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John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist with a lifelong fascination for how our minds react to and organize information. He is currently an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. 

One of the outcomes of his journey is the New York Times bestseller, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. The provocative read takes on the designs of our schools and work environments.

“Your brain is fully capable of taking little black squiggles on this piece of bleached wood and deriving meaning from them,” Medina says in an email. “To accomplish this miracle, your brain sends jolts of electricity crackling through hundreds of miles of wires composed of brain cells so small that thousands of them could fit into the period at the end of this sentence. You accomplish all of this in less time than it takes you to blink. Indeed, you have just done it. What’s equally incredible, given our intimate association with it, is this: Most of us have no idea how our brain works.”

Consider this. We try to talk on our cellphones and drive at the same time, even though it is literally impossible for our brains to multitask when it comes to paying attention. We have created high-stress office environments, even though a stressed brain is significantly less productive. The layout of our schools requires most real learning to occur at home.

“This would be funny, if it weren’t so harmful,” says Medina. “Brain scientists rarely have conversations with teachers and business professionals, education majors and accountants, superintendents and CEOs. Unless you have the Journal of Neuroscience sitting on your coffee table, you’re out of the loop. I wrote Brain Rules to help people become more productive by understanding what little we do know about how the brain operates.”

Medina asserts that, if you wanted to create an education environment directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that opposes what the brain is good at doing, you’d probably design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.

“My goal is to introduce people to the 12 things we know about how the brain works,” says Medina. “I call these brain rules. For each rule, I present the science. And then I offer ideas for investigating how the rule might apply to our daily lives, especially at work and school.

“Whether you are teachers, parents, business leaders or students, by using what we know about how the brain works — such as how it’s affected by stress, how it forms memories and what it takes to engage it — we can identify ways to better harness its power and improve performance.”

Admiral William McRaven, bestselling author of Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, delivered the 2014 commencement address at his alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. He shared that after he graduated, he went straight to be commissioned in the Navy and on to SEAL training.

Although McRaven retired as a Navy SEAL after 37 years of service, his accomplishments were not easy. He recounted six months of grueling exercise, sleepless nights and harassment by professionally-trained warriors seeking to weed out those incapable of leading in an environment of constant stress, chaos and hardships.

McRaven challenged the graduates, reminding them of their school slogan: What starts here changes the world.

“According to Ask.com, the average person meets 10,000 people throughout their lifetime,” said McRaven. “If the 8,000 plus graduates here tonight changed the lives of 10 people, and those people changed the lives of 10 people and another 10, in five generations, the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800,000,000 people in 125 years. If that kept going for another generation, you could change the entire population of the world.”

Additionally, McRaven highlighted 10 lessons from SEAL training he believes are relevant to changing the world:

  • Start off by making your bed. By doing this, you have accomplished the first task of the day.
  • Find someone to help you paddle. You can’t change the world alone. Getting to your destination takes friends, colleagues, the good will of strangers and a strong coxswain to guide you.
  • Measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers. SEAL training is the great equalizer. Nothing mattered but your will to succeed.
  • Get over being a sugar cookie and keep moving forward. Sometimes no matter how well you prepare or perform, you will still end up as a sugar cookie.
  • Don’t be afraid of the circuses. The circus was a form of SEAL punishment which consisted of two extra hours of calisthenics for those who failed to meet physical standards. Life is filled with circuses. You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful and discouraging. At times, it will test you to the very core.
  • Slide down the obstacle head first. One SEAL went head first during an exercise. It was risky, dangerous and seemed foolish, but he finished in record time.
  • Don’t back down from the sharks. There are sharks in the world. If you want to complete your swim, you will have to deal with them.
  • You must be your very best in the darkest moment. Every SEAL knows that the darkest moment of the mission is the time to be calm and composed, and when all your tactical skills, your physical power and all your inner strength must be brought to bear.
  • Start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud. During Hell Week, SEALS spent 15 hours up to their neck in bone-chilling, cold mud. One student started singing and they all joined in, which helped them survive. The power of one person can change the world by giving people hope.
  • Don’t ever, ever ring the bell. In other words, never ever give up.

