Brainwork

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Through engaging stories and studies, the author shows you how to leverage the most provocative brain research to increase your productivity, expand your creative vision, and become a stronger leader. By applying an understanding of how the brain perceives, plans, and influences behavior, you'll transform your leadership and impact.

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Chapter One: The Curse of Too Much Information

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Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.

GERTRUDE STEIN

AT THE VERY MOMENT I REALIZED I HAD TO BUY A NEW CAR, A COLD CHILL came over me. I had flashbacks to a similar event eight years earlier (I keep my automobiles for a while) that turned into unpleasant haggling and tiring drama. Frankly, entering a dentist’s office for a root canal is less disturbing to me than entering a new-car showroom.

I was cheered by the thought that my decision on the car’s make and model would be easier this time, given all the information one can find on the Internet about new cars. And so my hunt began. First, I compared ten models on the car manufacturers’ sites, including trunk size, gas mileage, and dozens of options—fancy ones, such as seat warming and cooling, and not-so-fancy ones, such as GPS location technology and side air bags. Already the number of possible permutations of models and options was becoming enormous. Next, I looked at several dozen written and video reviews from people who already owned the cars. Regrettably, some reviews praised model A but trashed model B, whereas others did the reverse. Then I collected several reports and recommendations from consumer advocate organizations. Add to this already dazzling amount of information the need to make a decision on whether to purchase or lease, along with evaluating the dealers’ special offers, such as cash-back incentives and low financing rates. In just a few days, I had so many facts, figures, and opinions that my head was spinning. To make matters worse, the results of all this effort were inconclusive.

 

Chapter Two: The Myth of Multitasking

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There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.

LORD CHESTERFIELD

IT WAS AROUND NOON, AND THE AIRPORT CLUB LOUNGE WAS PACKED. Bad weather had delayed numerous flights, including mine. People were frantically trying to get in touch with their home offices as well as the clients they were scheduled to meet at their next destination. I could not help but notice the young man sitting across from me; he was talking very loudly into his headset and complaining about the flight delay. But what really caught my attention was how much he was interacting with the items around him. In addition to his headset conversation, he was scrolling through his personal digital assistant and checking his laptop screen, periodically typing a few keystrokes. He also was trying to read a story on the front page of the USA Today that was resting on a table next to him. As time went on, he appeared to cycle his attention easily among all the items. Surely, to the casual observer, this man was multitasking. I bet even the man himself believed he was multitasking—but he wasn’t. Why? Because the brain cannot multitask.

 

Chapter Three: Respecting the Emotional Brain

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Emotions have taught mankind to reason.

MARQUIS DE VAUVENARGUES

SHALL I STAY, OR SHALL I QUIT? THAT WAS ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT questions I have had to consider in my career. Do I follow my head and stay in this CEO position, or do I follow my gut and get out? Have you ever been in that situation? If so, you know about those sleepless nights when the pros and cons of such a life-changing move are racing through your brain. The cerebral conflict can be disquieting and exhausting. It is especially daunting when logic screams out to stay and there is no other job waiting for you. Quitting means the end of a salary, along with the important benefits and perquisites that go with it. I had to decide between my rational brain’s need for security and my emotional brain’s urge to say, “Screw it! Leave!”

I was the superintendent of a small, upper-middle-class school district in the northeast. Everything went well the first two years. Parents were pleased with new courses that were academically more challenging. Teachers were energized over the revised professional development program that focused on long-term, job-embedded training rather than on irrelevant one-hour sessions. Students were happy with new state-of-the-art computers in the schools. The central office support staff were eager to transfer reports, records, and data from paper to computers. To accommodate the increasing student population, the community approved a bond issue to expand all of the schools. Things were really humming.

 

Chapter Four: Improving Your Thinking

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We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

A FEW YEARS AGO, THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION ESTIMATED THAT the average human brain generates between 12,000 and 50,000 thoughts per day, depending on how deep a thinker the person is. The unsettling part of this statistic is that most of these thoughts are nonsense—lamenting over the past, combating guilt, worrying about the future, drifting into fantasy, and playing with fiction. Frequently, these thoughts are negative, wasting valuable neural energy on past and unchangeable events. This leaves just a few thoughts for positive and consequential things. Being mindful of your thoughts is another important step toward raising your emotional intelligence and a key factor in getting the most from your brain’s extraordinary capabilities.

