Think Different

March 12, 2016

X-ray brain pathologyThe human brain is a remarkable organ. It has many fascinating properties that can give us insights on how to live a better and more effective life.

One of these phenomena occurs at the base of the brain: the Reticular Activating System (RAS).

RAS is an incredible filtering system that allows human beings to sort out and pay attention to things that are important to us while disregarding the bombardment of other things that are not critical. It is the mechanism that allows us to focus attention on the vital few and ignore the trivial many.

I will leave how the RAS works to the brain experts, but the impact of it is a wonder to behold. In this article, I want to explore RAS along with some implications it can have in our professional and personal lives. The best way to appreciate the power of RAS is through examples.

Imagine you are in a theater during intermission. The crowded lobby is abuzz with the cacophony of voices, and it is impossible to hear any conversation except the one closest to you. In the crowd, within earshot, someone mentions your name.

All of a sudden you are able to laser focus on that conversation, ignoring all the rest, and actually hear what that person is saying about you. If the person had not uttered your name, there would be no way you would hear what she was saying. That is RAS in action.

Let’s look at another typical example. You just came out of a car dealership after having ordered a red Ford truck. On the way home, you start to notice red Ford trucks everywhere.

Driving to the dealership, you paid no attention and did not notice any trucks at all. Once the RAS is activated, it allows all kinds of miraculous things to happen.

Marcus Buckingham wrote a famous book entitled Now, Discover Your Strengths using data generated by the Gallup Organization. His thesis was that we can make much faster progress at self-improvement if we focus energy on our areas of strength rather than trying to improve our weaknesses.

If you doubt that conclusion, pick up a copy of his book. It gives a mountain of data to support the conclusion. The book also contains a link to an online survey you can take to determine your own strength areas.

After reading the book and doing the assessment, I found two dominant strengths I had that were not evident to me before. I found out that I am a “Maximizer” (one who tries to achieve excellence) and that I am particularly strong in “WOO,” (which stands for Winning Others Over). Being a Maximizer allows me to accomplish more in one day than most other people, and WOO allows me to have significant influence when it is important.

Let’s now explore how this knowledge, coupled with RAS, has made the ideas useful to me.

I am a visual communicator and tend to think in terms of images. I have the image of walking around all day with imaginary “arrows of opportunity” flying in the air, just over my head. The arrows represent a constant stream of opportunities to interface with people or do things that help me be more effective.

I just need to pick the correct arrows and reach up and grab the right ones as they fly by. The difficult part used to be that there were so many arrows, how was I to select the ones that could help me the most? Enter RAS.

Now that I know my two greatest strengths, when I view the arrows in my mind, a few of them are in vibrant color. These are the ones that represent a chance to use my skills at Maximizing and WOO. The rest of the arrows are black.

Using this filtering technique, I am able to “see” the most important opportunities coming at me (even when they are far off) and grab them to flex the strengths within me much more frequently. Voila! My performance improves simply based on the application of my strongest traits.

RAS is a very powerful tool, but we need to be continuously aware of that power if we are to harness it for use in our lives. Try this little exercise. Try to identify 5-10 times in each day where you are applying the understanding of RAS to improve how you manage your life.

For example, you might be sitting in a cafeteria with hundreds of people. In the distance, you spot an old friend you had been thinking about recently and realize you have not spoken to him in over a year. You resolve to call him that afternoon.

Immediately you recognize that RAS helped you find that person and renew the acquaintance. That counts as one of the 10 opportunities to use RAS.

That evening, while scanning a magazine, out of the corner of your eye you catch a glimpse of an ad for a boat and immediately remember that you had intended to buy a new fishing reel this week. The association was made possible by RAS.

That would be number two example. Try to find 5-10 examples a day.
By focusing your energy on understanding how you can use RAS to filter your thinking as opposed to following random thoughts, you will actually be doing a kind of “meta RAS” where the technique is helping you identify opportunities to use its power for you daily. It sounds complex, but it is really pretty basic.

