WARNING: Your brain has been hacked. Instructions to follow.
I spent the past holiday weekend designing and building a shelf system in my garage. I had to tear out the old ones, awful excuses for storage as they were, and build heavy-duty units that could stand 100-lb containers of beans, rice and other staples, camping equipment, tools, et cetera.
I was struck by an observation I made on my trip to Home Depot immediately upon making the decision to start the project, feeling high on the endorphin cocktail associated with shopping and goal achievement. It occurred to me that most or all of the good feelings, the emotional rewards of the job, were to be had upon the decision to get it done.
Of course, buying material isn’t the same as reaching the goal, right? I still had two glorious days ahead of me, of measuring, cutting, and retrieving tools from my “helpful” children. So why the satisfaction?
Even the most responsible person has felt it: A rush of satisfaction, immediately upon taking a no-pain action toward it. You probably have one of those Tony Little Ab-Cruncher things in your garage right now, in “like new” (i.e. unused) condition.
This recalls a brain study I recently learned about from one of my favorite entrepreneurial gurus, Eben Pagan, in which the researchers analyzed the real-time brain functions and responses of young players during their engagement with the electronic heroin known as video games.
One of the most striking observations the study noted was the timing of the activity in the pleasure center of the brain, relative to the achievement of a reward in the game: The gamers’ brains experienced the greatest rush of satisfaction when the little “teaser” image appeared that let them anticipate the reward (e.g., points, a weapon, the next level) – not, as we might expect, when they actually achieved that milestone.
In one of my current reads, The Chimp Paradox, Dr. Steve Peters writes that many such “automatic” responses are part of a “Chimp” mind, a set of hard-wired emotional responses that helped us survive before we developed the powerful “human” traits of rational thought and logic. Whatever your opinion on evolution or creation, this provides a powerful model for understanding ourselves and others.
Is it an accident that the most successful and increasingly addictive video games embed these “teasers” along the way, appealing to the emotional triggers of one’s “Chimp”? Of course not.
These companies employ some of the best and brightest to “hack” the human mind and create powerful connections. Same goes for the producers of “House of Cards”, “24” and other standouts among the current generation of television series. In fact, all cutting-edge marketing operations have evolved from the “transaction” model to the “relationship” model.
Ultimately as the disciplines of research and product creation converge, we are bringing love (or at least lust) itself down to a science. What is love, if not the feeling we “can’t live without” someone or something?
Cult leaders, evangelists, and sales pros have used the same methods for centuries – some for good purposes, some for evil. The technology is morally neutral – it simply continues to prove that, for all our education and advancement, people have an inner need to feel emotionally connected to important people and things in their lives. Few would want to do away with feelings of love and desire, irrational as they are, but we would do well to recognize the relationship between our “Human” and our “Chimp”.
Yes, you’ve been hacked, and here’s what you can do about it: Use the findings of the billions of dollars being poured into this research to hack your own way into a better understanding of yourself. Update your operating system!
Becoming aware of how our mind works is the most valuable kind of learning there is. We are forced to make hundreds of subtle decisions every day, all day – in response to media and marketing messages, a personal offense in a social setting, a threat to your career status at the office, a comment about our appearance by a spouse.
Unpacking these kinds of findings, if you and I can learn to reinterpret our own own (often irrational) responses to stimuli in a way that offers a range of options instead of the reaction our “Chimp” is wired to produce, we shall see improvements in all major areas of life: Relationships, stress, career or personal success, and even our bank account.
So next time you feel suddenly compelled to do, buy, or act on something, think about it: is it your “Human” or your “Chimp”? Then hack them right back.
I have done things no one else would contemplate. I have risked and lost, I have loved the most broken and vulnerable creatures and people. I have chosen in one instance to forgive, in another to smite my enemies with a vengeance and delight that would cause even my brothers in battle to avert their eyes. I have known an awesome and humbling power which compels others to conscript themselves to my cause, come ignominy or glory, death or brilliant life, riches or regrets. I have lain awake and known the gravity of the universe.
Yet today I hold the keys to greater means, influence, and creative power than I have ever imagined. From humble, damaged roots I have adopted tools of the masters, Robbins, Hill, Rand, Peale, the words of my Lord and Savior, and thereby hewn a rough path for myself, a circuitous but victorious journey to this plateau and that vista, ever searching in vain for the narrow way of peace, self-knowledge, real power. I have glimpsed it, ever out of reach, but here and there have come close enough to detect the scent of the fertile peat that lays along the edge of the way of greatness.