These are powerful words for us all. Are you up to the challenge?

We are a nation of millions, but Cigna Health Insurance recently released a national survey that reveals we are a lonely nation. 

According to the survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out.
  • One in 4 Americans rarely or never feel as though people really understand them.
  • Two in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
  • One in 5 people report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to.
  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely compared to those who live alone. However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
  • Only a little more than half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
  • Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness. Respondents defined as very heavy users of social media and those who never use social media have similar loneliness scores.

Even though there are more ways than ever before to connect with others, the struggle to feel connected is very real and can not only lead to emotional issues, but physical ones as well.

According to David M. Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna, this lack of human connection ultimately leads to a lack of vitality. 

The good news is that this study reinforces that we are social creatures made for relationship and that communities matter. Less-lonely people are more likely to have regular, meaningful, in-person interactions and are in good overall physical and mental health. They have also achieved balance in daily activities, are employed and have good relationships with their coworkers. 

More specifically, the survey showed that getting the right balance of sleep, work, socializing with friends, family and “me time” is connected to lower loneliness scores. However, balance is critical, as those who get too little or too much of these activities have higher loneliness scores.

Here are some details:

  • Sleep: Those who say they sleep just the right amount have lower loneliness scores.
  • Spending time with family: Those who spend more or less time than desired with their family are on par with one another when it comes to experiencing feelings of loneliness.
  • Physical activity: People who say they get just the right amount of exercise are considerably less likely to be lonely. 
  • The workplace: Those who say they work just the right amount are least likely to be lonelyloneliness score of those who work more than desired increases by just over three points, while those who work less than desired showed a 6-point increase in loneliness. 

If you are one of the millions feeling trapped by loneliness, here are five strategies for overcoming it.

  • Put down the technology. While gaming and social media make you think you are connecting with people, your brain knows otherwise. 
  • Make a move. When you are lonely, it is easy to tell yourself nobody wants to be around you anyway. If you are breathing, you are meant to be in relationship with others. Making the first move toward relationships with others can often be the most difficult. 
  • Be intentional about putting yourself in situations where you can have human interaction and create relationships. It could be a class, a recreational hiking club or something else. Think about things you enjoy doing. Find others who are doing that thing and join them.
  • Know the difference in being lonely and spending time by yourself. Quiet time to rejuvenate and get your head together is healthy. Spending all of your time alone and away from people is not.
  • Find a way to help others, minimize your time alone and utilize your talents in the community.Volunteer at a local food bank, pet shelter or other nonprofit. 

Image from Unsplash.com

Stowers Machinery, in partnership with Caterpillar, has a scholarship program called “Think Big.” It pays recipients about $13 an hour to apprentice in the shop and it reimburses tuition and other school-related costs. The student must maintain a B average to receive the scholarship.

Workers alternate between working eight weeks at Stowers and going to school for eight weeks. After they earn an associate degree, Stowers will hire them full-time.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for someone, yet we have the hardest time giving away the scholarship,” says Rhey Houston, Stowers vice president and Chattanooga area manager. “We have a full-time recruiter who goes to every high school in the area, looking for potential scholarship recipients, and it is still almost impossible for us to fill the slots.”

One interested young man contacted Stowers about the scholarship. He was awarded the scholarship during his school’s senior night. But he worked only a few days before telling his supervisor, “I’m not cut out for this kind of work every day.”

“Unfortunately, he is not the exception to the rule,” Houston says. “We have had several success stories, but they are fewer and farther between. It is baffling to me that people do not want to take advantage of an opportunity to work for a well-established company that pays well and offers full benefits including a 401k.”

Houston knows he isn’t alone in his frustration. He regularly talks with companies in the area who lament not being able to fill positions.

“I recently spoke with a guy who said, ‘I can’t grow my business because I can’t find people to hire who have driver’s licenses,'” says Houston. “Another guy told me he would be able to have five additional machines running if he could just find people to drive them.”

Approximately 9,000 people are looking for jobs. It’s difficult, however, to fill more than 15,000 job openings in the greater Chattanooga area. Why is that? It’s partially due to lack of education, or perhaps lack of driver’s licenses.

