Rewiring the Brain for Success

Success in life depends on the state of our brain, and the state of our brain depends on our state of mind. The negative mental states that stress generates literally shrink the higher order brain function that is needed to succeed.

The good news is that by actualizing qualities that promote a positive mindset, we create the neurological conditions that not only repair but also expand higher brain networks,  enabling an individual to flourish in all our endeavors.

This has huge implications for business. Results of over 200 scientific studies on nearly 275,000 people (APA 2005) have found that every key business outcome improves whenBrainScans-restated copy people are emotionally positive.

  • People are 31% more productive, three times more creative, and a positive mindset increases sales by 37% (Lyubomirsky, 2005).
  • We are ten times more engaged with work (Achor, 2012), and prosocial in ways that achieve superior customer service (George, 1991), and facilitate teamwork that is highly collaborative. (Barsade, 2002).
  • In addition, a positive mindset fosters supportive relationships, which in turn predicts a longer and healthier life (Danner,2001), and lowers health care costs for companies (APA,2002).

The brain scans on the right show the difference in brain function when we’re positive and well-adjusted compared to when we’re  stressed and depressed. Multiply the difference by 1000 and you have the loss in brain power in a company doing nothing to alleviate stress.

Genetics and past traumas conspire to wire the brain for stress, but we can rewire these faulty circuits. The rewiring process is called neuroplasticity, which refers to the way a change of mind that changes our experience changes our brain. A positive mindset not only repairs the brain, it also stimulates the growth of new neurons to form new connections that expand brainpower.

A company culture that facilitates a positive mindset gains an advantage over a company where stress and anxiety prevail.  It’s called the neuro-competitive advantagewhich is a company where neuroplasticity is at work, elevating the brain function to generate the fluid and creative intelligence that innovates and achieves goals, along with the emotional and social intelligence that instills more joy in our work, more peace in our lives, and greater harmony in our relationships.

Rewiring the brain to positive is simpler than you might imagine, and the brain rewires quickly, within 4 to 6 weeks.  Simple approaches that add little to your to-do list prove to work best.  The process of change centers on actualizing a to-be list of such qualities as gratitude, calm, inspiration, respect, and optimism.

The tools and exercises in my new book, The End of Stress, offer a step by step approach to building and sustaining the mindset that generates the brainpower to flourish.  Below are five simple steps to help get you started.


Gratitude is core to a positive attitude. So, once a week think of three things for which you are grateful, and enter it into a notebook.

In addition, start each day mindfully. Take five minutes of quiet time to feel grateful for another day of life to pursue your dreams and equally for another day to be with the people you love. Set your intention to have a great day, filled with achievements. Imagine relating to the day’s ups and down with a dynamically positive, peaceful, and creative attitude.

Studies show that people who consciously frame their day experience more positive emotions during the day,  exhibit more interest in their work, are more likely to feel connected with others and be more supportive, and they are also more likely to sleep better that night.

Calm and Clear 

Stress erodes the dynamic state of peace and clarity that is key to intelligent action.
Becoming more aware of our own anxiety, depression, and pessimism enables us to bust the stress-provoking thoughts that drive these negative mental states. There is a tool called the Clear Button that collapses negative thinking, preventing it from escalating into a stress reaction.

Here’s how: When your thinking becomes stressful or negative, imagine a button at the center of your palm. Press the button and keep pressing it as you count to three, thinking of each number as a color.

  • Breathe in, count 1, and on the exhale think redClear Button
  • Breathe in, count 2, and on the exhale think blue.
  • Breathe in, count 3, and on the exhale think green.
  • On the next breath, let your mind go completely blank for 10 seconds.
  • Next, refocus on the problem at hand, committing yourself to being calm, creative, and optimistic.

If the problem you face feels out of your control, recite the Serenity Prayer: Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the one from the other. Then make a list of whatever you still control, not the least of which is your attitude.


Stress locks the brain into a pattern of repeating the same unproductive effort, blocking a more inspired approach. Igniting the brain’s creative circuits involves taking a 20 minute break from work to allow your brain to generate a creative insight and to replenish ions that fuel fast brain waves.  Get into the habit of taking breaks during the day, keeping your mind open to receive a creative insight from your brain.


