Richard G. Petty, MD

Creativity and Resilience

“No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”
–Epictetus (Phrygian-born Greek Stoic Philosopher, c.A.D.55- c.A.D.135)

I have written several articles about resilience, and I have begun to talk about some of the methods for developing psychological resilience and also some of the potential consequences of not developing this essential psychological strength.

I’d also like to share with you another aspect of resilience: it is essential ingredient of creativity and of innovation.

I’ve had a longstanding fascination with the creative process, and one of the most robust findings in the research on extraordinary creative achievement is that even the greatest performers in their fields seem to produce the same ratio of undistinguished works to notable ones through their careers. The great chess player wins more often than the average one, but only sometimes produces a truly great creation. Even the best engineers and scientists conduct many unsuccessful experiments. The stories are legion of artists who produce many paintings and works of music that never win recognition and may not even be much good. Many great actors, directors, cricketers and companies have a great many failures behind – and sometimes in front  – of them.

Amongst the many attributes of the high achiever in each of these fields is a remarkable ability to bounce back, to detach from the apparent failure, to see it as an education, and to understand the importance of persistence and perseverance. To take a risk, to take a step back and to learn and adapt if at first it doesn’t succeed. This never means repeating the same strategies over and over again, it means being smart and not being fazed by failure

“Unless you are willing to try, fail miserable, and try again, success won’t happen.”
–Phillip Adams (Australian Broadcaster, Filmmaker, Archaeologist and Satirist, 1939-)

I was once working with a company that had just tried to launch a promising new medicine. The initial effort had been a flop and at the time that I became involved, the company had just fired the entire marketing team. Neither the company nor the recently departed team had had the chance to find out what had gone wrong and how to build something new and different. The new team had to start from scratch and, living in constant fear, was burning out at an astonishing rate. The real problem was the inflexibility of the company that was stifling creative solutions to problems. Once that was fixed, things began to improve very quickly.

If anyone ever says that they and the company never accepts failure, it is laudable but impractical.

It’s different if an enterprise fails because people are not pulling their weight; or failing to meet deadlines; or being overly rigid in interpreting rules or just goofing off. But if everyone is trying to help, learning, and being dynamic and flexible, then it’s best not to send them on their way, but instead to see how we can learn from a failure.

And the key for you personally and the key for your company is to learn to develop personal and corporate resilience. Then creative answers have the chance to start flowing.

“Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.”
–Thomas Alva Edison (American Inventor, 1847-1931)

“No one succeeds without effort…. Those who succeed owe their success to their perseverance.”
–Ramana Maharshi (Indian Hindu Mystic and Spiritual Teacher, 1879-1950)

Why Blog?

Just before I entered a Web-free zone, I was looking at Susan Polgar’s chess blog, where she had written a set of answers as to why she should spend so much time and effort on writing blogs. Susan is a legendary chess payer: the first woman to become a men’s International Chess Grandmaster, and a member of an extraordinarily gifted family. I have written about them before.

I was not surprised to see that Susan’s motivations for doing this in the chess world were very similar to mine in the areas of health, wellness and human performance. In the last couple of weeks, I must have been asked twenty times: “Why do you bother to spend so much time on an activity that is extremely time consuming, and for which you get no obvious return?”

1. I have been concerned that even the best journalists do not have access to some of the great research work that is going on right now, and which can have an immediate effect on the lives of millions of people.

2. Some of these new observations, research and treatment options languish in hidden corners, because they may not fit the prevailing medical model. The medical and scientific worlds are full of tales of first-rate research that got shelved because others could not immediately see its importance. There is a wonderful story of the way in which the German-born British scientist Hans Krebs was basically told, “Thanks, but no thanks,” when, in 1937, he submitted a short paper about his now famous cycle. Fourteen years later he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Albert Einstein once made an important statement:
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Another version of the same sentiment, that is a bit closer to what he said in German is: “Great spirits have always found violent oppression from mediocrities.”

