Tuesday, July 17, 2018

How Your Mind Works

Your Mind Works—
Some Assembly Required

Thinking is something we all do, so you might have assumed others just do it better than you, or at least differently. Well, you might be partially right—for the moment. But here’s the really huge thing. You can get better at it. Thinking is a skill, not an inherent gift, so it’s something you can improve upon. That’s right. You can get really quite good at it. People who you admire—like those in “Amenah’s Story,” who step up and take action based on taking careful and considered steps, who can weigh risk, and who live fuller, richer lives as a consequence—represent the kind of person you can become.

Take, for example, the medical people. When Captain JohnNadeau, Dr. Karla Christian, or Dr. Thomas Doyle leap to action,they do so by studying everything they can learn about a patient or a situation. They proceed with haste when they must, but with caution when they can. Yet each has a different background, home life, and, for that matter, way they go about thinking. John is a hypertension specialist for adults, whereas Karla is a pediatric cardiac surgeon, and Thomas is a pediatric cardiologist. In Nashville, Karla and Thomas faced surprising challenges in fixing Amenah, but they were working within the groove of their specialties, the core of their practiced expertise. John, on the other hand, is used to having to make do in quite diversified settings—one minute attending to the needs of adults in a combat setting and in the next minute, figuring out what is wrong with a little girl and what to do about it. He has the kind of mind that says, “Hey, if every Marine had some of the life-saving techniques of a medic, more lives of American Marines could be saved. How do we go about making that happen?”

Consider also that the contexts of the problems needing resolution were quite different. John had to decide: What’s wrong with this child? Can it be fixed here? Where can it be fixed? How do we go about that? Karla and Thomas, at Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital, had a different situation: How do we repair this girl’s heart and body so she can live the best life possible in a place where ongoing or future medical help won’t be available?

Whether you think life in the medical field is outside your grasp, or even if that’s exactly where you are headed, you will need to hone your thinking skills to be, as John is, ready for anything. If you are like Glenn Susskind and Gary White, the medics in the extraction team who escorted Amenah to America, you are going to have to face situations where multiple scenarios are possible, and you have to be prepared for each. Or you might even be like Janet Jarrard, Major Kevin Jarrard’s aunt who was peacefully minding her own business in Tennessee when she was suddenly called upon to make numerous and complex preparations in a very short time frame. You might even be in a managerial role and ask yourself, as Lieutenant Colonel David Bellon did, “How can I work within a system that has a rigid hierarchy and established protocols and give those who report to me the opportunities to sparkle at what they do by testing the barriers of what can be done and what should be done?”  
The thing you can take away from all the stories of the varied participants in “Amenah’s Story” is that they all put their minds to work, and their quite different ways of going about that thinking and doing is what wove the tapestry that made a miracle happen. No one of them could have done this alone, and they all had to work in their unique ways and to their own strengths. These were people like you performing extraordinary feats by working together, using their minds to achieve a greater good.

You think all the time, and whether you know it or not, you have a distinct thinking style, a way of going about what you do. If you’ve ever thought you’d like to better understand how that works or, more important, improve upon your thinking abilities in a way that can transform your life, you are taking the right step seeking to explore your possibilities for becoming the best thinker you can be.

To understand how, let’s take a look at three important areas ofyour mind: dreams, feelings, and thinking. This trinity of the mind is like a three-person rowing team. You have dreams calling out direction while thinking and feeling do the rowing. When all three are in sync, you glide through life. Of course, they are not always in perfect synchrony, so let’s look more carefully at the role each plays.


The hospital’s walls leaned or had fallen into the structurally risky shambles of a building in the burned city, with no linen for its four or five beds, no monitoring equipment, and no heating or cooling system. When sick babies came in, the ICU was a room with a small heating/air conditioning unit in the window. Patients had to bring their own linen and food. Medicines and supplies came from Ramadi (2 hours 15 minutes  drive (149.8 km) to Haditha) and often didn’t arrive at all. There were no immunizations and some patients could be seen in the plaza getting their chests listened to and having prescriptions written. Most of the public health clinics had been bombed and lay in rubble, and where the shells of those existed, people had stolen the toilets, the electrical wires, everything that could be stripped out of the buildings. That was the medical system Captain John Nadeau saw when he arrived in Haditha, Iraq. But that’s not what he saw in his mind.He could picture a functioning system, able to deliver far betterhealth care in clean, functioning environments. He had a vision, adream, and he decided he would do something about it.

