The cognitive skills you need to consciously develop after you leave school to reach your full potential as an adult
Several years ago, as a young CEO, I was struggling to keep up in a certain part of my role. I sought the support of a coach to help me pinpoint what was driving it.
My coach invited me to do a self-assessment and a 360 from my team to gain better insight into where my blind spots were. The assessment revealed I had many of the hallmark capabilities of an entrepreneur — tenacity, creativity, drive, and solid work ethic.
But I was lacking in one crucial area that was undercutting my performance. It was a surprising skill that shocked the coach and didn’t stack up with the characteristics of an entrepreneur.
The executive function I lacked was the orientation toward goal-directed planning. It is embarrassing to admit a deficiency in such an important and key ability. But in truth, I was not alone.
At first, I put this down to an unwavering belief in trusting the universe. I later found understanding from neuroscience about how the brain works which showed me why this ability had not fully developed.
The prefrontal cortex has some answers
There is a lot we still don’t know about how the brain works, and neuroscience is continually adding to our understanding.
The prefrontal cortex is the last part of our brain to develop, and it is currently thought to complete its physical development around the age of twenty-five.
From there, the connecting and exercising of neural pathways continues into our thirties, forties, and fifties. While some functions of the brain and mind decline as we age, others continue to grow.
I found Rich Karlgaard’s Late Bloomers — The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement to be a very useful read. Karlgaard gives a both a neuroscientific and sociocultural overview of human development. The upshot of his book is that later-life success hinges on cognitive developments post-school.
The 5 cognitive functions
The prefrontal cortex has five regions, each responsible for different executive functions. In his article, “How the Prefrontal Cortex Affects Brain Function,” Jon Kabat-Zinn outlines the purpose of each region:
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for “planning, short-term memory, cognitive abilities, abstract reasoning, attention, and inhibition.”
The dorsal medial prefrontal cortex allows us “to make timely and appropriate decisions depending on the situation, . . . form judgments and establish a sense of identity.”
The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex helps in “behavioural analysis and inhibitory control, which correlates to a person’s control of their natural impulses or dominant behaviours, [and] uses this information to design goal-directed behaviour and aid in decision-making.”
The ventral medial section of the brain “processes fear and risk, inhibits emotional response, and aids in decision-making and self-control.”
The orbitofrontal cortex helps guide behaviours, manage impulsivity, assess long-term rewards, and emotional responses like empathy or aggression.
With exception to the first, which comes online in adolescence, the rest of these brain regions don’t develop until adulthood.
Don’t just develop the hardware
If the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. Having a first-class computer is useless if it never runs the right programs.
As we move through adulthood, it is important to look after both our hardware and software.
Good brain health includes hydration, diet, and optimal sleep. But it also requires us to optimise the functionality of the neural pathways operating within.
Life requires us to constantly upgrade and optimise our thinking, and traditional education only goes so far in helping us do that.
Here’s some things to think about:
Who are you? How conscious is your experience of forming your identity? Those who identify as LGBTQIA+ know what it means to consciously grapple with ideas, feelings, and realities around identity. Straight friends have shared they never had the need to question their identity in the same way. Identity explorations can also be existential — who am I as a being on this planet at this time? The formation of identity includes being able to identify values, strengths, and weaknesses.
How do you deal with stress and making decisions? I’m not talking about fight/flight/freeze reactions. I’m talking about conscious decision-making in response to stimulating events. How do you connect your decisions to your values or longer-term goals?
What is your relationship with core emotions like fear, anger, and grief? How do these shape the way you respond to life? Does one emotion drive you more than others?
What are your reactivity patterns? Are there certain events, people, or ideas that you easily or instinctively react to?
An adult’s learning journey
At risk of sounding cliche, this is what is often referred to “life-long learning.”
Some young people go off to college whereas many do not. And while different career paths develop different types of skills, much of university education still resides in the realm of abstract rational thinking.
College or not, many of the skills required to fully optimise our minds are currently not developed in formal learning environments.
Most often, we develop these skills and abilities through jobs, career paths, relationships, travel, and navigating life changes.
Experience is often the best teacher, but experience doesn’t become wisdom until combined with knowledge. Wisdom combines experience with self-awareness and good judgement. But where do we get this knowledge?
Developing “higher mind”
Victoria Wilding, CEO and Founder of the Higher Mind Initiative, has been researching human development and cognition in systems leaders for over two decades.
Wilding has observed that to operate in our increasingly complex world, we need to develop a cognition that goes beyond the abstract rational thinking taught in mainstream education
. Wilding refers to this as a kind of meta-systemic cognition:
“It is the thinking that transcends the limitations of habitual thinking to equip you with mental models that more fully represent your potential and the complex reality you inhabit. It gives you access to infinitely more of who you are moment by moment in every area of your life.” — Victoria Wilding
While Wilding’s work is focused on emerging global leaders and systems changemakers, the implication of her research has broad relevance and application.
The process of developing cognition beyond abstract rational thinking doesn’t just happen. It is a conscious process that connects body, heart, and mind.
Connecting heart, body, and mind
It requires us to become self-aware at multiple levels:
Psychologically self-aware of how our we think.
Somatically understanding the self through the body and how our physiology affects our cognition.
Spiritually who we are as identities beyond the mind and body.
I have found the Enneagram to be a very useful tool in developing awareness of the self across these three levels. And I’m not talking about a personality test here. In fact, forming identity narrowly through a personality test or type can be counter-productive to identity formation. Nonetheless, this can be a good place to start.
I recently wrote about brain and mind-optimisation in “5 Creative Ways to Become Ambidextrous — and Sharpen Your Mind in the Process.” The goal here is to actively integrate the left and right brain hemispheres.
Be your own learning director
At school our learning is guided by a qualified teacher who can show us specific skills. When we venture out into adulthood, we need to take control of our own learning journeys.
In my life I have sought out teachers, coaches, and mentors to help identify blindspots and develop the capabilities I need.
I look back on experiences and decisions in my twenties wishing I had the knowledge (or dare I say, wisdom) I have now.
In truth, life is simply an ever-unfolding journey of self-discovery and re-discovery. Reading and writing about the process has become a powerful way to help integrate knowledge and experience.