The Brain Science of Stress and Performance
First let's jump into a little brain science here. This is the simplest sort of cut of the brain you can take, which is a two sided, a front and back, now you can take the three, you can take the seven, there's all kinds of lobes and things we could dive into but, for now, we're gonna take the simplest cut of the brain we can and look at how stress and response works in the brain. So we have your frontal lobe, your prefrontal cortex, this is relatively new, newly evolved, it hasn't been around that long. It contains your executive function and language but it's slow. It takes roughly 3/10 of a second for you to process something up here using language to describe it. The back brain, which we also refer to as the heart, your limbic system, the amygdala, where your emotions sit, is very fast, it takes about 3/100 of a second for you to have an instinctual response to a stimulus. So slow, fast, language judgment, reason, ethics, this is the you you think you are 'cause this is where your ...
language resides and this is all the decision making stuff but fight, flight and intuition sit back there in your back brain. So here's the interesting thing, this is a great metaphor from Jonathon Hate that your front brain is like a rider on the back of a tiny elephant so your front brain, your prefrontal cortex is like this tiny rider on the back of this giant elephant, sort of the iceberg metaphor as well so the you you think you are is actually this tiny little thing relative to all of your other systems in thinking and, so yeah, it's rational, is directive, makes plans, the elephant is emotional, right, the rider's analytical, it looks at patterns and possibility, the elephant is instinctive, trigger happy, the rider is the planner, thinks ahead, where should we go, should we turn left or right, should we stop for water, the elephant is the actual doer though, right, that's the thing that does stuff. And one thing we know about emotions, if you want somebody to do something, you can convince them all you want right up here and they're not gonna do anything, right, emotions are the seat of activity, of action, so the rider on the back of the tiny elephant is a great metaphor for how our brain works with itself. But here's the question, who's in charge under stress? Right. The rider, the tiny rider? No. When everything's calm and good, right, the tiny rider is making themself go forward, through the jungle, everything's fine, we'll turn left, we'll turn right, we'll back up, we'll drink water, we'll eat something and then the lion roars or the mouse appears. And then who's in charge, right? Then all hell breaks loose because the stimulus and response mechanisms of the elephant will take over and these things were adapted over millions and millions and millions of years, they're extraordinarily adaptive to death threats in the jungle or an ax murderer coming out of an alleyway. They're just not quite as adaptive to modern society and death by email. Can an email kill you? Well, not really but we'll get into how it might. But first, let's talk about performance under stress. So this is Yerkes Dodson's curve from 1908. We've known a lot about stress and performance for a very long time, more than 100 years and intuitively, you might think, all right, I perform best under low stress but that's actually not true. We talked before about the flow state as well. When you have low stress, you're not very engaged and you don't actually perform that well in any particular activity but when you have a reasonable level of challenge or stress, that's the you stress, that's when you perform at your very best and then if you get over here where you have too much stress, too much going on, then you perform not at your best. So, we're gonna take a quick poll and you have a sheet in your handout, where do you sit on this curve? So, who here needs more stress in their life? We got one, two, three, what is going on in this room? This has never happened before. Normally, in a room of 200 people, I sometimes get one hand. Okay, who here is exactly balanced? They have just enough stress in their life, just enough challenge, we got one, and who here is overstressed? Who here has just too much going on and you need to do things differently? Now when I have a room of 200 people and I have 199 hands saying this, this is what I say and I'll say it to the two of you, this is no judgment, this just stating a fact, if you raised your hand because you're over there then you are not the best wife, husband, brother, sister, leader, follower than you can be, you're not, just a fact. If you're overstressed, you're not performing your best at all the various activities in life and for the people that matter so you don't want to be here. Now, I'm gonna guess some of you have played a little game that I played for about 10 years. You get over here and then you say, "Oh, woe is me. "I need to get out of some stuff, I got too much "going on, I need to get off this panel, "I gotta get out of the committee for "the homeowners' association, I gotta stop this project "at work, I gotta get somebody to drive the kids "to the classes," and you sort of claw and scratch your way to right here. And you eventually get there and you do this thing. This thing I did for 10 years about every six months. You take a deep breath and then you buy a new house or you build a house or you have a baby or you start a new project or you switch jobs or you move, like, and you slide right back over there because we're all achievement oriented and you wanna do, do, do, as soon as you get a space, you're gonna fill it and then you slide back over and you get overwhelmed and you're not the best brother, husband, wife, sister, follower, leader that you could be and then you claw your way back up and you just play this sliding game, I did this for at least a decade. And that is maladaptive, actually, right, because that means half the time or some great percentage of the time, you're not the best person you can be and this is what people try to do, right, they try to get to this place, this place of balance. Work life balance, I hear that in every company I speak with, it comes out at some point. Well, we gotta problem with work life balance. Yes. Every single company in the world has a work life balance problem, which means, in design thinking problems, we're probably solving the wrong problem. Trying to get work life balance back I think is an untenable, what today Evans and Bill Burnett would call a gravity problem. "Oh, woe is me, gravity, it's weighing me down, "I wish I didn't this gravity." That's wasting your time solving a problem you can't solve so how do you design around? Well, this little curve looks an awful lot like a bicep. And what you wanna do is shift it up and to the right. If you can shift it up and to the right, your peak performance state isn't in this place of stress that was here, it's actually where it used to be too much stress and you're actually performing better under greater stress and this is totally possible and I'm gonna teach it to you in about 30 minutes. Three simple steps. So we need to shift the curve up and to the right. Now, the bicep metaphor aside here, two of you, I know you know the answer to this, so if I do bicep curls for 15 hours straight, what happens to my bicep?
You'll break it too much.
Yeah and does it get bigger or smaller?
It atrophies. This is the equivalent of what a lot of people are doing in their jobs, the corporate athletes of today are doing 15 hours of bicep curls and wondering why they're not getting any stronger. They're actually getting weaker, they're getting less resilient, they're getting more stressed out, they're getting more fragile, they're reacting more strongly to stimulants, their elephant is taking over, over and over again and suddenly a snarky email from a coworker is enough to cause them to get into road rage. So that's what's happened. Actually, their stress bubble looks like this. They're over here now. So how do you shift up and to the right? Well, there's three simple mechanisms, we'll go through each one in detail. First you gotta reduce stress, we all know about that, you gotta do that first. Then we learn how to recover properly, not like 15 hours of curls. And then you've gotta learn how to reframe your relationship with stress so that you can intentionally raise your levels of stress and learn to like it. I'm gonna teach you all that in a few minutes. Now, back to this sports metaphor, do weightlifters do, what do they do after maybe five, six sets of squats or curls?
Right, right. Episodic stress with full recovery. This is what we need to start leaning into in our lives. Let's talk about and this is what I would call resiliency, right, filling this curve, moving it up to the right, being able to thrive under greater level of speed, pressure, technology, all that, I think Elon Musk is probably actually a great example of this. I mean, that guy has more going on than anybody I know but he doesn't look like frazzled, right? Because, I think, when we get to it, this reframing, he's reframed all this as a game. This is a game, he's got 11, 12, 15 businesses, one of 'em's gonna fail, that's okay, you got 13 more, like, it doesn't matter.