The hospital had been right in the middle of the fighting in the days of Saddam Hussein. [Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq for three decades, President of Iraq from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003, was hanged in 2006 at the age of 69. As he awaited trial in Baghdad, Saddam was watched over by a group of US soldiers from the 551st Military Police Company, who came to call themselves 'The Super Twelve'.]“The wing of the hospital that held their kitchen, their laundry, their pharmacy had been blown up and burned during the war,” John said. Where they did their surgeries, “the cement from the roof was falling into the operating theater.” When he met with the people there and asked how he could help, they told him they wanted office furniture. John told them, “We’re not buying office furniture.” They wanted a CT scanner. He said,“Look, you are in the middle of nowhere, and you need a basic hospital, not CT scanners. Number one, you don’t have a radiologist to read CT scans. You don’t have any technicians to run them. You don’t have anyone who will support them and they breakdown all the time. Siemens is not coming to Haditha where their technician might get killed. You don’t need a high-tech machine that you can’t use.”

Just before the war, a high-tech sterilizing machine had been delivered. But it needed compressed air, which they didn’t have, and it needed water under pressure, which they didn’t have—water came down from the roof by gravity. John would walk the doctors down to the sterilizer that couldn’t work. He would point at the nice but useless-in-its-context machine sitting there and he’d say,“This is what your CT scanner will be like. You’re not ready forth is. Why don’t we talk about what basic things you need to getyour hospital up and running so you can actually look after people and provide basic health-care services?”

You no doubt get the impression that John was a “keep it real” sort of dreamer. He says, “We, in fact, designed a basic, no-frills hospital, and spent a lot of time with the doctors working on the blue-print.” As for the clinics, he left Iraq a better place there, too. “I went out and hired an Iraqi engineer, and he and I went out and we built two clinics before I left,” he said, “we got them running, we got the watering system to work, we got electricity, we painted them, we cleaned them up, and we got them working again.”

There you have it, from dream to completion. It was the same for Major Kevin Jarrard, who saw a little girl turning blue, gasping, who could barely make it across the room. Yet he dared to picture this terminally ill child well, and between the span of December of 2007 and March of 2008, that happened. All within 3 months. A healthy, mischievous, grinning girl came home to Iraq. It was that image that drove him to send a flurry of e-mails to Kelly Jarrard, Janet Jarrard, and Jonathan Malloch when hope for getting Amenah to America sputtered at times.

The depth of dreams has inspired individuals, nations, and generations. Most famously, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream,which became a powerful vision and changed the behavior of an entire country. We all have dreams, goals, and aspirations that motivate us throughout our lives and determine the path we take.These dreams guide us in what we choose to do and when we choose to do it.                                
 Your dream might be better work-life balance, financial security,or a genuinely happy family. Think about dreams that are important to you, get some paper and a pen, find a quiet place, and ask yourself why. For example, if you are highly motivated to be successful in your career, ask, “Why is this important to me?” Write down your answers, then dig a little deeper, and ask again. Your answers might center on financial needs, recognition, achievement, helping others, or the ability to see the world. Don’t filter what you write because the answers are important only to you. The point is, if you are spending 60 hours a week at work (your behavior) and you are doing it because you want a successful career (your dream), make sure you know why you want a successful career.

Getting clear about what matters most to you, really understanding your dreams and your values, is essential because dreams determine the direction of your behavior. The ability to step back and take perspective is possible only if there is a solid bedrock of values and vision to stand on. If your dreams aren’t clear, your direction won’t be clear. It will be left, right, no left again. To fully leverage your thinking skills, you need to know, at the core, what is important in your life and what’s not. Thinking and feeling work better together when your dreams are clear and consistent. 


Ah, emotions. How they make your life worth living! And how they can just as readily get in your way.

You have probably experienced the emotional reaction of losingyour cool or blowing up, and then after calming down saying to yourself, “What was I thinking?” The answer is that there probably wasn’t much thought going on at all because feelings were in your driver’s seat.

When feelings are positive, they drive us. Kevin Jarrard’s first look at Amenah was a tug at his heart that made him want to takeaction—it initiated a dream of a well and healthy Amenah, something that came to pass.

