The first time I met my brain was 15 years ago, when the doctor showed me MRI scans of a tumor that was growing in my head, causing me unbearable pain, and threatening my life.
After a successful operation, I fully recovered and was back to normal. I soon forgot about my brain.
Few years later, when I became responsible for the toughest project that I have ever managed, I experienced a different kind of pain. That pain led me to meet my brain for the second time. This time, the pain was from chronic fear, anxiety, and anger I was experiencing from my project that drove me deeper and deeper into despair.
Desperate for a relief, I started reading about how the human brain creates fear, anxiety, and anger. Perhaps if I know how my brain creates pain, I may be able to stop it.
Learning about how the brain works helped me see how and why I perceived things the way I did, what triggered my fear, anxiety and anger, and how I responded to them.
Here I share with you what I learned and how it has saved me.
The brain is the source of every thought, feeling, and behavior. The brain controls every bodily function through the central nervous system.
One key concern that keeps your central nervous system awake is keeping you safe. Think of your Central Nervous system as an efficient “Survival Operating System” that has been fine-tuned, through thousands of years of evolution, to keep you alive and safe.
But your “Survival Operating System” is not be optimized to deal with the intense and chronic anxiety, fear, and anger that are the occupational hazards of leading people in projects.
Managing people can be extremely taxing on your system. Internally, you stress about whether you are doing your job or not, whether you are “in control” or not, what others may think of you when you feel like you are not “in charge”.
This does nothing but increase your loss of control. The loss of control leads to stress, which in turn leads to anxiety, fear, and anger. All this does is rev up your nervous system.
But you can’t lead anyone or learn to lead for that matter when your central nervous system is constantly on fire and out of control. Friedman and Forster suggest negative emotions, such as those associated with high levels of stress, tend to constrict the scope of attention. Negative emotions are triggered in order to signal danger and prepare the body for fight or flight. Cacioppo, Berntson, & Crites found that stress can narrow the scope of perceptual attention. In other words, stress causes the brain to “miss the forest for the trees. All in all, you are not you when you are under chronic stress.
Learning about the brain gave me a language to help me understand my mental experiences as they happen, especially when I am in intense situations and need to think with clarity and focus.
Learning to calm down my central nervous system helps me see a wide range of options in how I might want to respond to different situations on my projects. I am able to slow down long enough to determine the right way to respond with confidence, clarity, and intent in a way that is aligned with my goals.
This skill is not just important for developing our leadership competencies but also for protecting us from physical and psychological wear-and-tear and burnout – otherwise known as the greatest hits of chronic stress.
My learning journey continues. While I remain “work in progress”, with every project I get a chance to evolve into a better version me. Project Management taught me that the most important skill in life is the capacity to learn. I get the opportunity to deal with new people, new experience, and new challenges. And with each challenge, I get to test how low or high my ceiling of complexity is. That is how much ambiguity and uncertainty my central nervous system can cope with, before I feel loss of control. I get to learn about who I am and what I am capable of. But more importantly, with every project I get to learn how to continue to raise the ceiling.
This is what Project Management means to me.
What does it mean to you?
P.S. This post is published as part of a first ever project management related global blogging initiative to publish a post on a common theme at exactly the same time. Seventy Six (76!) bloggers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA have committed to make a blogging contribution and the fruit of their labor is now (literally NOW) available all over the web. The complete list of all participating blogs is found here so please go and check them out!