The success of our relationships is determined by three attitudes. The first is an attitude of unconditional positive regard, which is the respect we show for the intrinsic worth of every human being, whether realized or not. Research shows that the more our worth is respected, the more it takes hold to actualize our potential for success.  The second attitude is empathy, which is the willingness to step into another person’s shoes so completely that we lose the desire to judge them. This promotes the self-understanding in both the giver and the receiver, which correlates with self-esteem. The third attitude is congruity, meaning there is a match between what we are experiencing on the inside and how we are relating on the outside. Congruence is what makes a relationship honest and trustworthy. These three attitudes foster the level of attuned communication that sustain interpersonal resonance.


Helen Keller said “optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” The research I’ve cited makes it abundantly clear that a shift in mindset from stressed to positive generates the brain power that predicts achievement. Your success empowers a second shift, which is the shift from the thought – I can’t do this – to the feeling I can do anything.



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From Generation Stressed to Generation Blessed

from Don’s Huffington Post article
If you read my post on Generation Stress, you know that if stress is a problem in your life, it’s because genetics and past traumas wired you for it. You also know that the chronic dose of stress hormones that a stressful life dumps into your system causes serious problems. They shrink brain masslower your IQ, dampen your performance at work, make you prone to heart disease, cancer and premature aging, predict martial problems, family dysfunction and clinical depression, and makes you twice as likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.


The simple starter kit I’ve provide below can begin to rewire the faulty brain circuits that a nasty stress gene wired into your brain. And … you can take it even further to expand the higher order brain function that generates the fluid, creative, emotional and social intelligence that predicts a highly successful, happy, and healthy life.

brain-scans-mayo-clinic copy

We human beings are called the Crown of Creation because nature blessed us with an amazing brain. The human brain is arguably nature’s single greatest achievement, and Nobel Prize laureate Eric Kandle tells us that we direct our brain with “the most complex set of processes in the universe, the mind.” Until recently, we haven’t had the Owner’s Manual listing the mental processes that switch our brain to full power … but we have it now. In the last 15 years new research has identified the mindset or mental attitude that enables higher order brain networks to function at optimum and can even stimulate the growth of new connections that expand your potential.

The process of reprogramming your brain for a happier, more intelligent, more successful life is called neuroplasticity. You can learn more about it in my book The End of Stress, Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain.

Look Inside


The practice that begins to resolve stress is quite simple. This is because simple approaches are what work best in rewiring your brain. So let’s get you started with generating this change in direction.

The first step is a simple practice that goes a long way to frame a great day, instead allowing a stressful beginning to take over. It’s called Starting the Day in Quiet. This tool is an antidote to the frenetic, over-caffeinated early morning rush out the door that heads straight into a traffic jam. This tool encourages you to set aside a few minutes first thing in the morning to consciously frame a dynamically positive, peaceful, and creative mindset to meet the day’s challenges. Doing this can make a big difference in how the day goes. Here’s how it works.


  • Start your day by rising 10 minutes earlier, ahead of the morning rush.
  • Sit quietly in a place where you won’t be disturbed.
  • Close your eyes, tilt your head toward your heart, and follow your breathing. The idea is to feel each breath opening your heart and mind wider, empowering heart and mind to work in concert.
  • Feel appreciation for the gift of another day of life. It’s not guaranteed. Feel gratitude for another day with the people you love. Gratitude is a powerful psychological state. It is the gateway to positive emotions.
  • Set your intention to have a great day, filled with achievements. Equally, commit to a great state of mind to face the day’s ups and down with a dynamically positive, peaceful, and creative attitude.

The next step is to practice using a tool during the day that busts stressful, anxious, angry, or depressing thoughts and emotions that ruin your attitude. The brain offers you 90 seconds to bust these reaction before dumping a load of toxic stress hormones in your system that can overwhelm you with anxiety. This tool is called the Clear Button. It gets you through the 90-second window in time. Here’s how it works. You imagine a button at the center of your palm.

You press the button and keep pressing it as you count to three, thinking of each number as a color.

  • Breathe in, count 1, and on the exhale think red.
  • Breathe in, count 2, and on the exhale think blue.
  • Breathe in, count 3, and on the exhale think green.
  • On the next breath, let your mind go completely blank for 10 seconds.
  • Next, refocus on the problem at hand, recommitting yourself to being calm, creative, and optimistic as you face this and other stressors that arise during the day.
  • If the problem you face seems beyond your control, recite the Serenity Prayer: Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.

