So you think you are too old or too set in your ways to change? Not so! Neuroplasticity research has proven what many have long believed: you are never too old to change, and what’s more, you can rewire your brain to think and act in ways that lead to greater success in work, love and life.
The Neuroscience Behind Success
Our understanding of how the brain works has changed greatly as brain imaging technology has advanced. One of the most significant findings has been the discovery that our brain doesn’t stop growing when our body does. It has the ability to adapt and change right up to the end of life. This means that even though we have well established ways of processing information and responding to our environment, we can still develop new and more constructive ways in the future. While a deeper understanding of neuro-plasticity is extremely relevant for people who have suffered from a stroke or other traumatic brain injury, what has piqued my interest is its application for those of us whose brains already work perfectly well. Most days, anyway.
I must admit though, my enlightened understanding of the brain’s “plasticity” has been both a help and a bother. No longer can I justify my inability to figure out how to backup my computer with excuses like, “I’m just not a technology person.” And though at times I’ve cursed my newfound knowledge of my brain’s ability to master skills that have long eluded me, develop new habits, and learn new ways of responding to environmental triggers, ultimately this knowledge has been extremely valuable. I now know that the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is really just a false and convenient belief that spares us from the effort involved in learning new tricks—like backing up my computer!
I recently attended a coaching conference where Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry and author of You Are Not Your Brain spoke about his research findings on neuroplasticity. What he shared reinforced my understanding and confirmed what I intuitively knew and wrote about in Find Your Courage—that by intentionally choosing to view your environment in new ways, rewrite your personal narrative and act in the presence of your fears, you become more competent in whatever actions you take, but also build “courage muscles” that enable you to respond more effectively in other areas of your life. Whether in conversing with your work colleagues, asserting boundaries in your personal life, or taking on goals that you’ve previously shied away from, by practicing new ways of interacting with your environment, you are able to build new pathways in your brain and produce new (and better) results in your life.
Practice and Repeat
Neuroscience findings, like those detailed in Dr. Norman Doidge’s great book, The Brain That Changes Itself, have proven that right up to the end of our lives we can build new neural pathways in the brain that ultimately rewire it. Of course just as creating a new pathway in the forest requires more than a one-time walk off the beaten track, so too creating a new pathway in the brain takes more than a single action. It requires repetition. Developing a new habit to usurp an unhealthy old one, or a new trait to replace a less effective one, such as timidity, laziness or pessimism, takes practice. Repeated practice. After all, it took your entire lifetime to develop the default ways of thinking and acting that you have today. Rewiring the way you think and act is going to take time.
Self-directed neuroplasticity may sound very highbrow and intellectual, but at its core it’s pretty simple: growing self-awareness. That is, cultivating your ability to observe yourself so that you notice, as a detached observer, what you are thinking and feeling and how your thoughts and feelings feed off each other in any given moment. This is crucial, because you can only make new and more constructive choices when you are conscious of the ones you are making now.
In my own efforts to build self-awareness, just a few days ago I noticed myself complaining to a friend that soon my four kids would be off from school for the summer. “There goes my productivity for the next 3 months,” I heard myself lamenting. In the car on my way home I thought about how powerless that statement was; as though my productivity were entirely at the mercy of my children’s summer holidays. By noticing myself verbalizing such a disempowering thought, I was able to choose these more constructive thoughts.
The summer months provide me with a unique and valuable opportunity. Sure, my home (where I work) will be noisier, and my days not as much my own, but that doesn’t mean I can no longer be productive. I can use the summer months to hone my focus during the hours I put aside to work, practice greater flexibility in how I structure my day, and prioritize my time more effectively so I can be fully engaged in whatever I am doing and with whomever is involved—kids or clients.
The SOAR2 Approach to Rewiring Your Brain
As you’ve been reading this, you may have identified areas of your life where you aren’t feeling as powerful or positive as you’d like. I invite you to practice self-directed neuroplasticity and rewire your brain’s default way of responding by working through each of the following steps. Note: Repeat this process as often as necessary.
- STOP what you are doing and notice the thoughts you are thinking and how they are making you feel. If you are feeling uptight or anxious, take at least five deep breaths to short circuit your primal brain’s “alarm” reaction and avoid what is commonly called a “neural highjack.”
- OBSERVE the way you are looking at the situation. What is it about how you are looking at the problem that makes you feel the way you do?
- ASK yourself how you could view the situation differently. How would the wisest person you know view it? What’s the valuable lesson this situation has to teach you? (And believe me, every uncomfortable emotion or difficult situation has something of great value to teach us.) Remember, we prove we are smart by our answers, but wise by our questions. The more you can embrace curiosity, the wiser you will become.
- REFRAME your situation, keeping in mind that the thoughts you are thinking are not reality, just how your brain is processing it. How, by viewing this from a larger perspective, could you see the problem in a whole new light?
- RESPOND intentionally to the situation (as distinct from just reacting in the way you have habitually done in the past). What is the most constructive way to respond?
About the Author
Margie Warrell, best-selling author of Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless in Work & Life (McGraw-Hill Professional), is an executive life coach and keynote speaker who is passionate about empowering women to think bigger, expand their vision of what’s possible, and to live and lead more courageously. With her down to earth Australian humor and working mother-of-four pragmatism, Margie draws on her background in psychology and Fortune 500 business to show others how to leverage adversity and take their lives to new levels of success and fulfillment. The “Resident Coach” on Let’s Talk Live (Washington, D.C.’s daily talk show), Margie also shares her expertise regularly on national media including The TODAY Show, CNBC and Fox News. To get her free Live Boldly! newsletter or other great resources please visit www.margiewarrell.com