Marketers and content creators are either obsessed with growth hacks or psychology.
Those bent on growth hacks are always thirsty for the new silver bullet that will grow their audience or boost their click-through rates.
Those seeking psychological wisdom, dig into the studies of behavioral scientists about pricing, offerings, messaging, and incentives.
Nothing wrong with that.
Except for the problem that last week’s hack “doesn’t work anymore” and the new psychology book refutes the one that came before it.
It’s all part of an endless cycle of working in an industry with inexact science.
- Growth hacks are usually recommended by practitioners who claim that what worked for them should work for everybody else (not necessarily true).
- Behavioral studies have a systemic bias that has been clearly identified in the scientific literature: they rely on student samples (usually psychology students in American universities), which do not represent the general population.
Perhaps it’s time to turn to a more exact science, like biology.
In the past few months, I’ve gained some insights from neurobiology (especially from Steven Kotler) that can be applied to thought leadership marketing. Here are some key learnings.
Thought Leadership requires turning off our default mode (the raptor brain):
- While the amygdala (the raptor brain) is only interested in survival, the prefrontal cortex allows us to travel to the future and consider possible futures.
- The raptor brain is instinctive, not creative. But thought leadership requires creativity — the brain must produce new, valuable ideas.
- Neuroscience shows that creativity is a recombinatory process, taking novel bits of data and combining them with old information to create something new.
This process requires the interaction of three neural networks: attention, imagination, and salience.
- Attention: The brain uses selective attention to filter out most of the information around us and allows us to focus and concentrate. It’s like a spotlight that shines the light on a dancer on a stage while everything else is dimmed.
- Imagination: This network is about spontaneous thoughts (it happens 30% of the time when we are awake but not focused on anything in particular). It’s the daydreaming mode that simulates alternate realities and possibilities.
- Salience: This is the network that controls the ability to go back and forth between networks. It works like an information filter, tagging incoming data as important or irrelevant, and monitoring both the internal and the external worlds. The salience network would tell you that a good idea just popped up and you should pay attention.
Thought leaders must learn how to train these three networks.
Is that even possible? Yes! There are actually 7 tactics that can help your brain produce novel and useful ideas.
In other words, they’re the 7 neurobiological triggers for thought leadership:
1. A good mood
Some of my best ideas have come while working out at the gym.
And some of my best writing times (when I enter into the zone) happen right after waking up — an idea that was fuzzy the night before, is now floating in my mind fully formed.
And it turns out there’s a scientific explanation for this.
The way you get novel insights is by activating the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in your brain, so your salience network can detect non-obvious ideas.
The brain is not good at multitasking.
So it switches some networks on and off, depending on the circumstances.
- When you’re trying to solve a problem, the most obvious solutions are strongly activated in your brain.
- The non-obvious, long-shot, creative ideas are usually weakly associated in your mind.
- When the ACC is activated, your brain is able to detect those non-obvious ideas and switches off the default mode to focus its attention on them.
So what activates the ACC? A good mood.
Science has shown that a good mood increases creativity while a bad mood increases analytical thought.
“Bad mood amplifies analytical thought. When we’re scared, the brain limits our options to the tried and true. It’s the logical, the obvious, the sure thing we know will work. When we’re in a good mood, it’s the opposite. We feel safe and secure. We’re able to give the ACC more time to pay attention to weak signals. We’re also more willing to take risks. This matters. Creativity is always a little dangerous. New ideas generate problems. They can be flat-out wrong, tricky to implement, and threatening to the establishment. But this also means we pay a double penalty for negativity. A bad mood not only limits the ACC’s ability to detect those weaker signals; it also limits our willingness to act on the signals we do detect.”
— Steven Kotler in The Art of Impossible
And the best way to be in a good mood is to practice gratitude and mindfulness, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.
- Gratitude trains your mind to focus on the positive, filtering out the negative that the gator brain is always looking for.
- Mindfulness allows you to be calm, focused, and nonreactive (activates your attention network). Breathing exercises and open meditation will let you consider novel ideas with freedom.
- Exercise lowers stress and increases the levels of happy hormones in your brain.
- A good night’s sleep increases energy levels and allows your brain the downtime to search for hidden connections between ideas.
