how important is this?
Individuals like you gladly pay the cost: more pressure, more expectations, more challenge, more fulfilment. You love your work but you wish you could enjoy it more. You have responsibility, people count on you, but sometimes there’s no space to solve problems creatively.
Otto Loewi sits bolt upright in his bed around 2am the night before Easter Sunday. It was a dream that would revolutionise neuroscience. Grabbing a pen and paper he started scratching in the dark, his hands shaking. He wrote everything he could remember about the dream. Exhausted, he fell back to sleep.
The next morning his mind was empty. His notes were useless.
Otto’s family gave him space as he desperately tried to recreate the dream with pencil sketches. He worked to exhaustion and fell asleep unwillingly and disheartened.
This time, when Otto saw visions of a frog’s heart in a bath, he floated straight from bed and setup the experiment just as he remembered in his dream.
This elegant experiment earned Otto Loewi the Nobel Prize in 1936. This shows us that inspiration doesn’t usually present itself in an obvious way. A neuroscientist dreaming of frog hearts isn’t exactly logical and yet, it worked.
otto’s dream, a working example of adaptive expertise.
If you are visiting the site for the first time, this section will explain adaptive expertise.
Unexpected events cause the most trouble. These challenges require a different kind of skill because you have never had the chance to rehearse a solution. You must adapt in the moment, this is adaptive expertise.
Once someone learns a new skill and they learn it well, we usually refer to them as experts. This is misleading because expertise exists on a spectrum.
Back in 2008 I worked with Sky TV selling subscriptions in Reading, it was good hard work and I met many people everyday. In the manager’s office we are discussing my performance. By the end of the meeting I had two new trainees to care for: Pat and Keiron. I took my responsibility very seriously.
By the end of training I had done everything I could. They knew the product so well they could discuss with engineers. They delivered the script fluidly and with personality. They were ready.
I drank coffee with each of them a fortnight later, it was the earliest we could catch up. Two weeks had made a huge difference, my trainees were on completely different paths even though their initial training was the same.
The next day I spent time with each of them as they made presentations. What I discovered during this day changed my conception of expertise and gave me a fresh perspective on human intelligence. The time with Keiron was textbook. As long as the customer was giving the “right” answers, he was fine. But as soon as a customer went off script he was totally lost. I did not have the words for it then, but I was looking at the limits of routine expertise.
Contrast that with the time I spent with Pat. His approach seemed random and haphazard at first. As time went on his strategy became clear. I saw the method behind the apparent madness and, oddly enough, it reminded me of Picasso.
picasso’s adaptive art
Sometimes it can be tough to tell the difference between an adaptive experts and a delusional novice. However, the key difference here is efficiency.
Adaptive experts respond to the current situation. The past is used as background information. Because we never find ourselves in exactly the same situation twice, the adaptive expert presents a unique solution for every new problem.
Picasso is known for his cubist paintings. But he did not always paint that way. He actually only started painting that way when he was 28 years old. Picasso began his art training at 19. He did not do anything innovative in these nine years.
Instead he worked on his routine skills and by the age of 28 he was beginning to build his adaptive expertise.
Adaptive experts are more creative when applying their skill. This trait is not limited to experts we usually place in the “creative” field. In fact, this is a false distinction. There’s no such thing as a “non-creative” field, it doesn’t exist.
So it does not matter whether or not you consider your current work to be creative or not, the work always has the potential to be creative. When you trust your routine expertise enough to exercise your latent creativity then you can see what is possible. At the very least, it would not be boring.
joseph’s adaptive accounting
When there is a news event, the strangest aspects become fascinating to me. I am always looking at connections here and there, I crave context.
There was one news story from December 2009 that led me to a man named Joseph Glickauf Jr., he was a partner at Accenture’s mother company. He invented a new field of consulting chasing “a vision of what would soon become a revolutionary reality”.
His accounting career started with the military in 1942. The four years he spent there built his routine expertise and he even had flashes of creative competence.
In 1946 he began working on bringing his “revolutionary reality” to life. But after five years and millions of dollars, he began to feel the pressure of the company’s expectations. Things were becoming uncomfortable.
In February 1952, after six years of work, investment and trust, General Electric ordered some 600 calculation per second machines. This innovation’s vindication triggered 12 years with Joseph Glickauf guiding a period of rapid transformation and expertly applied creativity. Joseph’s cultivation of adaptive expertise made him more than an accountant, just as Picasso was more than a painter.
rita levi-montalcini’s task flexibility
We see these same abilities in our greatest scientists. Rita Levi-Montalcini developed her adaptive expertise dissecting chicken embryos in her bedroom with tweezers and sewing needles while bombs shook her hands.
Turin in 1938 was a place that demanded creativity if you were a female Jewish scientist with the desire to actually do science. And so over the next six years Rita became very creative.
By implanting a mouse tumor into a chicken embryo she discovered the protein that makes neurons grow. This was 14 years later in St. Louis, Missouri. She would win the Nobel Prize for what she discovered that year.
You will probably find more examples of adaptive experts in the sciences than any other field. That is because the scientific method is really a method of experimentation. When scientists apply their skills to a problem, they have to use unique approaches because that is the only way to discover something new.
The part of our brain that makes us well suited to a scientific approach is the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of our brain that overrides base emotions that can prevent us from experimenting. Fear, for example, is a common emotion that prevents us from attempting a novel solution: “what if it doesn’t work?” The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function which acts in six areas.
the six areas of cognitive control
The prefrontal cortex is the goal-seeking part of the brain. It allows us to work toward the things we consciously want. On the way to achieving any goal there are setbacks. Sometimes minor, sometimes devastating. The only way to reach the goal is to overcome these hurdles and this is the part of the brain responsible for that.
