As animals who have evolved over long periods of time from more primitive life forms, we humans possess many adaptations and traits that once aided in our survival. These instincts protected us from harmful predators and kept us aware of the world around us – and while the body and brain continuously evolved to adapt to our environment, these survival habits became all the more innate and engrained in our being. However today, for most individuals living in western or developing societies, the threats of natural predators and otherwise hostile conditions no longer threaten us day-to-day. As a result, these more subconscious habits that are engrained in our nature oftentimes hold us back from being the best version of ourselves, creating a source of almost irrational resistance that ultimately effects the quality of our output.
As a content marketer who works for a creative agency, my job description literally includes requirements such as “ability to push the envelope and advocate for change” and “willingness to provide thought leadership and create innovation around the delivery of creative content to a diversity of audiences.” My agency (and other creative/design organizations I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past) are sought out for this very reason – to cut through the busy noise and disarray of the market with something new, shiny, and different. And yet, as creatives, we find time and time again that our most cutting-edge, daring proposals get shut down by clients who want to play it safe. By scared executives who have to report to their board members and balance brand safety with effective advertising.
On an individual level, many of us subconsciously play out the same scenario through our daily interactions, procrastinations, and inability to release a creative asset into the world because it isn’t perfect. As both a writer and a marketer, I often find myself gravitating towards subjects that are easier and safer – those that have been covered before and can be easily replicated. But this type of work is not the attention-grabbing, captivating artistry that is considered to be iconic or movement-inspiring. And this is a problem, not only for creatives, but for anyone trying to be an effective human being. So, what is the cause of this phenomenon?
The Lizard Brain
Seth Godin, an iconic modern marketer and author, writes in his book Linchpin: Are You Indespensible? about what he refers to as the “lizard brain,” which is responsible for highly instinctual and primitive thought processes. It is essentially an analogy for the amygdala, otherwise known as the body’s alarm circuit. For example, feelings of immense stage-fright or performance anxiety is closely linked to activations in the neurons housed in the amygdala. In fact, research has even shown that the presence of a variant of the serotonin transporter gene that increases serotonin input to the amygdala is used to determine whether someone will develop an anxiety disorder.
The limbic system (which encompasses the amygdala) is the oldest part of the human brain. These portions developed to keep us safe from immediate threats, but manifests far differently in the modern era of human life. Seth Godin refers to this behavior as the “never-ending irrationality of human behavior,” causing us to perform inexplicable acts such as sabotaging relationships we want to work out, or not preparing exhaustively for a job interview that’s important to us.
Steven Pressfield, a prolific American screenwriter and author, enthusiastically describes the danger of this internal resistance. This intrinsic motivation against change and in service of self-sabotaging activities like procrastination is a result of thousands of years of biological adaption that originally served a beneficial purpose. He goes as far to say that this is the very resistance, the intangible mental barriers, that most people take to their grave. We prop up arguments for inaction with self-imposed blockers that hold us back from even trying to push the boundaries just a bit.
How many times have you had an idea on a new way to approach a task or project, and never ended up following through because you were too intimidated by the effort required to fully enact the new paradigm? How often do you fail to follow through on finalizing a project because you were too consumed and overwhelmed with the details? According to Pressfield, this could be your instinctual lizard brain at work.
Symptoms of Succumbing to the Wrath of the Lizard Brain
In his book Do the Work, Pressfield says that the first step to overcoming the lizard brain is to recognize that the resistance is there in the first place. Given the adaptive, almost exclusively sub-conscious nature of this part of our brain, the actions the lizard brain manifests are instinctual and automatic. We have to make a conscious effort toward recognizing that they are to blame for our ability to create meaningful output.
Here are some easily recognizable symptoms of our lizard brain at work:
- Procrastination: putting off the start of a new task, job, or project, and getting anxious whenever the thought of the project comes up. This could be accompanied by the decision (whether conscious or sub-conscious) to choose a distraction over starting the task at hand
- Monotonous Work: especially when there is more important work to be done, our human default might be to choose easier, more mindless tasks to deal with. For example, if you work in an office and are in the habit of checking your email first thing in the morning, this default habit can cause an incorrect prioritization of tasks at hand, leading to a domino effect that causes you to never get the important work done
- Obsessing Over Details: for many perfectionists, this can prove to be the bane of their existence. A mantra most people are familiar with is that you are your harshest critic. It is often the case that the work we produce never ends up seeing the light of day because us creatives don’t feel that it’s worthy of exposure due to flaws that are caught up in the details. However, most of the time we are the only ones who knows those flaws exist. The key is letting go of the need for perfection
Beating the Lizard Brain
I grew up playing classical piano from the age of four, practicing up to 5 hours a day while in middle school and high school. To call myself a perfectionist was an understatement – I was never quite satisfied after recitals I would prepare months for or when I would receive first prize for a competition, and there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to prepare more thoroughly. I also had (and still have) immense stage fright – I still remember sweating like a pig before performances, heart racing a thousand beats per minute, anxiously waiting for it all to be over. Nevertheless, this constant exposure to both fears, performance anxiety and fear of imperfection, taught me one of the most valuable nuggets of value I carry with me wherever I go. This is the need for consistent and deliberate exposure to what scares you most.
Take writing for example. Many writers will tell you that successful writing is not a talent, but a practice. It’s the consistent flexing of that muscle that makes it easier to keep producing output. Your brain eventually lets go of the desperate need for perfection and control, allowing the words to flow more naturally. Or consider the work of marketers – it’s our job to consistently produce output, measure what’s working, observe the material that’s not sticking, and make brave yet informed ventures into the unknown every day.
In Godin’s Linchpin Manifesto he outlines an array of mission statements, and each in their own respect could serve as any individual’s personal mantra. Among them are my following favorites:
- Trivial work doesn’t require learning
- Artists don’t care about credit, we care about change
- The more I put in, the more the world gives back
- I embrace the lack of structure to find my own path
It is our natural animal instinct to steer away from the unknown and into chartered, foreseeable waters. But when was the last time you heard of a brand, a person, or an idea that was considered groundbreaking because they upheld the status quo? So, in response to the Linchpin Manifesto, I propose the following actionable, tenable, and sustainable solutions:
1. I resolve to learn something new and meaningful every day – I will keep a record of my learnings so I can track my progress, and hold myself accountable
2. I will put the change I want to see in the world above my need for recognition, and will temporarily sacrifice my artistry for the sake of creating positive momentum
3. I will create every day I am on this earth and put my creation out into the world to be seen, even if it does not meet my standard of perfection – I can always improve it later
4. I will view any lack of structure or guidance as an opportunity to be creative and flexible
Because really, when it’s all boiled down, what’s the worst that could happen?