3. It is no secret that medical publishing and the award of prizes are tightly controlled by a small group of individuals. And it is right that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. But when we have that evidence, it is only right and proper that you should have access to information that may help you. This blog is designed to be both a filter and a lens.

4. There is no longer any doubt that the laws of health and healing are changing. I doubt that you have heard that elsewhere, andyet the implications for your health and wellness are stunning.

5. Blogging is a medium through which non-professionals can contribute to discussions. I have already learned things from the experiences of people who have had to struggle with diagnoses and labels that hampered, instead of helped them.

6. I have had a great many discussions with fellow physicians and scientists about communicating science and medicine to the public. My own view is that the public is paying for our research and anything that we can do to empower people is all to the good. Yet many colleagues feel that any attempt to explain science in an accessible way somehow cheapens it. I think that they are dead wrong. I was already in medical school when Jacob Bronowski presented the Ascent of Man on television. Marvelous stuff that changed and energized my approach to medicine. If we do not explain the potential benefits of what we are doing to the public, then why should they, the government or pharmaceutical companies fund us?

7. Susan Polgar has reservations about the way in which chess is being taught, and I am concerned about the way in which medicine and science are being taught, particularly in the United States. Not that it’s bad or wrong, but just that it could be better and more patient-oriented.

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self evident.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer (German Philosopher, 1788-1860)

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Chess Does Require a Brain!

Whoever said that chess players are all geeks with no sense of humor, knew little about the real chess world. Yes there are some “unusual” people who play the game, but there are also a very large number of perfectly “normal” people who just enjoy the contest and all the benefits that it confers on our ability to think. As evidence of this, I saw an hilarious blog in response to my comments about unconscious thinking processes.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the blogger asked whether the best way to prepare for a game was to have someone hit you on the head with a hammer before the start of the game, because I had pointed out the superiority of unconscious processing for some types of complex decision-making.

Would that such an approach could raise my rating….

But sad to say consciousness is required for playing even a part way decent chess.

Though here’s a thought, the next time that someone asks why we are “wasting time” on chess, tell them this: It is likely, though not yet proven, that chess may actually be one of the activities that not only stimulates the formation of new connections in the brain, but might actually stimulate the formation of new neurons in key regions of the brain. And if we play enough, we should eventually be able to do a lot of our processing below the level of consciousness.

Come to think of it, I hope that the blogger WAS joking…

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More on Chess and the Mind

After my last article about some of the things that one can learn from chess, a blogger in Australia added “patience” to my list. And he is quite right. Except that I have, sad to say, never mastered the art of patience. It’s a character flaw. Maybe I would have had more success at the Royal Game if I had been just a bit more patient. I suppose a few extra IQ points might have helped too…

There is a nice article on Susan Polgar’s blog : Susan is the oldest of three remarkable Hungarian sisters who were trained to be geniuses from early childhood by their father László Polgár. She now lives in New York, and she is an International Chess Grandmaster who also happens to be fluent in seven languages. She is doing a great deal to promote the enormous benefits of chess, particularly in the United States. Clearly the sisters had “good genes,” but it is inspiring to see what can be done for youngsters if they are exposed to a highly enriched environment early in life. But there is something else to the Polgar story. Despite the stereotype that over-education might lead people to be unbalanced eggheads, all three have turned out to be remarkably normal and charming young women with children of their own. One sister – Judit – is the highest rated female chess player of all time, and the third sister – Sofia – is an International Master living in Israel.

The normalcy of the sisters is in stark contrast to the situation of many children that I have seen in Japan, who are already having extra tuition in Kindergarten. Scholastic failure is a recognized cause of suicide in Japan, and the Japanese actually have a word for death from overwork: Karoshi.

I wish Susan well in her efforts to promote chess, but I would also love her to share with the world how she and her sisters managed the balancing act of marrying extreme intellectual development with normal emotional and interpersonal relationships. That is in many ways even more remarkable than the sisters’ extraordinary accomplishments.

