Full transcript of Ted Powell’s TEDx Talk: When Your Mind Works Against You at TEDxJacksonville conference.
Ted Powell – Leadership consultant
This is November 2, 2004. I’m on the road, life is good, get a phone call from my wife Nancy and the mother of our three children. And as I listened to her, she says, “Bad news”. I figure the car must have broken down again. We have another expensive car repair bill. But then the words that follow after that are: “It’s cancer.”
I go, “It’s cancer.” Immediately in a numb state, I start to ask her all of these different questions, like, ‘Well, is it treatable? What’s the prognosis? What’s the plan? Where do we go from here?’ and the only thing that she can respond by saying is, “I don’t know.” I figure I better shut up for now. Surely the answers I need will come next week when we go to the doctors.
That evening I go out to Barnes & Noble and I buy every single breast cancer book that I can get my hands on. I become hell bent on becoming a breast cancer expert. I spent every waking and non-working moment reading, reading, reading.
The next week arrives. We go to the oncologist office. We’re looking at the biopsy results and they are not good. Tumor cancers are labeled according to a number of different characteristics that are either labels being favorable or unfavorable. HER2/neu Positive, estrogen receptor negative, premenopausal under the age of 50 — those are all unfavorable characteristics. And Nancy’s tumor possesses them all.
I remember at one point when we were sitting in the oncologist office, she just looks at the results and she just says, ‘bad, bad, bad, bad, I hate that’. My research and analysis intensifies. I’m doing more reading. I’m doing research on the Internet. I developed this strange sense of pride that I’m becoming a breast cancer expert. When people ask me, “Dad, how you doing?” I start to rattle off everything that I know about the tumor, everything that I know about the disease, telling them that it is a nasty tumor, it is aggressive, it’s likely to spread but we really won’t know anything until we get the lymph node biopsy in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile week later, we’re sitting in Dr. Carlos Castillo office, that’s Nancy’s primary oncologist. And I came to that armed with my list of questions, surely figuring that he is going to give me the answers that I need. So I start to rattle off the questions. ‘Tell me about this new drug Herceptin? I understand its breakthrough. You know, I know that it’s not good that she’s under the age of 50 but does it matter if she’s close to 50? This five year survival rate, it’s confusing me, what does that mean? Is that with treatment or without treatment? And if it’s with treatment, what does that mean and what treatment are we talking about?
He listens to me patiently and in that moment he puts his hands up. And he says, “Ted, I’m going to stop you here.”
And I said, “What?”
He goes, let me ask you a question: “How many times have you asked these questions or sought the answers to them?” A lot. “Are you getting any new and different information in your quest?” Not really.
He says, “Then I have one-word of advice for you and that is for you to focus your attention on getting closer to God. And if you do that, then everything will be OK.” In that moment I realized that he was not delivering a faith-healer’s promise. He was in no way assuring me that Nancy was going to live. What he was doing was he was telling me to get out of my head and to venture into the scary place of not knowing. He was telling me to live in my strength, whether I call that God, spirit, courage or something else. So I started to reflect on that. And I started to reflect on the absentee father and husband that I had been the weeks leading up to that meeting with Dr. Carlos Castillo, how I have been going through the motions of caring for Nancy and thinking that caring came in the form of doing everything that I could to research so that I could fix this particular situation. But in the meantime I was really overwhelmed with my own fear and my own distress. I know that Nancy and the kids missed me.
So I go home, I throw away all the books, I pray when I need to pray, I cry when I need to cry and I let go of the need to know. Dr. Castillo tells me and he told me later on that the number one challenge that he has as an oncologist is getting people to let go of the need to know — getting people to let go of control over something which they have very little or no control over.
Now fortunately, the weeks ahead bring better news and we find that while Nancy’s tumor was nasty, it was small and it was contained. And she sits here with us today.
And reflecting back on that situation, I also realized that when he was delivering the faith-healer’s promise or not delivering the faith-healer’s promise, he was also in no way again assuring me that Nancy was going to survive, and that there were no guarantees that I wouldn’t lose my soul mate and the mother of our three children here. And here’s a picture of her and Dr. Castillo who we owe a great deal of gratitude to.
So what happened to me in that particular situation? What does that tell us about knowing versus unknowing? And what I learned from that particular experience is that we as human beings have a strong desire to make the unknown known as part of our survival mechanism. Why is that? Because the unknown is a scary place. The unknown brings pain, it brings discomfort, and pain and discomfort is associated with death. So in a sense what we will do is we will tend to stay stuck in the I know and do whatever it is that we can to venture out and accept whatever it is that we don’t know. And that’s what I was doing in that particular situation – was clinging onto an answer that I knew would be absolutely positively certain that I would be okay in that particular situation. And this is a big challenge.
This is a challenge for us today. When our mind goes into that fearful place of wanting to cling on to what it is that we know. I have a metaphor for that. We call the mind going into a fearful place the Drunken Monkey. The Drunken Monkey is that fearful mind, that fearful way of thinking, that when it gets activated, when it gets going it starts spewing out all sorts of self-talk. I need to fix this now, you better do this, what happens if this happens? Why did you do that or what did I do that? How can I possibly handle this particular situation? And so what it essentially happened to me was I had gotten hijacked by the Drunken Monkey.
