Could you walk the Kokoda track (if you wanted to)?

Because of advances in technology, the science world is learning more and more every day about how our brain works. I recently watched a short documentary about a young man, Andrew, with cerebral palsy*. The story tells of his journey over the last few years with his personal trainer, Lee Campbell. Lee is a former army trainer and Sydney Swans team member. Whilst their training sessions together were tough and physical, Lee was very aware of the science behind neuroplasticity.


“Ten years ago as a scientist you would have got kicked off a stage for thinking brains were plastic as an adult with a physical disability that's life long like cerebral palsy” said Professor Iona Novak, the Head of Research at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance. Back then, scientific consensus was that the brain was hard-wired in early childhood. Now we know that’s not the case at all.


When Lee and Andrew first met, Lee suggested Andrew’s physical capacity was less than 3 out of 10. Five and a half years later, it’s now more than 7 out of 10. His posture is more upright and his fine motor skills have improved. He can now do up his own buttons. He’s tackled and completed the Kokoda trail and is soon to walk the Great Wall of China.


This has been the result of hard physical training (that would have you and I crying in a corner with our fingers in our ears), and then doing these same physical tasks repeatedly. New pathways have formed in his brain. It is not dissimilar to the process of learning to play a musical instrument, say a guitar. You repeat the same chords over and over again until it becomes “unconscious” competence. The story of Lee and Andy is a glorious one, that has blended together science, relationships, hard work, mental effort, and trust.


So what are you doing to create new neural pathways in your brain? Or is your day full of habits that tread the same well-worn neural pathways? Is your decision-making (your thinking) based on habits and do these decisions impact others?


If you desire to learn something new, change a current behaviour or thinking style, or build your confidence at work (or socially), then do something new today. And then repeat it the next day, and the next … and then keep repeating it for several months. Depending on your goal, it may take even longer.


You can rewire your brain.


You will need to have these three pieces in place:

  1. Belief - the belief that you can in fact achieve your goal

  2. Plan - a training plan, the skills, the resources, the knowledge

  3. Effort - you need to commit to the change


Imagine you’ve been told (either by your partner or your manager) that you need to improve your listening skills. (I’ve used this example because not everyone wants to run a marathon but everyone could probably improve their listening skills!)


1. Belief

You have to believe it is possible to change your behaviour from being a talker to a listener. You have to believe that being a talker isn’t hard-wired into your brain (or personality) since childhood. Your goal to be a better listener will be difficult if you hold a belief such as “well that’s just how I’ve always been; my dad is the same”.


2. Plan

Just as you need running shoes and a training plan to run a marathon, you need a plan to become a better listener. Talk to someone you hold up as being a great listener and find out how their behaviours differ to yours. Read books or articles or blogs about listening skills. Have a plan that could be as simple as "between the hours of 2pm-5pm, make a conscious effort of not giving my point of view until I’ve asked three great questions to the person I’m in conversation with". Get the skills and have a plan.


3. Effort

Every plan or goal requires effort. If you slip off your plan one day, get back on it the next day and don’t berate yourself for the slippage. And certainly don’t say to yourself “there, I told you I wasn’t a born listener”. Andrew, with cerebral palsy nailed effort. And look what he’s achieved. You may try to watch the video yourself by googling “brain-that-changed-lee-andrew-kokoda”.


You must have in place all three of the above. If you have a plan and put in the effort but you don’t really believe it’s possible, it’s unlikely to be achieved. If you believe you can and you have a plan but you don’t put in the effort, it’s unlikely to be achieved. You need all three.


I’ve watched the Andrew and Lee documentary several times and each time I’m moved by it. Andrew had the belief, the plan, and he put in enormous effort.


What are you doing to change your brain (and your results) today?

*Cerebral palsy is a condition marked by impaired muscle coordination, typically caused by damage to the brain before or at birth.