2. Large spaces
My business mentor once told me about a builder in North Carolina who had wanted to expand nationally for years but could never figure out how to do it.
One day he decided to retire. He put someone in charge and went deep-sea fishing for 3 weeks.
While staring at the vast ocean for hours, something happened in his brain.
He began seeing his business through a wider lens. Ideas came like a flood.
Now he knew how to expand his business across the U.S.
He went back home and back to work. Two years later his business was in multiple states.
And what works for business strategy and innovation, works for thought leadership.
The cool thing is that there’s a scientific explanation for what happened to the North Carolina builder.
It all starts in your brain.
You’ve heard about the left and right sides of the brain, right? One is logical, the other one is creative. Well, it turns out that you need both sides of your brain to be creative.
But thought leaders need to use the right hemisphere a bit more.
While the left is detail-oriented (sees the trees), the right captures the big picture (sees the forest).
Thought leadership requires you to expand your perspective and consider the broader context of a problem.
Now, consider these three cool scientific findings:
- Broad vistas broaden attention. When you see into the distance, let’s say the horizon, your mind also sees into the distance (figuratively).
- Spending time in nature is a precursor to leading thoughts because nature helps the ACC (remember the anterior cingulate cortex?) consider new possibilities. Being in small, cramped spaces has the opposite effect, shrinking attention and making you focus on the details.
- Long walks in the woods reset your brain. Nature restores mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies.
So get out of your tight space, write outside, and walk in nature. Put your desk by a window.
Or go deep-sea fishing. Whatever suits your fancy.
3. Non-time and solitude
Back in 2009, I wrote my second novel between 5 and 7 am every day for 3 months.
It was the only option since at 7:15 my two boys would wake up and I had to get the oldest ready for school while my wife took care of our toddler. At 8 am, I had to start working at my job.
So I had to find a time to write when I had no interruptions or distractions.
- Everyone at home was sleeping
- My mind was fresh as I had no mental baggage from the day
- No emails or messages from work would interrupt me at that time
- It was a set time for the purpose of writing, so there was no need to multi-task
Although the above may sound convincing enough, there’s more that we can learn from neuroscience.
Let me show you.
To come up with thought leadership material, your brain needs two things: non-time and solitude.
The scenario I described above is non-time, where you are free to work without worrying about time.
Why is it important? Because deadlines cause stress.
- Time pressure causes your brain to focus on the details.
- The left hemisphere is activated and you lose sight of the big picture.
- You tend to be in a bad mood, which dampens creativity.
Furthermore, your brain needs distance from three things:
1. Distance from busyness. Leisure and daydreaming activate the default mode network in your brain, which allows your subconscious to find remote associations between ideas.
2. Distance from your problems (a.k.a. psychological distance). Getting away for a while from your difficulties allows you to see multiple perspectives and consider other possibilities.
3. Distance from other people. Solitude breeds creativity, as your brain takes a break from information overload and can wander in new directions.
Actually, one study found that after 4 days alone in the woods, people scored 50% higher in creativity tests.
4. Weird thoughts
Can alcohol make you more creative?
Well, there’s this 2012 study, where a group of people who had been given vodka-cranberry cocktails, performed better at solving a problem than a sober group.
It turns out that your brain is a pattern recognition machine.
When you’re sober, your brain tends to look for familiar patterns.
But since alcohol affects focus and broadens attention, it helps the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to look for crazy ideas (which is what you need for thought leadership).
I’m not trying to create a new category of drunk thought leaders, BTW.
There are other ways and techniques that don’t include getting inebriated or high before writing.
Let me give you two of them.
Begin with an unfamiliar idea
Intentionally start with an unrelated idea to what you’re writing about. That way you force your brain to expand its search parameters and possible associations.
Here’s some advice from Steven Kotler:
For example, if charged with writing the company newsletter, start with the weird. Instead of: “Last month, we hit our quarterly numbers,” try: “Last month, employees found a baby elephant in the lunchroom.” The point is not that you’ll end up starting the newsletter with that sentence (most likely, you’ll edit it out later). Rather it’s that trying to come up with a sentence that follows the elephant line and is actually relevant to the company newsletter forces the brain to start to make unusual connections.
