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Go Ape to Become Great

May 6, 2009

You could make a million dollars in the next 90 days. Seriously.

It would take complete and utter focus for most hours of your day. It would take the courage to look foolish, perhaps, while trying out different strategies. But you could do it. Or whatever else you’ve been “trying” to do. You just have to re-train your brain.

In a fascinating video on TED (I love this website!), neuroscientist Michael Merzenich discusses how in response to experiences, knowledge and environments, the brain literally, physically, re-wires itself to adapt new habits, actions and practices in our physical selves to achieve desired outcomes — or to recover lost function. The technical term used to describe this phenomenon is “brain plasticity.” (Note: The video is a little technical and might be considered boring by some standards but I’m a total nerd; watch at your own risk!)

Mr. Merzenich discusses a brain plasticity experiment (this part of his talk begins around 8m 50s) whereby a monkey is trained to manipulate a tool that will enable him to perform various functions, such as eating.

In the beginning, says Mr. Merzenich, the monkey could not correctly use the tool at all, and each of his attempts—or tactics—for doing so was elaborate and vastly different from the last. Over time, as the monkey continued to focus on mastering the tool, using various strategies and tactics, his success rate adjusted to 1 out of 8, or 12.5% (yes, that’s a total F!). But gradually the monkey developed a tactic, after 700 or so tries, that enabled him to perform the task. It took him 700 tries but he eventually perfected it!

In Mr. Merzenich’s words, once the monkey achieved his desired outcome his performance was: “Flawless, never failing, and always successful in allowing him to retrieve his food with this tool every time.” In addition, the monkey completed the task in a “beautifully regulated” and “highly repeated” manner time after time. He created and relentlessly repeated a system that worked—and it worked 100% of the time! He went from an initial 12.5% success rate to eventually achieveing a 100% success rate.

An examination of the monkey after he had perfected the task showed physical re-wiring of the circuitry of his brain, and—get this—physical adjustments in the regions of his hands! His body literally adjusted to serve him best to achieve his desired outcome. And this was no anomaly: Similar experiments with various desired outcomes have been conducted many times and have demonstrated the same results.

Your success at whatever you want to do is in your willingness to go through the “process of perfection.” Time and time again the monkey tried his hand at correctly operating the tool. He was all over the place initially. Couldn’t get it right at all. But as he worked at it and changed tactics rapidly from one thing to another his physiological and psychological self adapted to the task at hand. We can learn from this monkey that the old saying, “Practice makes perfect,” holds true.

Look how many times the monkey had to go through the process — 700!

How many times have you tried what you’ve been attempting in business, or otherwise? Two, five, 10, 100? Have you actually gone through the process physically or just thought about it? Did you quit too soon or have you slowed down because you’re tired, irritated, frustrated or annoyed? Have you tried one thing after another and another and another—seeking not necessarily to look perfect or like you know what you’re doing—but instead seeking to find the path to what you really, really want regardless of how you “look” in the process?

Take a note from this monkey’s playbook. Re-train your brain. Focus on success and get busy. You were literally created to be pliable — mentally and physically — to achieve whatsoever you desire. Challenge and rebuild yourself with new knowledge, new tactics, new people and new experiences, and re-create your reality. Find what works and DO it. If a monkey can try and finally succeed — with absolute certainty and perfection after 700 times — then we can too! Here’s to monkeying around!

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