Tag: John Medina

Cleopatra and Self-Preservation

“For the last time in two thousand years Cleopatra VII stands offstage.
In a matter of days she will launch herself into history,
which is to say that faced with the inevitable,
she will counter with the improbable. It is 48 BC.”
— Stacy Schiff


Cleopatra (69BC 30-BC) was a master of self-preservation. She lived a life under constant threat and yet never fell victim to it. Her success was so uncommon, particularly for a woman, that it seems like history has been trying to make excuses for it for over 2000 years. But as Stacy Schiff illuminates in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, her story is worth learning and taking inspiration from. Cleopatra has a lot to teach us about drawing on all our resources in the face of adversity.

Self-preservation in the biological sense is about our very profound instinct to keep ourselves alive. This instinct is exhibited by all animals and is about the survival of our genes. It’s not about spirituality or morality or about how we feel. It’s a biological desire to live until we can pass our genes onto the next generation and ensure their survival.

As John Medina explains in Brain Rules, “Without a flexible, immediately available, highly regulated stress response, we would die. Remember, the brain is the world’s most sophisticated survival organ. All of its many complexities are built toward a mildly erotic, singularly selfish goal: to live long enough to thrust our genes on to the next generation. Our reactions to stress serve the live-long-enough part of that goal. Stress helps us manage the threats that could keep us from procreating.”

This sophisticated stress response is an extremely useful system to have. It works when it needs to — no effort required — propelling us to fight, flight, or freeze. It allows us to process information so quickly that we are not conscious of the thoughts. We obey our bodies when it tells us not to move a muscle, to attack with as much violence as possible, or to run like hell.

But it has to be able to turn off. It can’t be the only system you use every day. Why? Because it is meant to come out only in situations where our life is threatened.

Our stress responses were shaped to solve problems that lasted not for years, but for seconds. … These days, our stresses are measured not in moments with mountain lions, but in hours, days, and sometimes months with hectic workplaces, screaming toddlers, and money problems. Our system isn’t built for that. And when moderate amounts of hormone build up to large amounts, or when moderate amounts of hormone hang around too long, they become quite harmful.

And so, in human society, which often seems one long, ongoing battle, we can’t exist in a constant state of fight/flight/freeze if we are to preserve both our genes and our sanity. We need to integrate other capabilities of our brain into our dealings with stress, such as rational, strategic thought that leverages the resources of knowledge we’ve built over the years. And this is where Cleopatra excelled.

To be fair, we all don’t respond the same way to stress. As Medina says, “Psychiatrists long have observed that some people are more tolerant of stress than others. … Some people’s genetic complement naturally buffers them against the effects of stress, even the chronic type.”

We will never know if this is true for Cleopatra, but there is no doubt she rose to the formidable challenges of being Queen of Egypt circa 40 BCE. She adapted, survived, and thrived despite constant peril. So maybe her story can illuminate for us a different mindset with which to deal with our daily stressors.

First she had to deal with a tradition of murder within her own family.


Schiff explains in Cleopatra: A Life:

Over the generations the family indulged in what has been termed ‘an orgy of pillage and murder’ … Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.

Because, in Cleopatra’s Ptolemy line, brothers often married sisters, all children had legitimate claims to the throne and often ended up disposing of each other. In keeping up with family practices, Cleopatra got rid of a brother/husband and a sister who had designs on her throne.

So right from the beginning it was kill or be killed. There were no allies in the home.

When Caesar arrived in 48 BCE, Cleopatra’s brother was occupying the throne having banished her to the desert.

That summer she rallied a band of mercenaries, at a desert camp, under the glassy heat of the Syrian sun. She was twenty-one, an orphan and an exile. Already she had known both excessive good fortune and its flamboyant consort, calamity. Accustomed to the greatest luxury of the day, she held court two hundred miles from the ebony doors and onyx floors of home. Her tent amid the scrub of the desert was the closest she had come in a year. Over those months she had scrambled for her life, fleeing through Middle Egypt, Palestine, and southern Syria. She had spent a dusty summer raising an army.

She was resourceful. She took the throne back and held on for 18 tumultuous years.

Politics in the Mediterranean during her time were volatile. Changing allegiances, murder, competing personalities and ideologies characterized the Roman spirit. Caesar had formed a vision of how powerful Rome could be, and this was tempting to many.

