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Hidden brains and comfort zones: how to avoid two of the biggest risks to career success

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Hidden brains and career perils: Too much stress can affect our efficiency and the decisions we make. Learn to overcome the pitfalls of unconscious decisions and comfort zones

Learn how to overcome two habits that are holding you back from success.

Decisions are central to every business day, as well as the rewards and risks that accompany these choices. Sometimes, however, the biggest risk involved isn’t in the decision itself, but in how you make it.

We tend to make decisions from experience and confidence, erring on the side of safe and known at times when there could be more to gain from pushing ourselves outside a comfort zone. Unconscious brain activity also influences how we make decisions. Learn how to overcome these two decision-making habits and you can better achieve your potential both professionally and personally.

Get out of your comfort zone to uncover innovation

In his keynote address at the 2017 AFP conference in San Diego, Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs shared how his wildly successful TV show became a reality because of his willingness to leave his comfort zone. Rowe’s mother challenged him to prove to his grandfather that he could make something of himself by getting on a real TV show before his grandfather died. At the time, Rowe was a host of Evening Magazine in San Francisco doing mostly unnoticed local news segments with a “viewership of 48 people” he said.

To succeed, Rowe faced his fear of failure and a realization he was on the wrong path with his goal of just being “famous.” That all changed when Rowe came up with the idea of “somebody’s gotta to do it,” telling the story of a sewer inspector in San Francisco from the bowels of the sewer. This moment of self-discovery led Rowe to focus on something more than his own path to fame. He found a better objective: uncovering the stories of real people. Rowe credits his success to this pivot.

No matter your role or industry, it’s critical to get out of your comfort zone to discover innovation. Although playing it safe might feel like the most comfortable decision, it is not the most rewarding. Mike Rowe’s success story is the perfect example of how challenging your existing goals and trying something drastically different can change your life. Breaking out of your comfort zone will make you stronger and more confident to achieve milestones both professionally and personally.

Understand how your hidden brain impacts business decisions

Humans tend to make decisions in the short term over the long term, says Shankar Vendantum, journalist and science correspondent for NPR, and speaker at the AFP 2017  conference. This trait offers daily pitfalls for any professional. Such reactionary thinking is our “hidden brain” at work.

Hidden brains are necessary to take care of simple tasks so you can use your conscious brain for important tasks that need processing. The risk is when the hidden brain doesn’t know when to shut off, Vedantum says. Pressure sends the hidden brain into overdrive. It steps up more in these periods and tries to “autopilot” thinking to alleviate the stress — even when making critical business decisions.

“When you place people under pressure, what you find invariably is that people tend to behave in ways that are more automatic, ways that are less consciously thought out, ways that are less deliberate. They are much more likely to fall back on their biases and heuristics because you are basically turning the system over to something that is functioning on an algorithmic basis,” Vedantum explains.

Our hidden brains offer another pitfall: psychological entrapment.

“Executives can be led astray by psychological entrapment,” continues Vedantum. “You go down a certain course of action; you invest time and money and effort in that course of action, it becomes very difficult to walk back or to choose another path,” he says. Walking back from an action also means acknowledging that you made a mistake, and our hidden brain steps up to protect us from this realization, digging a deeper hole.

Most importantly, Vendantum recommends that you seek out other “brains” for important decisions. These individuals should include those who have differing opinions from yours or are outside of the team you normally collaborate with.

“When we rely on people who are exactly like us or people who are in our groups, we are much less likely to have someone step up and say, hang on, are we thinking about everything here?”

Risks and rewards of challenging your thinking

It seems like simple advice to rethink goals and check your mindset, but both are challenging. It’s daunting to face the possibility of being wrong, and perhaps even more daunting to do honest self-assessment. But for executives who are accustomed to  assessing risks, both these offer a significant yield — career success and deeper personal satisfaction.

How to conquer comfort zones and hidden brains:

  • Spend time each day focusing on what’s important for the long-term — whether this is your personal health or the health of your company.
  • View data for the direction of the deeper trend instead of focusing on the surface activity.
  • Make sure you have time to think about what you are doing and can make decisions consciously.
  • Have a clear purpose of why you need to step out of your comfort zone. This will help keep your goal in sight and serve as a reminder why you need to push through the challenges.


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