I recently gave a talk to a group of university alumni seeking to discover how to prepare for and enter their “post-career lives.” The lecture focused on ten faculties that reside in our brains throughout our lives. The faculties position us to make the most of our days at every stage of our lives – when we actively exercise them. that is. Otherwise, there they sit: an untapped potential that's never given the chance to transform our lives for the better. I also discussed nine life skills that serve as the bridge over which we cross from potential into action. Skills transform possibility into lived reality. Skills are the means through which we exercise our brain’s potential.
Here, in condensed form, are ten brain faculties you already possess and the nine life skills you can exercise to strengthen your brain while simultaneously revitalizing your future.
Your Brain’s 10 Core Faculties
First, I gave a name to each brain-based faculty. Each faculty describes the function served by different networks in our brain. Each faculty occupies different and sometimes overlapping territory within our brain. But, in my talk I focused less on neuroanatomy and more on the purpose or function served by these areas of gray and white matter pulsing within our skulls.
Here they are:
1. The Observer: What you attend to defines the door through which your life enters. Learning to enhance your ability to attend is essential to feeding your brain what matters most.
2. The Sensor: We are awash in a sea of sensory inputs, but many of us pay less attention to what is “now” than to remaining mired in reminiscences of the past and fears of the future. Exercising our “sensor” by perceiving what “is” links us more intimately to the present, here-and-now moment.
3. The Hedonist: Our brain is hardwired to detect and differentiate pleasure from unpleasantness. Exercising our hedonic networks helps us become more discerning about what in life to approach and what to avoid.
4. The Actor: A network located in the front of the brain ties together plans with actions. Acting without planning leaves us at the mercy of impulse. Planning without acting leaves us paralyzed by thought, reducing our lives to endless contemplation and disengagement from the world.
5. The Enforcer: Inhibitory controls in our brain enable us to delay, defer, or disregard moving toward what momentarily catches our lusty attention in favor of more enduring and meaningful choices.
6. The Navigator: Our brain is perpetually engaged in error detection. Is where we are headed still where we want to go? Have we encountered the unexpected along the way? What course correction is needed to arrive at the goal we’ve set? Our brain’s navigational GPS oversees our travels as we traverse our life journey.
7. The Sage: How do we avoid having to learn the same lessons over and over? Our brain stores experience. Over time and with on-going grooming of our brain’s repository of accumulated experience, we gain wisdom, which I define as the capacity to use our past to optimize our readiness to deeply engage an unpredictable future.
8. The Stoic: Centuries ago, Greek and Roman philosophers developed methodologies and practices to prepare them to live life fully on life’s terms. Our brain’s networks can, with proper conditioning and courage, engage fully with the world as it is rather than feel defeated in the face of their inability to force the world to conform to their preconceived notions.
9. The Dreamer: Through the miracle of networks of recursive loops in our brains, we can travel through time. We can imagine worlds that don’t yet exist and initiate actions today to bring those worlds into existence.
10. The Inspirer: The most deeply-distributed networks in our brain integrate thoughts and plans about the future (the best of the Dreamer) and compares what the future requires in light of what is currently available (the Navigator) and what we’ve learned from the past (The Sage). In this way, a truly inspired life becomes a dynamic amalgam of where we’ve been, where we are, where we want to go, along with a plan for how to get there.
Practicing the Skills for Building Your Best Life
Having described faculties or abilities with which our brain endows us, it was time to talk about the specific skills that bring those in-born abilities to life.
1. Curiosity: To be curious, we must be dissatisfied. Curiosity, born of dissatisfaction and unease, drives us to look beyond “what is” to what “can be.” Practice being curious about something new and different, no matter how big or small, every day.
2. Flexibility: When we are curious, we enter the “land of I don’t know.” That is a great place to go. When we encounter something we don’t know or understand, we are required to show both mental and behavioral flexibility as we stretch ourselves to adjust and adapt to what is new. Flexibility is a building block for becoming resilient.
3. Fearless Realism: What happens when you feed yourself a steady diet of curiosity and flexible responsiveness? We become confident and trusting of our ability to face the world as it is (realism) with courage (fearless) all while knowing we’ll weather the challenges and rise strong again.
4. Grit: Realism is good, but persistent in the face of challenges is even better. Showing grit is what we do when we combine our passion (our love, our inspired motivation, and our drive to do something) with our plodding nature. Strange bedfellow, maybe? But to be able to put one foot in front of the other, using passion as the fuel to keep us moving forward is an essential skill for finding meaning and satisfaction in our lives.
5. Empathy: We see lots of evidence in today’s world of what happens when we have passion and persistent for something that is ultimately both destructive and evil. One missing ingredient may be empathy: the capacity to feel compassion for “the other” because of our capacity to feel, sense, and appreciate what “the other” is experience. The timeless wisdom rooted in the great faith traditions – do not do unto others what you would not want done unto you – is an example of living the skill of empathy.
6. Connectedness: We are not born to be alone. Some might say our whole life is one long effort to find connection. Research shows how central our sense of connection to others – not necessarily many others, but a few others that we feel “get us” – is for lasting brain health and more resilient emotional health. Cultivate your social network.
7. Humility: Practicing living humbly means we appreciate our absolute uniqueness and advocate for our rightful place in the world even as we show restraint about not taking us too much space in the world. In short, living humble means we are successfully navigating our way along a mindful path that is open hearted and respectful of diversity because we don’t over-focus on our virtues or others’ faults and don’t minimize our virtues or glorify others’ gifts: No less than our space and no more than our place.
8. Service: As social creatures, it is appropriate to ask what the purpose is of that social nature. I believe the answer is to serve others. The greatest legacy we can leave is the positive impact we have had on others’ lives. The pathways to service our infinite. Explore paths in your that enrich you through the actions you take that positively impact and influence the life of someone or something else, leaving that “other” and ourselves better off as a result.
9. Authenticity: Deep beneath Rome’s streets sits the Capuchin Crypt, a catacomb housing the bones of over 4000 monks. An inscription in the wall reads: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” Can it be said more starkly? We are mortal. Our lives will end. So, how do we want to live our lives during the all too short time we have to have a life? The previous 8 life skills are, in my experience as a clinician and as a man entering the decade of older mid-life, a recipe for living an authentic life. There is no specific formula. Each life is unique; each path different. But, with appreciation for the 10 brain-based faculties with which we are each endowed, and with 9 time-tested practices that bring those faculties to life, I trust each of us can find our way to living our lives with authentic passion, purpose, and meaning.
What do you think? Contribute to the discussion. I'd love to hear from you.