Feelings create momentum and speed, which is necessary to go forward and take action. Remember the first time you fell in love? It was exhilarating, intoxicating, and all consuming. You had butterflies in your stomach, your heart beat faster, and your body tingled. It was a wonderful experience. That single emotion pushed your behavior—powerfully drove your behavior—in many different ways, but most notably toward the person you loved. Yet, feelings can be very powerful, and like an untamed horse, hard to ride.

Emotions can better help you achieve a dream when they are under control, which is easy to say but hard to do. Think of how the rational leader Lieutenant Colonel David Bellon acted when one of his hand-picked men, Kevin Jarrard, came to him with a mission that was driven by emotion. It helped that Kevin had given the matter considerable thought, and had consulted with Nadeau, known to be a careful and systematic thinker.

David Bellon was no stranger to emotional issues. When soldiers are in the heated line of duty, emotions can be very near the surface. When the soldiers go home to America after their duty, they have to act civilly, in control of their emotions. Bellon knew they needed to be just as in charge of their emotions while in Iraq. In fact, that was part of his vision, his dream.

When he recently discussed the state of mind he was in that caused him to encourage Jarrard in his Amenah quest, he said he knew he needed to train his soldiers to deal with their feelings, so they would make the right decisions in emotionally charged situations.He described how feelings can flash when a young Marine is on patrol, as he put it, “those moments when you’re enraged, but you still conduct yourself with measured discipline and compassion.”

Bellon and Mark Lamelza shared that dream: to take a group of young men through an experience that was probably going to be violent and traumatic and to return them back to their families and their communities as better husbands, fathers, brothers, and citizens. David’s two prior tours had been tough—losing young men and women to death and life-altering injuries. In his third tour, he wanted—he needed—to make sure that every soldier had moral clarity. He and Mark spent a lot of time indoctrinating the soldiers with a clear message of “who we are.” Somewhere in the future, David said, he didn’t want one of his soldiers sitting in a coffee-house someplace in Palo Alto experiencing angst over “who we were.” Instead, he and Mark were determined that the battalion was going to step into this endeavor with moral certainty, quite confident about “who we are and how much we can take.” David and Mark’s dream reverberated through the 3rd battalion and, undoubtedly, guided the behaviors of every single Marine.

This stance, to take the moral high ground when possible, is in large part behind the impetus to allow Kevin Jarrard to start the chain of seemingly impossible events that resulted in Amenah returning to her home in Iraq healed. And, because the Marine mission at the time was to shift control of the country back to the Iraqi people, to bond with them, to interact with them, this turned out to be a very sage, emotionally driven dream to encourage. As Nadeau put it, “We got more traction from helping that little girl with the people of Haditha than probably anything else we did.”

Feelings do not need to be at the intensity level of rage to override thinking and influence our behavior. A study done by neuroscientist Alan Sanfey at the University of Arizona illustrates the point.1 The study used a simple negotiation game in which one player hasto split $10 with a second player. In this game, let’s say Jane is thefirst player and Joe is the second player.
Jane can offer Joe any amount, from zero to $10, and she can keep the change, but only if Joe accepts the offer. If Joe rejects the offer, neither of them gets any money.

According to game theory and common sense, Joe should accept the offer no matter how low it is because getting some money is better than getting no money. That is rational, reward-riven behavior, right? Well, it doesn’t work that way. Here is what happens. As the offer gets down to a couple of dollars, the people in Joe’s role consistently turn down the offer and forego the free money. If you put yourself in Joe’s shoes, you know the reason—people get mad at cheapskate offers, and would rather have nothing than a couple of dollars.

The really interesting part of this research is that the investigators mapped the brain of the players while they were playing. As the offers became increasingly unfair, a region in the brain that is tied to negative emotions, such as anger and disgust, became more active. When this region became more active than the region in the brain that drives goal-oriented reasoning, players rejected the offer. Feelings overruled thinking and sent a resounding message: “You cheap jerk. If you can’t be fair, then you’ll lose, even if it costs me, too.” You might be inclined to attribute the rejected offer to principle or sense of fair play, but magnetic imaging suggests that feelings drove behavior.

Let’s take one last look at feelings that are so subtle we don’t even recognize their occurrence, but they still impact behavior. This example is a Gordian knot. Social science research consistently shows that we have a tendency to fear people who are different from ourselves. We might not think of ourselves as prejudiced, but at a physiological level, we do show a fear reaction to people who are different from ourselves. Indiscriminant evolutionary cues are signaling us that different means dangerous. We wouldn’t recognize the feeling as fear, but instead might draw a gut conclusion that we don’t like the person. In a global world that is becoming closer each day, people need to be aware of unconscious biases like this. The way to cut the Gordian knot is to recognize that feelings operate in this fashion.

