How we cope with change at work is largely a function of our adaptability. And, according to David Eagleman, the author of Livewired, that adaptability is built into our DNA. I had the opportunity to chat with the neuroscientist, TEDx speaker and technologist, exploring how we can find creative solutions to coping with change – and changing the way we see our own human capabilities in the process.
His book, Livewired, is filled with stories of people who have overcome incredible loss: the loss of eyesight, or a limb, or even a portion of the brain. Surprisingly, these everyday heroes have been able to adapt in powerful ways, rewiring the pathways of the brain to create new possibilities that exceed outward limitations. What if, Eagleman proposes, we have access to greater creativity and innovation than we realize? I asked the Stanford professor what we need to know in order to cope with change at work, especially during times of deep and ongoing uncertainty?
David Eagleman: As I said on my PBS television series, The Brain, ‘From cradle to grave, we are works in progress.’ But there’s an overlooking that happens. We are constantly creative. We are not anything like computers that take data in, have a little file, and then spit the files back out. Humans are not like that at all. We’re constantly generating new ways of going about things. So maybe that’s a part of the misunderstanding is that everybody is creative all the time, because this is how our software is built. This is what we do.
Chris Westfall: But so much of the time, especially in the office (or home office, as the case may be) we shy away from new ideas, in favor of the familiar. Why do we crave certainty and hate change?
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DE: We don’t often appreciate this, but we are always caught between a desire for familiarity and a desire for novelty. This is true across the animal kingdom. Animals all have what’s called an exploration exploitation trade-off, which is to say they spend 80% of their time exploiting the knowledge that they have and 20% of their time exploring new possibilities. So if you’re any animal, let’s say a squirrel or whatever, you think, “Oh, I know there’s food over here.” I’m going to spend 80% of my time exploiting my knowledge of that food source. But 20% of my time, I’ll be off exploring new places and looking under new rocks and inside new trees.
CW: So creativity at work, and coping with change: in terms of our brain health, it’s always a balancing act?
DE: Change is actually one of the most important things for the health of your brain. So brains, without being pushed, they’re going to always fall into path of least resistance. And if you don’t do things right, your brain will become more and more crystallized in place. And I think this is actually one of the few silver linings to the pandemic is it knocked everybody off their hamster wheels. And we’ve all had to rethink many things in life. At the beginning, it was “How do I get food and toilet paper?” But it quickly became something bigger than that about, “Okay, well, what do I want to do with my life?” And, “Am I optimizing my time doing X, Y, and Z and so on?” And, “What do I see are the big goals?” This is something we never had time to ask before, but it is massively important and useful for the brain to get knocked off the hamster wheel, as uncomfortable as it is for us. So that’s the main thing I want to say about change is that people, everyone generally hates going there, but it is super good for your brain.
CW: But what about that 80/20 rule, and the desire for the familiar? What can folks coping with change learn about how to access and embrace innovation – anything from your scientific background that you can share?
DE: My interest has always been in exploring the possibility space. In other words, not saying, “Okay, I think this is the answer,” but saying, “Okay, look, here’s this huge space of possible answers and now let’s import the tools of science to try to carve this space, or at least rule out parts of it or open up new parts of it that we haven’t even seen.” That’s what possibilianism is about. And the three most important words in possibilianism are, “I don’t know.”
[NOTE: Possibilianism is what Eagleman has described as his religion – an open-minded exploration of the unknown. Indeed, his own personal creativity has led him to serve as science advisor to the HBO series, Westworld, in addition to writing a wildly inventive work of fiction called Sum – one of my favorite books.]
CW: So many times, we crave the familiar instead of striving for innovation. What would happen if we turned our attention to possibility, instead of familiarity? We just might discover innovation, if we tackled challenges like a scientist?
DE: Science is mis-taught to children because it’s about finding the answer in the back of the book but really being a scientist is about trying to think of the thing that no one has thought of before.Human brains are really good at absorbing everything they see around them, and then remixing it and doing things with that information. Your brain generates thousands of hypotheses all the time, almost all of which are wrong or meaningless. And then occasionally one fits, one generates something and you think, “Oh, that’s not a bad idea.” And then you go do that, which is what’s led to our species success.
What if you – yes, you – are Livewired to capture innovation, and deal with change? That adaptability, according to Eagleman, is built into the system. And coping with change at work isn’t just an inconvenience or struggle. Science, according to Eagleman, is about “creating new hypotheses”. We don’t always see it, we don’t always accept it, and we don’t always like it, but coping with change is what we were made to do. We are built to create, adapt, and come up with new ideas. Which is probably what David Eagleman is doing, right now.