This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Imagine. It's from a chapter focused on the Power of Resilience
What has life thrown your way? Are there challenges and moments of crisis that have tested you? What if you could just be 10% more resilient? What would that look like? How might you handle things differently?
Resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or stress.” [i] It’s about bouncing back after you face defeat or discouragement. The Power of Resilience is not easy to attain. It takes some work, but it’s possible.
Imagine if you lost sight in one eye, or you received the news you never want to hear. How would you respond?
I want to explore with you how you can develop a resilient mindset. A mindset where, not matter what life throws your way, you instinctively know how to bounce back. I call this leading bulletproof.
Leading bulletproof is a choice centered on a need to pursue life with clarity of hope, conviction of truth, and connection with others. Getting bulletproof is about “finding the strength to bear the unbearable.”[i] Leading bulletproof is about being resilient and facing the bullets that inevitably will come.
This Power of Resilience not only offers you the ability to bounce back, but it can also influence and calm those around you, and result in “profound personal growth.”
As powers go this is a Power you want to have. Like the American Express Commercial from years ago, don’t leave home without it.
Nurturing the Power of Resilience comes back down to patterns of living and building healthy habits. The two are really the same, and hope is once again a key factor.
A habit is a routine – called a pattern, which is repeated regularly. These patterns eventually become part of your subconscious behavior. It becomes part of your conditioned response to adversity. Habits either serve to help you or they hinder you, and there’s only one person who ultimately shapes those habits – you!
B. J. Fogg, an expert on habits offers a simple formula to understand all of human behavior.
Behavior = Prompt x Motivation x Ability
The x factor for this equation I believe is hope. Hope is what gives you direction, and it starts with the first phase of behavior, the prompt.
Think about how the prompt is meaningless without hope. It's what creates awareness. The prompt you receive is either going to be aligned with a hope, or in clear opposition of a hope. In either case, the prompt triggers a response that will move you to the next phase of behavior, your motivation.
Motivation is fueled by desire, and that desire maps always to a hope. Now the hope that is drawn of out us might be different than what was originally aligned with the prompt. In other words, the prompt, whether good or bad, triggers for us something we want to do in reaction or response. This is when our reptilian brain wants to kick into gear. It's often an emotive urge towards doing something that we feel will bring us a satisfying reward or conclusion. This is where we need to be careful. Our motivation, especially an emotive one, might lead us to doing something regrettable later. That remarkable or regrettable action is dependent upon the third phase - our ability.
Once our motivation is clear, then our brain's quickly access our ability to fulfill that motivation in this third phase. Once again, hope is at play. Without hope you have no awareness of your ability. The problem is that the hope, at this point, might be a selfish motive resulting in a destructive decision. This is where we need to be careful.
Sadly, even for a bad behavior, hope is a contributing multiplier. Therefore, not all hope is beneficial.
Let’s say you receive a bit of bad news near the end of a long day. Maybe it’s getting a rejection notice for a proposal that you were counting on. The bad news is this example serves as the “prompt”, spiraling you to react in a way that may be less than healthy. Consider that you are frustrated, angry, and discouraged. Nevertheless, you decide to let calm be your default, so when you get home, you just throw yourself down on the couch, grab the remote, and consume a half-gallon of ice cream. In this example, your ”motivation” is to deflect the pain by binging. The hope in this example is for comfort and escapism, which is a motivating reward. Clearly, you have the “ability” to eat, that, coupled with the undesired “prompt” – the bad news -- triggered the want for something motivating and satisfying.
The resulting behavior, which you might regret later, might become a pattern. Repeated patterns become habits. Habits either make you more resilient or less resilient. In this example, the behavior of bingeing on ice cream, or some other food item when undesired or uncomfortable news comes your way is a potential habit that will makes you less resilient. But what if you could change the pattern and formulate a habit that makes you more resilient? What would that look like?
Let's look back at the equation.