Thinking is essential to your survival and to your success as a leader. Do you ever think about your thinking? Ever wonder how a three-pound mass of tangible flesh can create such phantom things like ideas? Or how electric signals traveling across tiny cells can produce a symphony, design a computer, or create a weapon of mass destruction? From birth (some say, before), the brain collects information about the world and organizes it to form a representation of that world. This mental model describes thinking, the process we use to function in our environment.

 

Chapter Five: Leading by Dissent

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I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.

WOODROW WILSON

IN MARCH 2011, INTELLIGENCE EXPERTS TOLD PRESIDENT OBAMA THAT, after their extensive analysis of evidence collected over an eight-month period, chances were better than fifty-fifty that Osama bin Laden was living in a three-story compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The president’s dilemma: how to capture or kill bin Laden without alerting the occupants of the compound, without the loss of innocent life, and without infuriating the Pakistanis for invading their territory. No small order. Obama asked his advisers to present him with multiple possible courses of action for his consideration as soon as possible. If we are to believe the comments from “unidentified sources” close to the situation, every military and intelligence group wanted to be in on the action. Getting bin Laden had been an unsuccessful ten-year quest, and the military team that actually did the job would be national champions and international heroes.

 

Chapter Six: Moral and Ethical Leadership

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I look for three things in a new hire: energy, creativity, and integrity. But if you don’t get the last thing, the first two will kill you.

WARREN BUFFETT

IN 2001, ENRON EMPLOYED APPROXIMATELY 22,000 PEOPLE AND WAS one of the world’s leading electricity, natural gas, communications, and pulp and paper companies, with reported revenues of nearly $101 billion in 2000. Fortune magazine named Enron “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years, praising its benefits for workers and its effective management style. Kenneth Lay was its CEO and chairman from 1985 until his resignation on January 23, 2002, except for a few months in 2000 when he was chairman and Jeffrey Skilling was CEO. Lay was one of America’s highest-paid CEOs at the time, earning a $42.4 million compensation package in 1999. He was so successful at the helm of Enron and so respected by his colleagues that, in December 2000, Lay was mentioned as a possible candidate for President Bush’s Treasury secretary. Then, something went terribly wrong. In the spring of 2001, word got out that Enron’s impressive assets and extraordinary profits were inflated or fraudulent. Numerous unprofitable entities were located offshore and were completely off the company’s books. Enron’s losses were mounting.

 

Chapter Seven: Taking Care of Your Brain

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You know you’ve got to exercise your brain just like your muscles.

WILL ROGERS

YOUR BRAIN WORKS HARD TO GET YOU THROUGH THE DAY. HAVE YOU ever thought about it? Apart from its obvious and vital role in coordinating your movement and internal body functions, the brain also has to simultaneously process an enormous amount of external data that are bombarding your senses every second you are awake. As the brain does its processing, it continually sends summaries of what is going on to your consciousness. It lets you know that the shower water is too cold, the coffee is ready, the cell phone is ringing, you are out of milk, it is time to walk the dog, you should wear the blue jacket today, the clock reads 8:05 already, you are going to be late for work, and to bring an umbrella because it is raining. Whew! And you have been up barely an hour.

The brain’s phenomenal ability to handle all this information and to make continuous decisions, both consciously and subconsciously, has been the subject of intense scientific interest in recent years. Researchers have poked, probed, and viewed the living brain from all angles, using highly sophisticated imaging techniques. As a result, they have made fascinating discoveries about how the brain works and what keeps it going. Of particular interest to researchers has been how to keep the brain healthy as we grow older and face the challenges of daily life. You read in chapter 2 about one of the most important discoveries: neuroplasticity. The adult human brain is much more malleable than previously thought, so your behavior, environment, and even your patterns of thinking can cause significant rewiring and reorganization of your neural networks. What you eat and do can significantly improve or impair your brain’s efficiency and life span, regardless of your age.

 

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