Home > General, Social Psychology, Stress and Pressure > The Five “People-triggers” Discoveries That Most Changed My Life

The Five “People-triggers” Discoveries That Most Changed My Life

Screenshot 2014-08-29 15.31.58I’ve been writing the People-triggers blog since 2010.  After all that time, I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding why we do what we do, and why we get out of bed in the morning.

Psychology feels like it’s nipping around the edges of this question. Like the moment anyone gets close to an insight, they stop studying, write a book and start trying to teach everyone how to stay motivated and influence others. In the 70’s, we were sure that Transactional Analysis was a scientific approach to relationships. In the 80’s, we were sure that we needed to praise our children regardless of result because self-esteem correlates with success.

Think of what we’re sure about today. Working from home achieves higher productivity. No wait, it kills collaboration. Group brainstorming produces better outcomes than individual reflection. No wait, it shouts down the introverts and encourages rule-by-volume.

In psychology, today’s bestseller is tomorrow’s bullshit.

That all being said, I’ve looked back at the readings and writings I’ve done over the past four plus years and I’ve found five discoveries-five core principles-that I’m willing to bet will stand the test of time. More than that, they changed my life because I was able to 1) become more effective in producing output, and 2) stop wasting energy worrying about certain things. So, here they are:

Scott’s Top 5 People-triggers Discoveries


1) Your abilities are a living, growing thing – not circumscribed by “talent”


Originally discussed in my earlier post: Do We Become Smarter?

We’ll never escape the fact that each of us has innate strengths and weaknesses based on personality and brain development. If I tried to become a great event planner, the extreme detail-orientation would make it a steep uphill climb for me. Fine.

But granting that premise, let me say that there are two types of people in the world: 1) Those who, when they reach the limit of their skills, say, “I guess my talent must lie somewhere else” and quit on it, and 2) Those who, reaching the same limit, say, “I really don’t have this down yet, but I’m going to be great with work.” If you’re looking for the technical name for this, it’s Incremental vs Entity Intelligence Conceptualization.

For most of my life, I was the former. Then, I read Josh Waitzkin‘s book The Art of Learning. He wrote about competing against other great chess prodigies in grade school. The kids who saw their chess abilities as innate talent would tend to buckle much more easily under pressure because they saw any setback as a statement of their own personal deficiency. They thought they’d reached the end of their talent, upon which they based their entire self-esteem. By contrast, the children who had been praised for their effort rather than their innate talent tended to grow from setbacks and achieve higher skill levels.

When I read this, it gave me enormous permission to end the search for my “one true talent” and invest in growing my accomplishments – even if I wasn’t producing stellar results at first. I stop short of interpreting this to mean, “You’ll eventually be great any anything you pursue.” I still do believe that our personalities lean us towards and away from different abilities. But we can all stop reacting with brittle dejection the moment we think we see “the end of our talent.”


2) You can accelerate skill development with Deliberate Practice


Originally discussed in my earlier post: Should I Be Doing This?

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, Florida State University

Deliberate Practice is not the same thing as “practice”.

I remember taking piano lessons for a short time when I was younger, and like many kids I would shirk on practicing. I would run through what I knew by rote. I would have half my brain turned off. This kind of “practicing” might even seem familiar to you.

Deliberate Practice is a specific term that comes from research done by Anders Ericsson (Florida State). It refers to a consistent, technique-building practice session that’s uncomfortable to the practicer and yields instant, brutally honest feedback. It’s a grueling, step-by-step form of technical practicing with the goal of training up your associative learning centers. It’s intense, focused, and a complete contrast from what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “Flow” state.

Ericsson‘s research is where Malcolm Gladwell‘s 10,000 hour concept came from, but as Tim Ferriss points out, that number has been sensationalized. You don’t need to devote 10,000 to become exceptional, or even masterful at a pursuit. But your pace of mastery will depend a lot on your style of practice, and this concept of Deliberate Practice can be a hack to achieve accelerated results at almost any skill.