Behavior = Prompt x Motivation x Ability
Remember X is hope. Hope gives us direction. If we can ask ourselves, “what do I hope to learn from the situation I’m in?” or "What value do I hope to add to others through this experience? -- even when the news is bad, then we might be able to initiate a different pattern -- a lead bulletproof pattern.
For example, what if the same bad news comes in as a prompt, but your motivation was different. What if instead of escapism and binge eating ice cream, you choose either (a) exercise or engagement in another task, or (b) evaluation to learn how to improve.
In these cases, because the motivation changes, so does the hope. The hope changes from seeking comfort, to either (a) seeking a reset by exercising or engaging on another task, or (b) seeking evaluation to learn and understand. The change in motivation creates a better awareness of your ability. This results in better behavior.
The question we must ask our selves when a prompt might lead us to a negative behavior, is to first ask, what are the healthy options that I should do. Should I ride a bike or walk (aka exercise), should I just move to another task (aka new engagement), or should I evaluate the experience to grow and make this better?
Patterns form first in our conscious mind, but eventually take the form of habits in our subconscious mind. Both patterns and habits are executed in our imagination. For instance, when a prompt comes in, let’s say it’s a temptation of some type like taking in the smell of popcorn after walking into a movie theater. In that moment, the imagination loads with a representation of the potential satisfying reward of consuming a fresh buttery batch of popcorn. In this instance, your Imagination preloads a virtual representation of the reward not the real one, and yet part of the mind doesn’t know the difference. This creates a craving, which is based on the prompt and fueled by what you imagine. The action that follows is your brain’s intent to satisfy the potential reward served up by the imagination. It can be scary.
Hope is the spark for our imagination, but it can be either a good hope or a bad hope. What we want and need are healthy habits stowed in our subconscious that are fueled by good hope. Good hope is the kindling we need to keep our fire lit, and that fuel for the fire is something in our brain called dopamine. Dopamine can work for us, or against us.
Dopamine is referred to as the “motivation molecule.” Its job is to provide the information and clarity you need to be focused and to stay productive. It’s the hormone that is associated with happiness.
Inside your brain there are over 100 types of neurotransmitters itching to arc from one nerve cell to another. While they all have different roles, their job is to keep you fired up and brain properly functioning. We’ve already talked about Oxytocin, but another one of those powerful neurotransmitters is something called dopamine.
We need dopamine at the right levels and in right doses. Some of the responsibilities of dopamine include supporting executive thinking and cognition, triggering feelings of reward and pleasure, and managing our voluntary motor movements. These are all super important.
But dopamine has its bad side too. It can trip us up.
As leaders we need to look for ways to keep our dopamine tank filled at the right rate and with the right fuel. This will allow us to run at our optimal best. It will prolong our health both physically, mentally, and even spiritually. It can also help restore us back to a better state of health, if we have fallen.
For us to better lead others, we should understand how dopamine triggers and travels in our brain. Why? Because the leader who can influence another person’s dopamine, can better guide them through any struggle, challenge or pursuit.
What that nurse did for me, sharing the story of the two runners with MS, affected my dopamine more than the IV of steroids she was dripping in my blood. and what John Maxwell did for me grabbing me in the hall of the hotel, and praying for me, did more for my dopamine than any pill I could take. Why? Because it fueled my imagination. Hope is the most powerful dopamine booster than any drug I know. and like a doctor that dispenses medication, a leader should be about dispensing healthy doses of hope to those around them. It’s a game changer.
There are four major pathways in the brain for dopamine to travel. They are like information superhighways.
The first highway is called the Meso Limbic Dopamine Pathway. For the sake of simplicity let’s call it “The ML”. The ML highway is for transporting pleasure and reward. Whenever you experience something pleasing and satisfying on the ML, this is where your brain releases dopamine to other parts of your brain. What this does for you is that it creates positive feelings that reinforce the behavior. But for this highway, like any other highway, we need to regulate the traffic on it. Too much over stimulation can lead down a dangerous path of addiction. Whereas not enough traffic can lead down a path of depression. We need just the right amount.
