#158: How To Overcome Mental Blocks That Derail Your Progress - Part 1

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Do you have a bad memory?

Well, so does the memory champion of the US Memory Championships. How's that possible you may ask? But that's exactly the point.

We have misconceptions about learning and memory that need to be wiped out and replaced with accurate representations of how our brain works.

In this first episode we look at two of the mental blocks that cause us to stutter, if not fail. And we transform them from failure to success.

Let's find out how.

Read online: Business Mental Myths


As late as the 1970s, women's brains were considered to be inferior to that of men, and especially so in the game of chess.

Chess is a game that demands a high level of spatial awareness, among other skills, and it was erroneously believed that women could never equal men at the grandmaster level. In fact, not one woman had made it to grandmaster level until Susan Polgár came along.

Susan's father, László Polgár, didn't believe in inborn talent. He wrote a book about genius, and in it emphasised the fact that “Geniuses are made, not born”. To prove the point, he and his wife Klara educated their three daughters at home, and while geography and history lessons were important, chess was considered to be the most valuable of all.

At 4, Susan Polgár won her first chess tournament in the Budapest Girls' Under-11 Championship, with a 10–0 score. In 1982, at the age of 12, she won the World Under 16 (Girls) Championship.

In a series shot by National Geographic, called “My Brilliant Brain”, Susan Polgár talks about her first visit to the premier chess club in Budapest. She was still just a little girl. “The room was filled with smoke and there were elderly men who thought my father was there for a game and brought his daughter along.

But the reality is that my father wanted to see how I would against the members of the club”. The club members thought László Polgár was mad. But they went along with the crazy plan and soon found the “pretty little girl” was beating them hands down.

Susan Polgár continued her meteoric rise

She was the first woman in history to break the gender barrier by qualifying for the 1986 “Men's” World Championship. In January 1991, Polgar became the first woman to earn the Grandmaster title in the conventional way of achieving three GM norms and a rating over 2500.

No longer could men claim that a woman couldn't attain the role of a grandmaster in chess. In time, Susan's sister, Judit also became a grandmaster. The third sister, Sofia earned a norm in a grandmaster-level tournament in 1989 when she was only 14.

The mental myth was shattered once and for all.

In business too, the we have to deal with mental myths that hold us back.

As we weave our way through videos online or articles that rarely have any solid research, these myths take a hold of us and create a factor of intimidation. It feels sometimes, like everyone else is moving ahead while we lag behind. In business, as in life, it's not enough to just get and keep the business going. We have to make sure we don't get bogged down in myths have have no basis in reality.

Three persistent mental myths that prevail are:

Mental Myth 1: Copying is not a good idea. We need to be original. Mental Myth 2: You Need To Remember What You Learn Mental Myth 3: You need to speed up your learning (and there are systems to go faster)

Let's find out why these myths need to be banished, once and for all. We will look at the first two myths in this episode.

Mental Myth 1: Copying is not a good idea. We need to be original.

When you look at the Taj Mahal, you don't think of Humayun, do you?

Humayun, who? For over 200 years, the Mughals ruled over parts of what is modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In what is surely one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, they were rulers of between 110-150 million people—a fourth of the world's population at that time. The family tree of the Mughal emperors started with Babur, went down to Humayun, Akbar the Great, Jahangir, but it's Shah Jahan who gets most of the spotlight.

And let's geek out a bit on history a bit here because we're talking about the Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan. Emperor Shah Jahan was utterly besotted with his wife, Mumtaz Begum. In an age where marriages were simply ties between one ruling family and the next, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz fell in love with each other.

However, Shah Jahan was so in love with Mumtaz that he showed little interest in exercising his polygamous rights with his two other wives, other than having a child with each. Mumtaz, on the other hand, bore him thirteen children, which, if you're rolling your eyes, was a family size quite common back in those times. Anyway, on 17 June 1631, at the age of 38, Mumtaz Begum died while giving birth to what would have been the fourteenth child.

The Taj Mahal is a memorial to the intense grief that followed

It took 21 years, from 1632-1653 to build the Taj Mahal. And today, if you're around Delhi, you're likely to make a trip to Agra to look at this remarkable monument. The Taj Mahal had more than its share of inspiration from another structure built almost a hundred years earlier—Humayun's tomb. If you look at Humayun's tomb and then look at the Taj Mahal, there's more than a striking resemblance. It almost looks like a copy.

Copying is given a bad name because it's often mashed with plagiarism

Before the advent of computers, the best way for an artist to learn to draw was to copy. If you head to Amsterdam and look at Van Gogh's start, you'll notice he copies a lot. In a museum dedicated to Van Gogh, the curators have taken great pains to show how Van Gogh's early work was an almost identical copy of the Japanese art of the time. As it says on the museum's website: Japanese printmaking was one of Vincent's primary sources of inspiration, and he became an enthusiastic collector.

