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Do You Want to Be an Iconoclast?

Do you want to be an iconoclast?  Do you know what an iconoclast is?  Do you want to do something that others say can’t be done?  Because if you do, you are an iconoclast or are at least aspiring to be iconoclastic.

Iconoclast by Gregory Berns is a page-turning tour de force that (unintentionally) cheekily winks at the numerous pop psychology books currently available on airport book stands that try to instruct the reader on the pursuit of personal excellence and how expertise is created and success achieved in a variety of performance domains.

Berns is a neuroeconomist who aims to make sense of the complex links between the decisions that humans make and the firing patterns of neurons in specific parts of the brain.  He uses elaborate explanations about human anatomy and intriguing scientific experiments to explain why some humans are successful and creative using theories that fly in the face of any Freudian notion of the id driving human behaviour.

The defining functions of an iconoclast…
So if you want to do things differently to the rest, here are three functions that differentiate the brain of an iconoclast from other people:

1. Perception: “Iconoclasts see things differently than other people.  Literally.  They see things differently because their brains do not fall into efficiency traps as much as the average person’s brain.”

2. Fear response: Iconoclasts may experience fears such as fear of uncertainty and fear of public ridicule, however they do not let them inhibit their actions.

3. Social intelligence: Iconoclasts can sell their ideas to other people.  “In order to sell one’s ideas, one must create a positive reputation that will draw people toward something that is initially unfamiliar and potentially scary.  Familiarity helps build one’s reputation.”

Berns notes that it is very rare that individuals possess all three of these characteristics.  However, the three differentiating functions are good to know for your own personal and professional development, in addition to working with others in a group environment.

Berns goes into great detail to explain the relevance of the mind-body relationship, particularly the way that the complex human brain works, despite its love of efficiency!

Your brain is lazy…
According to Berns, our brains are essentially lazy, constantly wanting to conserve energy like any other muscle in the body, therefore often taking the path of least resistance.  Humans use past experience and categorisation to guide present experiences.  The main reason for this efficient process is the brain continues to evolve by principles of competition and adaption.

We must seek to train our brains and prevent this lazy behaviour that stifles creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.   The brain can change its neural patterns but it has to be encouraged (or forced!) to do so.   By forcing the visual system to see things in different ways through literal visual cues and perceptive processes, as well as tapping into imagination, you can increase the odds of developing new and inspirational insights.

He provides several examples of people in a variety of performance domains that do things that others say cannot be done.  Examples of individuals whose unique perception changed the world included Howard Armstrong for creating the FM radio; Nolan Bushnell, the inventor of the game Pong; Walt Disney’s change of the animated cartoon from being a movie trailer to a main feature; Florence Nightingale showed how it was disease that was killing soldiers during the 1850’s Crimean War and presented the data in graphical form to Queen Victoria; and Branch Rickey the baseball manager who was the first to hire negro players.

Fear is normal…
Given that fear dictates human behaviour on many occasions, it is worthwhile appreciating that the stress response is a normal, evolutionary feedback process.  However, the fact that humans are not typically fending off saber-toothed tigers, Berns believes that many fears are acquired and can be tamed.  In many situations the experience of fear may be unavoidable but the paralysing nature of fear is something individuals can learn to tackle to ensure they inhibit the outward expression of fear.

Examples of individuals whose ability to tame fear in their pursuit of progress include the Dixie Chicks who publically criticized the President of the United States at a concert and despite death threats, continued to perform and went on to produce further musical success; Richard Feynman and his role in publically attributing blame to NASA’s management practices for the Challenger disaster; Martin Luther King Junior for appealing for nonviolence in times of racial tension in Washington in 1963; David Dreman and his buy low and sell high philosophy to the stock market; and Henry Ford and his development of the assembly line.

Social networking works…
There is no doubting that the ability to connect with other people is a skill that materially contributes to personal and business success.  The role of social intelligence has been seriously acknowledged for more than 15 years with a sudden burst of interest when Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence hit the bookstores circa 1996 followed by his book Social Intelligence a decade later.  Spending time and energy on people and your relationships with people undoubtedly improves your chances of forming enduring human connections.

Examples of individuals who have mastered the art of social networking include Pablo Picasso and his charisma that attracted people to his art (and bed!); Ray Kroc and his use of clowns to draw kids into a burger joint; Warren Buffet and his straight talk that fosters trust in his advice; Arnold Schwarzenegger and his familiarity and invincibility that have enabled him a successful transition into Californian politics; and Richard Branson and his powerful role in the team-work to make private spaceflight possible.

The information regarding these three functions provides wonderful insights into the evolution and functioning of the human brain.  These insights provide alternative perspectives with in-depth detail for anyone who is keenly interested in the factors that contribute to the lives of people who have achieved amazing things.  Berns also outlines some of the strategies to implement to increase your chances of success and creativity, which is superb for all of us who want to excel.

Take-away points…
In summary, here are a few of the key lessons learnt as well as points reinforced from this read:

1.    New perspectives are important for the creation of new ideas.  The key to seeing like an iconoclast is to look at things that you have never seen before.  Given that the brain likes categories, it is valuable to confront the brain’s love of taking the path of least resistance, and force yourself into novel circumstances.

“..Bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before.  Novelty releases the perceptual process from the shackles of past experience and forces the brain to make new judgments.  Where most people shy away from things that are different; the iconoclast embraces novelty.”

In general, try new things (e.g., food), go to new places (e.g., travel), and meet new people.  More specifically in sport, practice in a variety of settings to enhance your creativity (e.g., if you are a golfer, practice on different golf courses, holes, ranges, and short game areas) or train with a variety of training partners.

2.    You can reprogram your brain to deal with fear.  Berns details three main types of fear: (1) fear of the unknown, (2) fear of failure, and (3) fear of looking stupid.  Each of these can be addressed by engaging the part of the brain primarily responsible for cognition (i.e., prefrontal cortex).

You can learn strategies from psychologists such as cognitive reappraisal and rational thinking that are extremely beneficial in how you deal with fear.  More importantly, the value of practice is emphasized again.. In every performance domain, practice and repeated exposure to the stressor(s) are undeniable ‘fixes’ to become more comfortable in any given circumstance.

3.    Your chances of success are aided by either being able to develop a solid reputation and become familiar and/or being able to connect with someone who can help you through working as a team.  Place a premium on your relationship-building abilities.

The age-old saying, ‘it is not what you know, but who you know’ rings true in this case.  Start connecting!

4.    ‘Going with the flow’ has such a strong influence and thus consequences on working in groups.  The tendency of humans to comply with the majority’s opinion is limiting.  The research that Berns describes highlights how this tendency is not the best way to operate, particularly for teams, committees, or coaching panels.  Simple advice is to aim to make sure that teams and groups are diverse so that the tendency to go with the majority is reduced.  Additionally, be prepared to speak up as the opinion of an iconoclast rarely goes unnoticed!

Overall, Iconoclast is a captivating read with numerous examples of real-life individuals and companies that demonstrate the intricate details that fostered creativity and success.  It is a valuable tool for understanding the function of the human brain that I am sure will be referenced for years to come.

For those who prefer a (much) lighter read about success, try Bossypants, an autobiography by Tina Fey, the American actress, comedian, writer and producer.  For those who don’t know her, she became most recognised internationally for her satirical portrayal of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2008.  Given the examples provided by Berns, Tiny Fey may well be considered an iconoclast!

Step outside of your comfort zone and consciously create success through forcing the brain to work harder!

One who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities.  Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.  There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail.
– Henry Ford

Andrea Furst | Sport & Exercise Psychologist MAPS