Egypt was the richest country on the Mediterranean. Because it had the most fertile soil, it could grow and produce exceptional amounts of food. So it was an early stop in any attempts to conquer the world, because it could fund the efforts.

Rather than focus on the things she couldn’t overtly control (e.g. the timing of Roman invasions), she set to order those elements within her sphere of power and influence. The Greek language, “by Cleopatra’s day [was] the language of business and bureaucracy … While Egyptian speakers learned Greek, it was rare that anyone ventured in the opposite direction. To the punishing study of Egyptian, however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.”

She worked hard to gain and maintain the support of her people because no monarch wants to be fighting on two fronts at once. She got rid of her competitors, spent money on developing Egypt’s infrastructure, and as Schiff explains, learned Egyptian culture so well that she was able to invoke their Goddess Isis as “provider of wisdom and of material and spiritual sustenance.” Rome was always going to be a problem, but she did an excellent job keeping peace on the home front. She had the longest reign of all the Ptolemies.

When the inevitable Roman intrusions came she aimed to best support Egyptian interests, sometimes backing the wrong horse. After Caesar, there was a fight for Roman leadership. When the dust settled Mark Antony was in charge of everything East of Rome and Cleopatra was in the awkward and potentially fatal position of not having supported him.

Confident though she may have been, contemptuous though she may have appeared, Cleopatra left nothing in her preparation to chance. … She would have known she was entering a sort-of sweepstakes for Antony’s attention. She seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry. And she succeeded. In the annals of indelible entrances – the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s stage – Cleopatra’s alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense.

She was also extremely adept at framing her actions to suit whatever narrative she needed to preserve her power. By the time she was dealing with Mark Antony, “her ability to molt, instantly and as the situation required, to slide effortlessly from one idiom to another, her irresistible charm, were already well established.”

Cleopatra worked her whole life to keep her independence from Rome, to maintain her control over the land of which she was Queen. She fought to preserve her power and in doing so preserve her self and give her children the best chance of survival. “Cleopatra could generally be counted on to do the intelligent thing,” Schiff writes. “She was fighting for her life, her throne, and her children. She had ruled for two decades, and was without illusion.”

She adapted to the many vicissitudes of life by learning as much as she could, making sure her risks were calculated, and never giving up control of the position she held. Even her death was on her own terms. Although Schiff artfully argues that the actual circumstances of her death are unlikely to ever be know for sure, “for any number of reasons Cleopatra was unlikely to have recruited an asp, or an Egyptian cobra, for the job. A woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal.”

Eventually, Cleopatra could not outrun the aggression of Rome in pursuing the fertile Nile valley. But her intelligence and adaptability allowed her to last a remarkably long time in the face of a lifetime of tumult.

The Science of High Performance

Research shows that knowing what you want to accomplish is more important than performance … at least at the start. But once you know where you’re going, you can accelerate progress by religiously implementing these steps.

1. Routines

The first tip comes from Tony Schwartz author of The Power of Full Engagement and Be Excellent at Anything. In his contribution to Maximize Your Potential, he recommends harnessing the power of a ritual.

A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.

Willpower and discipline are over-rated. Systems matter more.

In his book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister contends that the most successful people don’t make better decisions because of their willpower. Rather, they develop routines and scripts. 

These routines become automatic and reduce the number of decisions we need to make (as well as reducing stress). Our brain doesn’t have unlimited resources so the more we can offload to routines and scripts the more we can put our limited energy to other things.

Developing these routines are key. In Michael Lewis’ profile of President Obama, he writes:

You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” (Obama) said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

If we spend energy making too many little decisions, we’ll have less to make the more important decisions. Some companies are cluing into this.

“I think that the leadership at Google has an intuitive understanding of human nature and the way attention is a limited resource,” says David Rock author of Your Brain at Work. Google organizes their environment to make allow their employees to make fewer decisions.

The formula at Club Med is to include pretty much everything in the price, activities, food, even drinks, giving you fewer decisions to make. Now I know the research on decision making, and how making any conscious decision uses a measurable amount of glucose, but I wasn’t prepared for how relaxing it was not having to think anywhere near as much, even about simple things. It turned out to be a remarkably restful holiday.

When you work at google, you get to save your limited mental resources for the most important decisions. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Let’s face it: programmers want to program, they don’t want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both.”

…Other companies could do well to do the same, noticing what their employees end up wasting their attention on, and doing something about it. It’s sure making me rethink my own company’s benefits policies.

