Break down those barriers for success in life and business
By Mike Takieddine
Those in the know tell us that almost half the time we think, talk or do something, it is the habit in us that is steering the vessel. Deep inside of us, they claim, beneath the daily patterns and attitudes, there resides the person we really are. This article attempts to tap into that person and hopefully yank him or her out of that smugness –if only to smell the roses.
Habits of thought, habits of speech and habits of action
We have only too often heard the cliché about how we have become slaves to our habits or, as goes a popular saying, that we form habits, and then they form us. In a possible line to our descendants, Charles Darwin postulated that “Man is descended from a hairy-tailed, quadruped (four legged animal), probably arboreal (forest dwelling) in its habits”.
As we might have guessed, habits are formed through consistently repetitive actions over time. Habits also need triggers –cues- to set them off, and they need reinforcing by way of positive feedback. Sometimes the feedback is so strong as to form compulsive addictions. For example, lottery systems and casinos bank heavily on providing gamblers with frequent small rewards to reinforce their delusions and make the much bigger losses more palatable.
And then habits get etched in our anatomy -literally
The uncanny part about that is that our entire anatomy falls into a groove that thrives on habits, thus forming what we refer to as comfort zones, i.e. those environments that we construct around our daily patterns that are stress-free and so easy to simply wallow in.
Science, mostly neuroscience, corroborates this “groove” phenomenon. In an address in 2012 to the American Psychological Association, Professor Wendy Wood reflected on the neurology of habits, and how habits form a neurological signature, paving the way for habitual behavior to become rigidly entrenched, their impulses firing through etched pathways (aka synapses) that direct communications in the brain.
Moreover, so instinctive become these patterns –so natural to our anatomy- that reversing the habits in a permanent way becomes improbable, as might be attested to by substance abusers and others who attend addiction recovery programs.
Chasing after our potential
While it would seem that there is practically no limit to our potential, we nevertheless live on the fast lane where we are continually bombarded by the noise of commercial life and the struggle to stay financially afloat.
One of the worst outcomes of lounging full-time within the warm and fuzzy confines of our comfort zones is that we never find out what would have been in store for us had we ventured out more often. Don’t we all, at one time or another, reminisce in regard to the missed opportunities in our lives?
As kids, we used to not think twice about taking risks, starting with dropping the training wheels off our bikes to, a little later in life, risking rejection by inviting out on a date the person who might have ultimately become the love of our life.
In time, we get to feel our own as well as society’s pressure for assuming more risks, both at the level of our relationships as well as at work. For instance, many of us work hard at maintaining a healthy look, if only in order to better engage with our peers, while at work we have to position ourselves to be better decision-makers, constantly juggling between the probabilities of success with the consequences of failure.
When self-contentment slips into complacency
Early in the 1960’s, at a time when the Soviet Union seemed to have forged ahead in the race for outer space, President John Kennedy sensed that the nation had slipped into an aura of gloom in which self-contentment had turned into complacency. On September 12, 1962, in an iconic speech intended to rally Americans behind the effort to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth, JFK exalted the entire nation with words that will reverberate endlessly in time. His words are worth repeating here:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
Pushing the boundaries –literally- in this case brought to the United States an age of hope and energized ambition, a feeling that there was nothing that could not be accomplished “…Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.
The many faces of anxiety
Much of the anxiety that we experience when leaving our accustomed ways –our comfort zones- come from daunting levels of uncertainty. We don’t give a speech in front of a large audience all that frequently, nor do we face a must-do-well interview every day. For those occasions, a little anxiety comes in handy.
Believe it or not, anxiety is frequently good for us –even a life saver at times- and it affects all of us in our everyday lives. It can result from a happy impulse, the anticipation of a thrill or even just awaiting the outcome of an ongoing event. Significantly, when deeply felt, penetrating inspiration is frequently preceded by anxiety, as are moments of exhilaration, for the simple reason that anxiety –stress- pumps us up with adrenalin and cortisol hormones, both ferocious stimulants.
Stress can be good not only because of how it makes us feel but, more significantly, because it has great empowering faculties. Stress makes us take the plunge, burst out of our natural inhibitions –do the hard things- and make us bask in the rewards. Stress –anxiety- takes us from our comfort zones to what academia calls our learning zones, and in those learning zones are the new vistas in life, novel ways to fashion our relationships, and better efficiencies at work.
Hacking into our comfort zone and the notion of balance
So, does it serve us well to habitually make efforts to push down the barriers and break out of our comfort zones? No, not so fast!
This is where the notion of balance acquires such significant inferences. In as much as finding the sweet spot in our new landscape is key to our heightened self-enriching effort, we naturally want to avoid moving into the realm of grossly miscalculated risk-taking. From comfort to learning is one thing, but from learning to foolhardiness is not so cushy.
When breaking out from deeply engrained life patterns, moderately balanced bursts of anxiety also tend to leave good marks on our brain. The brain gets a charge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers as well as our emotional responses. The point though is that we don’t want to get awash with chemicals. For example, dopamine has equally been described to be “the molecule behind our most sinful behaviors”, and as for adrenalin and cortisol, it is well known that when these linger, i.e. when anxiety is not allowed to “stand down”, they exert nasty influences on our immune and other systems.
The magic of the middle ground
Finally, as in other facets of life, it is probably safe to reiterate that the middle ground reigns supreme. If we’re driving around and someone jumps right in front of our car, we don’t want “middle”, we want “instant and extreme” adrenalin to save the day. But that would be the exception, and we would more normally want just the right dose of a stimulant to get us going.
When we’re moving around in a docile environment, we’re not all that inspired or, as the often recited saying goes, “If we’re too comfortable, we’re not productive. And if we’re too uncomfortable, we’re not productive. Like porridge or Goldilocks, we can’t be too hot or too cold.”
In our context today, balance means finding that middle ground where we feel anxious, but where our anxiety level can still be put to productive use. Once we become adjusted to that new intensity of anxiety, and we don’t get paralyzed from fearing it, we can safely say that we’re ready to move on to greater accomplishments.
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