Always Look on the Bright Side of . . . Life
With echoes of Monty Python running through my head I read through the second chapter of the Heath brothers’ Switch fascinated by an idea that was so obvious and clear as to be routinely ignored: find what works and do more of it.
*plants palm firmly in center of forehead making a distinct slapping sound*
Of course. Why focus on problems if solutions are right next to you? The subtitle of this book is “How to Change When Change is Hard”, and this first lesson hits you like, “Why didn’t I think about that?”
To back up, the Heaths explain that our behavior is governed by two independent forces that are complementary, but not always complimentary. That is, they complete each other, but don’t always cooperate. These forces are our executive function or logical thinking, and our emotional motivation. Without our reasoning brain to solve a problem and find the path, our emotional energy will flail around. Without the motivation and drive of our emotions, our executive function will spin its wheels and never get started. The Heaths borrow a metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents the tremendous power of our emotional motivation, but it needs direction from the rider. The rider knows where to go, but needs the elephant’s power to get there. The first section of the book explores how to get the Rider to most efficiently create a winning plan. This is a plan that is reasonable, rational, but most importantly, accessible to the Elephant.
The first technique is to find what already works and copy it. They call it finding the bright spots, and give some great examples of it in action. My favorite came from a children’s malnutrition project. Plenty of expert “Riders” had already assessed the situation and found it too difficult to solve. The malnutrition came from insurmountable structural problems: poverty, lack of sanitation, no clean water, etc. These problems would not go away overnight because they were large in scale and complicated. A new team went to one particular village to investigate. They asked a simple question, “Is this problem universal, affecting everyone equally, or are some people able to get around it and raise healthy children despite the odds?” What they found was that some families in the same circumstances did have healthy children. With the same resources, they were getting better results. The investigators had found a “bright spot”. They followed them around to see what they did differently. Instead of two meals a day like the adults, these families fed their kids more often. And they used a couple of ingredients not usually thought of as appropriate for kids, some leafy greens and shrimp. These few ingredient changes increased both the calorie density and nutrient density of the food and resulted in healthy children. Once this strategy was shared, other families got the same results.
Amazing, isn’t it? The reasoning brain would get stuck at the big problems, but by showing it a practical solution, it can focus on the details. Seeing that success is possible, the emotional side is motivated by the good feelings that success creates. In these villages, Elephants and Riders worked together to improve the health of the children.
So the take home message is to find the bright spots. What has worked in the past? Why did it work? Can we do more of that? Right now I’m tempted to try anaerobic workouts again. I’ve been building my aerobic base for awhile, and I want to get faster. But my bright spot is the Maffetone method, not anaerobic running or cycling. What I need now is better climbing, so I will combine the methods. I will find some hills to climb and climb more and more, but I will keep it aerobic. This way I practice what needs improving, climbing, in a similar way to traditional interval training. But I will keep the intensity aerobic. My thinking is that this way I can build strength in my aerobic slow twitch muscle fibers to climb faster, and do it without the added recovery demands and increased overtraining risk from anaerobic training. At least for one more month. In June I may need to find a new bright spot.