  3. Once you’ve identified this target, brainstorm for associations. What moments in the past feel like they could be related? What did you learn in those moments about the feelings/actions/events it was super important to avoid? What rules did your brain create about when and how to protect you? Do you still think these rules still apply? Do you want them to?

When you have an idea of what the brain’s secret mission is, you get the chance to evaluate it, rather than just being piloted by it. You can consider how you might want to update these beliefs about danger, protection, and risks worth taking. You open a path not just to beating back your avoidance, but dissolving it at the source—for good.

Any questions, get in touch. Let me know how it goes.


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