Shortly after I completed my terminal graduate degree, it was time to put it to use. I was 42 years old and had been a homebuilder for almost 25 of them. But now the body was tired and needed to cut back on the rough and tumble work of daily construction. But what to do next? I didn’t have any interest in following the traditional trajectory and becoming a job superintendent – telling other people what to do has never been something my brain and body much resonate with – so that was out. I didn’t care to become a developer/producer. Too much stress and I couldn’t see where the juice might be for me in that role. Besides, I had a newly-minted Ph.D. that would let me work as a clinical psychologist. But the unfortunate truth was … sitting in an office all day long listening to people’s problems and trying to help, didn’t get the juices flowing either.
The Next Step of the Journey
“You really should put your degree to work,” friends and family consistently reminded me, as if I somehow forgot to remind myself. All the time and money and study should be put to the best use possible, right?
What to do? While pondering this question, one day I happened to spy a small help-wanted ad in our weekly newspaper. The ad was for a maintenance man position at a Stanford Think Tank. Stirrings small, slight and quivery began moving in me. I’d driven by the think tank sign at the bottom of the hill on the edge of campus thousands of times over the years: Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. “I’ve always wanted to see what’s up the hill behind that security gate,” I thought. I decided to go up on the pretext of applying for the job just to take a look around.
And so I did. And it was fabulous, gorgeous, breathtaking. The private think tank sat high on a hill overlooking the main campus and all of Silicon Valley. Deer foraged along the sides of the hill. Rabbits, raccoons and Hooty, a huge white owl, were openly in residence. And most surprisingly, the people were relaxed, engaging, fun. The interview done, I considered it a successful, information-gathering adventure.
And by the time I got back home there was a call on my answering machine offering me the job.
There’s a great line in one of the Indiana Jones movies. Harrison Ford is deep underground in a cave when suddenly he hears rustling and hissing. He holds his torch down into a deep pit. “Snakes,” he says. “It HAD to be snakes.” The equivalent for me was: “Self. It had to be a job offer requiring me once again to get over myself.” And then the “shoulds” started showing up, desperately trying to tout me off taking it. “There’s no way you can thrive in that job.” “Think of the lost opportunity costs.” “You’re SO overqualified for that job – you’ve managed crews and built multi-million dollar homes.”
“I can quit in 6 months,” I rationalized to myself. Bill Kreutzmann (one of the two Grateful Dead drummers once held the job years before) didn’t keep it forever. Long story short, I ended up taking the job and staying there 10 whole years. It turned out to be the perfect place, with the perfect people to begin an extended, informal, self-directed post-doc in social neuroscience – something that wasn’t even on my radar at the time I applied. Over those ten years I got to see how Nobel Prize winners, Guggenheim recipients and MacArthur Fellows live and work up close, day after day (hint: they grew up in environments that wired their brains very differently than yours and mine; most have an extraordinary, developed ability to maintain laser focus for decades. For example, Eric Kandel studied two neurons in the California sea snail … for 30 years!).
But my conscious mind with its army of “shoulds” would have had me decline that hidden opportunity had I not listened to the “still, small voice.” And in my estimation, that’s what makes “should” the most brain-damaging word in the English language. Let me explain further.
When you open up a human skull you see a collection of brain cells approximating 17 billion (69 billion more are contained in the cerebellum). That collection of neurons makes trillions of connections which are absolutely unique to everyone of us. Not only that, but many of them are in a constant state of flux. Here’s how science writer, Bob Berman tries to help us understand that complexity:
The brain … is the crown jewel of our nervous system. It has 86 billion neural cells and 150 trillion synapses. These are its electrical connections, its possibilities. This figure is nearly a thousand times as great as the number of stars in the Milky Way.
The number of brain neurons is impressive. To count them at the rate of one a second would require 3,200 years. But the brain’s synapses, or electrical connections, are beyond belief. Those 150 trillion could be counted in 3 million years. And that’s still not the end of the matter. What’s relevant is how many ways each cell can connect with the others. For this we must use factorials. Let’s say we want to know how many ways we can arrange four books on a shelf. It’s easy: You find the possibilities by multiplying 4×3×2 — called “4 factorial” and written as 4! — which is 24. But what if you have 10 books? Easy again: It’s 10! or 10×9×8×7×6×5×4×3×2, which is — ready? — 3,628,800 different ways. Imagine: Going from four items to 10 increases the possible arrangements from 24 to 3.6 million.
Bottom line: Possibilities are always wildly, insanely greater than the number of things around us. If each neuron, or brain cell, could connect with any other in your skull, the number of combinations would be 85 billion factorial! This winds up being a number with more zeroes than would fit in all the books on Earth. And that’s just the zeroes after the 1, the mere representation of the number, not the actual count. The brain’s connection possibilities lie beyond that same brain’s ability to comprehend it…
So, anytime we’re operating under the direction of a “should,” whether it’s internally generated or externally imposed, there’s a high probability that we’re honoring neither the complexity, the uniqueness nor the incipient emerging needs of our own personal neural network. To fully understand the workings of our brain or the universe, it doesn’t look like any of us really has enough … brain power. While at the same time, it seems like a “creator” must, and does, and without “shoulding” on herself. And in my experience, she rarely uses words – she tends to use small, slight, quivery feelings instead. Best to ignore “shoulds” and instead pay increasingly, ever-close attention to the tender stirrings.