I’ve just read Seth Godin’s latest book Linchpin. It’s a good read. The key idea that resonates throughout the book is that of the lizard brain—or Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it in The War of Art.
Resistance is the force that stops you from starting that great new project you’ve been thinking about for ages, it’s the force that makes you afraid to hit the “Publish” button after writing a new blog post, fearing that what you’ve written will be criticized or laughed at, it’s the force that tells you to just leave things be and keep your head down. Resistance stops you from leaving your dead-end job and working on the things you love. Resistance ruins lives by destroying their potential.
Seth Godin calls Resistance by another name: the lizard brain. You see, Resistance (or the lizard brain) is in all of us—it’s biological. The scientific name for the lizard brain is the amygdala. It’s a part of our brain that formed early on in our evolution and is responsible for interpreting fear-provoking information and linking it to fear responses. If you live in the wilds, the amygdala is your ally. Threats are evaluated, and a proper response is generated. In cases of extreme danger, the amygdala will shut down the rest of your brain and force a quick response—for example, fear that will make you run for your life or rage that will make you fight your enemy. Fight or flight.
In the 21st century however the power of the lizard brain is often misused. Most of us don’t live in life threatening environments, at least in the Western World, but the lizard brain continues to interpret information and cause panic attacks or fits of rage whenever it thinks there is a threat. For example, one of the most feared things for many people is public speaking. You’re very unlikely to die from speaking to an audience so why are you afraid? You’re afraid because there are people watching, evaluating, judging, criticizing.
We fear both, success and failure. If you fail, people may laugh at you. If you succeed, people will expect more from you in the future. The lizard brain is afraid of almost everything because all it cares about is safety. Change is risky. You don’t know if things will get better or worse, and so safety is ensured by keeping everything constant. That’s what the lizard brain wants: to keep things as they are. Whether you call it the amygdala, the lizard brain or the Resistance, this force works hard to stop you from rising above the average and doing something truly great.
Resistance wears many masks, each aiming to disguise its true purpose, and each aiming to pass it off as something else, something genuine, harmless and even beneficial. In order to beat Resistance we must first identify it. We have to umask it. Once we know what it really is, we can confront it directly, and win.
Do you know when to finish? Do you work on many projects at once, going from one to the next without really shipping anything? Do you constantly tweak, revise, and postpone your work? Getting work shipped is what the Resistance fears most. It means our work will collide with the outside world and by doing so will invoke judgement and criticism.
But unshipped work doesn’t count for much at all. You have to push through the Resistance and call out its bluff. You absolutely cannot surrender to all of the rationalizations and excuses that stop you from getting your work completed. Remember: Resistance uses anxiety as its fuel, but anxiety itself is nothing to be afraid of.
The difference between fear and anxiety: Anxiety is diffuse and focuses on possibilities in an unknown future, not a real and present threat. The resistance is 100 percent about anxiety, because humans have developed other emotions and warning to help us avoid actual threats. Anxiety, on the other hand, is an internal construct with no relation to the outside world. “Needless anxiety” is redundant, because anxiety is always needless. Anxiety doesn’t protect you from danger, but from doing great things. It keeps you awake at night and foretells a future that’s not going to happen.
Seth Godin, Linchpin
In our knowledge economy our most valuable asset is our creativity. You can’t compete on price with companies that outsource to Asia or East Europe where labor is extremely cheap—you have to offer something more. That something is creativity—it’s art—it’s being able to solve challenging problems, design beautiful products and offer remarkable customer service. But these things cannot happen if your creativity is held hostage by Resistance. This is why it’s now more important than ever to define this invisible menace and face it head on.
There is no trick to overcoming Resistance, you just have to do it. Knowing your enemy is half the battle though, and if you can identify those moments where you’re veering off track, where you’re wasting time on busy work that doesn’t really matter, or stalling and postponing your work—name these moments for what they really are: forces of Resistance. You’ve now got a choice: surrender to Resistance or correct course. Which will it be?
Are you born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.
Do it or don’t do it.
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art