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Chess and the Mind

I have a confession to make: I have been a life long chess enthusiast, and I can’t start the day without visiting the best chess website on the internet. We are currently almost half way through the second major tournament of the year: the same one at which the incomparable Garry Kasparov announced his retirement last year.

Chess is not just a pastime. There is evidence that it is one of the ways in which we can improve the thinking abilities of young people and prevent the downward slide of our minds as we get older.

In the United Kingdom, studies have shown an astonishing correlation between the academic attainments of schools and the success of their chess teams. Year after year, the schools with the most successful teams send more of their students to top universities, compared with schools that do not play the game or have weak teams. During the Second World War many of the geniuses working at Bletchley Park who cracked the Enigma Code, were outstanding chess players.

For a long time now big business has been recruiting high-level chess players into particular positions that require their unusual skills. It tells you something when you see a major corporation placing advertisements for executives in chess magazines. Chess helps develop memory, concentration, visualization, decision-making, and sharpens our analytical and strategic thinking. It can even help make us more creative and more imaginative. Tournament players have to have a good degree of self-knowledge, and some grasp of psychology is a must. I have won more than one tournament game because of my ability to read the body language and intentions of an opponent. It is no surprise that a good many strong chess players are doing extremely well playing online poker. Chess really is a microcosm of life in general.

“Life is like a game of chess: we draw up a plan; this plan, however, is conditional on what – in chess, our opponent – in life, our fate – will choose to do.” –Arthur Schopenhauer (German Philosopher, 1788-1860)

The chess master Bruce Pandolfini was portrayed – and had a brief cameo – in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. He has written a nice little book called Every Move Must Have a Purpose, about applying chess strategies in business and life, and next month will see the eagerly awaited publication of a similar book by the master himself, Garry Kasparov.

Here are some principles that I have learned from chess, and that I apply to health, life and business:

  • When confronted with any kind of a problem, try to break it down into small manageable chunks, and if you can’t, learn to use and to trust your intuition. (Have a look at my post on Unconscious Processing and Intuition)
  • Constantly ask questions: Why is this happening? Is there a pattern here? What does the other person intend? How can I fashion a response that fits and will move things in the direction that I want and is congruent with my overall plan of life? What are the rules here? Can I break the rules? This does not mean cheating, it means being sure that you are not applying rules mechanically, without checking to make sure that they apply in your particular situation.
  • Always work to a clear plan. Even if the plan is not correct, it will always be better than the efforts of someone who has no plan at all. It is fine to “go with the flow,” after you have won the game!
  • Be constantly on the lookout for opportunities and if there aren’t any, create them!
  • As in life, chess demands action. You will succeed at nothing by sitting and waiting for success to come to you.
  • A game of chess, like the game of life demands one move after another. The successful person is one who makes each move to the very best of their ability. As Willard J. Marriott said: “It’s the little things that make the big things possible. Only close attention to the fine details of any operation makes the operation first class.”
  • Have absolute integrity in everything that you do. Be honest with other people and be honest with yourself. If you say that you are going to do something, do it. If you commit to a plan, do not stop until it is complete.
  • Coordinate all of your resources. In chess, it is impossible to win unless all the pieces are coordinated. You can destroy everything that you’ve worked for by having a piece adrift on the far side of the board, with nothing to do.
  • If you have any weakness, make it your business to convert them into strengths.
  • Don’t exceed your own capacity by over-extending yourself.
  • Resilience is an extremely important attribute that we all need to develop: things do not always go according to plan, and when they do not, it is important to be able to bounce back quickly.
  • Learn not to be over-awed by challenges. Many people defeat themselves with faulty expectations. I once had a trainer who was an extremely fine player. In one tournament he was in with a chance of winning serious money, but in the last round he was drawn against a Russian grandmaster. I saw him before the game: shoulders hunched over, hyperventilating and a scowl on his face. Play began with a variation that my coach and I had analyzed five days earlier, and he had shown me what not to play. In the game against the Russian he played the very move that he had just told me was a critical mistake! He lost in just a few moves. Not because the Russian beat him, but because he beat himself.

