Here is a story that I use often in my leadership training as part of the ‘knowing thyself’ modules (you may have already heard of this, but a reminder is always blessed):
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
What wonderful messages for us, the key one being that whatever we tell our brain will manifest in front of us.
What’s the difference then between two capable people with different lives?
Why is it that some of us live up to our potential while others don’t? Is it something to do with what they are telling themselves?
These are interesting questions, and there are no blanket answers. It would be naive to reduce the complexity of different people and their circumstances down to a singular and easy solution. Still, let’s dig a little deeper.
Let’s eliminate things like genetic differences and general luck factors, and let’s pretend that we have two people with similar ambitions, similar opportunities, and similar skills. Will they both be equally effective in life?
The answer is usually no. There is something more, and it’s often the biggest differentiator between those who get what they want and those who don’t.
Grit, determination, willpower, mental resilience and motivation are all terms commonly associated with success of any kind. Much of the recent research has come to that conclusion, and broadly speaking, these things matter quite a bit.
In different contexts, they may mean different things, but overall, being able to harness each of them comes down to one thing — the ability to control your own mind and align it with what you need to do.
There are no shortcuts to do this, and I’m not going to pretend to provide one, but foundationally, there is a simple mental habit, that if mastered, will give you a disproportionally large return on your investment of time and overall happiness.
But first, let’s look why controlling your mind is so difficult to begin with.
The Mental Battle
Most of the psychological issues we face can be attributed to a single conflict.
We have two prominent and largely opposed parts to our brains. An old reptilian part that was programmed to help us survive and reproduce in harsh and varied climates thousands and thousands of years ago, and a modern part that allows us to operate in a world suited for longer term thinking.
The reptilian brain is incredibly efficient, and it’s very quick to respond to stressors in our environment. That’s where it primarily takes its cues from. It’s emotional, and it enables us to stay in motion without thinking.
The modern brain is less efficient, but more calculated. It takes its time, and its deliberate in evaluating the circumstances of our surroundings before it decides to act. It takes its cues from the rational mind before it responds.
By default, the reptilian brain is in charge. It allows us to function on autopilot, and it requires less effort than deliberate thinking and planning.
However, in order to exercise control over your mind to get it to do what you need to do, you often need to put the modern brain at the helm. That’s what will guide you to take on short-term disappointments (pain) to meet your long-term goals. That’s how grit, determination, willpower, and motivation are harnessed.
But if the reptilian brain is in charge, what can we do to consistently inspire the modern brain to take control? The answer is practice, practice, practice.
A Simple Question
The primary driver of the reptilian brain is your environment. It’s reactive to the cues in your surroundings, and it then follows a comfortable pattern.
The modern brain, on the other hand, has to be driven proactively. It has to be called upon. It certainly can be influenced by your surroundings, but only if something out of the ordinary occurs. Otherwise, it takes the backseat and is unwilling to act.
For many of us, there are a lot of easy distractions in our environment that guide our mind into reactive behavior to derail us from doing what we need to do. A temporary solution would be to remove those distractions.
Over the long-term, however, you want more than that. You want to be able to resist things not because they’re not there, but because you have the mental control to do. That’s where the following question comes in:
“Am I being mindlessly reactive or am I being proactive?”
Next time you start to procrastinate, ask yourself this question. Next time you begin to feel unhappy, ask yourself this question. Next time you think you’re ready to prematurely quit on something, ask yourself this question.
Almost every time, you’ll find that your initial response is reactive. Something in your environment nudges you into these feelings and they catch on.
When you make a habit of asking yourself this question, however, you stop and pause right before you dive into the spiral of despair. It won’t always inspire you to suddenly change your behaviour, but when you acknowledge that you’re being reactive, you make a choice to either stick with it or not.
Most of the time, you’ll take control and think purposefully and nudge yourself towards the desired behavior. Sometimes, you’ll stay where you are. Either way, you’re activating a part of the modern brain to make a deliberate choice, and that’s helping you practice a sense of control over your mind. Even just a feeling of control is one of the biggest motivators to be better.
If you make this a habit, over time, you will also see quite substantial results.
Which Will It Be?
When you’re reactive, your environment decides for you.
When you’re proactive, you get to decide because you’re in control.
A reactive person lets the world shape the outcome of their life. A proactive person takes the world as it is and shapes it into the world they want.
If you can successfully train your brain to deliberately question the state of mind it’s in and use that question to give you more control, you can do almost anything. You can quite literally reprogram yourself.
This is not a quick fix, and it will not happen overnight, but with one small step at a time, you can slowly align your mindset with your potential.
The choice is yours. Get feeding the good wolf…
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