What is wrong with this picture? Employers are complaining they can’t find qualified workers and people are complaining they can’t find jobs. Somewhere along the way there is a serious disconnect.

In an article titled The New Unemployables, Aaron Renn shares a conversation with his father, a retired quarry superintendent. While the job wasn’t glamorous, his dad said they offered some of the area’s best wages, full benefits and profit-sharing. Still, hiring and keeping employees was hard. The overwhelming majority of applicants weren’t viable enough to interview. Plus, one-third of those he hired failed to last even six months.

Renn surmises that perhaps what we are seeing has nothing to do with job availability or wages. It may have everything to do with the basics, instead. The basics include having a high school diploma and reliably coming to work every day.

In the book Creating an Opportunity Society, the Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill offer a solution. They say that to avoid poverty and join the middle class (at least $50,000 annual income for a family of three) U.S. citizens need to complete high school at a minimum, work full-time and marry before having children. 

Doing all three decreases the chances of being poor from 12 percent to 2 percent. It also increases the chances of joining the middle class or above from 56 to 74 percent.

It’s possible to combat the “unemployable” problem and break the cycle. Healthy adults must model and promote the importance of education and a strong work ethic in homes and communities. Additionally, we can mentor those who have no example to follow.

Soft skills matter in the workplace. Here’s why.

People often talk about what helps young people succeed in the job market. In the last few years, we’ve placed tremendous emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The question is, however, will these skills actually help young adults find and keep jobs?

In a Washington Post article, Cathy Davidson cites two studies touting that workforce readiness isn’t only about the hard skills. Take Google, for instance. They analyzed hiring, firing and promotion data since the company began in 1998. The most important qualities of Google’s top employees were: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, people smarts – valuing different points of view and values, having empathy toward and being supportive of colleagues, being a critical thinker and problem solver, and being able to make connections across complex ideas. Guess what came in last? STEM expertise.

Additionally, Google found that their highest functioning teams were not necessarily the teams with the smartest team members. Instead, they were the teams with members that exhibited these traits: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of teammates, empathy, emotional intelligence and emotional safety.

Caroline Beaton, a Forbes contributor who covers the psychology of millennials at work, asked more than 100 top HR managers, recruiters and CEOs what was important for entry-level job seekers. Nearly all of them said soft skills such as leadership, communication and collaboration were more important than others. The head of HR at Prezi said he looks for candidates with a solid foundation of soft skills and trusts the rest can be built upon those. 

According to Beaton’s research, there are four additional soft skills that are essential for workplace success: focus, more than a college degree, agility and humility. 

Employers today look for workers who can concentrate, which is apparently difficult due to various things, including technology. Additionally, Beaton shared that while employers value higher education, many interviewers said college graduates often lack people skills. One CEO said that recent college graduates do not have the necessary skills, and he realizes he must hire someone who is still willing to learn after graduating from college.

Job seekers who can adapt and adjust will have a leg up when it comes to applying for a job due to the fast pace of change in almost every workplace. One CEO said she looks for individuals who demonstrate resourcefulness, goals-driven behavior, team player mentality and relentlessness. 

Finally, Beaton found that employers want to hire humble people who don’t take themselves too seriously and are willing to admit when they don’t know something – in addition to willingly asking for help when they need it.

Undoubtedly, hard skills are important. The Google research, along with others, shows that teaching soft skills will be every bit as important in preparing the next generation well for the real world of work.

Couples Who Work Together

You can learn a lot from living and working together.

Did you know that 1.4 million married couples in the United States not only live together, but work together, too?

Robin and Michael McKenna ran the family business together for 10 years in Savannah, Georgia.

“My husband was working in corporate America,” says Mrs. McKenna. “We realized that we could either move around with his job or move to Savannah and help his father run the family business. We decided it would be fun to work together and it would allow our children to grow up close to at least one set of grandparents.”

You may think, “I could never do that,” or “Don’t you get tired of being around each other so much?” or “How do you work together without killing each other?” The McKennas actually enjoyed working together.

