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How to take full advantage of your cognitive edge

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 

How to take full advantage of your cognitive edge

Are you a powerful player in today’s cognitive age or an authentic cog in the knowledge economy?

What’s the difference and why should you care?

It’s all about you as a human and how you interact with machines and information. The stakes involve your self-preservation. That means your physical and mental well-being, your relations with others, and your achievements.

Let’s first consider the knowledge economy, which has experienced a shift since the eminent professor and management Guru Peter Drucker introduced the concept in the 1960s.

Economic growth depends more on the quantity, quality and accessibility of information, rather than other forms of production.

Initially, humans were the source of knowledge. Now machines provide more than their fair share of intellectual capital.

With Google, IBM’s Watson, other robots, apps and other technology rapidly improving, machines are the backbone of the knowledge economy. Machines often can access, analyze and report out information faster, more dependably and consistently than humans.

Humans still enjoy a cognitive edge over computers and other machines. For example, we have the ability to think abstractly and creatively, set goals, and interact with other human beings in innovative ways.

That edge can help us navigate our increasingly dynamic VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. We can no longer “rinse and repeat” actions and expect the same or even good results.

Instead, in this more demanding cognitive age, we have to absorb, process and synthesize information in different ways and turn it into new actionable ideas.

As The New York Times columnist and author David Brooks has observed, while technology can send you information across the globe in matters of seconds, the most significant segment of the journey is the last few inches ─ the space between your eyes and ears and the various regions of your brain.

Yet, these last two to four inches of your journey also can be the most unreliable.

While we humans should be able to use our brainpower to our advantage, we often fall short of our capabilities. Even if we have the capacity to understand the information we’ve accessed, we may not have the will or skill to apply it, or get past the barriers in our way  ─ real and perceived ─ to get over the hill and take action.

To take full advantage of your cognitive edge, you need to do the following:

  1. Act like a human, not a machine. You cannot operate 24/7 as our devices and other machines can and do. You need to take time throughout the day to eat, move, and rest. You also need to sleep at least seven hours each night. The brain works hardest while you sleep, sorting through and storing memories and doing other clean up. For more info, see What your brain needs for optimal performance.
  1. Embrace the five key qualities in which we humans excel: creativity, humor, empathetic, socially sensitive, and storytelling. In his thought-provoking 2015 book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin identified these five key qualities in which humans excel. For more about CHESS, the acronym for these five characteristics, see Are you ready to excel at CHESS?
  1. Recognize your shortcomings, which all humans have, and adopt workarounds. For better and generally worse, our biology has hard-wired our brain with built-in biases that exist in our nonconsciousness. Neuroscientists have discovered more than 150 types of biases that can cloud our thinking, decision-making and interactions with others. Because we’re not conscious of them, we keep tripping over them. (By the way, these biases contribute to all of the polarizing points of view in American politics these days.) Instead, we need to accept responsibility for our brain’s deficiency in this area and adopt specific processes that prevent us from acting on our biases. For more about this, see Bless Your Biased Brain.

The gap between knowing you should do these things and doing them regularly can be huge. I experience it in myself and my clients all the time.

The best ways to close the gap, or at least narrow it, include:

  • Find an “accountability pal” to share your commitments for action and then check in with each other regularly. The time period can be weekly, biweekly, monthly or whatever Using the principle that “two heads are better than one,” you can help each other stay on your respective course.
  • Create new habits to help you do what you want to do. For example to get enough sleep each night, many find that setting a regular bedtime and sticking with it consistently is the key to success. For more on habits, especially about the skill of building habits, see Be kind to your brain; resolve to build habits.
  • Work with a coach to jumpstart you on the right path for you, and then practice. For example, as a coach I work with individuals to set goals and strategies to achieve those goals, and then help guide them to take regular steps to fulfill their goals. Along the way, my coachees experiment with the best ways to sustain their new behavior and their achievements.

These actions play to our strengths as humans. We’re social creatures and the more empathetic, social sensitive and supportive we can be with each other, the better we can perform and achieve individually and collectively.

Our social strengths are a hallmark of this cognitive age — provided we continue practicing them with help from each other. I’m willing to help. Are you?