Honoring Brilliance, Respecting Wisdom

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw some heartfelt thoughts from a friend on her sadness at the division between Millennials and Boomers, and it made me think (as many things do) of the power and magic of integration — this time between the generations.

Honoring Brilliance

Allow me, for a minute, to go to the brain. Our wonderful Prefrontal Cortices, which give us access to empathy, long-term planning and direction, abstract thinking, delaying gratification, and so on, are still developing well into our twenties. (When exactly canteenagers1 vary from person to person, with men maturing more slowly on average. Some say 25 is a safe bet, but it can be anywhere from 21 to 30.) The connections between the emotional centers (the amygdala and limbic system) are gaining in stability, and we have a far greater ability to manage our emotional responses as we enter our mid- to late twenties. Decision-making becomes more rational, empathic, and thoughtful.

But here’s the kicker–this time of development is also one of our most brilliant. The ability to make astonishing connections, come up with new ideas, innovate, and think creatively is high. This is likely because the brain’s grey matter increases during childhood and peaks in early adolescence. Part of what we know as prefrontal cortex development is actually a function of this decrease through a process known as synaptic pruning, where the brain literally gets rid of connections that aren’t used, as well as the laying down of the myelin sheath, which strengthens neural connections so they are stronger and more reliable. In other words, young people’s brains have a ton of potential in terms of ways of thinking, while the more mature adult brain has done its pruning and a great deal of myelination, and has its patterns of thought reinforced over years of use. (See neuroplasticity for more on this subject.)

I’ve seen this in action directly with my own millennial, currently a senior in college and a Philosophy major, like his mom. As we talk about what he is reading and pursuing, I find myself struggling to keep up, and not just because I don’t remember what I read 30 years ago. Even when he explains what he is thinking completely and carefully, there is a quickness of connection lacking in me, one that I know I had at his age. I remember being able to dance at the top of those tall trees, making subtle and astonishing arguments and parsing through a dense paper seeking truth.

Respecting Wisdom 

My brain honestly works differently now. That quick lightness of thought and connection has been replaced with–I think the best word for it is–wisdom. Part of this wisdom is an older woman thinkingincreased aspect of intuition (which we believe is a system of interrelated factors that give us below-conscious-processing insight and knowledge), arising from what we have experienced. At this age, my brain can find patterns between the experiences of 54 years, quickly having a sense of what may be going on. Researchers call this “contextual intuition.” I think of it as a storehouse of micro-memories that the brain accesses below conscious awareness to help us recognize patterns. This aspect of intuition explains why a doctor who has spent 20 years treating tropical diseases may see a new patient and immediately “know” what is ailing them, while a new intern needs to look up all the symptoms.

My brain is also more patient at this age. I find myself willing to wait to see how things play out, to trust that I don’t have to know everything right now, and even that there are many things I will never know. The adolescent brain is on a track to make sense of everything–this is its job, after all. But not all is readily apparent, and wisdom shows us that sometimes patience is the best strategy, knowing what needs to unfold will unfold with time.

Wisdom also has given me a better sense of when I am operating from my emotional center and when I am thinking things through, while the adolescent and young adult brain can be carried away emotionally without realizing it. And I should add that learning NOT to say or write things when I my amygdala has been triggered unfortunately did not happen when I magically turned 25. I am still learning this, but it’s easier and I have more awareness of what is happening than when I was in my teens and early 20s.

Lastly, my brain is more integrated. This is strictly a hypothesis, but from observing my own son, his friends, and others’ children, it seems to me that the prefrontal cortex develops somewhat asymmetrically. In the right hemisphere, we have empathy and human relationship skills, while in the left we have more of the planning and sequencing aspects. My own left hemisphere was on a bit of delay–I didn’t get focus and direction until about age 27, while I had empathy and concern for others from a much younger age. My son was the opposite–he was able to plan and execute from early adolescence, but understanding others begin to develop a bit later. Wisdom–and great leadership–comes with the ability to do both.

Integration

And so, once again, as I said above, I find myself thinking about integration. I am astonished and want to nurture all the brilliance of our world’s young people. After all, these are the brains figuring out how to make biodegradable plastic out of banana peels and clean up the oceans with a giant vacuum cleaner. They deserve our respect. Yay young brains!