When feelings row much harder and faster than thinking, it creates an imbalance, and you typically have trouble making good judgments. That doesn’t mean you should try to repress your feelings as if they were Victorian-era vices. That won’t work—they just won’t behave, so the best practice is to recognize your feelings and the important role they play so that they work for you and are in concert with your thinking. 


For someone like Jonathan Malloch, thinking is a regular day at work and a way of life. He had to find the safest, yet most affordable way to get Amenah to and from America with minimal risk to his colleagues. Chartering a Galaxy 6 or hiring the air medical agencies was out of financial reach, no matter how energetically Janet and Kelly were gathering donations. This is someone who charts every step of a process and has contingent plans B and C for each step. He had to deal with the state department, which offered little real support and basically said, “We know you’re coming. Just don’t mess this up.” He had to study and rehearse all the Muslim custom issues with his extraction team colleagues. And he wasready to pull the plug on his team’s involvement if the risk grew too great, which it did at one point until Blackwater Worldwide agreed to help escort the team.

Aside from tournament chess players, few people have to study as many permutations of a situation as Jonathan did. But thinking,when powered by your dreams and feelings, can be a very powerful aspect of your life.

Thinking is the third member of the rowing team, and building thinking skills is what this book is really about. Thanks to your thinking side, you can anticipate, plan, invent, innovate, contemplate, and decide. On a daily basis, when you are sizing up situations, gathering information, weighing alternatives, and considering consequences, you are using this marvelous side of your mind. Its capabilities are boundless, so you can continually get better at thinking. From an evolutionary perspective, reasoned reflective thinking developed fairly recently and is housed in the newest part of our brain, and like a shiny new computer, it can process a lot of information and purposefully drive behavior.Thinking plays a key role in recognizing and evaluating life-changing opportunities, solving complicated problems, and making wise decisions.

Another role of thinking is to act as an emergency brake when feelings run too fast. The connection between primitive feelings and behavior tends to occur very quickly, so in this situation the key on the thinking side is to be able to rapidly recognize and label those feelings. It is a reactive position, analogous to an emergency situation where rapid recognition and response is necessary. The purpose is to gain a foothold and interrupt the flow of emotion. Of course, the majority of situations in our daily lives are more mundane and thinking can and should play a proactive role in how we behave. Accessing your thinking side across everyday situations will greatly enhance your life, allowing you to be in control, shaping intentional behavior, and moving in a positive direction.

Developing your thinking will also give you a highly sought-after skill that is in short supply. Employers and educators in our country are waving red flags because employees and students are not demonstrating the kind of thinking it takes to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world that requires responsiveness and independent judgment. A nationwide survey of employers highlights the extent of the problem; among employees new to the work-force, under 30 percent of those with a college degree, only 4 per-cent of those with a two-year degree, and none of those with a highschool degree were rated as possessing excellent critical thinking skills.2 Those numbers suggest a gap between capabilities and demands that needs to close to sustain societal well-being and prosperity.

As you can see from Amenah’s story, good thinking can shape miracles, or support them as they unfold. By developing your thinking,you can position yourself to meet the demands of a complex world,and, in turn, you can use your newfound talent to positively impact the world with inspired dreams and dedicated achievements.

1. Sanfey, Alan G., j.K. Rilling, J. A. Aronson, L.E. Nystrom, and J.D. Cohen. 2003. The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game. Science 300:1755-58.

2. Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century US Workforce. 2006. Study conducted by The Conference Board, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management.


IN THIS chapter 1, you put the pieces together, learning why people behave the way they do and how dreams, thjughts, and feelings work together to determine our actions and behaviours. Understanding how your own mind works is critical at that very moment when you are about to act and you need to decide if thinking or feeling will run the show. You need clear dreams so that you have a road map that points you in the right direction. Understanding how your feelings work allows you to use them to your advantage. They are like an eccentric family member -- you love them and need them even though they embarrass you from time to time -- so it's best to acknowledge their existence and get to know them well. And finally, thinking is your ace in the hole. It is an unlimited resource that you can harness to improve the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.

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