The prints acted as a catalyst: they taught him a new way of looking at the world

But did his own work change as a result? There was tremendous admiration for all things Japanese in the second half of the nineteenth century. Vincent did not pay much attention to this Japonisme at first. Very few artists in the Netherlands studied Japanese art. In Paris, by contrast, it was all the rage. So it was there that Vincent discovered the impact Oriental art was having in the West when he decided to modernise his own art.”

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh says the following: My studio's quite tolerable, mainly because I've pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting.

You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.” He and his brother then proceeded to buy stacks of Japanese woodcuts because they recognised the Japanese art as highly as any Western masterpiece. Van Gogh then went about copying the structure and composition of Japanese art in great detail. In a letter to his brother, he wrote: “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.”

Whether you're a writer, singer, golfer or musician—you have to copy

In the Da Vinci cartooning course, we have whole weeks where the participants have to trace—yes, with regular butter paper or tracing paper—just like you did when you were a child. To be able to copy allows you to see what the other person has done. And how you, in turn, can do the same. As a cartoonist, I had whole books of work.

I started out copying Superman, Batman and other superheroes, moving on to comic strips like Hagar the Horrible, and for a good while, even Dennis the Menace. Years later I was copying Mort Drucker and Jack Davis from Mad Magazine. And Ajit Ninan who was a caricaturist for India Today, one of India's largest magazines at the time.

The copying didn't stop there

When I started out in advertising as a cub copywriter, I knew almost nothing about copywriting. I'd leaf through books; advertising books called the “One Show” that were so thick they could be used as doorstops. I learned a ton of how ads were made from those books alone.

When I moved to marketing, I bought endless material from marketer Jay Abraham, learning how he promoted his courses, workshops and home study versions. I'd get his 15-20 page sales letters in the mail, and I'd go through them with a yellow marker, trying to figure out why I was so excited to buy his material.

When you copy, you learn

When you copy from many sources, you start to merge one style into another until you soon have a style of your own. If you keep copying, your fixed style changes. When I look at some of the cartoons I did between 2000-2010, I cringe a lot. I don't like the colours, I don't like the line work, and I want to change it all. Not entirely erase the work, I'm not that daft, but

I've been copying all my life. Which, as we know, is different from plagiarism. Plagiarism is a rip-off. A photocopy of someone else's work is plagiarism. Work that's not yours and is signed by you, that's plagiarism.

Without copying, you quickly plateau

Copying is what pushes you outside your comfort zone a lot. When Van Gogh started to copy Japanese artists, he had to relearn a whole different way of painting and composition. As it says yet again on the Van Gogh website: “Japanese artists often left the middle ground of their compositions empty, while objects in the foreground were sometimes enlarged. They regularly excluded the horizon too, or abruptly cropped the elements of the picture at the edge.”

However, not all copying should be done blindly

It's one thing to copy a style, but quite another thing to blindly copy what others are doing. For instance, when we did our early workshops in Auckland and Los Angeles, catering was included in the cost of the workshop. All the workshops we'd been to, before hosting our own, had always served food. However, we found that just copying someone's else's actions doesn't necessarily work well.

When we'd ask about feedback for the workshop, people would complain about the food. Someone always wanted proteins; some one else wants carbs. And these were in the days before the wave of crazy diets came along. I got good advice from speaker/author, Brian Tracy. “You're not in catering, Sean”, he said to me. And so we gave up serving food at workshops.

In the same manner, it's probably a good idea to find out the strategy behind why people do certain things. It's better to know the story behind the plan, before making some horrible mistake and finding out later.

Despite the downsides, copying is what makes the world go round. The Taj Mahal, Van Gogh's works of art, even Disneyland got a large dose of inspiration from the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. When you're next thinking of creating your website, painting, writing or doing just about any activity, first consider copying. Consider tracing.

Originality is slightly overrated

P.S. Even while this article series was being completed, I found a clear case of plagiarism. The author had taken the six questions from The Brain Audit and palmed it off as his own. What made it weird was the fact that it was on the Intuit site, the company that sells Quickbooks. Through Facebook, they got in touch with me, because someone tagged Intuit. The article was taken down shortly after.

Mental Myth 2: You Need To Remember What You Learn

In 2006, a journalist called Joshua Foer won the U.S.A Memory Championship. He also set a new US record in the speed cards event by memorising a deck of 52 cards in barely 1 minute and 40 seconds.

However, Joshua Foer doesn't consider himself to have a very good memory at all.

He forgot where he put his car keys, often where he'd parked his car in the first place. He'd routinely leave food in the oven, forget his girlfriend's birthday, their anniversary. Despite the onslaught of advertising he'd miss Valentine's Day, and not remember most of the things that you and I seem to routinely forget. In 2005, he was a journalist who wanted to figure out what made memory champions so successful. In 2006, he was the U.S. Memory Champion.

