Turns out the coaching profession has a lot of things wrong about human change.
Goals are actually counterproductive.
Focusing on weaknesses? Counterproductive.
Making project plans and elaborate to-do lists? You guessed it.
What does work?
Fun. Play. Dreaming.
I’m summarizing a lot of neuroscience research here, but it turns out there are two networks in the brain that are used for very different things. And there are two different emotional states that generally go along with these networks that are also used for very different things.
When we are looking at the world through the lens of fear, or activation, or stress, we are being driven primarily by the task positive network (TPN) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This system can be very helpful when we are trying to get (insert your word here) done.
When we are looking at the world through love, through openness, through possibility, through connection, we are primarily in the default mode network (DFN, our sense of a self) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This system helps us rest, recover, connect, and contemplate.
When you are working furiously to meet a deadline, you are in the SNS and the TPN. When you take a break, go for a walk in the park, and have that sudden insight of how to save 10 steps and do the project better, you are in the DFN and the PNS.
When we go about trying to make changes, our first instinct is to think about our weaknesses and create a project plan to overcome them. We use the TPN and SNS to try to wrestle the problem to the ground.
It’s a reasonable instinct, and not surprising given how much of our lives are typically about doing. But while the TPN and SNS are great at focus, that focus is accomplished by shutting out the possibility of thinking about things differently. In other words, by using these systems to try to change, we shut down the very possibility of the change we are attempting!
Have you ever tried to lose weight by counting calories and noticed that all you think about is cheesecake?
That’s the TPN and the SNS, trying to use your existing wiring to get to your goal as efficiently as possible and, by the way, failing miserably.
But if you dream of an image of who you want to be, and then ask yourself “what would that person do in this moment?” you have a better chance of tricking the system.
If you play Rich Litvin’s “perfect system” game, where you make an exaggerated point around exactly how you created the system that creates your stress, overwhelm, or whatever else is in your way, you have a better chance of tricking the system.
And dreaming and playing are easier and more fun, too.
I’ve decided that every Friday is going to be my dream day.
To dream big about who I want to be, what I want my business to be, who I want to work with as clients and colleagues.
To dream big about the world that I want to create, where more and more leaders create companies where the best people and ideas thrive, where more and more people bring their full selves to work, where fewer and fewer people they have to make compromises to make money.
To dream big about a world in which we take care of our workers, our customers, our suppliers, and the environment, rather than trying to extract maximum shareholder returns (and employee well-being) in the short run and let everyone else fend for themselves.
To dream big, and then to take tiny sustainable steps toward that creating that world.
And to have fun doing all that.
I work with so many leaders who have “achieved” their whole careers and now are trying to step off that hamster wheel because the path has become the obstacle. They see what they have given up with their relationships and their health. They see that they have built a success that felt great in the first few decades of their career but now feels empty. They crave a meaning that is missing and they see that what they are doing is no longer working for them. They know the next step is to step away (at least from a lot of the day-to-day drama) but they don’t know how. One of my clients, a CEO with 100 employees, calls it being stuck between being a small company and a big company, with his day-to-day involvement being the main obstacle.
He doesn’t see (yet) how to step away so his company can grow. But as we dream more and more, as we play, as we begin to take the whole project a lot less seriously, the chances of him having that insight become a lot higher.
Fun, play, dreaming can feel so trivial sometimes.
But it turns out if you want to change, they might be the most important thing you can do.