“A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.” — Sri Swami Sivananda (Indian Physician and Spiritual Teacher, 1887-1963)

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Unconscious Processing and Intuition

There is a very interesting paper in this week’s Journal Science. It is from a group working at the University of Amsterdam, and their findings are likely to turn one branch of psychology upside down. Let me explain the importance of this work, and how you can start to apply it in your own life.

What the researchers did was to divide their subjects into two groups. In the first experiment the subjects had to decide on a favorite car. One group used a conscious, intellectual reasoning approach and the other group was distracted with puzzles to keep their conscious minds busy before making the decision. When there were only four things to factor into the choice, the intellectuals did better. But when they had to choose on the basis of 12 factors the people using conscious decision-making did much worse than the people who had to make an immediate decision based on unconscious thought processes. In the second experiment shoppers were asked about their satisfaction with items that they had bought. People who bought on the basis of conscious deliberation were much happier with their choices of simple items, while the “unconscious” shoppers preferred their choices of more complex items.

Why is this so important? Since the Enlightenment, science has emphasized the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision-making, and has tended to look down on the whole notion of unconscious thought. Yet this study adds to the growing body of evidence that not only can people think unconsciously, but that for complex decisions, unconscious thought is actually superior. Conscious thought is like a bright torchlight that can only illuminate a few things at a time, and that can lead to some aspects of a problem being given undue attention.

This report supports something that many of us have been teaching for some time. Too much conscious deliberation can actually be counter-productive. Effective thinking needs us to get all the information necessary to make a decision. Then, if we are dealing with a simple decision use conscious thought. But if the decision is complex, it is best left to unconscious thought; in effect to sleep upon it. The answer then tends to appear very suddenly.

There is a secret about the way in which a great deal of progress is made: Most of the major advances in physics have come not from logical progression, but from mystical revelation: Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, Max Planck and quantum theory, Erwin Schrödinger and wave mechanics, the list is a long one. The great Welsh mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell once said of Einstein, that the problem in understanding him was not a difficulty with his logic, but with Einstein’s imagination. He was able to let his mind go to places that others could not, and it came back with answers that nobody else could have conceived of. There is evidence that while most chess players spend virtually all of their time trying to calculate, strong players rely on unconscious processes for most of the game, and only calculate for short periods when their unconscious mind tells them too. There is even evidence from brain imaging studies that average players activate all the cognitive areas of the frontal lobes while playing, with some temporal lobe activity as they try to remember their lessons. By contrast, a chess master uses many regions of his brain at once, and only occasionally activates parts of his frontal lobes when calculation is required.

What this means for us is that we must not be afraid to turn complex problems over to our unconscious minds. I have also spent a great deal of time training people to get used to using their intuition, for this is really one aspect of what we are talking about here. In my book Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I have several sections on developing your intuition.

When you start learning to turn problems over to your unconscious mind, one of the most difficult things is to know when to trust it. So here are some tips:

1. Once you have an answer, now is the time to use your conscious mind to see if the answer that you’ve come up with makes sense.

2. Learn to trust yourself. That may take a little time, but if you have a problem with trusting yourself, you have something tangible to work on.

3. Always be certain that you are prepared to hear whatever answers you receive.

4. Use your intuition to evaluate your intuitions: does the answer “feel” right?

5. Don’t force the process: conscious deliberation follows a linear time scale, unconscious thinking does not; so let insights come in their own time.

6. Always promise yourself that you will take action on any decisions that you make. Your brain and mind will not likely be very cooperative if you ignore the fruits of your unconscious thinking!

“There is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas…. Every great discovery contains an irrational element of creative intuition.” –Sir Karl Popper (Austrian-born British Philosopher, 1902-1994)

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