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Don't Let Your Monkey Mind Write Your Tweets
Don't Let Your Monkey Mind Write Your Tweets
"Why am I such a loser?"
"Why do I feel so low?"
"Why do I keep failing at business?"
"Why can't I get into shape?"
"Why do I think I can make a good game when everyone else has beaten me to it and I'm no spring chicken?"
Do you ever notice you ask yourself, if not these questions, then other similar questions? Repeatedly? Reflexively? Do you notice that if you ask these questions, the answers are usually the same? Where do these questions come from? Why do these questions arise? How do we get out of this?
The first thing to notice is that unhelpful questions will get you unhelpful answers. The second thing to notice is that most unhelpful questions to yourself start with a "Why". The third thing to notice is that the questions are open-ended. The thing that you likely don't notice, and which is fundamental, is that it's not ‘you’ asking these questions. These questions are procedural, habitual, reflexive and you don't have to suffer with them.
Remember I once advised that you treat yourself like you'd treat a good friend? Would you ask these questions of a friend? Imagine you're with a colleague you trust, and you ask "Why are you such a loser?" Can you imagine that? It's shocking to even imagine, so why would you ask these questions of yourself? What I'm suggesting is that you are not necessarily asking these questions, and you can do something about it.
This won't be easy
This is not going to be an easy piece to read, and it's not going to be an easy piece to write, but it's important for me to write it because some of the ideas I'm going to share are common to us all, even if you've not necessarily heard them expressed this way before.
I will use some words and ideas that you might not necessarily feel comfortable with, but if you take them at face value until you've done reading, perhaps you'll recognise just how much better you are than you've been believing yourself to be up until now.
I'm going to attempt to connect some of the dots between psychology, theology, creativity and programming. As you do. These correlations are purely for rhetorical effect, but they have helped me. Choose the terms and ideas that work for you.
First, I'm going to ask you to accept, for now, the premise that the quality of your life is largely determined by the quality of your thoughts. This is not a new assertion, nor is it entirely true, but it is a useful convenience as we go over some of these ideas. If you're capable of high performance, but still find yourself asking questions like those I opened with, then you'll already know that the quality of your life is not where you want it to be. We can do something about that.
Rather than sententiously presume to tell you what to do or how to think, I'm going to tell you what's been helpful to me. If something resonates, try it on for size. If it doesn't, discard it for now and come back to it another time, or not at all.
Most of my thoughts are procedural
You've no doubt heard of the idea of procedurally generated content. This is content in a video game that isn't directly created by human beings, but by an algorithm. Of course, the algorithm is usually (though not always) created by a human being, but we're going to ignore that for now.
I'm going to suggest that most of "my thoughts" are procedural, that is to say, they are generated by algorithms. Some of these algorithms were installed as part of the default human operating system and relate to survival, reproduction, the handling of threats both physical and social, and so on. You'll recognise some of these as the base drives of fight, flight, freeze and procreation. Some higher level drives include the need for social connection. The reason many of us hate presenting so much is that our evolution has taught us that exile means death, and anything that could accelerate that exile, like a bad talk, well, you get the picture.
Other algorithms for procedural thought were installed by the people who raised me; parents, teachers and other adult figures during my childhood and finally, some were algorithms I planted "myself" (Later it will be clear why I used quotes here.)
Some of my procedural thoughts are helpful, but most are not.
Most of my thoughts are unhelpful
Most of my thinking is noise. I think many of us feel that way. The easiest way to reduce the noise is the adoption of some kind of mindfulness practice.
I was one of the luckiest people at PlayStation, because for some reason, Jim Ryan listened to me. Now Jim listened to a lot of people of course, but after a while, when I had shown I was not going to damage the company, not only did he listen to me, but he supported me. As the CEO, no doubt he heard many ideas, but as the CEO, he decided which, if any of those ideas to act on. If he acted on everyone's ideas, he would have been ineffective and the company would have been rudderless.
Jim was and is a superb leader in that not only did he reject the obviously bad ideas, but he rejected good ideas that didn't fit the vision, mission or strategy of PlayStation. That's hard — really hard.
Being decisive isn't about choosing between an obviously good and an obviously bad idea, anyone can do that. True decisiveness is the ability and willingness to choose between two equally meritorious ideas and killing the one that is a slightly worse fit for the vision, mission and strategy of the company. Outsiders will gasp at these decisions sometimes and wonder how a leader can kill something that's "obviously" a great idea. Every football fan should feel a twinge of guilt at this.
When I started at PlayStation, I was full of ideas, and wondered why my ideas weren't acted on. It was years before I learned that without the perspective that a leader has of the entire state of the company and its position with respect to the industry and the wider business world, my ideas would not always be helpful. That's not to say they were bad ideas, just that the leader will have more global information to act upon, or perspective, than I would. Much of the frustration I experienced was due to this lack of perspective. I didn't know at that time what I didn't know. I was the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect.
