When I put in a hold request for Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, at my local library, I was something like number 48 in line. That was seven weeks ago. I’m now number eight and my patience is wearing thin. With the horde of travel and lifestyle design blogs in my feed reader, it was inevitable that I’d start picking up on key concepts in his book before I had it in my hands.
One of the ideas that really grabbed me is that of the lizard brain. Also known as the resistance, the internal editor, the analyst, the unwanted adviser, and “no, you can’t.” In high school, it’s introduced as the Amygdala – a fear-wielding collection of complex nuclei focused on keeping us snug and warm, breathing, and reproducing (among other critical functions). In days of yore, this survival instinct undoubtedly helped us avoid brutal gorings by sabertooth tigers or tramplings by enraged mammoths. Circumstances change. Organs and social norms become outmoded and vestigial. Definitions of survival also change – “survival” today could mean providing some unique service or art that no one else can, so you can remain gainfully employed and happy.
The Amygdala, the so-called lizard brain, doesn’t comprehend this change in definition. At least not yet; maybe never. And how could it? That’s like hoping a pet chicken will one day realize it has nothing to fear from predators and will start composing symphonies in its coop.
I’m sure I’ll learn more about Seth’s take on the whole idea once the library rewards my good faith effort to save money. In any event, my visceral response to this information was not to dig out my Amygdala with a spoon, but rather a simple gritting of my teeth and shake of my head as if in acceptance of an enemy long known.
The unknown. What ifs. Even now, six months from pulling the trigger, I’m having second thoughts. Is my writing good enough? Am I outgoing enough? What if something happens while I’m gone? What if we can’t afford the bills? Etc. ad nauseum.
These thoughts are like knives in the dark from your lizard brain. The more frequent and insistent they become, the harder it gets to accomplish whatever it is you’ve set out to do. I look back on some of my failed ventures – guidebook author, advertising creative, actor (I’m ashamed to admit) – and they all sputtered out when the going got tough, when the beauty of the idea faded with age. I’m pretty sure I didn’t think those dreams would be easy to make real; I just didn’t think about what it would really take to execute them.
It seems that given two paths, the survival instincts of your lizard brain will choose the path of least resistance. The path that ensures the status quo (assuming that’s safety). The path that keeps you home at night, going to your office job, watching television, playing video games.
Are these the conditions in which something remarkable is born?
If there’s one simple thing I’ve internalized, it’s that it’s OK to be afraid. You might be planning to quit your job and travel around the world or expecting a child or thinking about accepting an exciting job in a foreign city or going into a war zone to care for the wounded. It’s OK to get sweaty and nervous when you think about the monumental challenge in front of you. Fear is just your stupid lizard brain worrying about it’s own primitive, nearly irrelevant needs. Fear is not the signal that you’re doing something wrong.
Fear is the signal that you’re on the great path to something.
Original photo by thisisanicephoto via Flickr under Creative Commons