The calm this tool facilitates can shift control from the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, where all you see are problems, to higher order brain function in the prefrontal cortex where you are able to create solutions.

The third step in this “starter kit” provides a way to close out the day. It’s called Finish Each Day and Be Done With It.

Finish Each Day copy
This helps you let go of the day’s problems, so you don’t take them home. Moreover, it allows you to let the day go so you can begin tomorrow serenely, with too high a spirit and purpose to be encumbered by the past. This piece of wisdom comes from a letter written by the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to his daughter who was stressed over a mistake she’d made. This is what it says:

Finish each day and be done with it.

You have done what you could. Some blunders, losses, and the old nonsense no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can.

Tomorrow is a new day. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.

I invite you to cut-and-paste the statement and post it where you’ll see it at the close of your work day.

The more you learn to apply tools that bust stress reactions, the more your brain will strengthen synapses that collapse stress reactions at the point of inception, and amplify the higher brain function that predicts success in all your endeavors. Before you know it, you’re performing at the top of your game, achieving your best day every day, and at day’s end you’re the person coming through the door your loved ones were hoping to see.


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Study Reveals the One Step Most Parents Miss in Raising Their Kids; And It’s a Critical Step

It opens the door to behavior and learning problem at school.

It opens the door to behavior and learning problem at school and later in life.

Today’s parents are devoted to their kids, there’s no mistaking it.  But the vast majority of these same parents are stressed at work and they’re taking it home, and research shows that what’s stressing kids the most is how stressed their parents have become. Most parents are oblivious to the impact their stress level is having on their kids and fueling the problem is the fact that 83 percent of Americans are doing little or nothing to alleviate the stress in their lives.

This bodes poorly for children because mom and dad’s stress opens the door to kids having problems at school and even later in life. A parent’s stress registers with the kids and sets off stress reactions that send unhealthy amounts of stress hormones coursing through the child’s developing brain, and that can mean learning and behavioral problems.

The area of the brain most vulnerable to stress is the prefrontal cortex or higher brain. This region generates everything we think of as human intelligence, and provides the top-down regulation for emotions, desires, and impulse control. Stress hormones shrink the prefrontal cortex, debilitating higher brain functions. It weakens memory and learning, and it can even alter a child’s DNA in unfortunate ways.

And it all starts with the work stress mom and dad bring home.

One child in the study said, “I know when my mom has a bad day because she doesn’t smile.” Another child feels it in the slow way his dad walks into the house.  Another child voiced what the researcher concluded from the data. He said, “If our parents were less tired and stressed, kids would be less tired and stressed too.”

Another study asked kids what they wanted most from their parents and then asked parents to guess what kids said. The parents thought it was for more quality time or a trip to Disneyland.

Not so.  What kids wanted was a stress free parent. They want their parents to handle work stress better, so they have less of it to bring home.  It’s a wake-up call for parents as they face the annual rite of passage called “back-to-school”.

Kids mirror their parent’s attitude, so the ball is in the parent’s court to learn to rise above stressors at work, and, happily, there are proven ways that strengthen our capacity to be calmer, more creative and optimistic as we face problems. These techniques could not be simpler.

One example is The Clear Button. This tool is an effective way of busting stressful thinking. We human being think our way into all sorts of stressful event purely in our heads, exciting upsetting emotions that produce a misperception of threat that can send the mind and body into an uproar. This pattern generates the vast majority of stress reactions people experience and it’s all linked to mere thoughts.  Michel de Montaigne summed it up 500 years ago, when he said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”

Nature gave us a 90 second window to bust stressful thinking before it takes a long walk off a short pier, and The Clear Button gets us through the window in time.

Clear Button 120 ResHere’s all you do. You image a button at the center of your palm. You press it and count to 3, thinking of each number as a color.

  • Breathe in, count 1, think red.
  • Breathe in, count 2, think blue.
  • Breathe in, count 3, think green.
  • On the exhale, completely let go of thinking anything for a moment.

The more you bust stressful thinking during the day, the more likely you will be the parent kids are hoping to see at the end of day.