RAS also has a strong connection to trust. Because RAS helps to connect people and topics at just the right time, it enables uncanny possibilities for improving trust between individuals.

It is not the only thing to enable trust, but it really helps, especially in the times where connection and assistance are critical. It is like a little voice telling you to call your sister only to find out that she was seriously depressed at that very moment.

Do not overlook the power of RAS to improve your life. The more you practice identifying the phenomenon within you and use it, the more creative ways you will find of having it guide you to a better life.
Key Points for this article

1. The power of the Reticular Activation System (RAS) is amazing

2. Once you discover something previously hidden to you, it broadens your life experience in remarkable ways.

3. Work to improve your strengths before you spend effort on improving your weaknesses and you will make more progress.

Exercises for this week

1. Really do the activity outlined in this chapter of identifying examples of RAS in your life. Once you start looking, it will reveal a whole new world of awareness for you.

2. Point out the examples of RAS in your daily dealings with people. Life is really not a random walk experience.

3. The next time someone says “nothing ever changes,” make sure you correct that person. Actually, everything always changes.


Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at  585-392-7763. Website   BLOG He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Creative Shinking

January 13, 2013

Brainstorm 2There is no need to clean your glasses; the title is correct. Something magic happens when we lose the bonds of rules and become free to explore beyond our habitual boundaries. Sure, we need some conventions in our world to have order and proper communication, but I shink there should also be a time for play and experimentation where some of the rules are suspended, at least temporarily.

I am sure there are few English teachers reading this (actually I probably stopped most of them with my title – bye bye now!). When we create a twist on convention, we invent uncomfortable mutations that jar our shinking process. We become like amoebas floating in some new concoction somebody spilled into the Petri dish. God knows what will become of us. Ah, but there is the genius!

The creative process is best when we upset the applecart and venture into an unsustainable place to push on the boundaries. The expectation is that we will eventually step back to a world of reality and stop shinking in dimensions that cannot be tolerated in the “real world,” (whatever that is) but, and this is a heavy but, we can bring back with us some new vision of the possible. We may be able to morph some of the limiting boundaries. What we need is the freedom to suspend rules and shink about things from an imaginary, unconventional place.

One technique I find that really helps is called “Morphological Analysis.” The method was invented by Fritz Zwicky in 1967. The idea is to put different concepts on a grid structure with one type of concept on one axis and the other type on the other axis.

The easiest way to explain the method is with a simplified example. I will use a basic three by three format to explain the concept. Typically, you would use at least a four by four grid. On the figure below we have the concept of different materials on the vertical axis (water, wood, and sand). Then, on the horizontal axis, we have a set of actions, (move bricks, compress air, and remove paint).

Creative Shinking illustration

The technique asks us to brainstorm ways we can use water to move bricks, or compress air, or remove paint. Then we do a separate brainstorm of ways to use wood to move bricks or compress air or remove paint, etc. We continue the brainstorm process until we have several ideas in each of the boxes. The shinking process is guided by the intersection of concepts we normally do not combine, and unusual ideas are generated.

Zwicky and others have discovered that the best way to get a good idea is to shink up a multitude of ideas (many stupid ones) and then combine or “morph” the shinking into something that has some practical use.

It is important to not shink about looking stupid in the process. Just go along for the ride and have some fun creating new ideas that have never been shought of before. You will be amazed at how liberating it can be to allow your magic brain to perform at this level. When you finally come back to reality, the world will look a bit different, and perhaps some helpful idea will be the result. If not, at least you had some fun along the way.

For those who say “You cannot allow rules to be broken or you will create chaos,” I agree whole heartedly. The creative process relies on a type of chaos where we are not confined by conventional shinking. We can dwell in La-La Land while we envision the possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be fun to spend a few hours shinking up all the ways we could find to get the US Congress to make decisions? Ouch, that one really does strain the bounds of sanity. Now there is a bunch of world class shinkers!