The Walnut That Rules Us All

What’s stopping you from moving forward? Changing firms, hiring an associate, launching a new practice area, firing that assistant, moving to better offices? It’s likely a legacy from our ancient ancestors.

Sitting atop our spinal column beneath our cerebrum is a walnut-sized organ known as the limbic brain. It was there before our ancestors became thinking beings, long before we came down from the trees, and while it has numerous functions, one of its most important purposes was – and is – to keep us from being eaten in the jungle – to keep us alive. You could call it the “watcher,” or even better, the “watch out” organ. It’s hard-wired to be constantly on the watch for whatever could harm us, and in that respect we owe if a debt of gratitude. Because it was, most probably, responsible for the survival of homo sapiens.

But once we developed a brain – let’s say “consciousness” – it went underground. It didn’t disappear – no, still today it’s constantly scanning our jungle looking for potential disaster. But it doesn’t “talk” – it’s not a part of the conscious mind. Instead it communicates emotionally. So when, for instance, we confront anything new or consider anything out of our familiar order, that reptilian brain telegraphs us a message – “watch out or you’ll die!” And we get a lump in the pit of our stomach, a feeling of discomfort, or a vague sense of un-ease, urging us to avoid that new step, return to the fold, step back to the familiar, because the familiar is safer than the unfamiliar – even when we may be unhappy with it.

Why the ramble into phsyiology and psychology? Because, if we remain unaware of that constant “watch out” message being sent to us by our little walnut, we will forever be trapped by its message.

Heaven knows, our offices of today are noticeably devoid of lions and tigers and bears – creatures that could eat us. Very few of our decisions, short of stepping in front of a bus, are today likely to kill us. Make us unhappy, put us in financial distress, disrupt our lives yes, but kill us? Not likely.

The fact is that moving forward – growing, changing, experimenting, taking new paths – is the only road to success in any aspect of our lives. So, that walnut is not always your friend.

But it can’t be silenced, even in the safely OSHA-padded civilization we live in today. It’s hard-wired to do its job. It will continue to shout – at that emotional, unconscious level – those “watch out!” “step back or you’ll die” messages. And if we remain unaware of them, we are at their mercy. They will keep us trudging down the least-risk, most familiar – and often least rewarding – path forever.

If you truly want something better, something different, you need to start learning to recognize the telltale signs of its message – those non-verbal, emotional messages – and move them into the consciousness, your intellectual brain, so you can decide – will this decision truly endanger me? Or is the risk worth the potential reward?

Most people know, or at least have some inkling of, what path they should be taking to better their businesses, their careers, their lives. But the reptilian brain is a coward. After all, “fight or flight” is a true survival trait in a dangerous world. But the path to success almost always conveys some level of risk. Some level of fear. And therefore, some level of courage. And courage flies in the face of instinct.

So, for your consideration I share my best definition of courage: “positive action in the face of fear.”