“At one point, we moved into office space where my husband and I each had our own office,” McKenna says. “One of our employees said, ‘I don’t know why you all have separate offices. You are always together.’ We laughed, but that’s the way we work. It wasn’t complicated for us to figure out how to work well together. I think we might be the exception to the rule; we actually like hanging wallpaper together.”

Working together taught the McKennas some valuable lessons that strengthened their marriage.

“It definitely takes teamwork,” McKenna says. “We listed everything that needed to be done and got busy checking things off the list. There is no place for ‘that’s not my responsibility,’ when you are running a business together. We did not take each other for granted and I think that is huge.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. We learned early on that you can’t always be the one that is right and it was important to value each other’s opinions. Even though we spent a lot of time together during the day, it was still important to spend time together as a family in the evening. We ate dinner as a family every night and when the kids were old enough, they worked with us in the store.”

They sold the family business, but after more than 40 years of marriage, they still work on projects together.

“We are best friends and we have fun together,” McKenna says. “We entered into marriage committed to a lifetime together so we spent our time and energy focused on making our relationship work. Learning how to be together all the time and running a business together brought us closer as a team. Even though things didn’t always go the way I or we wanted them to, that’s life. We got over it and moved on.”

The McKennas have great memories from their decade of working together. Most importantly, they discovered how to appreciate what they each bring to their “team.” This realization, tempered with patience, love and understanding, keeps couples together and builds a stronger marriage foundation.

J.J. and Beverly Jerman were dating when they decided to venture into working together.

“I was working as a nurse in a GI Lab at the time and developed an allergy to cleaning chemicals so I had to find a different job,” says Beverly. “J.J. suggested that I come work with him, which scared me to death. We had been dating 2 ½ years at that point and I sure didn’t want to mess anything up. That was in 2010.”

J.J. and Beverly married in 2011. For the past seven years, they have run Office Furniture Warehouse and have learned many valuable lessons about working together as a couple.

“One thing we would for sure tell couples who are thinking about working together is it’s important to have defined roles and to discover each other’s strengths,” Beverly says.

Both J.J. and Beverly agree they didn’t have clearly defined roles when they started this venture.

“We weren’t clear about the lanes either of us should be running in within the organization,” says J.J. “I knew she was a great people person. I am definitely more focused on the business side of things and not as in tune with how people are thinking or feeling. After a few months of trying to figure things out, we decided Beverly would make a great ambassador for the company working in human relations and I would focus on tasks, goals and strategy. Knowing our lanes helped tremendously.”

The Jermans also learned that if they didn’t determine their priorities and create some boundaries, the business could consume them. If you are considering starting a business as a couple, the Jermans suggest the following:

  • Have your priorities straight. For the Jermans, it was faith first, then family, with their business coming in third. They quickly learned that misplaced priorities caused things to not go well at home or at work.
  • Make a conscious effort to turn off work at home. “There are times when we are so busy going in different directions, we don’t get to connect until we get home,” Beverly says. “However, we determined that both of us need the freedom to say I don’t feel like talking about anything work-related right now and your spouse won’t hold that over your head.”
  • Start your day doing something that sets a positive tone. The Jermans start their day by reading. They read a business book, a spiritual book and a book about some type of self-improvement.
  • When you are away from the office, focus on self-care. “We think it is really important to give our brains a rest,” Beverly says. “We hike, bike ride, connect with our kids, care for aging parents and go on weekly date nights. All of this is crucial to us functioning well at work and at home.”
  • If you find yourself in trouble at work due to the relationship, ask for help. The Jermans found a coach to help them navigate through uncharted waters.They believe this saved them from a lot of drama both at home and at work.
  • Have a sense of humor. Both J.J. and Beverly agree that being able to laugh definitely helps when the going gets tough.
  • Have an exit strategy. Going into business together is a huge commitment of time and energy. Having an agreed-upon plan in case change is necessary will help protect your relationship and the business.

The Jermans are among approximately 2 million couples who choose to work together. The lessons they have learned through the years have helped them grow a very successful business.

“While the business is important, the most important thing is the relationship we have,” Beverly says. “We have learned when to ask for help and have surrounded ourselves with people who believe in us. We are strong, and we enjoy what we have built together.”

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on June 4, 2017.

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