It's hard being human


The human being is an awesome thing to behold. But it seems awfully hard to be one sometimes, doesn’t it? In part it’s because our brains have developed in a way that makes them sort of bipolar. Sometimes they are capable of stunning feats, other times they make us look like bumbling idiots. Sometimes we positively glow with warm feeling; other times we sink to the deepest lows of emotion. We have these big, beautiful prefrontal cortexes and these ancient areas of back matter that both do their jobs amazingly well. It’s just that sometimes they do their jobs all too well, and sometimes they are at odds with each other. Worse yet, we are dreadfully alone in our silos of gray matter.

The thinking brain can think on average 60 thousand thoughts a day and, when we’re awake, it generates enough electricity to power a light bulb. It is a machine of considerable power and efficiency – but this efficiency comes at a cost. We unconsciously use heuristics and mental shortcuts when making decisions, recalling memories, and make social observations – in other words, all the time. Psychologists have enumerated these biases, and a quick review of the list is sobering. Our prior knowledge, memories, and wishes cause us to fail to perceive, discount, or distort new information. We are usual completely unaware of these biases and fail to account for them and think we are far more objective and accurate than we really are. Further, the thinking brain has a tendency to arrogantly dismiss the clamoring of the emotional brain.

The emotional brain is nothing to sneeze at either. It’s that niggling feeling when something is wrong that the conscious mind hasn’t figured out yet. It gives us the warm feeling of conviviality, the glow of pride in a job well done, the excitement when we undertake a new venture. It gives color and vibrancy to all that we do, and the desire to experience these pleasurable emotions motivates us to strive under difficult conditions. It can do all of these things, but it be a perverse pain in the neck, too. It’s the source of anxiety, fear, anger and every shadowy hue in between. It can hijack the thinking brain, causing it to further ignore or distort reality. It can prod us to relinquish our self-control when we need it the most. We need to appreciate the emotional brain, but also have the skills to tamp it down when it threatens to overwhelm our thinking mind.

And then there are the great proportion of times when our thoughts and feelings seem to push us in opposite directions. Our hearts long for freedom; our intellect insists on security. Our ego freaks out and demands retaliation for perceived slights; our thoughts remind us of the long-term consequences of conflict. Without awareness, we whiplash ourselves between the ignition of our emotions and the slamming brakes of our mind.

Our sense of individuality and separation from others aggravates the situation. Because we are unable to truly think outside of our own minds or feel outside of our own experience, we are further limited in our ability to appreciate our cognitive and emotional shortcomings. Better appreciation of others’ motives and being able to understand their perspectives helps us think differently, which helps us manage our cognitions and reactions better. When we can imagine how others also feel, we don’t feel so isolated in our strong negative feelings, and we can magnify the positive ones by sharing them.

So to really thrive as humans, and to effectively lead other humans, we need two things. First, we must understand and appreciate both the strengths and limitations of our thoughts and emotions – we need insight. Second, we need to work harder to escape our silos and connect with others – we need empathy. Truly amazing leaders implicitly understand this. They are capable of harnessing heart power and fueling it with brain power. They don’t just articulate a sensible vision, they paint it with images that stir the heart. They don’t just make strong strategic decisions, they take pains to involve people and implement with care and concern. They ruthlessly question assumptions to avoid cognitive drift, but they temper that rigor with an awareness of people’s emotional needs. Underneath the business suit is a primate with a shiny new frontal cortex. To lead ourselves and others, we need to both understand its limitations and stoke its potential.

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