What my pet coral can teach us about how we do our best work

The simplest model for a more conscious life

Welcome entrepreneurs. I’m so glad you’re here.

Immersed as I am in the world of conscious leadership, I run into a lot of models. Models of how the world works, which if adopted will help all your problems make sense. A mentor of mine told me once that “all models are bullshit, but some are useful,” which I’ve also found to be true.

In my experience the mark of a useful model is, simply, whether or not I use it. And based on that criteria, I internalized one of the most useful models I’ve found through developing a relationship with a part-plant-part-animal that I bought as a COVID pet.

Hope you enjoy the story, and I hope you find use in the model.

What my coral can teach us about how we do our best work

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” -- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Six months into quarantine, I bought a COVID pet: a 17-gallon marine fish tank, which I've enjoyed tinkering with in the months since. Even though it’s too small for virtually any fish other than clownfish, it’s still big enough that Laura can’t imagine anything bigger. I’ve filled it with purple live rock, two brain corals, and a hammer coral. We bought two clownfish to complete the scene.  

The hammer coral is my favorite of the bunch (you can see it, the tallest thing in the tank, looking a bit like a fluorescent chrysanthemum in the pic above), and it can seem like two very different beasts. Sometimes it's spread wide, its dozens of hammer-shaped appendages flowing with the water, capturing photons from the UV lights and even errant particles of food. It's open, trusting, and literally in flow with its environment. 

Other times, when I stick my hand into the tank to clean some algae, or when I introduce a new fish or coral into the ecosystem, my beautiful coral retracts its fluorescent hammers into its base, sucking itself into a dark, dingy little ball. If it's really perturbed, the ball releases translucent tentacles, each tipped with a stinger to kill corals or fish that venture too close. My hammer coral, it's beautiful when it feels safe, but it's ugly and venomous when it feels scared.

Humans are the same way. At our best, we're open, trusting, and in flow with our environment. We even call this flow state -- a state in which we are so engrossed in what we're doing that we forget about everything around us. We forget about ourselves and subjectively merge with what we're doing. 

We can also be closed into our own little dingy ball. Defensive. Protective. When we feel threatened, we retract all the wonderful, generous aspects of ourselves that allow us to generate unique and valuable things for the world, and we focus on protecting ourselves instead. We focus on being right, and taking care of #1. 

This state of defensiveness, our own version of a dingy, balled-up hammer coral, comes when we’re scared. And if we can find a way to do any work at all in this state, it's usually bland, uninspired, even imitative. Like my coral, we can't feel the flow when we're in our shell, and so anything we produce when we're in this state is forced. Mechanical. 

But when we open ourselves to the flow, when our proverbial fluorescent hammers are deployed, we do some of our best work. Looking back, I can trace a lot of my successes to the state from which I’m operating. Building companies, raising capital, or coaching founders—every time I've done something I'm really proud of, I've been in a state in which I had all my hammers out. 

What's going on?

“Fear is the mind killer,” --- Frank Herbert, Dune

According to the Triune brain model, our brains are made up of three basic structures:

  • Reptilian complex -- the oldest part of our brain, the reptilian complex is responsible for instinctual behaviors, most notably as they pertain to the fight/flight/freeze reflex. The reptilian complex is the quickest part of our brain to fire in any situation, effectively giving it a trump card over the rest of our cognitive capacity. It asks the question: Am I safe?

  • Limbic system -- including the septum, amygdalae, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and cingulate cortex, the limbic system arose in early mammalian evolution and is responsible for our emotions and empathy. This is the part of our brain that allows us to develop and maintain relationships. It asks the questions: Am I loved? Do I belong?

  • Neocortex -- the neocortex is what we're using to read this essay. It's the most recent part of the brain to have evolved and is responsible for language, abstraction, planning, organization, and perception. It is concerned with the question: Do I have control? 

Given any stimulus, the three parts of our brain fire in a predictable order. First, our reptile brain figures out if we're safe. If the answer is yes, then our limbic system asks if we belong, and if yes again, then our neocortex can jump in to do the heavy lifting of figuring out how to get us what we want. 

However, if our reptile brain determines that we are not safe, it immediately sends up a flair in the form of triggering the fight-flight-freeze reflex (using the only tool at its disposal, the most evolutionarily useful tool of all: fear). This fear reflex overrides the functions of the rest of our brain until our reptile brain determines that we're safe again. 

It should be no surprise that we do our best work when we have full access to our brain. But the implications of the Triune brain model tell us that we only have access to our entire brain when we feel safe, loved, and in control, in that order. How often do founders truly feel safe, loved, and in control? Maybe 1% of the time? Less? No wonder it's so hard to do our best work. 

So what do we do?

Like me, you may choose to think about your experience as if you were a hammer coral.  Or, you may want to picture a large horizontal line stretching across your field of vision (HT: Conscious Leadership Group) and plot your experience either above the line (hammers deployed, operating from a sense of safety, love, trust, capability, and ultimately, freedom) or below the line (dingy little ball operating from fear; either fear for your safety, belonging or control). 