I am now, with my work, my children, my wife, at a place where my path must end, where there is no safety or solace in trudging along on the wits and talents with which I came screaming and naked into this world. I must do, see, and become more than even I can imagine, yet as I submit. Those powers and that intellect others made note of, envied, flattered, I now know were as parlor tricks for their amusement and my own. Squandered. Yet the blush of youth has left my cheek, and there is no wizened sage who will appear to point to the error of my ways; I myself must define the moment. I must, in fact, let my light illuminate for my own earthly father the first step on the path of his enlightenment, as with my own children: by my example – while bearing only my burdens and not what is theirs to carry.
I know when I reach the path of my destiny, obscured as it is by that wispy layer in the rarefied peaks and planes above, I will come to a serene pool and be able to look down into it and see revealed my sanctified countenance, that which God sees when he gazes upon my soul. But as I have experienced in my marriage, in the eyes of my children, those who catch the vision of my business, I must allow the faith placed in me by others to help light my way to those awaiting realities and vistas.
For I can see greatness of potential in others, in ideas, in the world around me – yet I often stand as an artillery-shocked trooper, unable to find my way out of the front from which I fight. Unable to rebuke my own demons and cast them into the putrid craters of the battlefield where they belong. Unable to claim my destiny, even as I take yet another enemy stronghold, rescue another villager on my way to that very place I’ve only vaguely imagined.
I now know there is no hill I cannot take, no gift my Father would withhold from me. Yet, the thirst to taste another bottle of pillaged wine, or even to hoist my flag from another ridge has waned. The battle of without has run its course; to be, to do, to have anything of meaning and permanence, I must lay down my sword and face the battle within.
It is said, “Know thyself”. I am ready to leave it all on the field in exchange for even one moment, face to face with the future and the fullness of who I AM.
“Who are you and what are you made of, really deep down in your guts?”
Recently, one of my mentors, Bo Eason, had me answering that question during his three-day storytelling seminar. I was floored, but telling him I was “kinda busy and er, craving a Starbucks right about now” just didn’t seem like a good option. I sent him the following:
When I was about 8 years old, I remember coming to the realization that there were a lot of things in this world I didn’t understand, realities I couldn’t reconcile with the way things should be. A lot of my idealistic dreams felt crushed.
My mom and dad split up, and I didn’t have a feel for how I fit in, so I “surfed life” instead of swimming in it. Around the same time, we found out something was wrong with my little 3-year old sister, and after a lot of tests we discovered she was what you called back then, “retarded.” Now they’d say “developmentally disabled.” I didn’t care what you call it, she was different, and I realized, helpless in many ways. So tricking her out of her cookies and making her Barbie prisoner to my GI Joe was out. And I love her to this day, but I knew I wouldn’t ever really know her like a big brother.
I loved other things too, like bike riding, and chasing Claire Ryerson, and kissing her under the big pine tree in her backyard right before eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches her mom made. But the high point of my week was Saturday cartoons. My mom would let me get wired on sugared cereal and watch TV in my Spider-Man pajamas all morning.
My favorite cartoon hero at the time was Underdog. Remember Underdog? A dog with a cape and a secret power pill, who spends his days as Shoeshine Boy; a mild-mannered nobody. But whenever Polly Purebred, his love, is in distress, Shoeshine Boy runs inside a phone booth and…BOOM! He comes out in his superhero suit . . . and the phone booth always explodes. (My wife says that part “explains a lot”.)
Underdog flies to the scene of mayhem with people exclaiming “Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! (One old lady with glasses says “It’s a frog!” Someone replies, “A frog?”) And he reassures the crowd thusly:
Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog,
It’s just little old me… (whereupon, Underdog would crash into something, then sheepishly finish) Underdog.
Underdog usually caused a lot of collateral damage; and whenever anyone complained, Underdog replied, (always in a rhyme of course):
I am a hero who never fails;
I cannot be bothered with such details. (There’s another spousal raised eyebrow)
Of course, Underdog had his “arch enemies”, primarily Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff, who would victimize unwitting people in carrying out their various schemes for power. Simon Bar-Sinister would take over someone’s mind, their eyes would turn funny, and they would repeat, over my vociferous protestations, “I will do what Simon Says!”
