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Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long Hardcover – October 6, 2009
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“Simply put, this intriguing book offers fascinating research about the brain’s functions, limitations and capacities, and it teaches us how we can “direct” our own brain chemistry in order to achieve fulfillment and success. Well worth reading and ingesting these skills.” (Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)
“This is the best, the most helpful, and the brainiest book I’ve read on how the brain affects how, why and what we do and act.” (Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business and University Professor, University of Southern California and author of On Becoming a Leader)
“This book will improve how you work—by showing you how your brain works!” (Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There)
“Rock makes the science of your mind accessible and relevant.” (Daniel Akst, Fortune Small Business)
“Rock deserves an ovation for his writing and direction.” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
“Rock makes the science of your mind accessible and relevant.” (Fortune Small Business)
“…highly informative look at the way our minds work at work.” (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
About the Author
David Rock is a consultant and leadership coach who advises corporations around the world. The author of Coaching with the Brain in Mind, Quiet Leadership, and Personal Best, he is the CEO of Results Coaching Systems, a leading global consulting and coaching organization. He is on the advisory board of the international business school CIMBA and the cofounder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and Summit. He lives in Sydney, Australia, and New York City.
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a. summarize the book's content,
b. provide an overview of the amazon reviews of this book, and
c. evaluate the book's merits.
The overarching message is that we benefit ourselves when we engage in metacognition (Rock's term). We improve ourselves by becoming more aware of how our power of awareness functions. Rock often expresses this idea metaphorically by telling us that it is to our advantage to develop a strong "director."
When we enhance our self-awareness, we appreciate that human beings are motivated by five types of phenomena: Social status, Certainty, Autonomy (independence), Relatedness (social connections), and Fairness. Enhancement of these five dimensions is experienced as rewarding. Diminution along any of these dimensions is just as aversive as physical pain.
When we are suffering because one or more of these dimensions has been threatened, we can use three procedures to restore our mental well-being.
The first is labeling. By describing an emotion we can reduce it. If someone insulted me, I can tell myself that I am angry. That will make me feel better.
The second procedure is reappraisal. By changing our perspective or our interpretation of a situation, we can lessen the negative emotion. If someone insulted me, I can take his perspective and realize that he is so upset that he is not responsible for his actions. Or, perhaps I could reinterpret the situation and realize that what I took to be an insult might not have been one after all.
The last procedure is lowering expectations. Decades ago I discovered that if many people told me that I must see a movie because it was amazing, I would often be disappointed, because it failed to be as amazing as I had expected it to be. On the other hand, if I just saw some random flick on a whim, and it was decent, I was really happy, because it was much better than I thought it would be. We experience exceeded expectations as highly rewarding, and unmet expectations as painful. We can develop the ability to set our expectations lower, allowing them to be exceeded more often.
In business and in life in general, we often confront difficult problems. Rock offers a number of methods for helping us develop better solutions.
First, we can simplify the problem to the greatest extent possible by using few words to state it.
Second, we can get our mind off the problem by quieting the mind-- e.g. by taking a shower or a walk.
Third, we can focus the mind on potential solutions and, as much as possible, stop thinking about the problem.
I bought this book because it had some of the most forceful, positive reviews that I have ever read for a self-improvement book. Since I have read books that have deeply affected my own life, I was pleased to read the reviews of so many readers whose lives were positively altered by the methods they learned from this book. I actually stopped reading a couple of books that I am in the middle of, because the potential impact of this book seemed so much greater.
It should come as no surprise to readers of Rock's book, that the over-the-top reviews of his book lessened my appreciation of it. Reading these reviews stimulated very high expectations in me. Unfortunately, those high expectations were not met. This book has had very little, if any, impact on my life. Very few of the reviewers have indicated what particular and specific changes they made based on the book's recommendations, and how that helped them. I have found it quite difficult to translate the insights given in the book into practical changes in my life.
As I stated at the beginning of the Content section, the overarching message of the book is the importance of metacognition, which is usually called "mindfulness." If your goal is to develop your powers of mindfulness, I can recommend books that give much more practical, useful advice than Rock's book. I started doing mindfulness practice about six months ago. To be perfectly frank, it's not at all clear to me that I have become any more mindful than I was before I started. But I am aware of the fact that there is a lot of evidence that mindfulness practice benefits most people who engage in it, so I soldier on hoping that at some point I will notice that mindfulness is benefiting me as well.
