The Bumpy Elevator Ride to the Top

Allegedly, this year Noah has knocked out Michael as the most popular baby boy name in the US. Perhaps among the names least likely to make a comeback any day soon is Otis. And yet we owe some debt of gratitude to at least one Otis.

Although he didn’t invent the elevator, in 1853 Elisha Graves Otis hit upon an equally key innovation: the elevator brake. The technology to make an elevator—a box on a rope on a pulley—had existed for centuries. The technology to make an elevator that didn’t carry with it the distinct risk of sending innocent people careening towards their deaths, however—this was an exciting new development made possible by the ability to stop quickly and gently.

This in turn made early skyscrapers more feasible, and less deadly. Otis’s rather unglamorous creation literally shaped the American skyline. It also shaped this article; the popularization of elevators also led to the popularization of elevator-based metaphors.

Let’s look at skill acquisition. Canadian writer Scott H. Young suggests that growth in learning generally follows two patterns, in an article entitled, logically enough, “Two Types of Growth.”

To visualize the first pattern, fast or logarithmic growth, imagine boarding an elevator at ground level in a 30-story building. You effortlessly shoot up the first 15 floors. Then the elevator begins to slow, until finally around the 20th floor, you’ve ceased to move altogether. Now to continue the climb, you’ve got to tackle the last 10 flights stairs by foot. And much to your chagrin, with each successive floor, the stairs themselves begin to get wider and taller. Making it all the way to the top requires an enormous amount of effort, much more than anticipated.

Sound familiar? Young would suggest maybe you’re dealing with one of the following:

  • Athletic performance
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Learning a new language
  • Productivity
  • Mastery of a complex skill

The second pattern, slow or exponential growth, is the reverse. Instead of encountering the elevator at ground level, you start out on a series of steps of varied depth and height. It’s only after an exhausting climb that, huffing and puffing, you eventually reach the 20th floor. There, you find a shiny new elevator waiting to take you the rest of the way. And as the elevator climbs towards the top, it gets faster and faster.

Young includes the following domains in this pattern:

  • Technological improvement (e.g. Moore’s Law)
  • Business growth
  • Wealth
  • Rewards to talent or career

When we take on a goal, many of us mistakenly believe growth will follow a steady, predictable rise. This is especially true in business forecasting. Our brains tilt towards this belief so often it’s been given a name: optimism bias, or planning fallacy. An often-cited case is the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. The planners predicted it would be completed in 1963, at a cost of $7 million. In fact, it was finished a decade late—at a cost of $102 million. This constitutes a 1400% cost overrun.

Misidentifying the rate of growth in a given project can be hugely problematic. Perhaps it won’t be as disastrous as the Sydney Opera House, but when you encounter that logarithmic climb, you might chose to give up before you even begin. Conversely, an exponential pattern can give you the illusion of an easy elevator ride straight to the top—until you discover there’s a bunch of grueling steps still left ahead of you. It’s at this point you take that elevator back down to the lobby and get out.

When it comes to the learning curve, try to understand ahead of time if you’re facing a logarithmic or exponential growth pattern. If you’re prepared for the journey ahead, you can dramatically increase your chance of success.

Otis gave us the elevator brake, which makes it safe to zip up to the tippity top of tall buildings that scrape the sky. Interestingly, for many of us, it’s a misread on our own learning curve that causes us to slam the brakes, leaving us stuck at ground level—or worse, dangling somewhere between floors.

The Weed in Your Brain

Taraxacum is not some newly found dinosaur. It is the scientific name for the pesky weed commonly called the dandelion. The dandelion industry is a billion dollar business—not growing them, eradicating them. This despite the fact that they are rich in vitamins, A, B, C, D and important minerals like zinc, potassium and iron. If that weren’t enough, a dandelion plant yields a beautiful bright yellow flower.

Despite the battle waged by the chemical conglomerates, each spring the dandelion sprouts up defiantly, sunny little weedy disposition intact, as if to say, “I’m still here!”

Which, of course, brings us to the weed in your brain commonly called procrastination. We all grow it. It’s estimated that 20% of us are habitual hardcore procrastinators. Procrastination can be broadly defined as putting off until tomorrow what you know you should be doing today. Countless books on time management give you instructions that usually include the following:

  1. Make a difficult task A1 on your priority list.
  2. Tackle a tough task first thing in the morning when your will power is at its strongest.
  3. Break the task into smaller pieces so it won’t seem so daunting.
  4. Analyze the root cause of why you aren’t completing the task and recognize the true cost of delay (businesspeople like this one because it sounds financial, ergo important).

And at the end of the day, despite the best eradication and removal efforts, the task still isn’t done. We tend to procrastinate on stuff that we find mentally or physically painful. Hardcore procrastinators put off everything they can, even run-of-the-mill tasks that are in no way taxing.

So why do we procrastinate?

Because it works.

Our brains have an amazing adaptation: the ability to project into the future. This allows us to save mental and physical resources by simulating ideas in the basal ganglia, so we don’t have to actually try everything out in real time. But there’s a downside of this machinery: it also lets us project out and imagine ourselves doing a given task at some later point.

Why do something now if you can save it for your future self? Especially when you can dream up a future self much better equipped for the job—well-rested, more engaged, and ready to take on the world. The future self is your mental super hero, undaunted by piles of work, doctor’s needles, or unwritten thank you cards. By offloading a task to the person you might be later, not only can you skip a task right now, but you can fill that time with something you find much more enjoyable. Everybody wins—until you discover in the twelfth hour that your future self has moved on (presumably into the future), and you’re left holding the bag.

