“Commitment is an act, not a word.” ~Jean-Paul Sartre

As you begin the process of advancing your skills in problem solving, you will be asked to acquire new skills, to break unhealthy patterns and to create new, productive ones. What is the most efficient way to master a new skill? Why is it often so hard to break an old habit? Advances in the neurosciences have given us new insights. One of the key insights is that if we want to become proficient in a specific area of our lives, we can truly weave our own destiny by being commit-ted to practice and discipline. This is true in complex problem solving as well.

“All skills, all language, all music, all movement, are made of living circuits, and all circuits grow according to certain rules.”
~George Bartzokis, MD

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes how myelin is key to many of the rules controlling the nerve fibers that carry electrical impulses in neural cir-cuits. Our goal when we practice a skill is to fire the circuits the right way, swing the tennis racket correctly or play the right series of notes. Our myelin responds by wrapping a new layer of insulation around the neural circuit. Each new layer makes the signal faster and stronger, allowing us to improve the skill. This helps explain how practice can make our movements and our thoughts faster and more accurate. This applies to everything in our lives, a golf stroke, shooting a free throw, playing a musical instrument and it applies to problem solving.

Stilling the mind is a good example of a skill that can be improved with daily practice; with as little as 2-5 minutes practice each day for just 30 days, you will begin to develop the skill of consciously stilling your mind—typically in the form of meditation. By stilling the mind, becoming aware of emotions and accepting what is without judgments, the mind can become faster and more adept at being responsive and less reactive when presented with a challenge. Meditation can also help us break some of our unhealthy patterns that have become well myelin-ated through years of “mis-use”. Healthier patterns can be practiced each day and the more you practice, you will see and feel the results.

Keeping an open mind is another important leadership and problem solving skill. Part of this involves becoming a good watcher; focusing on listening, seeing and feeling. Another part is being aware of our minds use of analogies to perceive the world. As an example, when we look at an image, millions of electrical signals are generated in the retinas of our eyes. How does the brain handle this potential sensory overload? We map the incoming data onto our prior experiences, com-paring what we are looking at with what we have seen before. We focus on the essence of the new image. The use of analogies becomes an efficient way for us to perceive the world. When it comes to problem solving, however, we need to make sure that a new challenge is not too readily put into a category of some-thing we have dealt with before. We need to be open to new solutions.

Although opening the mind and heart to new and different perspectives may be uncomfortable at first, if you want to acquire new skills, break unhealthy patterns, and create new, productive ones, you will need to practice. The more you prac-tice the faster you will acquire new skills, and we now know at least part of the reason why. Neural circuits with more activity become better myelinated resulting in stronger and faster signals. Rigorous practice requires discipline. It’s worth it.

by S.A.S., MD