Learning Live 2014: The Chimp Paradox

OK, so this is really overdue. I’ve had a few things crop up that have stopped me publishing this before now but hopefully it’s still relevant. The event might have been nearly a month ago but the ideas and indeed its impact will live on much longer I think.

20140911_102846Having been kindly invited by the Learning and Performance Institute (LPI) to be part of the backchannel team for Learning Live 2014, my main duty was to share what was going on via Twitter. However, the keynote presentation from Dr. Steve Peters was almost impossible to do justice to in a series of 140 characters. So I decided to take notes instead and see if I could begin to recap it in a blog. Here’s the overview for what the session promised:

Attendees will be educated into the workings of the human mind, particularly emphasising emotional management leading to optimising performance. In speeches, as in his book ‘The Chimp Paradox’, Steve explains his method to help us understand and control our ‘inner chimp’ – the irrational, impulsive, seemingly impossible part of our mind that often holds us back. Examining motivation, confidence and communication, he shows that competition is as much in the mind as it is in the field or on the track – or in the office.

I came into this session not having read the book (although have since purchased it, like many others in the audience I suspect) so had no prior conceptions about what Peters would say. He began by telling us he isn’t a sports psychologist but a psychiatrist who isn’t even much of sports fan. Yet he works with British Cycling and helped them win numerous medals over the years. Peters told us that he can’t do a neat little ‘top five tips’ style presentation but that if we want to succeed and achieve the things in life we want then he had some useful insights.

Human beings have two machines that we can use to succeed; the body and the mind. Our minds are divided into six different parts of the brain. which Peters groups into three key areas:
• The chimp
• The human
• The computer

20140911_103451The chimp is the animal part of our brain that controls our emotions and causes a lot of the battles we struggle with internally. Peters showed some pretty hilarious videos demonstrating how when we feel threatened or angry or our emotions generally take over (like a printer squirting ink over some poor soul in an office) then our chimp kicks in and we fight back (said poor soul proceeds to smash up said printer with anything he can lay his hands on!) This is how we are genetically programmed to respond – which might be fine in the jungle, but clearly it is not always helpful, particularly in a working environment.

Peters believes we all have a responsibility to manage our inner chimp. But the trick is not to squash it. If we can slow the internal workings of our brain down a bit then we can try and use it to our advantage. If our human brain knows what we want to achieve and why – then we can start to assess how our emotions, thoughts and behaviours impact the probability of us achieving our optimal performance. For example, if you are due to give a presentation but particularly nervous about it, your chimp might take over and you could end up panicking, causing you to stutter and make a mess of it. But if you can *manage* your chimp, harnessing the adrenaline but using your human brain to reassure yourself that things will be alright then you can start to reach your optimal performance levels in presenting.

We are what we achieve?

What Peters said about achievement itself was very interesting. He used the example of a school report where a child had tried hard in Maths but failed the exam. Yet found English easy and didn’t have to try to ace it and get a great result. He asked the audience what we would say if the child asked if we were proud of them. Most said they would applaud the effort that went into the Maths even though it didn’t lead to any real achievement.

5 Wishes_Chimp ParadoxHowever, he noted that although this is a noble sentiment we are setting the child up for a fall because this isn’t how we view success in reality. He talked about how people feel on their death beds and most of them will not give advice to work harder or achieve more, but to ‘be happy’. It seems we are torn apart by the different parts of our brains, and our conflicting desires to succeed and keep achieving versus taking stock and being content with what we have.

Interestingly Dave Brailsford, who works with Peters and the British cycling team, once said of his prodigious athletes ‘We’re into happiness’. And Peters asserts that if people are happy, they are unbeatable. Happiness and achievement are far from mutually exclusive. But he also teaches the athletes that he works with that the achievement of medals is not the be all and end all. It does not exclusively define them. And in acknowledging that and harnessing the desire of the chimp to win, his athletes become more relaxed, happier and seemingly more likely to win. Hence the use of the word paradox in the session title!

Peters recommends allocating time to our emotional skills development and to stop and think about what we’re doing. What do you want to achieve? Does what you’re doing right now help you achieve that?

As you can see, it’s a session that in some ways asks more questions than it answers and one that has been challenging to try and distil even into this many words, let alone 140 characters. I hope to have more insights once I’ve finished the book and you can see Peters speaking here. But even if you take nothing else away, I think the underlying principles of harnessing and managing your emotions, taking the time to *really* thinking about what you want to achieve and why, and of course, being happy while you do it, are ideals we can all strive for and use to help our own performance; whether that’s in the workplace or in elsewhere in life.


About kategraham23

Start-up founder, writer, connector, librarian's daughter. Interested in learning, HR, technology, online, media, marketing, fashion and cricket. Not always in that order. The views expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect the thoughts and opinions of the company I work for currently, or those I've worked for in the past.
This entry was posted in Conferences and events, Learning Live and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Learning Live 2014: The Chimp Paradox

  1. Sukh Pabial says:

    Reblogged this on Thinking About Learning and commented:
    Really useful insight here into a talk by Dr Steve Peters.


  2. thanks Kate, it’s never too late for a real nice recap like this one. I loved the presentation of Peters and it is very usefull to read your post about it


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