I never connected it, but I ended up with two responses to deal with what I saw as injustice or unfairness: I would live in my own world in my head, sort of disconnected from a lot of what was going on out there…
…or sometimes I’d swoop in and fight back. And sometimes, I’d cause some collateral damage just like Underdog. But it’s the thought that counts, right? Besides, I’m a big-picture guy, I can’t be bothered with the details.
There was this time in 3rd Grade where some boys were making fun of the “special” kids in the hall - only, my sister at home was also “special”. I got so mad, I pushed them against the lockers and socked one of them. I remember being proud, even as I was explaining what happened to the principal. I’m still proud, because some lessons need to be painted in red. I bet that kid still remembers how his face hurt that day!
I was what you might call a “feral child”, so it took me some years to figure out how to channel this fire inside me, which animated me, into more productive means. And I never thought much about the meaning of the events, circumstances, and choices driven by that fire. I just lived every day.
But I recently went through an exercise with a marketing and branding agency run by a brilliant guy who has become a friend, Eliot Frick, who totes around this amazing brain and runs a branding agency called Bigwidesky. In the process of bringing my product idea to the marketplace, Eliot brought me through a process of discovery that connected Underdog, my idealism, the blood I’ve given up and battle scars I’ve collected over the years.
I’ve heard that 80% of college graduates never go on to a career in their area of study. Most of us arrive at what we do for a living through some circuitous path. We just sort of end up doing something. We go through phases and pick up roles. Troublemaker. Crusader. Dad. Entrepreneur. But Eliot’s job is to purposefully tie together all of the things you do and are into an overarching theme.
Cutting-edge marketing agencies work to extract your “brand”, which is modern-speak for ‘who you exhibit yourself to be’, from someplace deep in your heart – not the things you say you are or believe in, but the raw, soft parts of you that actually manifest into reality. Because whether we realize it or not, our psyche, our makeup, the thing that drives us to create and sometimes destroy, comes from our experiences, usually in early childhood, as interpreted through the framework that’s hard-wired into you.
So here I was, excited to talk about product-market fit, and traction, and other geeky startup stuff. But Eliot didn’t so much want to talk about what my product is, or what my company does, as to delve into the things that drive me, the experiences that forged my soul. Some of it was awesome to talk about, and a lot of it was quite painful, vulnerable, messy. And perhaps the most beautiful discovery I’ve had in my whole life, certainly in my post-30 adult life, is the theme that we came up with through that process.
I realized that until that day, the rhyme and reason behind events of my life were obscured.
My epiphany? Whether it was insisting that my mom turn around to pick up a hopelessly injured bird, or sitting with the crippled old man next door that the other kids were scared of, fighting for freedom through politics; checking out and partying a few years away in protest, or winning a jury trial (without a lawyer) against the insurance company who wouldn’t pay, it’s all been the same:
I’ve been fighting Simon-Bar Sinister, the arch-nemesis who robs peoples’ potential away, takes over their minds, steals their hope, crushes their dreams.
I had to have my identity spoken back to me: “Your a guy who can’t stand the idea of the little guy not having the fair chance, being taken advantage of by outside forces and actors. You’re a hero of heroes.” I cried over these words later. But it’s true – I believe if we can just get people out of their programmed minds, out of the robot existence, into the fullness God envisioned when he made them, they have the power to be the heroes in their own world.
It’s truly profound to me that a business branding exercise eclipsed years of therapy, helped me reconnect with my inner warrior, and face the fallout of sometimes being alone in my battles against those who would shackle others’ minds and futures. I know now, THAT’S what God put me on this earth to do. (Even if things get a little messy when I fly in and crash into something.)
That’s the answer; it’s “who I am”. So let me ask you, “Who are you, and what are your guts made of?” Only you can answer that – and no matter what kind of life you’ve had, the answer can be abstracted from your real-life, messy story.
You may think you don’t have time to answer the question. Maybe no one has asked you the question until now, but now that I have, a vacuum has been created in the universe – and it will never go away until it is filled with the power of your words.
I encourage you to answer, share YOUR story – maybe here, maybe somewhere else. The answer to that question just might be the entire point of the rest of your life.
Where am I and what is going on? Recently woke up in my new home for the first time, it was accompanied by a little jolt of concern – followed by adrenaline – as I came around from the unconscious state
My wife and I are entrepreneurs, and we had spent almost the past four months living in my father-in-law’s basement while typical startup business challenges, a red-hot Denver real estate market, and today’s byzantine mortgage regulations held us captive. During that time, I’d lay in bed thinking how thirteen stairs, two barking dogs, and a man who deserved both respect and a good nights sleep was all that kept us from living the life we really wanted to be living.
