Watch out for the Whoa!

There’s a moment in a learning journey when something just clicks. It doesn’t have to be a massive revelation. It can be a minor insight or, alternatively, the sense of an enormous vista of new learning opening up in front of you. I’ve started to think of it as the “Whoa!” moment.

For me, the most recent of these occurred reading Robert Sapolsky’s incredible book Behave, a study of human and animal behaviour. Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist, and professor of biology and neurology, among other seriously impressive credentials. I don’t mind admitting I approached his latest book with some trepidation. Scientific writers are not often the most accessible to the general population, and I’m the very definition of a generalist.

Despite its impressive academic weight, this is a book that eases you into a significant and wide-ranging area of study. It is interspersed with humour, connectivity of thought, and high levels of detail. I’m about 10% of the way through, and while I can’t say it’s an easy read, it is more accessible than I thought it would be. It has also caused me to feel my mind expanding as I’ve read it – although that may just have been lightheadedness 🙂

One of the first “Whoa!”s for me was in Sapolsky’s acknowledgement of the breadth of the subject and the limited views that most scientists have of the field. He calls out the relationship between the evolutionary timescale of animal and human behaviour, the impact of genetics, the biomechanics of the body, and the neurobiology of the brain; he then connects it to the impact on our psychology. Clearly, no single scientific discipline has the answer to why we behave the way we do.

Another “awesome, mind blown!” moment was reading the appendix that describes our neurobiology. While I have a science degree, I have not studied science in any detail since I left college, despite having a layman’s interest in many areas. Reading the description of potentiation across neurons, the axonal hillock and the cascade across billions of connections genuinely made me say “Whoa!” out loud. His description of this enormously complex topic built up in stages to give me, an uneducated reader, the feeling that I was almost able to grasp a significant truth about how complex our brain activity is.

That feeling of connection, of insight, is a powerful one. It can lead to action, or we can lose it in the noise of a day. I’ve developed an interest in capturing these insights so that we can act on them more often. To further my understanding in this area, I’m in the process of completing a course in brain-based coaching through the Neuroleadership Institute and am working with several coachees. It is a fact that you can often see the moment of insight expressed in someone’s face. That moment powerfully connects coach and coachee and can lead to insights for the coach as well.

These moments don’t have to be caused by learning something in a completely new area. They can arrive when we find out that something we’ve believed for a long time is wrong – those insights can be life-changing, for good or ill. Danny Kahneman has said that he loves to find out he has been wrong about something because it allows him to learn something new. That’s a view on learning to aspire to, in my mind.

I’ve meandered a bit from where I started, but the point I wanted to reach is this. We need to recognise the insights that we arrive at, in whatever form. We can then choose to act on those, leading to more “Whoa!”s in our day. For example, in management and leadership circles, we often talk about continuous learning, and these moments are the reward our brains give us to keep learning. So I’ve started to think that we should include “Facilitates Insight” as part of the job description for managers because these insights are significant drivers of growth for our staff.

The more we expose ourselves to different ways of thinking and living, the more we give ourselves the chance to experience these bursts of amazement. And that wonder is one of the things that makes us uniquely human.

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