3) Our sensitivity to the stimuli of the world is genetically determined


Originally discussed in my earlier post: The Sensitivity Gene

Ever felt like the world wanted you to be more extroverted? More assertive? Less oversensitive?

You’re not alone. It turns out that there’s a specific genetically-controlled serotonin transporter that has a profound effect on how loud and intrusive the world seems to you. Scientists have discovered that people carrying the short allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene show greater reactivity to stimuli in the amygdala (threat-center of the brain) than do those who carry the long allele.

This fact was popularized in Susan Cain‘s bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts. She cited the work of Jerome Kagen, who linked the 5-HTTLPR gene to a tendency of behavioral inhibition. Because of this heightened sense of reactivity, a child might grow up displaying more guarded and reclusive behavior. In context, Cain was linking behavioral inhibition to introversion.

I didn’t care so much about introversion versus extroversion, but I remember feeling a great deal of relief when I read about this research. If you notice that you have a certain sensitivity to the world around you, it’s helpful to know that your brain is reacting the way that it is through no fault of your own. You can stop trying to make that sensitivity go away, accept it, know it’s a genetic part of you, and adjust the way you look at the world.


4) Our ability to deal with stress can be trained up like a muscle


Originally discussed in the earlier post, How Pressure and Stress Affect Out Performance.

Dr. Richard Dienstbier, University of Nebraska Lincoln

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the difference between choking and panicking – two different mental reactions to stress. In the right amounts, stress is a pretty good motivator. When it overwhelms us, stress can kill out performance. It can cause us to over think, or rob us of our ability to think at all.

Dr. Richard Dienstbier has found an interesting relationship between repeated stress exposure and the body’s endocrine reaction. When ordinary, untrained subjects are suddenly exposed to acute stress, their bodies panic and dump lots of stress hormones into the bloodstream. This tends to bring about only mediocre performance. However, when subjects are exposed to similar stressors over and over, with non-stressed recovery periods, the body starts to respond differently. It uses less cortisol, and uses up adrenaline reserves less rapidly. This is associated with superior performance.

The key here is the use of recovery periods between exposure to stressors. These are as important, and serve the same purpose, as a post-workout recovery. If your mind and your body can recover after exposure to stress, your body will react less acutely to the next onset of stress, increasing performance.


5) Self-esteem is a social construct, and does not exist in a vacuum


Originally discussed in the earlier article, Everything You Think You Know About Self-esteem Is Wrong

How many people have you met in life that were looking to boost their self-esteem? How many so-called gurus have told us that by repeating affirmations, we could mentally re-wire how we feel about ourselves? We’ll repeat it, then we’ll believe it, then we’ll be it.

Then, of course, you psych your self up into a confident state that lasts about as long as the first person you bump into.

This implications of this lesson still floor me. Self-esteem is not ours to boost. It’s not a personal quality; its a state of our relationship with the rest of the world!

Dr. Mark Leary’s research suggests that self-esteem is not your own regard for your own personal value; it does not exists in a single-person vacuum. It is rather a measure of how desirable one would be to other people. He calls his theory the “Sociometer Theory” from the idea that our self esteem actually works like a real-time meter, measuring social feedback and deducing our own value-to-the-pack. This is a quote from his paper Making Sense of Self-esteem:

Given the disastrous implications of being ostracized in the ancestral environment in which human evolution occurred, early human beings may have developed a mechanism for monitoring the degree to which other people valued and accepted them. This psychological mechanism – the sociometer – continuously monitors the social environment for cues regarding the degree to which the individual is being accepted versus rejected by other people (Leary, 1999).

If this sounds to academic and abstract, here’s the same idea expressed much more cogently by Cracked author David Wong.

The world only cares about what value you provide it, and you will feel about yourself in direct proportion to the observable evidence that your presence and contribution is valued. If you want self-esteem, contribute. Accomplish. Figure out what you can uniquely provide, and then master it.

  1. fightgypsy
    August 30, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    Now I’ve got to go back and read all 5 articles! Love your work, Scott.

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