… as well as minimizing distractions and respecting attention, Google does other things to help its people be more productive, in particular being more productive at complex problem solving.

2. Focus

Your routines should be geared towards helping you focus.

In Your Brain at Work, David Rock writes:

One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work. Your brain prefers to focus on things right in front of you. It takes less effort. If you are trying to focus on a subtle mental thread, allowing yourself to be distracted is like stopping pain to enjoy a mild pleasure: it’s too hard to resist! Blocking out external distractions altogether, especially if you get a lot of them, seems to be one of the best strategies for improving mental performance

Combining routine and focus is the sweet spot. Here are two examples you can put into practice today.

First, Mark McGuinness argues in Manage Your Day-to-Day that you should put your most important work first. It’s much easier to deal with less taxing things, like email, later.

The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.

Another way to think of this is to pay yourself first: you are your own most valuable client. That’s what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger do.

Another useful routine is to deal with email in batches, say from 10-11 and 3-4 each day. The rest of the day, turn the email client off so you’re not constantly interrupted with ‘new mail.’ (How to deal with email.)

Consider the wise counsel of Herbert Simon:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

3. Practice

Experience doesn’t always make you better.

In Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes:

In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.

Wait. What? That doesn’t make sense.

We typically operate in the OK Plateau.

The bestselling author of Moonwalking with Einstein and USA Memory Champion in 2005, Joshua Foer explains:

In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying conscious attention. … The OK Plateau is that point when we reach the autonomous stage and consciously or unconsciously stay to ourselves, “I am OK at how good I have gotten at this task,” and stop paying attention to our improvement. We all reach OK Plateaus in almost everything we do. We learn to drive when we’re teenagers, and at first we improve rapidly, but eventually we are no longer a threat to old ladies crossing the street, and we stop getting appreciably better.

If we want to perform better beyond some basic competence researchers say we must engage in deliberate practice. These are designed, mindful efforts, to master even the smallest detail of success. To get better you have to get out of the autonomous stage.

One way to stay out of the autonomous stage is deliberate practice. Expert musicians, for example, focus on the hardest parts not the easy ones that would allow them to sink into autopilot. The way to get better is to push your limits.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.

Colvin continues:

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Consider a coach.

In his fascinating New Yorker article, Doctor Atul Gawande writes “In theory, people can do this themselves.”

But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.

In other words, the coach provides objective feedback and structure.

Commenting on what it’s like to have a surgical coach, Gawande offers:

Osteen (Gawande’s coach) watched, silent and blank-faced the entire time, taking notes. My cheeks burned; I was mortified. I wished I’d never asked him along. I tried to be rational about the situation—the patient did fine. But I had let Osteen see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.

This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?

It takes a special person to bring in a coach mid-career and subject themselves to “scrutiny and fault-finding.”

Maybe you’re thinking, I don’t need a coach because “I’m my own worst critic.” That may be the case, however, it is really hard, but not impossible, to be your own (objective) coach. You need structure and objective feedback.

(I don’t want to get into too much nuance, but you also have to think about feedback systems. Part of deliberate practice is immediate and constant feedback. This enables course correction. The time-to-feedback can derail deliberate practice if it’s too long.)

4. Exercise

In Brain Rules, John Medina explores the relationship between exercise and mental alertness:

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

5. Rest

Taking time to rest won’t make you a slacker. While the corporate culture of “back-to-back” meetings from 9-5 may seem “cool” it is actually crazy. Rest is a critical component of creating and sustaining excellence.

Brain Rules: 12 Ways to Supercharge Brain Power

If workplaces had nap rooms, multitasking was frowned upon, and meetings were held during walks, we’d be vastly more productive. These are just some of the things we know about how to optimize our brain use.

Below find 12 rules we know about how the brain works from Brain Rules.

#1 Exercise Boosts Brain Power

Wondering whether there is a relationship between exercise and mental alertness? The answer is yes.

Just about every mental test possible was tried. No matter how it was measured, the answer was consistently yes: A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material in order to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work.

#2 Survival

The human brain evolved, too.

The brain is a survival organ. It is designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion (to keep you alive long enough to pass your genes on). We were not the strongest on the planet but we developed the strongest brains, the key to our survival. … The strongest brains survive, not the strongest bodies. … Our ability to understand each other is our chief survival tool. Relationships helped us survive in the jungle and are critical to surviving at work and school today. … If someone does not feel safe with a teacher or boss, he or she may not perform as well. … There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle.

