Taming my Lizard Brain

What accounts for the mediocre performance of so many companies and individuals? If you look beneath the surface, insecurity is often the common culprit.

Seth Grodin called insecurity the work of our lizard brain, the pre-historic lump of gray matter responsible for fear and rage. The lizard brain holds you back when you want to go forward. It reflexively fears the unknown.

Steven Pressfield refers to insecurity as the resistance. The resistance is the voice in our heads whispering caution, to go slow, to compromise. It is also the impulse that makes us drag our feet or keeps us from finishing what we started. Worse, the resistance, seems to get stronger the closer you are to making a necessary change.

Not Pretty

Call it whatever you want, but we are all dogged by fear of change.

For individuals, insecurity appears in the need to be liked by everyone. We all know that never works, and it often backfires. For politicians, insecurity rears its ugly head in the overpowering drive for election or re-election. History is littered with examples of well-meaning politicians who sold out their principles to keep their elected office.

For corporations, insecurity breeds incrementalism. An executive may know that to succeed in the long term there may be significant short-term pain to change a business model, kill a product or invest in an unproven solution. But the fear of losing one’s job frequently quashes a leader’s better instincts to take a bold step.

Wealth advisors are not immune to insecurity, either. Like corporate executives, many advisors realize that their firm has serious shortcomings, for both themselves and their clients. But advisors may be just comfortable enough, so they stay put — even if they know a better future is very possible.

The Solution

How do you vanquish insecurity? One of the most effective ways is to mimic Silicon Valley. The whole ecosystem in the Valley is focused on isolating things that can be done better. Then, the doers charge ahead. Silicon Valley is all about disruptive ideas and technology. Many ideas are tried and will fail, but many others produce spectacular results.

Living and working in San Francisco and Northern California, one gradually sees risk-taking as part of the natural landscape and the subject of most cocktail party conversations. Striking out on one’s own is what people do, and it’s invigorating. With so many other risk-takers in close proximity, there is security in the number of people who are confronting their own insecurity. I got caught up in this wave and while my firm failed I hope I have the courage to get back on the bike.

The Unstoppable Tide of Human Aspiration

At the end of the day, the only real cure for insecurity is action. The self-confidence that comes from taking the initiative can overwhelm the reptilian corner of your brain. Conversely, the positive experience of successful change is a great motivator. It also has the corollary benefit of tapping that other instinct in us: the human drive for greatness.

For advisors who are thinking about breaking away, client uncertainty shouldn’t be the reason to hold back. In my experience, a large majority of clients who work with independent advisors are themselves entrepreneurs and serial risk takers. They appreciate advisors who have the gravitas to make a change.

My next step is to tame the lizard. I’ll start with the Stuart Smalley affirmation.

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