Tuesday, December 29, 2009


We've been having so much fun over the past week with this right-brain/left-brain stuff. As Sree pointed out, all this is just a model; it's not how we operate, it's just a way of thinking about how we operate. Still, models can prove quite useful in facilitating insight as long as we don't start making them true.

Over the past couple of days, I've run into several people who have been enjoying this little exploration and who particularly related to some of Iris' right-brained experiences: her sense of being overwhelmed... her feeling she's not good enough... her not knowing what to do next... her feeling stuck and unable to get started... and so on.

The Right-Brained Mark Kaufman
Last night as Kat and I were talking about all this right-brain/left-brain stuff, we talked about our friend Mark Kaufman. Kat remarked that the place where Mark seems to get stuck is when he tries to analyze things before acting.

I said, "Wait, Mark doesn't do analysis. He simply moves with how he's feeling. He's definitely right-brained on that front."

Kat pointed out that Mark spends a lot of time not doing because he's thinking about what to do and wanting to get it right.

So, then it occurred to me that it's not about Mark doing right brain in lieu of left brain. Mark does do left brain; he's just not very good at it. Once he starts analyzing, it's kind of like my dad driving a car; his accident-to-drive ratio exceeds one.

The Left-Brained Musician
Then I thought about our friend Scott who recently joined No Room for Jello playing trumpet and bass. Scott is a left-brain guy. He wants all the music written down so that he can practice and learn it. He wants to know the form to all the songs. He likes everything to be structured and predictable. He can experience true panic if he is left to the wiles of his right-brain.

He's not good at right-brained music.

In the end, there's no such thing as people who are either right-brained or left-brained by nature. We all operate on a spectrum that moves from structured, epistemological thought to unstructured, ontological thought. Each of is operates at different points on that spectrum depending on our situation.

So, if you find yourself stuck, the question is not one of whether or not you're right-brained or left. The question is one of knowing your strengths and weaknesses, building on your strengths and shoring up our weaknesses.

Step One: Know your strengths and your weaknesses
Knowing what you're good at and what you're not so good at is an important part of growth and change. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, oftentimes we downplay our strengths and pump up our chests about areas in which we're actually fairly weak. I believe this is largely due to how we have come to understand concepts such as humility and pride.

In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis presents many aspects of Christianity from the perspective of a senior demon (Screwtape) instructing a junior demon (Wormwood) in the art of tempting and enslaving a soul (the patient). In chapter XIV, Screwtape provides Wormwood guidance on the use of humility.
You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility... Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe [his] talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. . . By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.

And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.

The Enemy [God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor's talents--or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.
So, accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of a dis-interested observer. Your strengths and weakness don't mean anything about you.

Step Two: In the moment, lean on your strengths
An accurate assessment of your strengths and weaknesses can provide immediate benefit in getting unstuck. Tight and difficult situations are not the best ones in which to try to shore up your weaknesses. Instead, those are the times to rely on your strengths.

If you're really bad at analysis, and you're in a crisis, stop trying to think your way through it and go with your gut. Or ask for help from someone who is good at analysis.

If you're strong at analysis, forget your gut and go with your left-brained analytical side.

For example, if you're lost in the middle of nowhere and about to run out of gas, lean on your strengths. If you're good with maps and analysis, then forget about your intuition getting you there. Stop the car, pull out the map, and figure out where to go. If you can't read a map to save your life, then stop looking at the map hoping that the answer will pop out of it. Relax your breathing and get in touch with your sense of where you are and what to do.

Step Three: Over the long haul, shore up your weaknesses
Now here's the tricky part. Over time, as we lean on our strengths, the disparity between our strengths and weaknesses grows, reinforcing the belief that we simply can't do whatever it is we're not good at. In particular, if your strengths are bringing you success, then it can be difficult to shore up your weaknesses.

Shawshanked by Your Strengths
In many instances, this can lead to institutionalization of sorts. For example, I know many people with whom I've worked in large corporations, who would not know what to do with themselves if they were to leave the company they're with, let alone the corporate environment generally. They've been Shawshanked by their strengths, a kind of corporate evolutionary process, a survival of the fittest. In this case, fit has to do with the strengths required to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the specific company. The development of these strengths typically implies the non-development of strengths in areas not required to succeed within that company.

The result is someone who is immanently qualified in their company's environment, but only that environment. This works, as long as you never need to function anywhere else.

This phenomenon is not limited to corporations. Over time, as we lean on our strengths we begin to straight-jacket ourselves into a specific lifestyle and environment.

The key to avoiding this kind of self-imposed institutionalization is to shore up your weaknesses before you need them as strengths.

Transform Weaknesses to Strengths
Based on your list from step one, identify the weaknesses that would best serve you as strengths. For the moment, forget about general categories such as analysis or intuition; instead, look at specific examples.

Rather than considering your general capacity to make decisions, look at how long it takes you to order from a menu and work on improving your menu-to-ordering time.

If you're bad at analysis (easy to spot, you get stuck trying to figure out what to do), then grab one of your kids math books and start working through story problems with him or her. (You can ask him or her for help. It will be fun!)

Can't read a map, then start using a map to get to places that you already know how to get to. Lack a sense of direction, then start taking random drives based on your intuition at times that you don't have to be anywhere (just keep a GPS or cell phone with you).

Rounding Out Your Life
For most of us, it takes a life changing catalytic experience to force us to build strengths in areas where we are weak. However, knowing that weaknesses are just strengths that we haven't yet developed can change how we approach them. Transforming our weaknesses into strengths because we've decided to can open opportunities that we never would have experienced otherwise.

So, what's your greatest strength? How do you rely on it? What weakness have you created as a result of relying on that strength? Would you like to change that?

Have a strong Tuesday!

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