Judah Pollack | Hack Your Inner Genius (Episode 423)

Judah Pollack | Hack Your Inner Genius (Episode 423)

Even if you don’t believe in yourself, the sleeping genius within you does — and comes equipped with a backlog of ideas you didn’t even know you had.

“While we live in an age that is demanding breakthroughs, we live in an age that paradoxically refuses to allow us the time to achieve them.” -Judah Pollack

The Cheat Sheet:

  • How can you harness the power of associative thinking to awaken your inner genius?
  • Why is self-loathing a uniquely modern western phenomenon?
  • Cursed with success? You may be suffering from the Imposter Syndrome.
  • Make the Default Mode Network (DMN) work for you instead of against you.
  • Why should a busy person find the time to take regular walks?
  • And so much more…


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Not long ago, it was the Edisons and Fords of the world who set the pace of innovation that the rest of us would follow. Now, technology has made it possible for anyone to set this pace. We benefit from this at The Art of Charm by recording podcasts from home with equipment that’s affordable to the ordinary consumer, and we broadcast to a global audience with a common Internet connection.

But this kind of convenience is a double-edged sword. Becoming or creating the next big thing seems much more attainable to the average person than it once did, but it puts pressure on all of us — millennials, especially — to become modern-day Edisons and Fords. In episode 423 of The Art of Charm, we talk to author, speaker, and leadership expert Judah Pollack about how rising to the occasion is easily obtainable once you learn how to channel your inner genius (and shut your inner critic up).

More About This Show

When you ask Judah Pollack what he does, you’re liable to get some vague answers — and maybe that’s by design. The short answer is that he’s an “expert in the art of leadership whose students range from Stanford entrepreneurs to the Special Forces,” though he might throw the word “consultant” in there to see how you’ll react. If you’re looking for something more concrete, he’ll admit to co-authoring a couple of books: The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success (with Ori Brafman) and the upcoming Wiring The Breakthrough Brain (with Olivia Fox Cabane). He’s helped soldiers returning from deployment reintegrate into civilian life, and he’s championed the virtues of the liberal arts.

And if it seems like none of these things line up — that they lack any sort of cohesion — it’s only because you’re not wielding the power of associative thinking. That’s okay. He’s here to tell you what that means and how it can be used to hack the genius that’s hiding inside your mind right now.

What is Associative Thinking?

Associative thinking is when you take two or more things that aren’t ordinarily put together and understand how they can share a connection. It’s not something that tends to come naturally to those of us who grew up in the western world, though. We’re geared to be on task toward the specific job at hand — and nowadays, we’re more busy and goal oriented as a society than ever.

For many, this nose-to-the-grindstone attitude causes more problems than it solves — such as depression and the phenomenon known as self-loathing.

Self-Loathing and the Imposter Syndrome

When the Dalai Lama was first introduced to the term “self-loathing,” he thought there must have been something lost in translation. How is it possible, he wondered, for the self to loathe the self?

In the modern western world, we externalize our sense of who we are rather than seeking it internally. This leaves us at the whim of outside factors like our jobs, our cars, our schools, our spouses, our money, and whatever other distractions surround us. When our expectations of these external factors don’t match the reality, that’s when our self-doubts and self-loathing come in. We hold onto the sense of not being “good enough” when we perceive everything around us as a reflection of our own inadequacies.

But even being a success isn’t without its pressures in such a society. Someone who’s had the benefit of tremendous luck may feel like they’re faking it — that they didn’t get to where they are on their own merits. They believe that everyone else has studied or trained or prepared in ways that they, themselves, have not. They’re absolutely certain that everyone around them is smarter and better equipped to handle whatever’s thrown their way, and that some huge mistake must have been made somewhere if they’re seen as an equal. They believe that no one else has the same doubts about themselves, and their fear of being “found out” as an imposter is inevitable (see The Emperor’s New Clothes).

This Imposter Syndrome is more common than you may think — and if you’ve experienced it yourself, you know there’s a voice in the back of your head telling you to keep it to yourself lest you be discovered as a sham! See how easy it is for such a notion to self-perpetuate? Identifying the Imposter Syndrome within yourself and knowing that such a feeling is far from unique is an important first step in conquering it. Learning how to access something called the Default Mode Network to channel the powers of associative thinking will help you break free from it once and for all.

