Beam me up to my frontal lobe

A few years ago I sat down to have lunch with Bill Linton, founder and CEO of Promega, a very successful Madison-based biotech company. In the course of our conversation, he asked me, “Have you ever read Franz Kafka’s book Metamorphosis?” Fortunately I had.

Essentially it is about a man who woke up one day to find that he had transformed overnight into a horrid insect-like creature with multiple sets of legs. It’s an unusual book and an even more unusual and surprising topic for lunch conversation. In the past I might have been taken aback by such an abrupt change in topic. Yet what Bill said next gave me deep insight into one of his most important strategies, which has led to his extraordinary success as an entrepreneur.

As I nodded in the affirmative, Bill continued, “I thought about how I would handle it, what I would do to continue to support and connect to my family, and how I would go about having a productive life.” I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Yes, and most people in the world would be worried about how bad life would be with six hairy black legs.”

Based on this surprising discourse, I began to realize why Bill has one of the freest minds of anyone I’ve ever met. He has the drive and the curiosity when faced with a challenge to immediately start asking powerful problem-solving questions. He seeks out challenges with incredible enthusiasm, which generates positive chemistry in his brain that keeps his thought processes in his cerebral cortex.

Located under the top of the skull, the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher brain functioning. Linton delivers results because he can then move further forward in his brain to access the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex (forehead area) where planning and action are coordinated. Some refer to this as “being in the flow,” and in organizations it shows up as action-oriented, creative, full-engagement behavior.

Many people, by contrast, will avoid a challenge. Or when faced with a perceived challenge, they will go into stress/fear mode (fight, flight, or freeze), which generates from the lower, more primitive part of the brain. Some scientists refer to this as the reptilian brain since it is thought to be like the more primitive brains of reptiles involved in reflex behaviors.

Flight/fight/stress mode is helpful when running from a lion. All energy and focus go into avoiding being eaten. You don’t need an immune system. You need to survive. Unfortunately, in modern society we’ve started to respond to every challenge as though we are being chased by a lion. Everyday occurrences may start to be interpreted as a “threat.” When threats are perceived (or misperceived), people act out of a constant state of stress and encounter fear-generated emotions such as anger, frustration, resentment, and sadness.

People in fight, flight, or freeze mode are more inclined to ask fear-inducing internal questions like “why is this happening?” rather than “what can I do next to solve this?” When people are “stuck” in this mode, they have limited access to creative solutions. This is the prison of the mind that generates so many of the more strange and unproductive behaviors (e.g., conflict, conflict avoidance, and unproductive meetings) or lack of behaviors (e.g., failure to meet goals, low creativity, procrastination, and resistance to new processes or change) in organizations.

The challenge for leaders trying to help employees shift to more creativity and action is that people are so used to living in “stress mode” that most are unaware when they are in mind prison. “Stress generators” might include worry over what other people think, what they say, how they are acting or not acting, what leadership is or isn’t doing, what is happening or not happening at work or at home, or how many friends they might lose if they have six legs instead of two. I’ve come to realize that many people spend their day in various forms of stress (a code word for pent-up fear), ping-ponging between their cerebral cortex and more primitive brain regions. It is unfortunate that so much human potential (as well as joy and happiness) is lost as the mind loops endlessly.

Research has shown that prolonged production of stress chemicals (e.g., cortisol and epinephrine) affects memory, limits problem solving and creativity, and increases health problems. The cost is high for companies and for employees who do not have the skills to consistently shift out of stress mode to the cerebral cortex.

The good news is that “beam me up” skills to access and stay more consistently in the higher brain can be quickly learned by adopting the flexible thought patterns and beliefs of people, like Bill Linton, who love taking on challenges. In my case, in the past I might have taken a quick trip to a lower part of my brain after becoming upset by Bill’s abrupt change in topic at lunch. I would have misinterpreted it to mean he wasn’t listening. Now I’ve learned to be flexible about interpreting other people’s behavior. If I hadn’t changed the way my mind worked, I might have missed a powerful learning experience.

Furthermore, when people tap into their gifts and experiences, they begin to realize that they have been successful in taking on challenges and prevailing over them. This becomes a powerful reference for shifting up into higher brain functions. They also learn that taking on challenges is exciting: it’s what humans are naturally built to do. It’s the reason so many are inspired by watching the Olympics.

When the mind becomes free it also has easier access to more positive emotional states such as happiness and excitement, which have enormous health-generating benefits. I call the positive chemicals generated, such as serotonin and endorphins, “self-made happy pharmaceuticals.” And practice making these chemicals makes it easier to make more. Leaders who acquire the skills to quickly beam themselves and others up to the cerebral cortex will have a fast track to inspiring increased creativity, problem solving, personal well-being, and action for themselves and those around them.