Here is the full transcript of author Brady Wilson’s TEDx Talk: How to Fix the Exhausted Brain at TEDxMississauga conference.
Brady Wilson – TRANSCRIPT
I am definitely not the hero of this talk, but if I do my job properly, you will be. You will be the hero that goes on a journey today and discovers a gift that could change your world.
First, let me tell you a story that will give you context for everything I’m about to share with you. I was nine years old, and I was horror stricken as I watched my two older brothers, Perry and Mark, in a vicious fight. They were strangling each other on the floor. My nine-year-old brain actually believed that I was about to lose one or maybe both of my brothers. When it was all done, they vowed that they would never speak to each other again.
And they didn’t for several years. So here’s how it went down in my house.
The phone would ring, and Perry would answer it, discover that it was for Mark; he would say to me, “Go tell your brother. Paul wants to talk to him.” I was drawn into the space between for years.
Fast-forward – my brother Mark got into trouble. My dad kicked him out of the house, held the hard line, even though my mother’s heart was breaking. She would secretly bake cinnamon buns, and come to me and say, “Would you take these to your brother, and tell him that I love him.” I was drawn into the space between.
That was 50 years ago. And I have lived in and have worked in the space between ever since. And what I want to do today is to help you understand the power of what can happen when we step into that space. In order to do that, I’m going to share a true and remarkable story with you about Paula and her manager, Ziad, in which they go on a journey from depleted brains to very energized brains.
So I’d like you to meet Paula. Paula started her job, like most of us do, wanting to be a high performer. She was highly engaged, wanted to contribute to the organization, but what happened in her company was there was a reorg, and leaders took their eye off the ball, leaving Paula without the support, the guidance, the coaching that she so desperately needed.
And although Paula had started out engaged, she became exhausted. Although she had started out dedicated, her brain became depleted. And here’s what we are seeing across North America: massive amounts of employees, managers and leaders who are engaged but exhausted; they’re dedicated but depleted. So it’s very difficult to become our best selves when our brain is depleted.
But why is that? Let’s take a minute and peek inside this three-pound blob of tofu that nestles into your cranium and understand why that is. This brain of ours, it only comprises two percent of our body weight. But how much energy does it burn every day? It is metabolically expensive. It burns 20 percent of our energy reserves every single day, far more than any other organ in our body. Heart, lungs, liver, they’re all important but they can’t come close to the energy draw that the brain does.
So what happens if you are engaged but exhausted? If you are dedicated but depleted, you will lose access to one very important thing. And the first thing you lose access to is your executive function. So all the autonomic functions of the brain that control your immune system, your digestive system, your fight-or-flight mechanism, they keep running, but the first thing you lose access to is the executive function. Because the body is very judicious in its use of fuel.
So, the executive function – what is it? Well, let’s take a look here. With an energized brain, you can focus your attention; you can regulate your emotions; you can connect the dots in surprising ways; you can anticipate the downstream implications of any decision or behavior; and you can make really smart decisions.
But when your brain becomes depleted, and you lose access to the executive function, you get easily distracted; you can react very impulsively; you lose the thread; you fail to see the downstream implications; and you make really unwise decisions. This is not a bad person, this is just a person with a depleted brain.
So, this is where Ziad enters the story. In the reorg, he became Paula’s new manager. And he sat down with her, and after hearing a few things from other leaders and other managers in which they said: When she’s on her game, Paula is amazing; she’s bright, and she can be highly productive, but she’s begun to struggle with stress and sickness and absenteeism. And in fact, she became absent so often that leaders had seriously considered “freeing up her future”.
Ziad sat down with Paula and said, “I don’t need to know what’s happening in your personal life, that’s not my business. But I do want you to know that I’m in your corner, that I’ve got your back. So what can we do to take some stuff off your plate, to make this work for you?” Does the approach sound okay so far? It’s not okay so far; it’s actually a train wreck.
My biggest work with leaders is helping them switch and shift from parenting to partnering. Ziad is taking a classic parenting approach, assuming that he knows best and trying to fix Paula’s situation by taking stuff off her plate.
And sometimes when people try to fix us, it actually creates more frustration and more depletion. Every time they had that type of a conversation, it was deeply unfulfilling as both of them walked away. It was in this time period that Ziad happened to come to one of my sessions around energizing people’s brains. And he learned that it’s not magic. In fact, it’s not something you’re either born with or not, it’s a trainable skill.
Anyone can learn how to do it. And it’s all about understanding what matters most and connecting on what matters most. Ziad learned that in any situation, there are things that matter most to us. So, for instance, in some situations, belonging, inclusion, acceptance, feeling part of the tribe, social relationships, that is the thing that is deeply energizing for our brains.
But there are other situations where we feel a little bit off balance and security is the thing. So, systems, structures, consistency, rules and fair play. But in other situations, it’s all about freedom, it’s all about autonomy and independence, the ability to get our fingerprints on things, take a risk and make decisions.
But in other situations, it is all about significance, the ability to do quality and excellent work, make progress, achieve great results, move the needle. And in some situations, it is all about meaning, purpose, legacy, the greater good, changing the world. And it’s very important to understand and connect on what matters most to the person in the specific situation they are in.
Ziad came into this and what mattered most to him in this situation was freedom. He needed to get free of hand-holding a problem employee. And so he assumed that freedom must be the thing that mattered most to Paula as well. So his approach was: How do we take stuff off your plate? How do we free up mind space for you because I know this is stressful for you? And as I said, what happened was it was deeply unfulfilling for both of them. What he learned was that for Paula, significance was the deal.
And here’s how he learned that. You don’t have to be a mind reader, you don’t have to be a therapist, you don’t have to be an expert coach to find out what matters to another person. In fact, the people who are best at it do one simple thing: they ask. What’s most important to you in this situation?