My thinking in the early years was along these lines:
"Why are my ideas always rejected?"
"Why does my boss hate me?"
"Why am I not getting promoted?"
"Why am I doing all this work without recognition or reward?"
I had no perspective, and my procedural thinking threw up unhelpful questions and so I came up with some truly unhelpful answers:
"Because my superiors are not as smart as me"
"Because he's an arsehole"
"Because my boss is weak and plays favourites"
"Because I'm stupid"
Is it any wonder that I hated my job with a passion and wanted out desperately? Can you see how my next job would have been disastrous too with a mindset this poor?
Then I finally got my health, which was shocking, to a place where I was on an even keel. This meant that I was less moody, because my blood sugar wasn't swinging wildly. This meant I could think more clearly and ask myself a new type of question for the first time in years, questions that begin not with "Why?" but with "What?"
"What are the behaviours I must adopt to be successful at PlayStation?"
"What are other people doing that I'm not?"
"What can I bring to the table that's unique?"
"What attitudes have been failing me, and what attitudes should I now develop in order to get my ideas heard?"
Can you see how these questions are better? Can you see that by shifting from “why” to” what”, the quality of my thinking improved? And that as a result, the quality of my life improved?T he unhelpful questions came from a place of emotions rooted in fear. The helpful questions came from a place of reason imbued with hope. Is it possible that I had become a new person, or was something else going on?
Who is really in charge of my brain?
Your pre-frontal cortex is the most evolved part of your brain. It's responsible for executive function. Yes, you've got it, it's the CEO of your brain.
Your limbic system was there before the neocortex in evolutionary terms, and the pre-frontal cortex was its latest upgrade.
Finally, some terms. We can use Professor Steve Peters' terms first. The pre-frontal cortex is the "Human", that is you, your true self, your seat of reason. The limbic system is your Chimp. Then there is your computer, which is spread all over your brain. Remember, these are hugely simplified abstractions, and if you want more science, I suggest you read his seminal work on mind management, "The Chimp Paradox"
When I was asking unhelpful questions, they came from my Chimp. Can you see how they were about status and survival? When I was asking helpful questions, my Chimp was quiet, my Human was doing the asking.
As Peters explains, Chimps are way more powerful than humans, and if you don't manage your chimp, it will batter your human senseless and your life will be like mine was, a mess. The chimp is sometimes helpful, but mostly it is an animal in an environment it cannot understand. Perceptions of threat come into your brain and your computer finds an algorithm that has been used before, whether it's helpful to your human or not.
When young kids act up, their chimp is in charge. There is no reason, because it hasn’t developed yet. By the age of 25, the pre-frontal cortex is fully developed, so we now should have all the tools we need to manage our chimp's impulses, so long as we have normal brain function.
Are we doomed do act out? Are we fated to ask self-flagellating questions forever? Is there anything we can do about this?
Your chimp is in charge, and now you have to learn how to put the human back in control.
Re-taking the planet of the chimp
As Peters states, the chimp might be stronger, but that's no excuse. If you had a dog that was stronger than you, it would still be your responsibility to manage it, and if that dog were to harm someone, you'd be held legally responsible.
Your chimp is not as evolved as your human, so it takes emotional danger as physical danger. There are occasions when your chimp should be listened to, like when you are about to step onto a busy road and your chimp hears a bus and pulls you back. You don't have time to think, so it's best that you don't. We're talking here about modern life, where your chimp is keeping you stressed and overpowering your human. Where we are not roaming the plains or foraging for berries in a forest. What can you do?
First you have to exercise your chimp. Simply put, let the emotional language come out in a trusting environment. My former boss Tony Clark was trustworthy, calm in the face of pressure, and a totally safe person for me to "exercise my chimp" with. You might not be blessed with a boss as brilliant as Tony Clark, but you might have a friend you can talk to, who will listen.
Now that the chimp is exercised, we must box it. Eventually, your chimp will get tired. Now it's the human's turn to speak. And guess what? The human can now analyse what's been said, arrange it according to usefulness and dismiss the stuff that's just venting. It can propose counter measures, or better plans.
Here's an example. When I first got moved into Tony's team, I still carried some of the residue of my former unhelpful patterns. A project I had proposed was approved for further discussion in a working group, but unbeknownst to me, somebody else in Tony's team also had the same idea at the same time. So I was told to work with my colleague on the project. Well, you can imagine how my chimp felt about that. I had learned enough about my chimp by this point, before I knew it was a chimp I was dealing with, to know that getting emotional was going to hurt my career. So I took a breath, a big breath, held my tongue, said "OK" and went straight to the toilet, which was empty. I just vented a stream of obscenities for a good minute. I was enraged and showed it. My chimp had been exercised, so now what?