As far as lessening negative emotions using labeling, reappraisal, and lowered expectations, you would be better served by reading a cognitive-behavioral therapy book with practical exercises that help you develop those skills. David Burns's The Feeling Good Handbook is an excellent choice.
If you want to know more of the science Rock discusses, Heidi Grant Halvorson's Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, covers some of the same studies Rock does, but she presents it in a more accessible manner, making it much easier to implement changes in my life.
If, instead of self-improvement, your goal is to be stimulated intellectually on the subject of awareness and thought, take a look at Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, or Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.
In conclusion, Rock's book does a decent job synthesizing a lot of content into a relatively coherent presentation. But I had trouble translating this content into practical changes in my life. There are other books on psychology and mindfulness that do a better job demonstrating exactly what the reader needs to do to bring about positive behavioral and emotional changes.
I originally picked up this book in 2014 because I had read several of David Rock’s articles and I thought he was knowledgeable, practical, and made a lot of sense. That turned out to be a great decision because this book was one of my top five books for the year.
The time between reading the book and writing this review gave me the opportunity to try to put the lessons and suggestions into practice. Today I’m more enthusiastic about the book than I was when I first read it because I know it’s made a difference in my everyday life and I think it will do the same for you.
As an author and a book-writing coach, I know how hard it can be to figure out how to structure a book about a topic as big as the brain at work. David Rock came up with a novel solution: he structures the book like a play. Here’s his description of how that works.
“In the stage metaphor, the actors represent conscious information. The audience members represent information in your brain below conscious awareness, such as memories and habits. Then there is a character I am calling your director. The director is a metaphor for the part of your awareness that can stand outside of experience. This director can watch the show that is your life, make decisions about how your brain will respond, and even sometimes alter the script.”
I think the structure works very well. You get to see people carrying on in a work setting and then some interpretation of what’s happening to them and how you can do things differently.
Instead of chapters, Rock refers to his chunks of material as scenes. He also includes two devices, one called “Surprises About the Brain” and the other called “Some Things to Try.” Those devices appear at the end of scenes and give you a quick review of the key points as well as some applications.
If the book only included what I’ve described so far, it would still be worth the price, but there’s one more very important piece and it’s the one that’s helped me the most when it comes to putting the book to work. It’s David Rock’s SCARF model. Here’s his description of it.
“I noticed a surprising pattern while putting this book together. I saw that there are five domains of social experience that your brain treats the same as survival issues. These domains form a model, which I call the SCARF model, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. The model describes the interpersonal primary rewards or threats that are important to the brain. Getting to know these five elements strengthens your director. It’s a way of developing language for experiences that may be otherwise unconscious, so that you can catch these experiences occurring in real time.”
Most of the stuff that I’ve read about brain function and how leaders can use the way the brain works more effectively fail on one of two counts. Sometimes, there’s a lot of good academic research but it’s highly fragmented and written in academic journal-ese, which makes it difficult to understand and more difficult to apply. David Rock cites a lot of research but puts the important stuff in context and draws conclusions about the practical implications.
Other material about brain function are more flash than substance. They’re often based on little research and sometimes on no research at all. One great strength of this book is that David Rock shows you the sources of several of his conclusions and recommendations.
In a Nutshell
You’ll be a better person and a more effective leader if you buy Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, read it, and do the work of learning to put it into practice.
It explores the limitations of the brain and its ability to prioritize, remember, and recall information. Sounds pretty dry right? Well actually it isn't. The author uses a very easy to understand analogy and real life situations that turn these complex topics into a fairly quick read.
I took a lot from this book. I have put several of the ideas into practice and have seen results in my overall capacity to prioritize and process information. If you are a busy professional, I see no reason why you cannot get at least something out of reading Mr. Rock's book.
My only complaint is that through the situational analogies recommendations are sometimes given that would be very difficult to follow in a fast paced corporate world...but I was even able to take some of these business situational ideas and apply them to personal tasks. It really is a valuable book. So much so, I read it twice.
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