If there's one statement almost all of us have heard before it's this: I have a really bad memory. At first it's some relative; maybe a grandparent or someone much older that seems to complain about memory, but increasingly, even in your teens and twenties, you'll find yourself—and others making statements such as: I can't seem to remember names at all. I have a really bad memory.

Which seems to make sense, because we find there are those who seemingly have memories like elephants and our memories seem to be like a sieve. Trying to remember what we've learned seems hard, and often impossible. Learning seems to go one way where we build up skills and knowledge.

Forgetting seems to land all that hard earned information into the gutter. Forgetting seems to be the arch enemy of learning. Forgetting seems to be about failure, and it drives us crazy. And yet, forgetting is exactly the opposite.

“The brain is nature's most sophisticated spam filter” says Benedict Carey in his book, “How We Learn”

To be able to remember one thing, we often have to forget the other. In his book, he talks about how we're all amazingly impressed at the sight of a spelling bee, a competition where young kids seem to be able to spell incredulously complex words. As all contests go, there's a winner and there are losers.

Yet how do we make every one of those seemingly smart kids lose? Instead of getting them to spell words, let's say we drag them back on stage and run a different type of memory test.

The questions would go like this:

•Name the last book you read •What did you have for lunch two days ago? •Which was the last movie you saw? •What's your sister's middle name? •What's the capital of Ouagadougou? (It's Burkina Faso)

“In a hypothetical content, each of those highly concentrated minds would be drawing a lot of blanks”, says Carey. But why is this the case? And how does this related to what you're learning? Most of us automatically assume that we should remember what we learn.

In many cases, we assume that we've understood what we've just read, seen or heard. In almost every instance, it might take three or four tries for a person to get all the facts right, even if they go back over the information.

Take for instance, this article itself. You probably remember that there was a memory championship. But was it a world championship or based in a specific country? Who won it? Do you remember the year? You possibly remember that the winner was male and that he was a journalist, but there are constant gaps in your memory.

Which is why people tend to write notes

However, while notes might be a better-than-nothing option, they're still extremely poor at pulling up details. All information is dependent on your initial knowledge of the subject matter in the first place. Take for instance, the book called “Dartboard Pricing”. The book goes into a lot of detail about why one product or service can be priced higher than a similar product in an identical market. As you're reading through the book, or listening to the audio, there's a feeling that you're getting the idea.

However, the moment clients put up a pricing grid, they get elements of the grid wrong. Logically this shouldn't be the case at all. You have the book in front of you. The information isn't flipping past you at high speed. Even so, clients will get the pricing grid wrong. To really get the information, you have to go back several times and no amount of arrows and boxes, or explanation will help. The brain is designed to pick up some information and drop all the rest.

The best way to retain information is to follow the way the brain works best

And that's to get to the first powerful idea and then turn off the audio. Close the book. Stop watching the video. If you have to, rewind, or go back. But going forward does little good. Your brain isn't necessarily picking up the details as you progress. Even when reading an article, I will get to a point where I run into something profound, different or difficult.

At which point I stop any sort of progress. If it's on my phone, I freeze the idea by taking a screenshot. If it's on audio, I stop listening to the podcast and yes, you need to do the same, if you really want to remember what you've just read. The breakdown allows your brain to stop at that point. When you go back and review the point, it makes even more sense. Then, if you're ready to go ahead, please do.

Does this method mean you'll progress an inch at a time?

No it doesn't mean that at all. It depends on the information you're learning. I'll listen to some podcasts and it's pure storytelling or information that keeps my brain cells entertained. They may apply to my business or not, but at least at the time, I don't find I need to imprint it in my memory. However, if there's something that's important, I will make sure I stop and come back later.

It's a way of highlighting that information and forcing your brain to remember. I do this at workshops and seminars as well. I will continue to sit and participate in a seminar, but I wait for the first big point to hit me. When that's done, I'm “technically” ready to go home. I notice others are scribbling tons of notes, but I know I will remember nothing when I get back. So I keep the idea down to one. If I'm feeling really generous, I may add a second or third, but that's easily the upper limit.

You don't need to remember everything you learn

It's a myth that your memory, or even the memory of the memory champions are any good. The brain is one of the nature's most powerful spam filters. It remembers what's important. And hence it's your job to help your brain. When you find something that's important, dig in your heels. Stop. Then go back and review it later.

That's how you'll improve your memory and your knowledge over time.

Next up: Is speed reading a bad idea?

Well, not entirely, but you need to know when to use it and why. Find out how speed works for you and more importantly, when it fails—Mental Myth: You need to speed up your learning (and there are systems to go faster)

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