This is the third part of a 5 part series inspired by Seth Godin’s book Linchpin. Be sure to catch up and read the first post with an overview of the 4 aspects of a linchpin.

Hit the Beach

Most of you can probably relate to this scenario: It’s a Saturday and one of the first hot summer days of the year. You’ve been dreaming of hitting the beach with your friends since the first few rays of spring sunshine. A few phone calls later, you and your best friends are packed in a car with the windows down, music blasting, speeding towards Lake Michigan or some other inferior body of water.

The excitement builds as the car screeches into a parking spot. Everyone jumps out and hauls over the dunes. You begin that tip-toe shuffle over the hot sand, shedding clothing piece by piece until you finally reach the shoreline.

And then you stop.

Maybe one friend runs past you, diving with exaggerated grace into the shallow, churning surf. She is experiencing something close to total clarity of the moment. She is not thinking about the car ride or her job or paying back that student loan – she is at the beach and in the water and it feels awesome.

And you? You’re putting your toes in the wet sand. You slowly walk forward into the water, wincing as it reaches up to your ankles. Your body feels like it weighs 1000 pounds. Your muscles are screaming to your brain, “Why?” It takes you five solid minutes of existential dread to get your hair wet, and once you do you tell yourself that it wasn’t so bad – but it kinda was.

The Triune Brain

Paul MacLean was an American neuroscientist who is known for his groundbreaking research on the human brain. MacLean’s triune brain theory states that the brain developed in three structurally distinct stages. The first complex of structures to form in the brain is referred to as the Reptilian Brain, named for its prominence in early vertebrates like reptiles (and birds). According to MacLean, this group is the source of instinctual behavior – competitiveness, aggression, shock, and fear.

Overcome Fear - Linchpin Series Part 3

The Reptilian: rad band from Kalamazoo. Thanks to Kasey Chaos for the photo!

The second group of structures, the Limbic System, provides the motivating emotional warm fuzzies that we feel when we do some of our favorite things as humans: eating, holding subsequent babies, etc. The third complex, the Neocortex, gives us the ability to speak languages, visualize ideas and information, solve complex problems, navigate ethics and morality, and create art and music. It’s the thing that makes us distinctly interesting and different from most other animals.

Sounds pretty good, right? Here’s the thing: Even when we’re at the height of our humanity doing cool human stuff, our reptilian brain can pop up and pump the brakes. It keeps us from diving into the water, into a new project, a new relationship, a new hobby, and a new career. It makes us afraid to die, to fail, to be uncomfortable or alone, and to be seen poorly by our peers.

The great irony is that in our current regulated, sterile and safe civilized state, the reptilian brain itself is usually what causes us to fail. A response developed to protect us actually prevents us from functioning at our full potential in the modern world. Modern life = small chance of burning toast, very small chance of being eaten by mountain lions.

As Seth Godin puts it in Linchpin:

“The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
― Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

The Reptile in the Linchpin

In life, sometimes decisions ARE vitally important and have consequences that won’t kill us, but can affect us negatively. Why do some people make great art, and others make forgettable art? Why are some products and services effective, while others are weak and bug-ridden? Godin posits that the success or failure of any undertaking is directly related to the amount of big changes in scope, vision or methodology near the “ship date” of the undertaking. Godin refers to this kind of change as “thrashing.” His advice to Linchpins is to thrash early – address the big fears and risks head-on at the start of the project to keep them from surfacing near a deadline. Linchpins aren’t afraid to confront a challenge. By doing it early, they set a tone of excitement and motivation for everything they do rather than a sense of dread due to avoidance.

So jump into the water headfirst instead of wading out for five minutes. It probably won’t kill you. Instead of slowly filling your mind with stress hormones, your pituitary gland will reward you by pumping out tons of endorphins and you’ll feel amazing! Your reptilian brain will complain, but the limbic system and the neocortex will be too busy feeling awesome to care. You’ll feel human and you’ll do cool human things.