It's All In Your Head: Success and "The Winner's Brain"

by | May 02, 2011

Ever wonder if that guy who always meets his deadlines, pitches genius ideas at meetings, and makes it to the gym every night is from some alternative motivation species?

Well, he isn't—but his brain might be.

The good news is that, with training, your brain can be similarly molded for higher levels of motivation, more resilience to setbacks, and fine-tuned focus.

The Winner's BrainJeff Brown, coauthor of the book The Winner's Brain, and a psychologist at Harvard Medical, studied successful people for clues as to why they're so darn good at everything. What he discovered was that certain behavioral patterns were found in all kinds of successful people--from comedienne Phyllis Diller to gymnast Kerri Strug, to corporate ladder-climbers—and that the rest of us might not be so doomed after all: the skills were all acquirable. Here are a few points you might want to work on—winning!

1. Adjustable focus

We've all had those days when we're scanning emails, clicking around the internet, and sticking more Post Its to our computer monitors without accomplishing much. Focus, we tell ourselves. But Brown says just locking onto a task isn't enough to be successful—it's knowing when to "zoom in" and "zoom out" that's key.

"Think about scanning the ball park," he says. "Let's say you're at Fenway or Yankee stadium, and you take a picture in your mind's eye of the stadium… that would be more of a wide focus," he says. That kind of focus, he explains—taking all elements into account is vital when you're trying to keep lots of factors in mind—is the skill you call on while remembering a speech and simultaneously checking listeners' faces for boredom or understanding during a presentation. It's an ability to maintain forward momentum while accepting and incorporating new data—without getting stuck on a small detail.

"Now, when you're scanning for something, you're trying to find the food vendors from the stands," he says, "that's narrow focus." That's the "getting things done" frame of mind where you block out small distractions—like incoming emails—to finish a task, Brown tells us. "Goal laser;" he says, "It's the ability to lock on to a specific goal and not be distracted from that … so those extraneous variables are not interfering."

2. Mastery of the motivation cycle

In The Winner's Brain, Brown and his colleagues write about Trisha Meili, the Central Park jogger who was physically assaulted and nearly paralyzed. She eventually recovered a lot of her mobility, but it took several hours a day of tedious, painful, repetitive exercises—sometimes involving single parts, like her thumbs, over and over. How did she stick with it? Brown thinks it's a combination of "eye on the prize" and finding a kind of joy in the work—then cycling back and forth between the two.

"If a goal is too easy," Brown says, "we just won't strive for it. All those folks that go to the gym on January 2nd, claiming that they're going to go every day this year, they don't do it—[but] people who say I'm going to go once a once a month, they don't get it done either."

So a little pain is necessary to feel victorious, and to psych you up for more work—a phase of the motivation cycle that Brown says is very important, along with mapping out a clear goal. Brown calls the process "Map, Rev, Drive." "Mapping out that plan, then revving up the engine—getting yourself prepared; putting things in motion and having the potential; and drive--actually doing something to move yourself toward that goal and moving the motivation," he explains. The last step? Repeat!

3. Internal drive

The Boston Marathon is packed with winners, in Brown's opinion—and he doesn't mean just the runners who get medals. "The people that are out there running are not out there running with the expectation of winning the cash prize at the end … why people are running is that internal piece, and you've got to identify that."

Underlining the point, Brown writes of a smoking cessation study where people were offered "external motivators" like money for quitting—which worked short term. But, "once the external force there wasn't in place, then they were apt to smoke again," he says. Truly successful people work from internal motivation, Brown says, because it's a renewable resource.

"Think of BB King for example… he was out on the street corner with his guitar case open, doing what he loved, and that was playing," says Brown. "He just had to be really good at it over time, and is still practicing these days, even though he's in his eighties and has 250 gigs a year. That passion about your work has to be present."

4. Fearlessness of feedback

Brown writes in The Winner's Brain that successful people aren't without flaws—they're just better at understanding and improving themselves. Mores specifically, they're not afraid to face their shortcomings.

"If you want to be successful, you have to take feedback, and factor that in to what we call the talent meter," he says. "That's that idea of being able to understand your skills and abilities, what you're good at and what you're not good at, and how to remediate what you're not good at. Very, very critical skill to have, and not fear."

Self awareness, Brown says, is key to both making the most of your natural talent and also to diagnosing and improving problems with it. "Successful people are doing it as a matter of routine," he says—and they're losing their bad feelings over it. "They look at winning and losing, success and failure-- it's all the same thing. They're another color in the painting that they're painting. It's like okay, what do we do with this? We need to mix with the failure to get a better color."

5. Resilience

Failure stings—that's fine, and even useful on your journey to success. But beyond processing your failure and trying to learn from it, it's also vital to fully bounce back from it. Brown, a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, recommends using an age old therapy trick for activating upsetting situations, and turning them into opportunities for growth: viewing them as puzzles. Say, for example, your boss has confronted you about unsatisfactory work. Instead of blowing up—or running away--"Acknowledge 'Well, looks like we both have a dilemma here—let's try to work that out,'" Brown suggests. "So you're sending out that message that it's not a fight to the death battle with a coworker or a client, you want to make sure that there's this sense that you're going to problem solve it together."

And practice makes perfect—the more you face situations that make you uncomfortable, the better you'll get at handling them. "Memory is so much more important to us that just knowledge—it's an experience piece to draw on when that's surfacing in real time for us," says Brown. "So that's very important and I would highly recommend doing anything you can to get those experiences under your belt."

But what about rejection, where you don't get a chance to defend yourself? Consider it a shining opportunity to pursue Plan B, Brown says, or time to cross train for new opportunities. In any case, make sure that "if you're hearing the word "no," you're bouncing back with something proactive--don't just sit and emotionally wallow in the no."

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