What is the neurological basis for why this technique work?  The part of the brain that causes stress reactions literally has the intelligence of a toddler. And every parent knows you don’t stop a tantrum by appealing to a child’s logic.  You distract them. This tool distracts the terrible two-year-old in your brain from going off the deep end.

There are other such tools. I present 20 proven tools and processes in my book. These processes are neuroplastic in nature, meaning that – with practice – they can rewire the brain to extinguish knee jerk stress reactions and make a person relatively stress-free. All in a matter of four to six weeks.

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Developing Breakthrough Innovators

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Long-term success in the global economy depends on innovation that is both original and practical.  Few would argue with that statement. In fact, a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the most crucial factor for future success. Success is not only about developing breakthrough innovators. It also hinges on cultivating creative, out-of-the-box thinkers in sales, manufacturing, and leadership to prevent the company from devolving into bureaucratic mediocrity.

Yet most companies smother the creative spark, says the Harvard Business Review, because their understanding of how innovation works is rooted in false beliefs.

Science has dispelled these false beliefs, but companies have not yet caught up with the neuroscience on how the brain generates creative intelligence (CQ). As a result, most companies are failing to facilitate the creative environment that taps and expands CQ.

Innovation is all about the brain.  It’s all about meeting the neurological conditions that (a) stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain to generate creative insight, (b) captures the insight quickly, and (c) transfers it to the brain’s left hemisphere where it can be forged into something revolutionary.

The False Beliefs about Innovation

The great American psychologist, William James, described the creative process as “a seething caldron of ideas,” and now, for the first time, science is beginning to see into the cauldron itself. We are beginning to see how creative insight is actually generated inside our brain. And what’s been made clear is that our old ideas about the creative process are all wrong.

False Belief #1: We used to believe that people were most creative when stressed, anxious, and pressured, but a number of studies strongly suggests that stress undermines the creative cognitive processing that contributes to creative output in organizations (Forbes, 2012, Amabile, Mueller, 2002).  Studies have found that creativity is positively associated with inner peace, joy, empathy, and optimism, and negatively associated with stress and fear (Subramaniam, Kounios, 2009). A positive mood broadens your scope and allows you to look at a problem in new ways and come up with better solutions (Fredrickson, Branigan, 2005).

False Belief #2: There is the belief that creativity takes an intense, sustained focus, and yet research has demonstrated that intense focus is not the best approach when you need a creative solution (White, Shah, 2006). People with ADHD actually score higher on creativity tests and win more awards in art and science contests.

PICASSO DRAWING WITH LIGHTCreativity emerges initially in a spontaneous, free-flowing, and non-linear manner. The essence of creativity is as playful as a child.  Picasso said “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.” The way we remain an artist, according to Dr. Paul Torrance, the scientist who designed the gold standard for measuring creative talent, is to provide ample room for exploring, questioning, experimenting, manipulating, re-arranging, and stepping back to allow creative ideas to incubate.

False Belief #3: We have also tended to believe that innovation means we have to put our noses to grindstone, but the experience of 3M Corporation and Google have proven that the polar opposite is true, which research has corroborated.

For decades employees at 3M have been encouraged to use up to 15 percent of their regular work hours to pursue ideas of their own making, even if these ideas are outside 3M’s strategic pursuits. It’s called the 15-Percent Rule, and it’s credited with many of 3M’s stellar innovations, including the Post-It.

Google upped the 15-Percent-Rule to 20 percent, and founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stated that Google’s 20% rule was instrumental to the company’s ability to innovate, leading to many of its most significant advances, including AdSense, which now accounts for a quarter of the company’s annual revenue.

the anterior superior temporal gyrus Ah-Hah copyFalse Belief #4: Perhaps the most limiting belief about creativity is the notion that
people are either genetically gifted with creative talent or not. The capacity for creativity is built into the very structure of everyone’s brain (Beeman, Bowden, 2004). It’s merely that people who become highly innovative as adults had teachers, mentors, and parents who helped them cultivate creative intelligence as children (Runco, Millar, 2010).  But if we missed the leg-up as a kid, we can get it as an adult.  Creativity is teachable. Research shows that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better (Jung, Haier, 2008).

How Do Companies Develop Breakthrough Innovators?