This is why we look to prefrontal cortex training when we want to improve problem solving because better problem solvers are able to do more. This is the foundational skill on which all the others are based.
The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in the regulation of fear. This finding is encouraging research in anxiety, panic and posttraumatic stress disorder, focused on the prefrontal cortex.Dr. Joseph E. LeDoux
“Damage to the prefrontal cortex can result in deficits across a wide range of functions, including working memory, rule learning, planning, attention, and motivation”Sara M. Szczepanski
The relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala fundamentally changes with meditation.Dr. Jim Yong Kim, MD
There is one thing that gets in the way when you try to solve complex problems: Solution Prisons.
Here is a light example of a solution prison:
Ana wants to reward her puppy for rolling over but the only thing she has in her pocket is plain beef jerky. If she starts looking around for Milkbone Puppy Treats™ instead of realising that plain beef jerky is also a fine reward for a puppy and not solely a human food then we would say Ana is in a solution prison.
This example is deliberately ridiculous but if you look closely at the problems you constantly struggle with, you may notice your own personal solution prisons.
It is possible you think that is it somewhat negative to look at the world as a chaotic jumble of problems to solve. But problem solving is not negative, by definition the better you are at problem solving, the less problems you have.
Mindfulness training is specifically designed to allow you to consistently find non-obvious solutions to surprising problems. This is true creativity.
The standard way of thinking about memory is to imagine your brain as a vast jungle. Each new memory like a box dropped in the undergrowth. Walking from one memory to another creates a makeshift path: you have trampled some plants, cleared some brush with your machete. You can consider this path to be a short term memory connection.
If you never walk that path again, the jungle quickly grows back obscuring the way. You forget. However, if you walk that path again by using the information multiple times, this rough path becomes a road. Nothing can grow there. You now have a long term memory connection.
Working memory is the ability to gather all the relevant information connected by little paths and all the relevant information connected by roads and bring it all to a clearing in the jungle so that you can work with everything at once.
But this information won’t sit still. It is desperate to get back to its part of the jungle. So while you are working on your problem, you must also wrangle these bits of information to keep them in the clearing. This takes a lot of effort for the untrained brain.
Imagine two jugglers, Pavel and Natalie. Pavel can juggle up to ten tennis balls but only if he starts with three and only if everyone is very quiet and his assistant, Hugo, feeds him the balls. Pavel has routine expertise and is rather inflexible at this task.
Natalie, on the other hand can juggle just about anything. At her last show, for the big finale, she was juggling ten objects: three tennis balls, two clubs, three iPhones, a running chainsaw and bicycle tire. All fed to her randomly while a raucous crowd cheered her on in the middle of snowy Covent Garden. Natalie has adaptive expertise and her task flexibility is breathtaking.
Task flexibility represents your ability to alter the way you think in response to a changing environment or shifting goals. You can think of it as your ability to appreciate every possible option available to you simultaneously, at all times.
Task flexibility is a huge confidence booster because your ability to perform is not limited to the routines you have learned. There is really no adaptive expert who does not exhibit this trait.
Good planning reduces the amount of effort you expend to reach a given goal. Ancient sculptors used grids, painters sketch in pencil, project managers build venn diagrams and chefs have recipes.
Imagine building a house without blueprints? Even if you were a house building genius, the result would not be as good and it would take much more energy.
A plan is an ideal version of reality. Good planning means always checking reality against this ideal version. Imagine you are playing a game of chess. If you are an average player, you think about 3 moves ahead: “I’ll move this here, then they’ll probably do this and I’ll do that and…” – So before you make your first move you have an ideal reality in mind.
Of course what often happens in chess, as in life, is that there are unexpected moves. This is when the real planning takes place. How does this new reality affect your ideal plan? What can you do to get back on track?
The people who can hold multiple ideal realities in their head and modify heir plans successfully, in real time, tend to reach their goals faster and with less brute effort.
Reasoning can be defined as “figuring stuff out”. We are constantly bombarded with information and somehow we have to figure out:
- What is this?
- Do I care?
- Must I act?
We reason by putting things in boxes. Here’s another light example:
- Ralph sees an advertisement for Chanel No.5 – This goes in his “Ads” box
- Does he care? Well it depends, if he is single, probably not. But if he has a girlfriend, wife or mother, maybe now he does care. – It goes in his “stuff mum might like” box.
- Must he act? Hmmm, is it near her birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day?
You get the picture. We run this What? Care? Act? sequence countless times every day and the whole thing happens so quickly that we barely notice it. Sometimes the information we have is far more complex and the final decision more “important”. Improving our reasoning abilities allows us to accurately identify what is in front of us, to analyse it properly and to act based on that analysis.
Think of these six elements of cognitive control as a great arrow. Problem solving is the fletching, it keeps us stable and on the correct path. Planning would be the nock, it sets everything up. Task flexibility is represented as the softwood section of the shaft while reasoning is represented as the hardwood section. Working memory is represented by the whole shaft because it supports planning, reasoning and task flexibility.
Execution is the arrowhead, the most important part of the arrow and the most important of the cognitive elements because if you do nothing, the rest does not matter.
Execution is the action you take to achieve your goals, big or small, in an uncertain world. It should always be backed up by the other elements. Acting blindly is about as effective as hunting for dinner by throwing handfuls of arrowheads at a herd of elk.