#3: Every Brain is Wired Differently

What you do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like – it literally rewires it. … Regions of the brain develop at different rates in different people. The brains of school children are just as unevenly developed as their bodies. Our school system ignores the fact that every brain is wired differently. We wrongly assume every brain is the same.

#4: We Don’t Pay Attention to Boring Things

The brain is not capable of multi-tasking. We can talk and breathe, but when it comes to higher level tasks, we just can’t do it. … Workplaces and schools actually encourage this type of multi-tasking. Walk into any office and you’ll see people sending e-mail, answering their phones, Instant Messaging, and perusing Facebook — all at the same time. Research shows your error rate goes up 50% and it takes you twice as long to do things. When you’re always online you’re always distracted. So the always online organization is the always unproductive organization.

We must do something emotionally relevant every 10 minutes to reset our attention.


#5: Repeat to Remember

Improve your memory by elaborately encoding it during its initial moments. Many of us have trouble remembering names. If at a party you need help remembering Mary, it helps to repeat internally more information about her. “Mary is wearing a blue dress and my favorite color is blue.” It may seem counterintuitive at first but study after study shows it improves your memory.

#6: Remember to Repeat

How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information / in specifically timed intervals / provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. … Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately if you want the retrieval to be of higher quality. Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once. … Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts. This experiment has been done hundreds of times, always achieving the same result: Words presented in a logically organized, hierarchical structure are much better remembered than words placed randomly—typically 40 percent better.

#7: Sleep Well, Think Well

The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge.

Should we nap or is that just being lazy?

Napping is normal. Ever feel tired in the afternoon? That’s because your brain really wants to take a nap. There’s a battle raging in your head between two armies. Each army is made of legions of brain cells and biochemicals –- one desperately trying to keep you awake, the other desperately trying to force you to sleep. Around 3 p.m., 12 hours after the midpoint of your sleep, all your brain wants to do is nap.

When is the ideal time to nap?

nap zone

One more tip, “[d]on’t schedule important meetings at 3 p.m. It just doesn’t make sense.”

#8: Stressed Brains Don’t Learn The Same Way

Your brain is built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds. The brain is not designed for long term stress when you feel like you have no control. The saber-toothed tiger ate you or you ran away but it was all over in less than a minute. If you have a bad boss, the saber-toothed tiger can be at your door for years, and you begin to deregulate. If you are in a bad marriage, the saber-toothed tiger can be in your bed for years, and the same thing occurs. You can actually watch the brain shrink.

What causes stress?

Business professionals have spent a long time studying what types of stress make people less productive and, not surprisingly, have arrived at the same conclusion that Marty Seligman’s German shepherds did: Control is critical. The perfect storm of occupational stress appears to be a combination of two malignant facts: a) a great deal is expected of you and b) you have no control over whether you will perform well.

What effect does stress have on the brain?

Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.

Stress not only lowers performance but also heightens emotional memory so that the poor performances are very easy for us to remember.


#9: Stimulate More of the Senses

Our senses work together so it is important to stimulate them! Your head crackles with the perceptions of the whole world, sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, energetic as a frat party. … Smell is unusually effective at evoking memory. If you’re tested on the details of a movie while the smell of popcorn is wafted into the air, you’ll remember 10-50% more. … Those in multisensory environments always do better than those in unisensory environments. They have more recall with better resolution that lasts longer, evident even 20 years later.


#10: Vision Trumps All Other Senses

We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%. … Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time. … Why is vision such a big deal to us? Perhaps because it’s how we’ve always apprehended major threats, food supplies and reproductive opportunity.


#11: Male and Female Brains are Different

What’s different? Mental health professionals have known for years about sex-based differences in the type and severity of psychiatric disorders. Males are more severely afflicted by schizophrenia than females. By more than 2 to 1, women are more likely to get depressed than men, a figure that shows up just after puberty and remains stable for the next 50 years. Males exhibit more antisocial behavior. Females have more anxiety. Most alcoholics and drug addicts are male. Most anorexics are female. … Men and women process certain emotions differently. Emotions are useful. They make the brain pay attention. These differences are a product of complex interactions between nature and nurture.

#12: We are Powerful and Natural Explorers

The desire to explore never leaves us despite the classrooms and cubicles we are stuffed into. Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. Babies methodically do experiments on objects, for example, to see what they will do.

Still curious? Read the entire book.