Now there are a couple of things to be aware of as you start to think about that negative self-talk part of our mind: the Drunken Monkey. One of the things that the Drunken Monkey likes: simplicity, clarity and certainty. Simplicity, clarity and certainty. There’s that part of our program that likes to have everything boil down to something that we can grab onto and phase absolutely and positively true.
A number of years ago, I was talking to a theologian here in Jacksonville. And I was asking him about the rise of fundamentalism and extremism in religion. And he shared something with me that was very insightful. And he said, “Ted, it has to do with the fact that there’s so much change going on in the world right now, and that change is bringing out so much fear, it’s bringing out so many Drunken Monkeys that people want something that they can hold on to, that’s absolutely positively undeniably true — an ideology, a particular belief, and if the fear is strong enough they will kill people over that particular idea. So that’s the Drunken Monkey working at its most challenging for what goes on around us in our society”.
Rejecting the label
So what I want to do is I want to share three things that I learned from this particular experience and how I have applied them in terms of how it is that I relate to the world day in and day out. One of those is I call it rejecting the label and you see this a lot in the media out there. The label is basically I slip into accepting labels when I become intellectually lazy, and I want to label people based on their perspective or their point of view. Right winger, limo liberal, teabagger, America hater, you know why do we do that? Why do we label? That’s the Drunken Monkey at work, because instead of diving in to a complicated issue and trying to figure out the nuances, we want some easy way we can grab onto and say I get it, I understand that person. I know what they do and why they’re doing it.
So I’ve worked hard to reject the label, to work to understand the situation, to accept the facts regardless of whether or not they line up with my personal beliefs.
Limit mental junk food
How many of you would agree that there is a lot of mental junk food in the form of news these days? As a matter of fact I had a lot of trouble with this speech, because I like to tend to change things at the last minute and there was so much stuff going on. I said, I want to use that particular example and so there’s some things to be aware of in terms of the media and how we digest it. One thing to be aware of is on a daily basis we digest infinitely more information than any previous generation of humankind. As a matter of fact, there was a book that came out recently that said even compared to 1986 and 2011, we took in five times more information in a day than we did back in 1986. That’s equivalent to 175 newspapers. Drunken Monkey doesn’t like that, right? No, no, because Drunken Monkey gets all overwhelmed and again says Okay, I need to label this, label that, whatever.
Drunken Monkey wants you to take shortcuts. You know, get to the easy answer. So there are a couple of other things about what’s going on in the media that contribute and feed to the Drunken Monkey. One of them has to do with the fact that a lot of the new sources are actually starting to program the content that they serve to you based on what your Drunken Monkey wants to hear. Anybody use Zite? So Zite is a news app that I kind of fell in love with, because a friend of mine told me, hey, you really want to take advantage of this. And so I looked at it and I started reading it, I started getting more and more drawn to it and fell in love with it, application and the next thing you know, I read that Zite basically has been programming the information to serve me exactly what is that I want to hear based on what I read previously. Of course I loved it but it wasn’t sparing me from having to confront a different point of view.
And then the last thing to be aware of is the negative versus the positive news that you pick up. For every 17 negative messages, there’s one positive message. There is a reason for that: the Drunken Monkey likes negative news. Now the reason for that is because our human mind is basically programmed to stay on the alert for anything that will threaten us in our survival. So we like that. OK, it gives us a false sense of security. So that’s one of the reasons why when you turn the television on, that’s all you see is negative news.
I was having lunch the other day and the banner related to the Parliament shootings was this could have been a huge massacre, that was on for two hours while I had lunch. Well guess what, it wasn’t. But that’s what they were doing was feeding the Drunken Monkey. So it’s very very important to be aware of that and to limit. Your digestion of that news and to look for a combination of positive and negative sources.
Beware of fearful rhetoric
And then finally beware of fearful rhetoric which is related to what I just talked about here. Now here would be an example of some fearful rhetoric. This was something that was said in the media a while back. “The President needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home”. OK, I’ll let you guess who said that, perhaps some of you all know.
Now by his own admission, President Obama was a little bit slow to recognize the ISIS threat. OK, so this was in response to that. OK, he needs to be challenged and held accountable for that. I’m not sure that this fearful rhetoric is the way you should be held accountable. What do we know about the Drunken Monkey getting involved in policy decisions about going off and creating new wars? OK, we got a long history of that and so it’s very very important to be aware of that.
And so before I close, just a couple of quick points, because I’ve talked about it from a macro perspective in terms of what goes on that can feed the Drunken Monkey. The Drunken Monkey can get us every day. Pay attention to when the Drunken Monkey has hijacked your thinking. Keep that rascal out of your head. Ask trusted friends to give you insight when they see you going into that fearful place because many times people recognize the angst in us before we can recognize it in ourselves. Realizing that we have the ability to control our way of thinking in a seemingly chaotic world is the most transformative and empowering human experience that we possess. Use it on a daily basis and you will change your life in the world around you in many wonderful ways.