“When leaders are below the line, they are closed and defensive, and when they are above the line, they are open and curious. When leaders are below the line, their primary commitment is to being right, and when they are above the line, their primary commitment is to learning.” — The 15 Commitments to Conscious Leadership

Whichever mental model you prefer, one of the most powerful steps you can take to produce your best work is deceptively simple: as you sit down to work, take time to consciously notice whether you're above the line or below.

Try it now. Look critically at yourself, and make the call. Don’t decide based on what you wish you were, or what you think you should say in response to this prompt—actually look at your own experience. Are you above the line or below? Are you hammers-deployed or a dingy ball?

Independent of the answer, the looking itself serves a function. It creates a distance between you the looker and you the experiencer of your reality. 

In moments of stress or high pressure, your reptile brain or limbic system takes over, triggering your fear reflex just before you’re about to go on stage, for example right before a TED talk you’ve practiced for hours. Noticing your response, and consciously labeling it as either above or below the line allows you to reclaim power in these moments as the observer of the fear, rather than the self which is feeling fear. This simple reorientation often creates enough distance to calm your primitive brain and to bring the neocortex back online in time to, say, nail your TED talk. 

If I'm above, great. But how does this help me if I'm below the line?

Just as hammer corals curl up into dingy balls when below the line, we humans do the same. That’s because when the older parts of our brain are scared, they prevent us from accessing our brain's higher functions like creativity, inspiration, problem solving, and the like. Instead, we have stimuli (fear) and our response to it. 

We have the thing or situation that we are scared of, and then we have our highly patterned responses to that feeling, designed not to produce the best result in the situation but instead only to make the fear feeling go away. This is why you send that badgering "checking in" email to prospective investors, even when you know it won't get them more interested in your company. You do it in response to a feeling of fear stemming from the fact that the investor hasn't emailed you back when they said they would, and sending a follow up email has made similar fears go away in the past. 

Nobody wants to send desperate emails, particularly when we know better.  But the instinct, when we find ourselves in a dingy ball state, is to do whatever we can to switch to the hammers-deployed state. This is understandable, and it is also wrong.

If, when we notice that we are curled up into a defensive ball and operating from fear, we try to move back into flow state by pushing against the fear, we will do little besides cement the fear as a core part of our experience. There's a saying: "that which we resist, persists." When you notice that you are operating from fear, don't solidify that fear by resisting it. Instead, look more closely at the fear.  Experience it, and then look earlier in the stimulus-response chain to see what you can learn from it. 

What you’ll find, if you look closely at the fear, is that there’s always a cause. And if you can find that cause you can choose consciously whether it’s worth the fear your reptile brain has given it. Oncoming traffic? Sure. But more often what I find is that the cause of my fear was my reading a tweet from a founder announcing an investment, or my CRM reminding me the investor said they’d respond by now. My heart’s beating, and I feel an incredible urge to check in with them, but once I notice it, the dissonance between the stimulus and response is usually enough to cause me to think twice. And on second thought, maybe I choose to save the email to drafts and go talk a walk instead.

Our environment has changed, it’s up to us to adapt

My coral is living its best life as I write this, hammers flowing breezily with the current in the tank, UV light streaming in from all directions, and my pair of clownfish zooming between the hammers in dramatic chase. But those clownfish were preceded by four who we flushed down the toilet after various ailments (parasites, fish-fighting, jumping out of the tank), and my hammer coral has lost two hammers along the way (where the hammer once was, is now what looks like a round scorch mark -- I presume the hammers “pop”?).  

It’s a violent environment in a marine fish tank, equal parts beauty and death. So it was millions of years ago for human beings. Thank goodness we evolved a lightning-fast fear reflex at the most basic part of our brain to keep us safe from the circle of life. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here to have this discussion.

But we no longer live in constant fear of mortal threat. Our intelligence has isolated us from the type of imminent death facing my hammer coral and clownfish every day. The environment we’ve created for ourselves more often demands that we show up with all our mental faculties, meaning that our trusty fight-flight-freeze reflex has become poorly adapted to our environment.  

Today, our fear reflex more often comes in response to a random tweet. Seeing our patterning in the moment, noticing when we’re operating at full capacity and when we’re reactive and scared, can be the key to doing our best work. 

(HT: Julie Mosow, Rajat Mittal, Soma Mandal, Giselle Sproule, Kasra Koushan, and Compound for editing!)


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Who is Ryan Vaughn? 

I’m an executive coach for startup founders, a role in which I get to help high-performing founders expand into extraordinary leaders. I’m a 3x Founder/CEO who’s raised $20m+ in VC and built a market-changing company, as well as two other companies that taught me things. I’m an avid writer, meditator, reader, athlete, father, husband, amateur physicist, student of leadership, and adventurer. I’m also none of those things. But I am glad that you’re here.  If that’s not enough, here’s a more detailed bio.


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“All models are bullshit, but some are useful.” I regularly use my Coral model — more popularly known as the “Above The Line” model — particularly in moments of stress.

What models do you use?

Be well this week,

Ryan

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