Freewriting is the process of just writing whatever comes to your mind, without pausing to think about what it sounds like and definitely not editing it. It’s simply a stream of consciousness.
Freewriting helps you find your writer’s voice which can sometimes get buried under what you think you need to sound like.
After a few minutes of freewriting, work your way back to your topic.
“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down”
Before I started writing my first novel, I knew what the last line was going to be.
I knew how I wanted the story to end.
All I had to do was write all the stuff to get there.
And the way I did it was to work with a rough outline of big events.
You see, there are two types of writers: Outliners and seat-of-your-pants writers.
But there’s actually a third type: The love child of the first two. And I’m one of them.
- Outliners plan every little detail before they start writing and follow the plan to the tee.
- Seat-of-your-pants writers wing their way through their manuscripts, adventuring in all directions.
I like to do a bit of both.
And now I realize that’s good, according to science.
According to the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis, constraints facilitate creativity. A study at Rider University tested the hypothesis with two groups like this:
- Group 1 was given 8 nouns and asked to use them to write rhyming couplets.
- Group 2 was asked to write the rhymes without constraints.
Interestingly, group 1 outperformed group 2 when judged by a panel of experts.
This goes to show, that some limits are actually good to stimulate your brain to come up with creative ideas. Although as we saw last week, freewriting can also activate your ACC.
For instance, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, having a simple outline helps me know where I’m going and head in that direction.
For example, I know where I want my character to be at the end of the chapter or be clear about the points I want to make in my business book.
But it’s fun to just put my character in a new situation and see how he would react.
It’s also worth letting my thoughts flow unhindered outside the limits of the original outline, sometimes.
Start with a plan, but let new ideas emerge as you write.
Rather than always taking your reader from point A to B in a straight line, surprise her with a delightful detour every now and then.
Because great writing is more like horseback riding in nature than a subway train ride.
6. Odd reads
Thought leaders are masters at pattern recognition.
They can look at the world around them and see familiar patterns, connect seemingly unrelated ideas, and bring them together to create new frameworks and innovations.
Fortunately, your brain’s pattern recognition system is primed to help you. Every time you link two ideas together, it rewards you with a small dose of dopamine.
Recognizing patterns feels good in your brain (you know, like when you solve that Wordle puzzle).
Not only that, but the dopamine in your system will help you find even more patterns. That’s why creative ideas tend to stack up.
However, if you don’t fill up your pattern recognition system with novel ideas regularly, your brain won’t have the ammunition it needs to shoot leading thoughts into your writing.
That’s the problem that people who specialize in a narrow area of expertise face — their ideas are so closely related that there are no remote associations or new patterns to recognize.
So load the pattern recognition system in your brain with new ideas, exposing yourself to new disciplines.
Here are some tips:
- Talk to experts in areas you don’t know much about.
- Watch TED talks you wouldn’t usually watch.
- Follow thought leaders outside your industry.
- Subscribe to weird podcasts.
- Read about history, science, art, gaming, and AI.
- If your work is usually intellectual, take classes that require manual work or vice versa.
- Take on a creative hobby like drawing or painting.
7. Programming the subconscious
Do you ever get brilliant ideas while taking a shower?
Or do you get the answer to a problem you were stuck in for days while taking a walk or driving?
There’s a reason for it.
When you perform an easy activity, it keeps the conscious mind occupied (but not too much) and allows the subconscious to take over.
That’s good because your subconscious:
- Is faster and more efficient than the conscious mind.
- Has unlimited capacity (the conscious mind, your prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, can only handle 7 things at a time).
So, how does this relate to thought leadership and writing?
Well, when you feel stuck in your writing, or need to come up with leading thoughts, you can recruit your subconscious to help you out.
- Write down your problem or question in detail — but don’t worry about connecting ideas yet, which happens later.
- Activate your subconscious with a lightly stimulating activity (something you can do without concentrating too much), stepping away from the problem for a few hours.
- Engage in freewriting.
Knowing how your brain works and what you can do to stimulate creativity and the flow of new ideas gives you a tremendous advantage.
A leader’s advantage.
Use the seven tactics above in your daily thought leadership practice and you’ll have a treasure of ideas at your disposal.