Sunday, January 14, 2007


I'm reading a great book right now called "Prisoner of Trebekistan," written by "Jeopardy!" champion and comedian Bob Harris. It's fascinating and compelling for many reasons, even if you don't really care about "Jeopardy." And it sparked some thoughts in me about the nature of success and failure and the expectations that can help lead to either -- or in my case, both.

One of the neurological premises that Bob talks about in the book is that we have neural pathways in our brains, and with reinforcement over time, these pathways can become immovable superhighways, entrenched ruts. Any thought/action pairing that you habitually return to is one of your neural ruts, and -- here's the vicious cycle part -- every time you return to it you make it stronger. And the stronger it gets, the harder it is for your brain to accept that any other path even EXISTS. It knows the path it has, and it likes it, because by using that path you have not yet died. You've survived, and since your brain is ultimately and intensely concerned with your survival, it wants to stick with what's been working.

I realized while reading that this is why it's so hard for me to believe in ideas that run counter to my habits. Like people who say they ENJOY eating steamed vegetables and get a GOOD feeling from jogging. I nod, but inside my brain is going, "yeah, right." I find it seriously difficult to believe they mean it, because my neural ruts are protesting, going -- that's not what WE know. Stick with what WE know: vegetables are blah, and jogging hurts your boobs. So my efforts to eat healthy and exercise continually fail. I'm fighting a battle with well-fortified, lifelong neural ruts, and I keep caving in.

Meanwhile, I have other neural ruts that help me out all the time. I live in awe of deadlines, for instance, and I almost never miss them. Even when they seem impossible, even when I start at the very last minute (which is often), I find a way to meet them, and I turn in work that is at or above acceptable standards. Even writing that, as I just did, reinforces the idea in my mind that I DON'T MISS DEADLINES. The neural rut just got a smidge deeper, which means next time I'll have a smidge more power to meet the next deadline -- because I don't believe I'm a deadline-misser. I can't see myself that way. The thought creates the action which creates the reality, over and over. (Whoa, deep.)

So, my personal neural ruts make me fail at some things (healthy diet/exercise) and succeed in others (turning in work on time). They're a curse and a blessing. I got to thinking about how that applies to my writing. And in that area, my neural ruts have, predictably, both helped and hurt me.

On the one hand, I have always been a reward-motivated achiever, so I believed in and accepted the idea that I could get published. That was the reward dangling out there in the distance, and I wanted it, so I worked for it, all the while mentally referencing other things I'd achieved as reinforcement (reminding myself of my success rut). And it worked -- I sold a book.

On the other hand, my self-esteem is precarious (which is why I chase the rewards in the first place), so I constantly fear failure and tend to avoid things that I'm not SURE I can do. And the longer I try to do this writing thing, the more I realize how hard it is, to do it right, to get better at it. So I avoid sitting down and doing it, and -- again, the kicker -- EVERY TIME I avoid it, I reinforce the idea that it's too hard for me.

But then the reward/success rut kicks in and pushes me back to it (you can DO this, you did X and X and X, right?) so I sit down and try. And then the fear/failure rut kicks back (this is HARD, you're going to screw it up!) and I get up and go away. It's the battle of the neural pathways, and I'm just the poor schmoe stuck in the middle darting back and forth like a shooting gallery duck.

There's got to be a way out, a third door, something I can do to escape the cycle. But finding that route involves carving out a new, tiny trail in my neural network, and at the moment ... I can't seem to find my machete.

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At 1:20 PM, Blogger Sue said...

A documentary film called "What the $#%^*& do I Know?" discusses this very thing. It uses interviews from physicists, biologists, priests, Buddhist monks, etc.

Neural pathways are not completely fixed. Though our brains might be addicted to a certain way, they can be retaught. It's partly why the experts say habits take 21 days to become fixed. So, sitting down 21 days in a row writing and telling yourself that not only are you a deadline keeper, but that you're a great writer who easily tackles difficulties, is the only way to rewire the brain.

Apparently even really bad behaviour - e.g. fighting, etc - is addictive. The rush of endorphins kicks in and even when you know it's bad for you, your brain still craves the fight. It explains a lot of classroom behaviours.

Barbara Samuel once said on her blog that when she's at a really stuck point in her book, she usually starts some kind of drama in her life that will be all consuming for awhile. None of it was conscious, but now that she's aware of the pattern, she's working to change it. Certainly we all look for things to distract us from difficult writing. When I start to clean my house, I know that things are really stuck!


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