Well now it was time to box the chimp. And now that my chimp's tantrum was done, and it was sitting in my head, spent, I immediately shifted to a human line of questioning. I asked myself "Which behaviours would be most effective in this scenario, for me, for my boss, for the company?" I’m paraphrasing. What I actually asked when I looked into the mirror was “What would Tony do?”
When I'd worked that out, I splashed cold water on my face, smiled, walked over to my colleague and told him excitedly that I was really looking forward to working with him on this project. We got on brilliantly and I still miss him.
When later, the project didn't get the go-ahead, I was so practiced at the correct behaviour (I had installed a better procedural algorithm in my Computer for precisely this kind of eventuality) that I accepted the decision calmly, gracefully and with the knowledge that actually, I had a good team around me and they were making a good decision based on the evidence we had presented. Later, Tony was to tell me that the singe biggest factor in my first promotion in his team was this calm reaction. If only he’d seen me in the 7th floor bogs…
What if you don't have a friend to talk to, safely, in an emotional way? Before Tony, I had other friends who would listen, but some of them were like me, and before long, we'd all just be a bunch of chimps driving each other further into survival mode. At times like these, a journal is perfect. Write it all out. On paper, please, not on Twitter. Then once your chimp has finished its exercise, and is suitably tired, the human can take over, and answer some of those "why" questions with something more constructive than some of your usual defaults.
The page is a cage for your chimp's rage. Use it. If you don't, it will be smashing up your human inside your head in an endless loop.
The final step is what Peters calls the banana. This is a final placatory measure to your chimp after it's been exercised and boxed.
I'll give you an example for right now. It's gone 9:30pm and I've already spent several hours on this post for you. I was up at 4:30am. My chimp is telling me I'm tired and I need a rest, and that nobody will care if I'm late a day for the first time. Well, I can hear it, and I have exercised it and my human is now boxing it with the calm "we made a promise, and we keep our promises, and when we are done, we can have an ice cold A&W Diet Root Beer, even though we've had one of those already". My chimp is freaking out with excitement instead of discomfort now at the promise of a suitable banana. Give your chimp a banana to distract it.
Some difficult terms
I have a theory about the dynamic between the chimp and the human. Steven Pressfield calls the chimp phenomenon by a different name. He calls it "Resistance" with a capital 'R'. He says that all creatives suffer from it. In his profoundly influential work “The War of Art”, he explains the forms it takes and what he did about it.
Dorothea Brande calls it "The Will to Fail" or more morbidly, "The Will to Death"
Judaism, Christianity and Islam call it Satan. Satan calls human beings to act on their base instincts, God calls human beings to act in accordance with reason and to strive to raise their consciousness.
In Judaism, Satan is often a metaphor for the yetzer hara, which translates to "evil inclination". In Judaism and Islam, the presence of the inclination to evil is not a sin in and of itself, but the acting upon it that is a sin. (I'm not familiar enough with the Christian theological position here, but I would suppose the doctrine of Original Sin is at variance with the other traditions. I'm happy to stand corrected.) Doesn't this all sound like Chimp vs Human to you?
You can put whatever label you want on the tension in all human beings between a call to act according to their base nature, and it's important to specify here, harmfully so, or to act according to their more highly evolved faculties. What matters is that your brain does not speak with one voice, and that the voice you hear in your head that calls you to that which is not best for you is not the real you. It's procedural. The real you didn’t put it there.
How can you tell who is who?
It's really simple. Develop the habit (a new algorithm which you will implant in your brain and repeat until it becomes automatic, procedural) of asking of thoughts that arise:
"Do I want this?"
If you don't want it, it's your chimp talking.
When Satan whispers to you, he uses your voice as a disguise. Asking “Do I want this?” unmasks the bastard.
Thought: "Why am I such a loser?"
Notice. Pause. Breathe.
Respond with a question: "Do I want this thought?"
You will feel the response, and it will be "NO!"
Now you know that it's not what you want, you can make the dismissal of this thought procedural through practice.
Once you're good at this, take it to the next level by adding something positive instead. "Can I think of something that makes me happy, right now, that will immediately lift my mood?"
This is an enormous topic, and I've a lot more to say on it that I couldn't possibly cover here. I highly recommend that you read Professor Steve Peters' book "The Chimp Paradox", but also Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art", both are books I've recommended and gifted many times over the years.
Please get in touch if you'd like clarification on anything, and I hope that you'll remember that while, like the NHS, this newsletter is free at the point of use, it comes at great cost to me, and all I ask is that if you value what you've read, that you share this post widely and that you subscribe and encourage others to do so. I want to take this opportunity to thank the many people who have written to me privately to offer their positive feedback.