A distinctive, learning-filled life results from a succession of small, specific choices made each day. There's a world of difference between imagining such a fulfilling life and actually living it. It is through taking new actions that we learn to awaken and apply our hidden capacity. If you know by doing, there is no gap between what you know and what you do.
There's something in the way, however. A powerful part of the brain, the amygdala, wants the world to run on routine, not change. Located within the limbic system, an ancient area of the mind that deals with the way you perceive and respond to the world, the amygdala relentlessly urges us to favor the familiar and routine. It craves control and safety, which at times can be vital. Yet the amygdala's instincts, which have evolved over thousands of years, tend to spill over into every aspect of life and promote a perpetual reluctance to embrace anything that involves risk, change, or growth. Your amygdala wants you to be what you have been and stay just the way you are.
Overriding Tendency to Repeat the Past
Unless you choose to consciously override this brain tendency, you're consigned to repeating the past. One of the most effective ways to get past this limitation is to devise simple mechanisms that help you stand apart from the crowd and reach for what you can yet become.
A plan is a fine intention or faraway vision. It may be inspiring, but by itself it usually doesn't amount to much. But once you have a clear sense of what you want, a mechanism actually brings it to fruition.
For example, there's a simple mechanism that overcomes our natural resistance to growth or change and helps us be our best. All that is required is to regularly ask these two questions:
1. What's the most exceptional thing you've done this week?
2. What's the most exceptional thing you will do next week?
Coming Face to Face with Yourself
You can ask each member of a group to answer these questions or you can do it alone -- you can schedule a weekly meeting with yourself (every Friday morning in front of the bathroom mirror, for example).
The word "exceptional" is defined however you want. It simply means, "What stood out for you?" or "How did you go against the crowd?" or "What real difference did you make to the people around you or the world at large?" Perhaps this week it was something big. Or maybe it was a kind word or an unnoticed task at home or at work that made you proud. It is the intensity that counts.
Take a moment to reflect on your answer: Was this the best you could give? Is there any way you could have given something more?
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What Made You Proud This Week?
I learned the essence of this mechanism from my grandfather Cooper. On Saturday mornings, when I was visiting or working at odd jobs around his house, he would ask, "What did you do this week that made you the proudest?" He would listen to my answer and we would talk about it. From time to time, he would also tell me about answers he got from asking the same question of recently arrived immigrants that he hired. What I heard was both humbling and inspiring.
"I saved a dollar this week for my little girl's first dress," one said. "My brother has polio and can't walk," said another. "The other night I carried him up to the top of the hill at the end of our street and we watched the stars come out." One man said, "My wife and I skipped a meal and brought it to our parents who have little. When they asked if we had eaten, we said, 'Yes, of course, we have had more than enough to eat.' "
Noticing & Valuing the Efforts of Others
That's the other thing this simple mechanism does: It provides a direct and unexpected way to notice and value the unseen but important efforts of others. Most of us never realize the number of times people lend a helping hand, go the extra mile, or perform some other act of kindness or initiative in the course of a busy week.
Day after day, every one of us is capable of small yet exceptional acts of initiative and caring. When we live our lives in original ways such as these, we also come to realize that positive behaviors are a primary driver of positive attitudes, not the other way around.
At the end of our weekly conversation, my grandfather would say, "Next week, Robert, what can you do that no one else will expect from you?" He taught me what had taken him a lifetime to learn: Although we may dream about our future in splendid images, we must live our lives in practical everyday actions, one after another.
Shifting the Way We Look at Ourselves
In all the times I have used this mechanism, I have never once encountered anyone who answered the two questions by saying that he or she had done nothing exceptional this week and would do nothing exceptional next week. Of course, no one wants to look stuck or unimaginative, but it's more than that. This mechanism stimulates a simple yet significant shift in the way we look at ourselves. It gets past good intentions and proclamations. It prompts a deeper way of recognizing the times you could reach for the exceptional.
If you ask yourself right now what you did last week that was exceptional, you'll probably have to think a while. When you establish the asking of the two questions -- what did you do last week and what will you do next week -- as an integral part of your life, it can change your approach to everything you do. It steadily raises your sights about what you are capable of.
Actively Seeking Ways to Give the World Your Best
On Tuesday, you may be thinking, "But I haven't done anything really exceptional yet this week." This may prompt an inner response, such as, "Then I'd better think of something exceptional to do!" This heightens curiosity about the possibilities for taking new actions. You'll be more likely to find yourself actively seeking ways to give the world more of your best, instead of just hoping for them.
Although studies indicate that people who regularly think ahead tend to experience more frequent leadership opportunities and career advancement, this mechanism is about something deeper than the external trappings of success. It keeps overriding the don't-grow-or-change instincts of the amygdala and clarifies what makes you original and sets you apart from the crowd. It serves as a reminder that it is up to each of us to keep finding practical and visible ways to leave a meaningful imprint on the world around us and on the lives of the people we care most about.
Excerpted by permission of Crown Business,
a division of Random House, Inc.
Copyright 2001, 2002. All rights reserved.
The Other 90%: How to Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential for Leadership and Life
by Robert K. Cooper.
Dr. Robert Cooper, a neuroscience pioneer and leadership advisor, urges us to take a radically different view of human capacity. We are mostly unused potential, he says, employing less than 10 percent of our brilliance or hidden talents. The Other 90% is your guide to new territory and new challenges. In easy-to-follow steps, he explains how to develop and apply the art and science of your hidden capacity.
Click here for more info and/or to order book.
Watch a video: Overview of "The Other 90%" (book by Robert K. Cooper)
About The Author
Robert K. Cooper, Ph.D., is a faculty member of the "Lessons in Leadership Distinguished Speaker Series." Called a "national treasure" by Professor Michael Ray of the Stanford Business School, Dr. Cooper is recognized for his pioneering work on excelling under pressure and the neuroscience of trust, initiative, and commitment. He has designed and presented leadership development programs for many organizations, including Arthur Andersen, 3M, Ford, Sun Microsystems, Novartis, and Allstate.