The research on creativity indicates that raising creative intelligence begins with raising people’s emotional intelligence, and in particular their level of happiness and inner peace. In large part, this is because processes that increase positive emotional states stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain where creative insights are generated.

There are four proven approaches to facilitating the mental and emotional states that predict creative insight.  Each is quite simple, and they are easily learned and applied.

1. Decrease emotional negativity by teaching people how to alleviate stress, anxiety, and pessimism. This is achieved through a practice that (a) actively interrupts patterns of stress provoking thoughts and perceptions that stressed and anxious people habitually think (Robinson, Alloy, 2003), and (b) strengthens a dynamically peaceful mindset (Davidson, Kabat-Zinn,2003).

2. Elevate the capacity for positive emotional states through an active practice of gratitude, and by teaching people to visualize their “best possible self” (Sheldon, Lyubomirsky, 2006).

  • Gratitude is develop through a simple practice of counting blessing in a specific manner.
  • Invoking one’s “best possible self” is achieved (a) by identifying qualities we experience when we perform at the top of our game at work, and when are at our best in our personal life, (b) forming these qualities into a clear mental image of who we are capable of being, and (c) making our “best possible self” the primary goal we aspire to actualize every day.”

3. Integrate 20-minute breaks into the work-day, at least one mid-morning and another mid-afternoon. Breaks improve memory consolidation, which is essential to envisioning something novel or learning something new (Tambini, 2013), and breaks increase unconscious associative processing that facilitates creative problem solving (Baird, Smallword, 2012).

4. Encourage people to take a 90-minute walk periodically through a natural environment. A 90-minute walk in nature has been shown to reduce the mental rumination associated with anxiety and depression. (Bratman, Daily 2015).

The Bridge from Creative Insights to Innovative Solutions to Actions

Last but not least, implementing the most promising creative ideas that emerge from the new creative environment involves a methodical process, such as Treffinger’s Creative Problem-Solving method (CPS).  CPS helps teams move from creative insight to tangible innovation through a process that clarifies the creative problem, researches it, generates and processes ideas, turns good ideas into best solutions, and then creates a plan to bridge solutions to actions.

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The Creative Intelligence of American Children is Declining

E. Paul Torrance, shown here in the mid-'80s, spent most of his career studying and encouraging students' creativity.

E. Paul Torrance, shown here in the mid-’80s, spent most of his career studying and encouraging students’ creativity.

Fifty years ago, psychologist Paul Torrance invented the test that has become the gold standard for assessing the creative intelligence (CQ) in children. Millions of children all over the world have taken the test, which is conducted over 90-minutes and consists of a series of discrete creative tasks.  The longitudinal studies conducted on the half century of data from the testing found that children who tested high in CQ grew up to become the ground breaking entrepreneurs, computer developers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, researchers, and statesmen. High CQ as a child is three times stronger than high IQ in determining who goes on to make a significant lifetime achievement.

Up until 1990, the IQ and CQ scores of American children had steadily risen, the results of good schools and good families making kids smarter. But since 1990 the creativity scores of American children have dropped, and dropped seriously in the formative years between kindergarten and the sixth grade. In assessing blame for the problem, most fingers point to the amount of time kids spend in front of screens, watching TV, playing computer games, or texting ceaselessly on their smart phones.

Certainly, the pointless preoccupation with electronic toys is diverting kids from creative-cubes-1509571engaging in more meaningful creative activities, but the decline in creativity appears to run deeper than electronic distractions.  The research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of positive psychology, found that children who grow up to make significant creative contributions developed in the stability and order of cohesive families and supportive schools that channeled, accepted, and broadened the child’s innate talent.

Sadly, most schools are not doing that any more. Our public schools have gutted the school curriculum of any kind of creative development. Ironically, the ability to think creatively is not on the list of core competencies, despite it being the strongest predictor of a child’s success in adult life.  Our education policy is missing the point research has established, which is that creative problem solving is the core competency in every subject.

An even greater irony is that although American scientists have pioneered the programs that teach children to think creatively, it is China and Europe that are implementing them.  China and Europe are dumping the old model of  “drill and kill”, which is the excessive repetition of simple, isolated skills, in favor of the new model rooted in the problem-based learning that America pioneered. The policy makers in Europe and China understand that a generation devoid of breakthrough creative thinkers are not likely to create a prosperous future.

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