The second highway is called the Meso Cortical Dopamine Pathway. Let’s call this one “The MC”. The MC highway is for transporting thoughts that turn to reasoning in our prefrontal cortex. We need the MC working and flowing without obstacles and traffic during the day-time hours. This is where our working memory, cognition and decision making happen. We want this super sharp. Dopamine is critical. But the wrong elixirs can throw this one off. We need to be careful again of the sources of dopamine we seek, as that might cause addiction. The cool thing with MC is that the right people in our lives can help us better regulate it.
The third highway is called the Nigro Striatal Dopamine Pathway. Let’s call this one the NS. The NS is the motor highway that carries the bulk of our dopamine to spur our motor control. Struggles on this highway are often manifested in things like spasms, contractions, tremors, motor restlessness and more. You and I need this pathway working as smooth as possible, but it doesn’t always work so smooth. For instance, a person with MS, or Parkinson’s may often have some challenges on this highway. The right amount of dopamine can help regulate this.
Incidentally some studies suggest that an improperly managed NS Highway is what can lead to non-genetic autoimmune disorders like MS and Parkinson’s. For me, I can look back and see my habits and health choices, specifically, how what I ate, how I worked, how I slept, and my almost overnight addiction to caffeinated coffee lead me down the road to MS. I can’t help but think that if I was more proactive in managing my dopamine early on – changing my habits -- perhaps I could have avoided it all together.
Finally, the fourth highway is called the Tuberoinfundibular Dopamine Pathway, or “The T.” The T is the highway that affects our libido. It also regulates things a bit with a few speed traps. For example, dopamine that releases through this path is what inhibits the secretion of something called prolactin. Prolactin is a protein hormone that plays a key role in your metabolism, regulating our immune system. It is best known for its role in supporting milk production for nursing mom’s. Elevated levels of prolactin decrease the levels of sex hormones—namely estrogen in women and testosterone in men. Studies show that increased dopamine levels that ride the T highway correlate to an increased libido. The key is to not artificially increase it unless it is medically necessary.
There seems to be no shortage of medication that promises to manage or increase the brain’s dopamine for any of our four highways. But, before we pop the pill or down the shot, we need to ask, are they as effective as some of the other less costly approaches?
The answer is that there are better alternatives.
The best way to manage dopamine is with drips not hits. For example, a shot of 5 Hour Energy, while it may give you a jolt of alertness, affects another neurotransmitter called Cortisol. This isn’t the long-term solution to regulate the MC or any of other dopamine highways that you are looking for. A better way is to start with changing your thinking – your mindset. By challenging your mindset, and reprioritizing health choices, and you ultimately change your behavior. Better habits lead to better living.
Looking back, I can’t help but think I could have averted the MS diagnosis, and the hypothyroidism diagnosis I was given 5 years earlier, which was an early signpost. Both could have been averted. How? Simply by better maintaining my choices, and my habits.
The good news is that there’s still a highway in front of us to navigate. For me personally, while I can’t change the past and go back and re-earn all the sleep I was missing, I do have choices on my future. The same is true for you too. If we change how we see the world – if we choose to see the hope – then we can shape our future.
Going back to what that the nurse shared with me as I was trying get my eyesight back, there were two choices: I can either give up on hope, or I can seize it. The question comes down to what future do I want to imagine. The one I imagine is going to be the one I pursue. John Maxwell, in his prayer for me, was all about breathing life into something I already imagined.
The good news is there are alternative solutions and approaches to better manage dopamine that we should all consider. The most proactive way to manage or alter behavior is by changing beliefs. After all, belief drives behavior. Some other suggestions are to be aware of what you consume, find ways to get better sleep, do things that increase your blood flow and more.
When it comes to changing beliefs, my recommendation is simple -- be growth minded, and be relationship focused. Keep learning and keep connecting so that you can live your best life. and most importantly, learn to become an advocate for the future. Just imagine.
[i] American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
[i] Poumpouras, Evy. Becoming Bulletproof: Protect Yourself, Read People, Influence Situations, and Live Fearlessly (p. 297). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.
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