Now I wake up every morning and thank God for our home, but gratitude isn’t the most profound insight I’ve gained from this experience. What I am really struck by is the way that – no matter how many books I’ve read, no matter how much insight I may have gained into the glorious, devious ways of the human mind and soul – some thing or objective would be a solution to myriad problems.
I don’t want to diminish the idea that some things really do create a lot of leverage in our lives. A job, a paycheck, when you lack one, can solve a lot of issues – I love the quote attributed to marketing guru Kevin Nations that “money can only solve the problems caused by the lack of it.” A place to live? Same thing.
But where this thinking tends to fall down is when we do what I call “jumping Maslow”: We attribute the acquisition of things from lower down on what Abraham Maslow called the Hierarchy of Needs with the more transcendent ideals at the top of the list of needs.
Back in 1954, Maslow published a book called Motivation and Personality, where he posited that humans have a hierarchy of needs. Marrian-Webster defines a hierarchy as “a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status.”
The easiest way I can simplify this universal ordering of needs is to picture an arrow pointing from left to right. On the left are basic needs like food and shelter; in the middle are needs such as safety and belonging, and and on the right are more lofty and intangible needs like self-esteem and personal growth.
So then, what I mean by my term “jumping Maslow” is the way people associate one of the items from a lower status with the fulfillment described much higher on the list.
I’ll just say it straight: Jumping Maslow is dangerous. It’s what keeps people in bondage to the idea that she’s going to come back and fix everything, or the idle hopes of winning the lottery. It robs us of the creative energy that comes from being dissatisfied enough with our path to fulfillment to do something about it.
In my case it was a nice home in which to live and work, but it could be a 50-inch HDTV or season tickets. What is it for you?
So, let’s face it – we’ve all said things like “Once I have ____________ (fill in the blank) I’ll be happy/successful/accomplished.” That kind of thought is a lie from the enemy of your life. The success-minded person must be vigilant for these corrosive ideas. Close your eyes, drag it to the trash icon on the computer screen in your mind, and hit “Securely Empty Trash”.
For some time I have been aware that change in my life was coming. While I believe that I have been pursuing what God put me on this Earth to do, I knew that as written in Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a season for every purpose under Heaven.
I know in my bones, the sun is setting on this season in my life.
Yet also I have long held a core belief that my life should be lived on my terms, not terms dictated by others. Living by those terms means taking action and responsibility. Commitments, relationships, expectations develop. Therein lies a natural dilemma.
What to do when the tides of change threaten to dash me against the shoals of commitment?
For weeks now, perhaps months, my ship has drifted. I do what I must to stay afloat, but fail to chart a course decisively. Questions plague me as I gaze toward the gray horizon, as I lie down and as I wake: How will I navigate? Will I founder on the rocks approaching beneath the water’s surface? Who will I leave behind on the shores, disappointed, angry, or in need? Yet, these worries are the sure way toward Death.
My ally, my love, my partner in all endeavors, has lost her eye for the compass and the sextant. She cannot help me in turning the craft about, in plotting by the map and according to the signs in the sky. We kiss away tears of our children, break bread in the galley, partake of love in the night as the moon dances atop the points of restless waves.
Yet for whatever reason, God has left this task to me, and me alone. This in itself is a sign, a test of anchor, of the sinews of my soul straining against the depths.
But chart a course, and set sail I must. My family are on board, trusting my hand is upon the rudder. The tide rolls. Danger lies in drifting.
Missions and dreams unfulfilled, vistas unseen, await.
Charting a course takes quiet hours in observation topside, in peaceful candlelight of the bowels of my quarters. Uninterrupted by the daily catch, the toil and bustle of the scrubbing and the rigging.
Perhaps today I can only take the first steps: Sounding the depths beneath me, gauging the distance to dangerous water, and selecting a new shore for which to set out. Without these, a new course cannot be charted. My soul cries out this prayer,
Heavenly Father, still the waters again with your mighty hand,
Calm the swells and the winds in my heart,
That I may envision a new land upon which to alight.
A promised land upon which your faithful servants will plant our feet,
To tame, to cultivate, to adventure, to lie beneath a verdant canopy upon velvet fronds
Squinting through cracks of sunlight falling gold and warm, a reflection
Of your glory as we rest in the shadow of your wings.
Amen and Amen.