Review: Your Brain at Work by David Rock 1

These days there’s no shortage of things to worry about, events to plan, places to go, things to do, and we start it all again the next day. At the end of the day we are exhausted, sometimes swearing we were so busy we couldn’t get anything done! Our brain is a complex system that is barely understood by people who have dedicated their lives to doing so. It is an amazing part of us but, like any other organ in our body, it also has limitations. Your Brain At Work, by David Rock, helps us understand these strengths and weaknesses and how to take advantage of our brain. William Shakespeare tells us all the world’s a stage and this book leverages that metaphor. Rather than using a bunch of technical jargon to make its points it presents the concepts with actors on a stage. The stage is your brain and the actors are the concepts it holds. The metaphor is extended to the presentation of the topics, with your average family being the actors dealing with pressures on the stage of everyday life. Each scene illustrates a concept in the book, first by making the typical mistakes, and then the scene is presented again with what we’ve learned in the chapter. At the end of each chapter there is a review, things you can try, and how you can benefit from what you’ve learned. Ultimately, you will have a new toolkit to help you better use your brain resulting in reduced stress making you more creative and engaged, and providing for happier, more productive relationships.

The book is organized into three parts, the first being an introduction to your brain and generally how it works. You will understand its limitations and how to take advantage of those limitations instead of being hamstrung by them. There is great insight into how your brain perceives information, understands and organizes problems, and the resulting reactions and decisions. You get an appreciation for when certain tasks should be performed, how they affect your energy and creativity, and how you can get the most out of the general workings in your head. For example, we are anecdotally told that we can manage around 7 things at a time. Try walking around a table, doing some simple math, throwing a ball in the air and catching it. If you tried this, you might notice you started slowing down, or held the ball a bit longer before tossing it in the air again, or ignored your math question for a bit. The number is more like 3 or 4 and even then, the book quotes a study that you essentially reduce the ancillary tasks to a context manageable by an eight year old. By symbolizing things you are working on and putting those symbols in front of you, you have a much better chance of being able to work out complex problems. By the end of chapter one, you will have an appreciation for how your brain works and how to maximize its output efficiently so that you feel less stressed and tired.

brainPicA big challenge with our brain is that it is a pattern machine. The default mode is to match inputs with outputs and sometimes those outputs can be pretty harsh. How many times are we cautioned to “not say something we’ll regret later”? Chapter two introduces us to the Director of the play, managing conceptual actors on our brain’s stage. We gain insight into where these reactions come from and how to take a step back and make sure they are rational responses to the problem. An important concept I took away is the brain’s propensity for ‘spiraling’ on emotional reactions. When you have a strong emotional reaction to something it feeds itself, spiraling out of control. When we fail to recognize this it results in that “thing we regret saying”. By getting into the habit of activating our Director, we take control of the situation so that “when life hands you a lemon you make lemonade”.

Finally, the book closes with how you can open this up to your interactions with others. A fantastic tactic is how to influence others by gaining their confidence, trust, and buy-in into your ideas. If you’ve ever tried to make a teenager do something you’ll have the distilled essence of passive, and sometimes aggressive, resistance. This happens in casual and professional interactions as well, when sometimes your ally can perceive you as a threat. The tools learned in this chapter remind us of how the brain perceives and understands problems, how we can turn those into non-threatening situations, and how to activate creative responses to the challenge rather than a flight-or-fight reaction in our collaborators.

By the time you’ve had an opportunity to understand your brain and use the tools in this book you will find it much easier to understand and address the challenges of life. You will compartmentalize different phases of dealing with situations. You will have far more energy and you will be able to creatively apply that energy to your challenges. By understanding how you respond to external stimulus, you will be able to provide clear, proactive triggers to others to make your interactions feel safer, execute more easily, and be more productive.

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