MONKEYS, MUSINGS AND MANAGING MY MIND.

I almost quit my job earlier this year.

I’d had a couple of busy weeks, heard a couple of comments and after a particularly bad meeting one afternoon, I thought I was done. That weekend, I was chatting to my wife about it. And in the logical, pragmatic way that she does, she made me realise that most of my issues were all a bit petty.

It got me thinking. And I soon accepted that this sort of irrational behaviour wasn’t uncommon for me. So I started looking into it and it turns out there’s a bunch of science behind it. One programme of work that particularly caught my attention was something called ‘The Chimp Paradox’.

WHAT IS THE CHIMP PARADOX?

The Chimp Paradox is a mind management model, developed by Professor Steve Peters. It’s a simple analogy based on the idea that the human brain has two main, independent thinking machines: the chimp (more officially called the Limbic System) and the human (the Prefrontal Cortex).

The chimp was developed much earlier and was prominent back when we were monkeys. Or cavemen. Or whatever. But the important thing is that this part of our brain processes information primarily through emotion and feelings, placing importance on primal concerns like dominance, procreating, status and ultimately, survival. For these reasons, it’s often sensitive, paranoid and instinctive, quickly assessing a situation and reacting. All of which is helpful when living in the wild surrounded by prey.

The trouble is, we don’t live in a jungle anymore. And with civilisation developing at the rate it is, our brains are struggling to keep up. Essentially, we have millions of people walking around with a chimp mindset, running a developed and advancing world. No wonder shit’s hitting the fan, right?

However this does mean the human part of our brain is having to work double time to catch up. And slowly but surely, it is. The antithesis of our chimp, the human is evidence-based, logical, rational and considered.

But there’s a problem.

The chimp is FIVE TIMES more powerful than the human. So by the time the human’s had time to gather facts and make an informed decision, the chimp has often already acted. Hence why we often see people apologising later on, once they’ve had time to think about the situation.

YOU CAN’T WRESTLE A CHIMP.

Just like in the wild, there’s no point trying to fight a chimp. You won’t win. All you can do is try to manage it. And so it goes for the inner chimp in all of us. Peters is quick to point out that we’re not responsible for the nature of our chimp. We’re born with what we’re born with. But he does suggest we’re responsible for how we manage it, before going on to offer four key techniques

1.     Exercise your chimp.

Sometimes your chimp just needs to be heard. So grab someone you trust, go for a walk and let rip. “Can you believe they said that!?” “Who does he think he is!?”. Let it all out. Because once your chimp has had their say, you’ll feel better and be in a healthier headspace to have a rational conversation.

2.     Box your chimp.

You then have the chance to box your chimp. This involves training your chimp using facts, truth and logic. “They’re probably from out of town and genuinely didn’t know it’s a left turn only lane,” for example. The more we do this, the quicker our brain will turn to these possibilities in the future.

3.     Reward your chimp.

This is pretty basic and particularly helpful if you’re on a diet, for example. The chimp is concerned with survival, so if tasty cake comes out, it can be hard to resist. If you were rewarding your chimp, you might say, “if you pass on the cake today, you can have a biscuit with tea when you get home”.

4.     Distract your chimp.

Sometimes we just don’t have time to stop and box our chimp. That’s where distracting it comes in handy. For me, this was super helpful on the football field. Whenever someone fouled me, swore at me or embarrassed me, I’d simply count to 10. It’s amazing what 10 seconds can do to calm me down.  

SO FAR, SO GOOD.

These skills are really important in leadership. And they’ve helped me heaps. Every day presents opportunities to lose my temper, take offence or act on impulse. But I’m fast learning how to take these thoughts captive. The chimp only ever offers suggestions on how to act. I don’t have to follow them. And aside from when I see people texting and driving, at which point I give my chimp full permission to do his thing, I’d like to think I’m making better, more measured decisions as a result.

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Matt Watts