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11 March 2021

MindHACKS: Finding and using our gifts for thriving in complexity

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Some of you will know that I’m now on the quest for the next book project. One idea I keep returning to is this one: We know that there are ways we humans are not well wired for complexity (see Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps and other books like that). I’ve spent most of my career helping us overcome our leanings towards oversimplification, control, and our bias for being right. And wow in these COVID days we see a lot of that reaction. But it’s also got to be true that there are ways humans are incredibly well wired for complexity—ways we know how to play and invent and learn our way into new possibilities. If we weren’t able to handle complexity, we wouldn’t have been able to do all the wonderful things humans have done. And this isn’t just a modern or just a COVID-era notion. There are complex adaptive ideas woven through our most ancient texts (which shows both that these are ancient ideas and also that we have long needed some support to remember to do them).

Here’s my initial hypothesis: One of the challenges to us for working well in complexity is that complexity makes us anxious or afraid (see John Coates’s amazing The Hour Between Dog and Wolf for more). When we are afraid, our nervous systems pump cortisol which creates a whole system of shifts in our body that leads to reactivity and oversimplification (see the brilliant Robert Sapolsky here). So we have a funny Catch 22: When we are calm, we are able to handle complexity better with play and collaboration and co-creation. But complexity creates anxiety which makes us less able to handle these things. So that’s not an ideal combination!

Therefore, my sense is that those things which shift our nervous system from the sympathetic (fight or flight cortisol system) into the parasympathetic (connection, creativity, and play dopamine-led system) are those that help us thrive in complexity. This would make nervous-system management a central complexity leadership skill. We need to first learn how to recognize when we are operating from our sympathetic nervous system and then learn to shift out of it.

The first step is to even understand what’s going on. We can’t begin to shift our bodies until we first notice our bodies. We need to make friends with our nervous system and begin to understand the way it works because that shapes our responses so fundamentally. Our bodies organize our reactions through our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, automatically shifting from one set of responses and conditions to the other. The sympathetic nervous system, as we’ll explore, is not particularly helpful in the kind of complexity we face these days. It organizes us for threat that requires movement—fighting, running, acting physically. This narrows our focus and amplifies our sense of threat. (It also has some dramatic long-term health implications if we spend a lot of time here.)

The parasympathetic, on the other hand, is incredibly helpful in complex times. It organizes us for expansiveness. Here creativity, collaboration, connection, and healing are the natural leaning. (It’s also particularly good for our immune system, our hearts, etc.) We need to listen to our body’s cues, because otherwise we are on autopilot most of the time, and the world is changing too fast for our autopilot settings to be very helpful.

Once we’ve noticed where we are in our bodies and our emotions, we need to learn how to shift ourselves. We have three vital levers to use to make a difference for ourselves.

  • We can shift our body using physical markers that help our parasympathetic nervous system take charge, using our breath and our movement to move out of the sympathetic.
  • We can shift our emotions, intentionally coaxing the most helpful emotions into being, not to defeat the emotions we might otherwise be experiencing, but to augment them.
  • And we can shift our mindset, creating a more fertile soil for these responses to flourish.

The moves I’m exploring here are not shiny new ideas that emerge from the latest research and send us in utterly novel directions. These practices have been woven into human societies for tens of thousands of years, although we now know more about why they work so well. Want to be more creative, more connected? The ancients knew: Dance, feel into your gratitude, come to stillness with your breath. 

So here are is a question for you, Gentle Reader. Are you interested in a book that explores these topics? 

And, whether you are or not, I’m so curious: What habits, rituals, practices do you have that support you to shift from a smaller, more constrained, fear-led space into a more open, experimental, possibility-led space in yourself? Share with me in the comments or as a DM and don’t be surprised if I follow up with you to ask you for a story to flesh out this little book. I am more and more thinking that it takes a village to handle complexity well—and it might well take a village to write about it.

4 thoughts on “MindHACKS: Finding and using our gifts for thriving in complexity”

  1. Nicolai says:

    That’s beautiful, Jennifer. I believe that there is a huge need for an executive-friendly book addressing that vital topic. I cannot wait to read it!!!

  2. Tom Hardison says:

    I’m excited to see what you put together Jennifer. This is such a rich territory for myself and the leaders and teams I work with. I’ve been exploring a wide range of practices that help me grapple with the complexity I experience in myself, my relationships and the broader organizations, communities I’m engaged with since hitting the wall and realizing I was stuck about ten years ago. Presence-Based Coaching which I learned with Doug Silsbee including becoming an observe of my self and my habits, and the triggers, physiological responses, emotional responses and story narratives arising within me is a powerful one. Coming back to a center of presence when I notice I’m off balance has served me well. He also introduced me to Aikido which I began practicing and continue to train in. It helps me see in the midst of an attack how I react, and how I can rewire my response to compassionately create a more peaceful resolution with a training partner. I’ve found Brené Brown’s courage building practices very helpful in building our emotional capacity and agility. The 3 Habits you and Keith have championed help me reframe and shift my mindset and those I work with along with diving deeper into behaviors, underlying worries and concerns, fears, threats to self identity, self-protective strategies and limiting beliefs through Growth Edge Coaching, Immunity to Change methods, Leadership Circle as a compass, and Alex Wray’s Mindshift Journey. I’m in the early stages of absorption and distillation of the many practices I’ve been introduced to over the past eight years.

  3. Debra Underwood says:

    I find this really interesting as my own journey of development feels to me to be inextricable from my journey to inhabit my body and develop somatic awareness. IFS (Internal Family Systems) or Parts work was foundational to this for me b/c it taught me to shift my relationship with my emotions & somatic fingerprints. Rather than compartmentalizing them it taught me to understand their strategies and include them in my meaning-making. This has the added bonus of ‘metabolizing’ them- and without trying to change them, they change once they have been appreciated, as we all do in a way. My sense of this is that the more I develop this capacity, the more I am able to accept more ‘parts’ of myself and in turn accept more of others and whatever complexity I am embedded in. Also, the more I am acting in alignment with myself. Much of this journey I have done on the back end of having chemo – and so my baseline was a wrecked nervous system. I do experience this (feeling what I feel) as a slow process healing of my nervous system. The other practice that supports all of this is meditation, and if strong fear-based emotions are present during meditation I can engage in parts work with them.

  4. Jill Sarada says:

    I am very intrigued by your question and would appreciate a book that explores this topic. As I contemplate your question and search through my past experiences with complexity, I realize the consistent behavior that helps me move forward is seeking connection to others. Whether the situation was personal or professional, I can easily recall how finding immediate connections to others who were about to step into the same complex situation seemed to pull me forward. Two of the most complex times are when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the beginning of this pandemic and the challenges it brought in leading a school.

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