What is the Default Mode Network?

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is where your brain goes when your body is physically engaged in familiar activities with goals that don’t require concentration: showering, working out, taking out the trash, preparing to nap, going for a walk in the park, etc. This is the time when most of us who are unaccustomed to associative thinking have likely chanced upon it. Ever wondered why you have your best ideas when you’re doing something on autopilot? That’s your Default Mode Network kicking in.

So why does this happen? Input is an important part of it. Cognitive neuroscientist (and coauthor of The Eureka Factor) John Kounios conducted research into what physically happens to the human brain at the moment of insight or, as he calls it, the Aha! moment.

A split second before realization, gamma waves can be detected lighting up the part of the part of the brain doing the processing. In other words, technology can be used to literally watch you figuring something out.

What Kounios noticed is that highly innovative and breakthrough-oriented people will take in everything when they’re doing something as simple as walking down the street. They seem highly distractable and unfocused. So much information — input — is coming in, which acts as kindling to the Default Mode Network. This is information that can be mixed and matched, and someone adept at associative thinking can see connections between these pieces of information that others can’t.

For overall innovation, this seems like a good thing. The problem arises when our society only sees value in no-nonsense, goal-oriented, non-time-wasting courses of action. When we’re that focused, we don’t give our Default Mode Network the time to breathe and come up with innovative connections. We overproduce ourselves out of creativity.

Adam Cheyer, co-creator of Siri, has a process when he feels the connections coming together but they’re not quite there yet: he goes to bed. It makes sense, because the Default Mode Network turns on right as you go to sleep, it’s on while you’re sleeping, and it goes on just as you’re waking up.

Not coincidentally, many of the world’s greatest thinkers over the past few centuries have made walking a part of their daily routine. We’ve only recently discovered that walking is a great middle ground between hardcore exercise (which steals oxygen from the brain to bring it to the muscles) and making the body move just enough to oxygenate the brain without taking from it.

It also happens to be a very natural way to trigger the Default Mode Network into action.

How Can I Engage in Associative Breakthrough Thinking?

If you want to train yourself to better trigger and utilize associative breakthrough thinking, familiarize yourself with what it looks like — biomimicry is one example. In four billion years, nature’s had a lot of time to come up with solutions to a lot of problems. Humans can benefit from this by adapting technology around such solutions.

For instance, the Japanese Shinkansen “bullet” train that had been in operation since the ’60s had a blunt nose. Achieving miraculous speeds of 200 mph, it built up hurricane-force air pressure as it would travel through tunnels, rattling the foundations of properties up to 400 meters away with a sonic boom when it would emerge. In the ’90s, engineers looking for ways to increase speed without exacerbating its potentially devastating consequences looked toward the beak of the kingfisher — a marine bird that can dive into the water for prey without making a splash. Replacing the bullet train’s blunt nose with a design that mimicked the kingfisher’s more aerodynamic structure allowed for a faster, quieter, and more energy-conserving ride.

Another example: Henry Ford got his idea for the assembly line, which he famously adapted for building automobiles, from observing a Chicago meat packing plant’s disassembly line. Animal carcasses would move on hooks past stationary workers who were each assigned to cut away a designated piece. It took the need for specialized craftsmanship out of the equation and increased productivity (and potential profits) considerably.

Through associative breakthrough thinking, Ford saw how this idea could be modified and applied to building. Similarly, once you know what associative breakthrough thinking looks like, you can immediately find ways to connect the dissimilar and bend them to your will for solving problems — you can be sort of a cross between Ben Franklin and Angus MacGyver (or two completely different figures if you care to put your own associative thinking to work).

Read a book you would never read in a million years. Watch a movie completely outside your normal milieu. Travel as much as you can; have experiences and take in information you wouldn’t ordinarily seek out not for its own sake, but so that you have a wider breadth of possible associations that will help you see something really new and different. As Judah says: “It’s in this cauldron of combining that your next breakthrough’s going to happen.”

In this episode of The Art of Charm, we also talk about missed breakthroughs, lost technologies, red teaming, meditation, metacognition, visualizing depression, a future that time forgot, and alternative (though not necessarily endorsed or recommended) ways of accessing your Default Mode Network. Judah Pollack’s got a lot more to talk about, so listen in for the full story!


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