Understand your chimp and get that monkey off your back

Apr 13, 2018 · 5 min read

Three years ago a consultant psychiatrist introduced me to a book. He was trying to work out if I was bi-polar, and in conversation suggested The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. It was a revelation, lightbulbs fired: my brain had been hi-jacking me for years.

After a few discussions it turned out I’m not bi-polar. But I do have depression…and a bastard of a monkey in my head.

My inner Chimp expresses itself at The Tech Off!

The complex challenges of your life are first received by a bit of your brain that thinks it’s in the jungle. If only I’d learnt this 20 years ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of stress, and perhaps a mental health diagnosis.

“Sure.” I hear you say, “but you’re a mental, this doesn’t apply to me.”

Me, myself & I Most people see themselves as “The CEO” of their mind. You’re logical, rational, on top of your emotions, in control of your consciousness.

Sure you are.

You commit to a diet, but eat the office biscuits. Try to budget, yet buy new shoes. Your subconscious decides, then you back-pedal a rationale. That’s why they put chocolate at the checkout.

Office biscuit fail

I gave the book to my 20 staff, and discussed as a group in ‘book club’. A contingent said they couldn’t see The Chimp in themselves, but they could see it immediately in others. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

You have a Chimp. It’s how your brain is made. And it has the potential to be your best friend, or your worst enemy.

Understanding your brain Your brain is made of several parts. There are ancient parts like the Limbic — Chimp — brain. And more modern parts like the Frontal — Human — brain. Your Chimp brain thinks it’s still in a rainforest. And your Human brain lives in the rules-based ‘human’ world. You are your Human. Not your Chimp.

Image from The Chimp Paradox — cheeky Chimp in the middle there

The problem is your Chimp brain gets new information first. Which is fine if the information is — say — a sabre-tooth tiger in a bush. But not so good when your boss is criticising your report. Your Chimp perceives an attack. It’s what makes you Fight, Flight or Freeze.

Why not just ignore those urges? Well, a Chimp is five times stronger than a Human. You can’t wrestle a Chimp. You need to learn to manage it, like you’d train your dog. It’s your fault if your dog bites someone. It’s also your fault when your Chimp kicks off.

Chimp about to kick off

The Chimp is guided by emotions, feelings and impressions. It jumps to a conclusion, thinks in black and white, is paranoid, catastrophic, irrational (sound familiar?). Alternatively your Human is evidence-based, rational, sees things in context and perspective, and understands there are always shades of grey.

You can probably, if you’re truthful, remember more than a few examples of times you’ve been more Chimp than Human. And just think of what we witness daily on social media, Twitter being the ultimate Chimp-provocation system.

Not just me saying it Understanding your brain’s physiology means you can better manage your own thoughts, and reduce unnecessary drama. But don’t take my word — or Steve Peter’s word — for it.

Ray Dalio runs the world’s most successful hedge fund. It’s made more money than any hedge fund ever. He employs more than 1500 people, and a radical set of Principles, at his company. These include the concepts of ‘radical truthfulness’ and ‘radical transparency’ as a way of continuously improving both personally and organisationally.

I literally have a man crush on this guy

But this approach can create problems with what Dalio describes as “the two yous”:

“These lower level selves…want to fight even when their higher level selves want to figure things out. This is very confusing because you and the people you are dealing with typically don’t even know that these lower level beasts exist, never mind that they are trying to hijack everyone’s behaviour”

Dalio has trained his brain, and those of his team, to recognise when the Chimp mind is reacting and to deal with it. He attributes this ability — not his understanding of financial markets — as the cornerstone of his success.

He tames his Chimp, thereby getting more out of life.

A page from Dalio’s Principles

By understanding this we can start to see when our Chimp is over-reacting in an over-emotional way to things like tough feedback. Or the late payment of an invoice. Or a Tweet that gets under your skin.

If only I’d understood this when I left school. I’d have saved myself — and the people I love — a lot of unnecessary anguish across many years and many challenging situations. So buy a bunch of bananas, settle down in the branches of your favourite tree and read The Chimp Paradox.

It may just get that monkey off your back.

Dan Kirby Creator & co-founder Getahead Festival Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter!


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Would you like to get ahead in life without burning out? Then come to our 24 hour festival in London on June 14th 2019 www.Getahead.life