When your brain is in its peak state, it can process about 6 bits of data at once. To exemplify, let's think about when you are in the middle of a meeting with your boss, your brain could be processing:
1. What took place in your last meeting with her
2. The concerns that she is surfacing
3. Your objectives
4. The upside if this meeting goes well
5. The email that you just saw flash up on the screen
6. The butterflies in your stomach
Your brain can take these six data points and sequence them in almost any way you desire, creating a variety of options to proceed. Technically, your brain has a limit of around 720 ways to approach the situation in front of you. 720 leaves plenty of room for creativity, intelligence, and influence to navigate the situation to the best-possible outcome you can see.
How did the researchers get to 720? They found the math is 6 factorial -- meaning 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x1 = 720.
Rational Brain Interrupted:
But what happens if the emotional center of your brain perceives a threat during the meeting?
For example, your boss begins looking at her watch and seems disinterested in what you have to say. You feel your self-worth threatened, and the emotional center of your brain releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol and other stress hormones have one objective, to remove complexity from the situation to help you fight or flight. These stress chemicals hit their objective by flushing out bits of data that seem unnecessary. The problem, sometimes those bits of data are exactly what you need to get the situation back on track. How do we know this? Because, we have all experienced that thought that comes to us after the stressful event. You know, the one where you go, “Damn, if only I said _______ during that interaction, how did I forget that?!”
And if you think it's no big deal if one bit of data gets flushed out of your rational brain, let's do the math. If we lose one bit, we are left with 5 factorial (5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120). You just lost 600 potential game-changing ideas! But wait, it gets worse. Sometimes when we can feel our self-worth being threatened, and then someone asks you a tough question, that you are unable to answer, causing more stress, or flushing out another bit of data -- you are left with 24 possibilities (4 factorial). Inside of minutes, you have lost 96 percent of your higher-order thinking. In this state of fight or flight. Your creativity and intel evaporate, leaving you with little more than binary thinking: now or never, all or nothing, left or right. In this state, it's nearly impossible to tap into the innovative, socially skillful alpha that we all have lurking inside of us.
Get your 6 back:
In short, it doesn't matter how well you prepare unless you can return to 720. Here are three guiding principles to increase your self-awareness and self-management as we can't rid our lives of stressful situations. I would argue, life would be boring if that was the case. So, in my opinion, quite wasting your time thinking, “oh how nice it would be to have everything done and 0 stress.” We all like to be challenged, we just need to understand how to get our 6 back when the moment seems too be getting to big.
Psychologists say that focusing on something you are truly grateful for can release a cascade of feel-good chemicals to flush out the cortisol, giving you your smarts back.
A gratitude anchor is something that someone can’t take away from you. I was sitting for a financial exam a few years ago, my Series 24, and found myself getting stressed with a string of questions I didn’t recognize, compounded by another test-taker someone banging on the desk attached to mine. I felt 5 and 6 slipping.
I decided to stop testing, and write down the first thing that came to mind that I was grateful for. I grabbed the provided scratch piece of paper and started writing something that went like this:
I am grateful for my mother's love. I am the man I am because of the unconditional love I received from my mother. How lucky I am to be born into this world, having to do nothing and receive love, care, and affection from my entire family, but specifically, from Mom. I am grateful for the time when she came into my bedroom on a balmy Syracuse morning at just five years old. I remember her tucking me back into bed, and flipping on the TV to an episode of my favorite show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I am grateful for when she was hugging me at 13, I was sitting on top of our kitchen counter in my SU basketball shorts, somewhat hysterically crying out “Dad doesn’t love me.” Lol, my Dad does love me, I was just upset at him for punishing me for something I probably deserved lol, oh the joys of adolescence.
I am grateful for understanding the importance and meaning of family, and being present as my mom was and still is the cornerstone that keeps us all together.
As soon as I finished writing, I noticed how calm I was. The dopamine was flooding my brain and I was able to respond intelligently to the test questions and pass the Series 24 -- which had the highest fail rate in the nation among financial licenses at the time.
2.Pluck the weed
In Your Brain at Work, David Rock cites that when you are experiencing significant internal tension or anxiety, you can reduce up to 50% of your stress by naming the emotional state you are in. My brother-in-law said it best, pluck the weed before it grows too big and overshadows all the other parts of your rational brain.
When the stress hormones are triggered your breathing shallows and becomes faster. Conversely, when you slow the tempo of your breathing, you signal the emotional center of your brain (limbic system) and state that you are no longer under stress which allows your higher-order thinking to return.
Cognition is defined as how we think. We explained how we think above with the factorial formula. Metacognition is what excites us, because, metacognition is how we think about how we think. With metacognition, we can become more self-aware and manage our intelligence and creativity on demand. Remember to leverage these three best-practices to navigate your stressful corporate encounters and keep your 6:
2.Pluck the weed