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Graham Birkenhead, January 5 2021

For 2021, Make More Use of Your Mind

Over the Holiday break, for a little light relief, I was simultaneously reading a couple of books: one about neuro-plasticity and another about memory. Both books about the brain; one from a physiological perspective and the other from a more psychological perspective. Both books were ultimately about learning.

For many years I have emphasized the importance of learning, both as an individual and as a company, and am a firm believer of the idea that the company that learns faster than the competition will be the one that comes out on top. But ultimately, it is the people in the company that do the learning and apply it for the benefit of the company.

To cut a long story short (or rather to summarize 2 books), the brain is a most amazing organ and we do it a huge disservice and we set ourselves misleading expectations when we try to equate it to a machine - even if that machine is the most capable AI computer. It is NOTHING like a machine. A subtlety that I had not previously considered is that not only is the brain phenomenal at learning (given the opportunity), it is truly optimized to constantly learn ‘how to learn’. Part of its strength comes from its tendency to forget and not store every piece of information in a discrete location - ready to be perfectly recalled - like a computer does. Every thought is recreated anew every time we ‘have a thought’. Context plays a huge role in how our thoughts form at any particular time and this is the foundation of our creativity.

As children, our learning is in free-flow and we often use the term ‘sponge’ to describe a child’s ability to soak up knowledge. As we become more adult and our certainty about how the world works increases, and we become more set in our ways, we start building our lives and careers based on what we learned years ago. Our knowledge now increases more incrementally - rather than exponentially as it did early on.

But we have a hugely capable resource just sitting there waiting for us to use it. And the time when it is put to the test is when we experience change - either we need to overcome a physical change (eg a stroke) where we have to relearn basic skills we have always taken for granted, or it could be more environmental such as moving to a new country with a different language and culture. Or it could be having to adapt to a new way of living and working as a result of a pandemic.

While we will often try to resist change (it’s a way of conserving energy and is often a good strategy in a world that doesn’t change much), it is comforting to know that we do actually have brains that are optimized for dealing with drastic change. As humans, our challenge (as well as overcoming our tendency to stay as we are), is to use another aspect of our brains that makes us uniquely human - the imagination and conscious will. Current global events are presenting us with many opportunities and a few necessities for significant change in the way we run our lives and interact with the world. So, now we need to rise to seize the opportunity and learn and relearn how to create a new future - one that is different and with huge potential to be significantly better than the one we were probably envisioning just a year ago.

So, for 2021, don’t waste your time making resolutions that you probably won’t stick to (most people don’t), but just make sure you are constantly learning, experiencing anything new and novel, different and fun, spontaneous or unexpected. Don’t be constrained by what you learned years ago - there isn’t just one solution to a problem, there isn’t just one way of doing anything. Feed your brain with variety, and trust it to do something truly amazing.

Have a great 2021 - and may the fastest learning company show us what can be achieved.

Written by

Graham Birkenhead

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