The basis for our success is often is the underpinning of our ultimate failure. This is true for our behavior as well as our biology.

As humans our greatest strength is our brains. They are truly unique in the animal kingdom. We process and analyze tremendous amounts of data so quickly and efficiently that most of the analysis happens without any conscious effort.

You can drive your car for hours safely navigating your way home while focusing your conscious mind on more important issues.  Suddenly you “wake up”, look around and wonder “Where am I and how did I get here?” You got there safely and reliably because your brain took over a routine task and let your mind focus on some entirely unrelated ideas.

In short your brain is constantly looking for familiar patterns in situations and events. When it finds a match it allows you to go on autopilot and releases your mind to more important thoughts. It is precisely this ability to notice familiar patterns and appropriately respond without focus that is our genius and our undoing.

It is genius in a couple of important ways. First it allows us to function in highly complex environments that would be unmanageable chaos if we had to give our full attention to every task at hand.

The second cool thing it does is in the pattern-matching feature. When confronted with new situations the new event doesn’t have to be exactly like the old. Your brain is able to automatically do a “this is somewhat like what I already know so I’ll treat it like what I already know.” This feature lets us apply past knowledge and experience to new situations and react seamlessly.

“So what? If my brain is so cool and does this automatically why should I care?” You should care because sometimes in really important ways it works against you. In his book Iconoclast  Gregory Berns calls it the efficiency principle, which says “The brain will take shortcuts based on what it already knows.  These shortcuts lead to perception being shaped by past experience.”

This works perfectly if your today is almost exactly like yesterday. If like many of us your world and the people in it are rapidly evolving then you’re being left behind. Your brain is responding to evolving change as if it weren’t happening.

This will have serious consequences at work and at home. Lets start with relationships and next week look at how it hurts innovation at work.

Think about what happens or perhaps has already happened when you figured out your spouse’s patterns? I don’t mean you understand them, I mean you no longer have to think about who your partner is or what they really want in order to interact. You have learned to exist in the relationship without truly being present.  Here are some warning signs

  1. You think you can carry on a conversation and read or watch TV at the same time.
  2.  You find yourself thinking or saying “I know where this is going” so you stop listening
  3. You no longer notice changes in your partner’s appearance or dress.
  4. You find yourself tuning out during conversations
  5. You respond to what they are saying before they finish saying it.

This is a major cause of relationship failure. When it happens we can sense and feel the drifting apart but usually don’t know how to address it. Sound familiar?

Some suggestions.

  1. Listen all the way through the conversation.
  2. Ask for clarification even when you think you know what they meant.
  3. Turn off the TV, set down the paper and focus on your partner.
  4. Quit interrupting especially internally; quiet the voice inside that starts talking when you think you’ve heard enough.
  5. Try going to new and unique places, get out of your routines.

It’s time to take your relationships off autopilot. You see, your autopilot doesn’t know what a good relationship looks like. It doesn’t really know where it’s going. It only knows where you’ve been.

Next week “How to increase innovative change”