We have this amazing body part – our brain, sitting inside us capable of helping us shape our experience of life, yet so often I think we underestimate its power and potential and therefore our own abilities to develop it.

How we use our brain, how we think, affects our outcomes, yet we don’t tend to invest in learning how to think effectively, we don’t think much about how we think. Add to this that we’re often taught WHAT to think rather than being taught HOW to think, so we can start to believe that our (or others’) belief or opinion is fact rather than looking at it with a more critical eye. Thankfully many schools are now assisting their kids to develop their thinking ability. It’s certainly something I wish I had learned more about when I was younger.

When you learn how to think more effectively, you can increase your ability to create your path rather than react, you’ll more feel empowered so you can do and be more and perhaps most importantly you’ll be less at the mercy of external events and other people.

Many of us are quick to focus on the more obvious and visible parts of our body. We go to the gym to build up our muscles, we invest in getting haircuts, clothes or jewellery to make ourselves look nice, yet most of us wouldn’t consider investing anything whatsoever in the way of time or money in learning how to harness our brain’s potential. We also don’t consider the boost we could give our kids by giving them some guidance and tools in this area.

I like to think of my brain as a nice piece of tech with a heap of capability, a bit like an iPhone. Think of all that your phone gives you if you learn how to use it to its fullest potential: It helps keep you connected to people you love, dial 111 and it save someone’s life, you can use it to discover a world of  art, music, thought, ideas. With it you can create and join groups to help shape things. You can track a range of health and fitness metrics thereby motivating you to make improvements to your overall health. It can help you manage your time, scan a document, preserve precious memories using the camera or manage a big project. You can run a business from your phone, use it to find creative inspiration and get access to other people’s wisdom such as via podcasts.

It’s similar for our brain. Whilst many of us take our brains for granted, some of us abuse it, few learn how to drive it in ways that unlock its capacity – what a waste! There’s so much it can do, if only we could learn how to really use it.

 

We have the componentry

We are learning more and more about the brain’s building blocks and functionality through the branch of science known as neuroscience.

Our genetic makeup lays down the structure of our brain (“nature”) whilst the physical and social environments that form us (“nurture”) also play an important role in shaping our outcomes. Back when I was studying psychology we used to enjoy debating the relative contributions of nature versus nurture, nowadays it is widely accepted that nature and nurture each play critical roles, with neither one outweighing the other. Our brain’s potential is set down in our genes inherited from our parents (nature), yet how those genes are ultimately expressed is heavily influenced by our formative and ongoing experiences (nurture).

How can we make the most of our brain’s incredible potential? We need to learn how to think effectively.

 

How do our thinking styles develop?

I find it fascinating to think about the fact that we don’t see the world purely as it is, instead we see it through the lenses or perspectives we have learned growing up. Some of these lenses are our belief systems (i.e. what we believe to be true) and our values systems (what we believe to be important). Both our values and beliefs significantly impact how we perceive ourselves, other people and events and they inform our views of life, the universe and pretty much everything, yet we are mostly unaware of what our beliefs and values are and are therefore blissfully unaware of the impact they have on influencing the decisions we make and the outcomes we create for ourselves.

They are unconsciously formed while we’re young, and we absorb them – a bit like osmosis, from significant people in our lives. Because we’re so young when we take them onboard, we take them on uncritically and without analysis. If we want to change how we are experiencing life, a great place to start is to start to develop an awareness of our values and beliefs and to become aware of the influence they are having. Furthermore, if we think that they are limiting us or impacting us in ways that aren’t serving us, with help, we can learn how to change them.

 

Key ways to think more effectively

I can only scratch the surface of this topic in this forum, but some of the key ways I can suggest to develop your ability to think effectively are:

Take ownership

Cultivate the thinking habit: “If it’s meant to be it’s up to me”. Of course it isn’t true that EVERYTHING that happens to you is your “fault” or “responsibility” – how could it be? However, if you make the conscious decision to be the one taking responsibility for driving your own bus whenever possible, rather than letting other people (and events) be the one in charge of the steering wheel, then you will far more often be able to shape what happens to you. What we’re talking about here is personal empowerment, in contrast to allowing yourself to fall into the trap of disempowering yourself by placing yourself at the mercy of other people and external events. This is a big and potentially challenging idea but learning more about this concept and how to use it fully has the potential to be life-changing.

 

Throw yourself open to learning

So many of us unwittingly have our style cramped by being afraid to genuinely take a small risk in order to grow and learn. People cling to what they know rather than taking on new ideas and information and having a crack at applying them. As a career coach I hear many, many stories from clients who don’t want to “put themselves out there” to try for a job the next level above their current pay grade and knowledge scope. What a shame.

This lack of confidence in stepping up and allowing yourself the potential to learn and grow keeps the lid on many people’s potential for growth and contribution – important needs that we have, if only we could embrace the opportunity to learn. Our risk-aversion will likely have its origin in childhood, where we might have been punished or belittled for getting things “wrong” or conversely where we were overly praised, applauded and rewarded for getting things “right”. Those external badges of recognition can become addictive even into adulthood, so rather than risk looking stupid or inept we stay on the same track building on the narrow veins of knowledge we already have rather than expanding our reach out into newer and maybe even more exciting pastures. Food for thought.

 

Pay attention to what you feed your mind

I’ve talked before about looking after what I like to call the “temple of my mind.” We are relentlessly bathed in negative, stress-inducing news. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to other people’s Insta-perfect lives. You could think of this as junk food for your mind. Something simple to bear in mind to help you curb your addiction to this is the simple question you can ask, posed by the good people at NZ Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience: “Is it helping or harming?”

Feeding your mind “soul food” instead can quickly help you feel more positive, more resilient and more in control.

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Treat your mind with the utmost respect, continually invest in its development and growth. Learning how to think more critically and getting some help to reveal your unconscious motivators, such as your beliefs and values and the impact they could be having on you, can make a WORLD of difference to your life.