Now you push the panic button and your amygdala delivers a load of the stress hormone cortisol into your blood supply. This jolt drives a load of glucose to your brain, which causes you to bypass parts of your prefrontal cortex to focus your emotional attention. You bear down on your task with a vengeance. You’re geared up, ready for the fight of your life; nothing can get in your way now. Your entire system is on red alert: “It’s go time, baby!”

Procrastination leans hard on the crudest aspects of your reptilian brain. There is no time for reflection, tweaking or fine-tuning. It’s not pretty, but eventually you’ll find a way to grind out that task—beginning in panic, middling in tears, and ending in exhaustion. And, of course, a heartfelt promise made to your present self: “I’ve learned my lesson; there’s no way I’m letting this happen again.”

And all the while, Future Self smiles back at you, taunting you for the next go-round—not unlike the pesky dandelion.

Sing a Song of Willpower

“Oh, the thigh bone’s connected to the leg bone and the leg bone’s connected to the…” You probably learned some version of this  classic spiritual “Dry Bones” in grade school. It’s a clever way to teach basic skeletal anatomy.

Author and songwriter James Weldon Johnson was actually referring to the prophesy in Ezekiel 37:1-14, but for our secular purposes, the point is that all of your bones connect to create a structure that serves as the functional foundation for everything you do. Chiropractors build their entire livelihood on this vary concept.

You throw your back out of joint and it effects your lifting power in a dramatic way. It’s amazing how the simple act of reaching for a bag of groceries in your trunk can compromise your skeletal system and jeopardize your ability to live a normal life for weeks afterwards.

Like the skeletal system, we tend to think about diet, exercise and sleep as three separate systems, each vital to the success of the body.

But there is another way to think about this triumvirate.

We can conceptualize sleep, diet and exercise, not as three separate loops, but as one system supporting what the neuroscientists call the queen of all virtues: willpower.

Willpower is the essential ingredient for virtually everything you do in life. Statistically, it’s the most accurate predictor of wealth, well-being, and happiness. Without willpower, literally and figuratively nothing gets done.

Your willpower is predicated on your ability to generate adequate glucose, the body’s fuel. Glucose works optimally on a diet rich in greens, grains, lean protein and a low intake of sugar. This provides the fuel for exercise, which creates additional glucose storage in the cell walls of the brain, improving your decision quality, stamina and blood flow.

Improved blood flow enhances the sleep cycle, during which, it’s hypothesized, the brain executes a cleansing cycle that rinses away beta amyloids, the so-called “brain plaque” associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Enhanced sleep cycles also contribute to a balanced immune system, essential for maintaining general health.

Proper sleep in turn boosts your brain’s tenacity and focus: key elements in…willpower.

So in short, “Your diet’s connected to your exercise, your exercise is connected to your sleep cycle and your sleep cycle’s connected to your willpower, and your willpower’s connected to it all…”

Maybe not as catchy as “Dry Bones”, but every bit as important.

What’s in Your Brain Attic?

Hoarders are an interesting lot.  Some contend that it’s a form of mental illness: the compulsive need to hold onto a wide variety of items—or occasionally, animals— far exceeding their possible utility.

There are the classic cases, the houses reduced to a series of claustrophobic tunnels through floor-to-ceiling piles of magazines, broken televisions, commemorative lunch-boxes, and so on. And once those pathways close up with the overflow, the logical move? Rent a storage unit.

The explosion of storage units across the county seems to only be rivaled by new nail salons and Starbucks. I’m not suggesting that storage units are only frequented by hoarders, but undoubtedly it does allow a hoarder a kind of unlimited opportunity to continue their calling.

To the non-hoarder, this behavior seems unfathomable. Why would anyone collect so much stuff that they’re clearly never going use?

I don’t pretend to answer that question. But what if the hoarders among us aren’t really outliers?

As someone who spends a great deal time of my time traveling the country talking about sales and marketing techniques built on the latest findings in neuroscience, I can’t help but notice a correlation between some seminar attendees and hoarders.

I would love to believe that everyone walks away with life-changing insights. But although the feedback we get is amazingly positive and specific, I suspect there are people who attend my seminars and other seminars, who accumulate a fair amount of information that they never actually put into use.

That idea is well understood. The brain has a propensity to bias towards preexisting habits.  Habituation saves time and conserves energy. We tend to want to stay with the same old processes and programs even after they’ve been proven to be outdated and inefficient. The comfort of staying to a well-worn path can be the ultimate trump card, stopping change dead in its tracks.

And it’s not just seminar goers. How many of us have accumulated far more information about any would-be hobby or interest that, in truth, we will never get around to implementing?

There are the clothes in our closets that we don’t wear, and the tools in our garages that we don’t actually use, and the kitchen cabinets bulging with appliances long relegated to the shadows.  And what about our basements and our attics filled with boxes of who-knows-what?

The truth is that there is a little hoarder in all of us.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would agree.

In “A Study in Scarlet”, he implies that part of Sherlock Holmes’s genius lies in his almost gleeful refusal to internalize anything he doesn’t plan on using. Including, for example, the knowledge that the earth goes around the sun:

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent…”

Our houses might not be a maze of yellowing newspapers, but our brain attics are chock full of useless stuff, a dumping ground of obscure trivia, half-remembered factoids, and childhood remnants.  We might not be hoarders in the technical sense, but in so many other ways, we are masters in the art of accumulation.