AND, I want to give due respect to the wisdom of the older brain. Nothing can replicate true context, patience, emotional regulation and dual-hemisphere processing. It has to be experienced for oneself, and grown over the course of a lifetime.

So why have a war? When the young brains feel honored and the older ones respected, we can partner in leadership and together make an even bigger difference in the world.

For more on this topic, see Dr. Dan Siegel’s book Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain.

 

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The Art of the Pause

One of the most challenging things in terms of helping someone develop is to wait patiently while they figure things out for themselves. We know this as coaches, and, over time, develop an increased capacity to wait rather than jumping in to help. At the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), we call this “holding the client Naturally Creative, Resourceful and Whole,” and it is one of the key cornerstones of our coaching model.

pause (1)This idea makes a huge amount of sense from a neuroscience perspective. When we jump in to help, we rob the other person of the chance to make the connection in their own brain. As one student put it to me recently when I explained the importance of helping someone find their own answers, “Oh, I get it. I want the light bulb to go off in their brain, not mine!”

Exactly. As they say in the field of neuroplasticity, if it fires, it wires, meaning that every time we do something or think about something, a neural pathway either is being potentiated or reinforced. We can think of it like creating a path in the snow—the first time through it’s just a few footsteps, but walk it again and again and it becomes a track and then a trail. Walk it enough, even a road.

Learning is a process of making these neural connections stronger and more robust, and sustainable change means we need to practice the new neural networks over and over until they become more dominant than the older ones we wish to leave behind. In the brain, what this means in a practical way is that where there are strong, well-developed neural pathways, the impulses travel more quickly and require less conscious thought. It’s easier to walk on a well-traveled road than it is to break a trail through the woods.

Thus, the art of the pause. As a coach for almost 13 years, I have mastered this fairly well in my one-to-one work, even though like many of us, I started out wanting to fix things for people. But I am realizing that as a leader, I am often not as good about it.

At BEabove Leadership, we co-lead most workshops. I am the director of research, and bring to the table both an insatiable fascination and deep experience with neuroscience at an academic level. I spend a lot of my time speaking and writing about it, and honestly, at this point it’s easy for me. I have such deep and well-developed neural pathways I can speak about just about anything at the drop of a hat. This is not necessarily intelligence; much of it is experience and practice. Which I got by doing it. Over and over again.

When I am teaching a class with another leader, I am noticing that because my impulses fire so quickly, I generally have the answer a beat or two before my colleague. So of course, I tend jump right in, leaving them, inevitably, with the second word and rarely the first. It’s humbling to realize that when I do this, I am robbing my co-leader of the chance to develop connections in their own brains and thus create for themselves ease and mastery of the material.

So for all of us who ever work with people who are learning to present new material, from speaking in a meeting to teaching a class, I believe it is critically important to grant more pauses. They need us to allow a bit more space and time for connections to fire. It’s easy to make the assumption that the reason the other person isn’t speaking as quickly is that they lack either knowledge or confidence, but this may not be true. It could be that their connections just aren’t as quick as yours (yet), and they need you to allow a beat for the synapses to fire.

I’ve recently had the good luck to be on both sides of this situation. We are currently in the process of training new leaders for BEabove, where I have a lot of experience, and leading “front of the room” for CTI, where I am fairly new. I can feel the difference in the speed of my response. At BEabove, I know before a student in class is done speaking exactly the point I want to make and where I want to take their question. In CTI classes, I am definitely slower—not because my knowledge base or innate confidence are less, but because I simply have less experience teaching the material in a classroom setting, and less experience with the specific curriculum.

And so, in my BEabove classes, I am working to intentionally allow more space for my new co-leader, so that there is time for his or her synapses to make a connection. It’s not a lot, honestly—maybe a second or two at most, but it makes a difference. I’m also looking specifically for what are the easy entry points for my new co-leader; that is, places they feel especially confident and ready to take the lead. And at CTI, I am beginning to design with my more experienced partners the grace of a pause for myself.

It’s also important to know that for those of us who are new, we do need to push and challenge ourselves to step up and take the ball even when we don’t feel as comfortable. The way to become more masterful with the material is to try – and fail – and try again.

And the result? The class or meeting gets exposed to more diverse thought and therefor a richer experience, and the process of mastery is accelerated for the learner. And what about the more experienced leader? Well, we get a wonderful lesson in patience and trust.