I was struck recently by an intriguing connection between two seemingly unrelated encounters. In the first, I was talking to someone who had just joined an organisation as its new CEO. As she was reflecting on her decision, she explained how she had experienced a buzz of excitement from the first moment she heard about the opportunity. This was in stark contrast to her feelings about a number of other possible roles that had come her way previously.
As to be expected, now that she was up and running, she was beginning to face a number of testing challenges. But it was impressive to see her so grounded by a passionate resolve to succeed and a deep conviction that she was in the right place at the right time.
The second encounter involved coming across a news article about the boom currently underway in metal-detecting (I did say they seem unrelated!). Fuelled by some spectacular treasure finds in recent years, amateur metal-detectors have been discovering a record number of precious ancient artefacts under the fields of Britain.
So what is the connection? In different ways, they help demonstrate the ingenious ways we human beings go about searching for things we perceive to be of value. The role of metal-detectors in helping us find treasure of material worth is relatively clear. But the role our internal biological system plays in helping us find more emotional rewards is less well understood.
The core technology of metal-detection was invented in the late 19th Century and involves an electrical machine sending an electromagnetic field into the ground. When a piece of conductive metal comes close, a separate electromagnetic field is created which sends a signal back to alert the machine’s user.
Insight into the biological processes involved in our body’s intrinsic search for rewards is more recent and is being transformed by recent breakthroughs in neuroscience. As a result, I like the idea of us seeing ourselves as walking, talking treasure-detectors!
In his book Alive At Work, London Business School’s Daniel Cable describes how our brains are hard-wired with a ‘seeking system’. “Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our world, learn about our environment and extract meaning from our circumstances,” he explains. When we sense opportunities for self-expression, experimentation and purpose, the brain triggers the release of dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to feelings of enthusiasm, zest and curiosity. An example of this in action is the ‘buzz of excitement’ experienced by the CEO I mentioned earlier.
Our biological system has one huge advantage over the technology involved in metal-detection. Not only does it alert us when we’re moving towards something of potential interest, it also sends signals when we are moving in the other direction. That is because our brains are also configured with a ‘fear system’.
The benefit of the fear system is that it helps protect us from threats in our environment. Instead of dopamine, our body’s response to danger is driven by the release of adrenaline and cortisol which help focus our attention, tighten our muscles and keep us alert.
It is clear that our seeking and fear systems have both played a crucial role in helping human beings thrive as a species. But there is an important catch. For evolutionary reasons, the fear system tends to override the seeking system. Just like the battle between the brake and the accelerator peddles in a car, our negative emotions tend to override our positive ones.
All of which leads to an important conclusion. If we want to live lives that are inspired – lives in which we experience the joy of purpose, learning and fulfilment – then we have to tune in more sensitively to the signals we get from our seeking system. What are the activities we find most enjoyable, exciting and interesting? What are the challenges that pull us forward with a spirit of possibility and adventure?
Once we begin to identify these opportunities, we must then make the decisions necessary to override our fear system and put them at the heart of our lives. Rather than following career paths that other people think we should take, how can we set out on a direction of our own? Instead of being trapped by our financial circumstances, how can we give more priority to our emotional and spiritual fulfilment?
So as 2019 unfolds, I urge you to make greater use of your own internal treasure-seeking system. Tune in to the buzz of excitement that tells you what matters most to you. And have the courage to follow that buzz when you feel it, just as the CEO I described earlier did. You may not end up with a hoard of Roman coins or an Anglo-Saxon axe head, but the spiritual treasure you discover could well be priceless.
For further insight into how to discover inspiration as a leader, try reading my book ‘The Inspired Leader’ published by Bloomsbury.