Optimism Skill: Do Your Homework

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Brian introduced me to the work of Dr. Michael Gervais a couple of years ago. I was intrigued by the work and mindset of Dr. Gervais, so I took his online Compete to Create High Performance Mindset Training class. It was worthwhile to decompose and study many of the high performing mindset skills covered in this class. Optimism was only one of the skills discussed; however, I have realized that even a multi-week, in depth class had just scratched the surface of my awareness. This year, 2021 is time for me to do my homework on optimism. As a reminder, our definition of optimism comes from Dr. Gervais.

“Optimism is a trainable skill and it’s the fundamental belief that it’s going to work out.”

Dr. Michael Gervais, Co-Creator of Compete to Create

Learning a new skill is hard. Whether it is mountain biking, rock climbing, yoga, a new language (computer language or spoken), there will be homework. Homework is practice and repetition. Homework is scribbled in pencil so that mistakes can be erased. In a physical sport like rock climbing or yoga, homework is repeatedly doing easier things so that you can do the more difficult moves later. When I was climbing more, my climbing partners and I would climb to the level of muscle exhaustion – until we fell off the wall because our legs were shaking or we had zero finger strength left. I still remember falling of the ceiling at a climbing gym. I was upside down on an arch climb and my fingers and forearms were spent. I thought I could make it a few more moves. I went to grab the next hold and my hand just stopped working. Luckily, I was used to climbing to exhaustion, my belay was prepared and the fall was only about 15 feet, not too far. The next time I climbed the route, I got even further. Homework and intentional practice allows us to learn and adjust.

Agile Best Self Principle #12: At regular intervals, reflect on how to become your best self, then tune and adjust.

There is a great 11 minute TED talk about learning zones versus being in performing zones called How to Get Better At the Things You Care About. I keep going back to the concepts shared in this talk. Odd as it may sound, I fell off the ceiling of a climbing gym in a safe learning zone. It may sound like I was doing something dangerous or scary, but I wasn’t.

Another great takeaway from the TED talk is to determine which learning zone skills I need to build. Meditation is not enough to rewire the brain to be optimistic. Sometimes thoughts happen faster than the prefrontal cortex can register. The prefrontal cortex has been implicated in strategic thought and complex decision making-like choosing to be optimistic.

So what is the problem? Just meditate and work on developing optimism in my prefrontal cortex, right? Not quite. Remember, the Inner Critic’s job is to keep its host alive. As a human, my biology is working against me in regards to optimism. My brain is wired to bypass the prefrontal cortex and go directly to the part of the brain that kicks off the fight, flight or freeze response if I’m in danger or more importantly, if I’m in any kind of perceived danger. Any situation that sounds slightly threatening and the brain routes directly to the amygdala, bypassing the prefrontal cortex. In truly threatening situations, microseconds can mean the difference between slamming on the breaks or getting out of a dangerous situation. Speed is critical. As Dr. Robert Sapolsky says in chapter 2 of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, “increased speed leads to decreased accuracy”. Tragically, the example he gives of this type of bypass is when a police officer mistakes a cell phone for a gun.

In my search for optimism, I’ve come across some pretty unoptimistic facts about how the human brain works. But wait, there is still hope…I have also found this podcast by Dr. Gervais, which helps mitigate some of the biological constraints and dependencies all humans have.

For those interested in doing some homework of their own, here is a link to the How To Train Optimism from Dr. Gervais.

Copyright © 2018 – 2023 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson

Published by MichaeleBestSelf

Connector, Catalyst.

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