Everywhere you turn it seems we are bombarded with people seeking to influence us. At home spouses and children vie for our attention. At work, bosses and co-workers try try to persuade us to align with their priorities. Television and radio are abuzz with advertising intended to sway our opinions and purchase decisions. And, online personalities seek to the wield influence on how we experience the world around us. Influence, in my opinion, is the currency of the 21st century. Many strive to be influential for financial gain or strategic power. What most, however, fail to realize is that influence is biological. Once we grasp the neurochemical aspects of influence we can better control our impulses and develop ourselves as leaders who optimally enrich the lives of others.
Physiology and psychology are inextricably interwoven fields of study. Most people readily understand that our mental attitude is primarily the lever that determines our goal-directed behavior. You’ve heard the saying, you are what you think. In fact, some even say that our mental attitude determines as much as 75% of what we accomplish—far outweighing the external factors to which we often attribute success. But, even with this understanding pundits overemphasize the what we think without fully exploring how we think. With a richer understanding of the how, we can better take control of our actions rather than feeling as if our mind controls us. I am convinced that the next echelon of leadership and influence is physiological mastery.
If you truly want to become a person of extraordinary influence you have to learn to control the brain—the control center of you body. In my study, there is no better place to begin this examination than the excellent book, The Rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance [affiliate link] by Steven Kotler, extolled as one of the world’s leading experts on human performance. In this book Kotler demonstrates, convincingly I might add, how to “ hack” our brain and accomplish extraordinary feats. The term “hack” simply refers to conscious actions that can be taken to trigger subconscious and physiological response. Kotler demonstrates how the human ability to accomplish extraordinary feats is a result of what is now called “flow”.
Through his work through the Flow Genome Project and the availability of neurological imaging technology, Kotler and his colleagues have been able to demonstrate flow as an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best. As Kotler continues, “In flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.”
Kotler and colleagues “call this experience ‘flow’ because that is the sensation conferred. In flow, every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next.” While much of the study of flow has revolved around the death-defying acts of extreme and adventure athletes, the Flow Genome Project has worked to demonstrate the applicability of flow in heightening workplace performance and social relationships more broadly.
I am enamored with this notion of flow because I believe that it explains the feeling that we get when experiencing what I call a “passion high”. This is that feeling that you get when you are around people who share the same passions as you or when you are engaged in what you really love without awareness of time. That “passion high” is what you would do all day for free. It is you in your zone.
Whether describing flow or the “passion high” they both originate from the same source—biological chemicals surging through our brains. It is all neurochemical to be exact. While there are a number of neurochemicals involved in flow, we will focus on the four that author Simon Sinek, in his New York Times bestseller, Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t [affiliate link], describes as contributing to all our happy feelings: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.
I refer to this neurochemical cocktail using the acronym D.O.S.E. As Sinek explains “whether acting alone or in concert, in small doses or large, anytime we feel any sense of happiness or joy, odds are it is because one or more of these chemicals is coursing through our veins.”
Sinek expertly demonstrates how influence is both personal and social simply by examining the role of the neurochemicals. More specifically, two of these hormones, dopamine and endorphines, “work to get us where we need to go as individuals”. He calls these the “selfish” chemicals. The other two hormones, oxytocin and serotonin, “are there to incentivize us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty”. He dubs these the “selfless” chemicals. These selfless chemicals work together to facilitate social bonding. Let’s take a quick look at each of these D.O.S.E. neurochemicals in more detail.
Dopamine is a key component’s of the neurochemical cocktail responsible for flow as it is released whenever we take a risk or encounter something novel. Dopamine rewards and helps us survive exploratory behavior by increasing attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. Dopamine makes us goal-oriented and plays a role in reward-motivated behavior.
Oxytocin is a very different but equally powerful hormone. While dopamine is more individualistic in origin, oxytocin is relational. Oxytocin, which is often referred to as the ‘trust or bonding hormone’ accounts for prosocial behavior. As Sinek notes oxytocin is what makes feelings of friendship, or love possible. Without oxytocin, your passion would not be people-centered.
Serotonin engenders according to Sinek, “the feeling of pride we get when we perceive that others like or respect us. It makes us feel strong and confident, like we can take on anything.” In fact, Sinek calls it the “leadership chemical” because it fuels us to seek the approval of others and raises our social status. Serotonin reinforces social bonding and a sense of accountability to those who offer us protection and support.
And, finally there is endorphins. Endorphins are simply about masking pain. Sinek aptly describes it as one’s own personal opiate often released in response to stress or fear. While endorphins are generally released during times of physical exertion as in the very familiar example of the “runner’s high”, they also come into play during the lightheartedness of laughter.
4 Brain Hacks for Greater Influence
Based on the insights in Kotler’s book, I propose four D.O.S.E.-driven behaviors that position you to be a person of extraordinary accomplishment and influence. For the extreme athletes highlighted in his book, these behaviors are the difference between living and dying. For you and me, it is about the life or death of our dreams.
- Habit #1: Take More Risks – You can never accomplish your goals in the safety of your comfort zone. This is mostly because your brain is not fully engaged. In your comfort zone, your brain uses well-worn neural pathways that are resistant to change. When your brain is convinced that you are taking on a something that feels like a real risk, dopamine and endorphins kick in to get you focused on the task at hand to minimize the chance of harm befalling you. Becoming a person of extraordinary influence demands that you become a smart risk-taker.
- Habit #2: Engage Your Tribe – Seth Godin famously coined the term “tribe” to describe those people who share your passion. The tribe is the place where your “passion high” is most addictive. When you actively engage others, a synergistic effect happens that fosters creativity and innovation. Oxytocin and serotonin keep you engaged in this social process.
- Habit #3: Visualize Your Outcome – fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology has enabled science to fully grasp the power of the imagination and visualization. Research shows that vivid visualization can create the same effect in the brain as actual experience of an event. By continually visualizing your expected outcome, you release neurochemicals in the parts of your brain that allow you to feel the experience. This feeling propels you toward your dream.
- Habit #4: Learn Faster – The D.O.S.E. cocktail positions you to be a faster learner. In this era of amazing shifts in technology and platform building strategies, those who are most successful will adapt to their environment. In his book The Living Company: Habits for survival in a turbulent business environment [affiliate link] Arie de Geus, long-time director of strategic planning for Royal Dutch Shell, deduced after closely studying twenty-seven large corporations that the secret to longevity through the vicissitudes of time was the ability to learn faster. That is the key to your extraordinary influence as well. Leverage people and resources to soak in as much learning as possible from people.
Hopefully, it is clear that the “high” that you feel when you are pursuing your passion, interacting with those of similar interests, and helping those who benefit from your service is indeed biological. You were wired that way. The “selfish” chemicals of dopamine and endorphins push you towards your call while the “selfless” ones of oxytocin and serotonin keep you focused on others in the process. This is the Creator’s genius and your hack for extraordinary influence.