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E265 | Challenging Our Self-Limiting Beliefs To Unlock Our Full Potential with Wouter van den Berg

Combining great leadership with strong relationships can be a game-changer in our professional and personal lives. Did you know that your early years’ experiences can significantly shape your beliefs and behaviours? Uncovering these influences can give us valuable insights into our personal growth and how we manage our relationships. Effective communication and managing expectations are critical in maintaining healthy interactions. Seeking out diverse perspectives can encourage growth and prevent us from falling into the trap of thinking in an echo chamber. Understanding these aspects allows us to propel ourselves towards better leadership and stronger relationships.

This week on Mind Your F**king Business Podcast, we learned from Wouter van den Berg, the trailblazing neuroeconomist with a passion for understanding the human brain and its impact on performance. From early dreams of being a professional footballer, Wouter has traversed an unusual path that has led him into the field of neuroscience. His stint at a Dutch football academy gave him invaluable insights into peak performance and the intense focus it demands. Wouter’s educational journey includes a PhD where he researched predicting success and understanding why people make certain decisions. His work has evolved into Brain Compass, a revolutionary platform that brings together multiple fields to aid people in reaching their peak potential.

Download and listen to learn more.

On today’s podcast: 

  • From a football player to Neuro-Economist
  • Can we predict success?
  • Defying our default mental models
  • The impact of our self-limiting beliefs
  • Understanding the Attachment theory

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Navigating Attachment Styles in Leadership and Personal Connections

Wouter van den Berg is a Neuro-Economist and the Founder of BrainCompasss, an innovative assessment platform to help people get the most out of their brainpower. He spends his time developing and finetuning the BrainCompass model. He is also an (executive) coach, inspirator, team facilitator and boardroom challenger about how neuroscience should influence our talent development and people strategies.

Wouter holds a master’s degree in Business Economics and Neuroscience (both cum laude). During his PhD and Postdoc, he has been actively bridging the fields of behavioural economics, marketing, sales, neuroscience, endocrinology and (molecular) psychiatry in his research projects. His work has been awarded the Sheth Foundation Best Paper Award.

Wouter is an Adjunct Professor at IE University and TEDx speaker and is regularly invited to give keynotes at universities, governmental and for-profit organisations.

From football player to Neuro-Economist

For the first 18 to 21 years of his life, Wouter tried to be a professional football player. He played in a Dutch team and spent some time at the Youth Academy of a professional football club in Rotterdam. During that time of his life, his dream was to end up in a team like Milan. But, in his early twenties, his manager told him he wasn’t talented enough and would be better off looking for another career. 

“I think I would have been fast enough, I was strong enough, my timing was good enough. I could kick a ball straight ahead for the amount of meters that it needed to go. There’s a big gap between being good enough and being excellent. And for a long time, I was sailing along in the Academy on the things that I was good enough at, and I didn’t realise on time that I needed to make the step to excellence.”

Wouter says that he basically jumped over the street from the Stadium into the compass of the university. During that time, he kept trying to find out where he had gone wrong. What did he leave on the table, and how could I have done things differently? To this day, he believes that the quest that he’s on today, which is trying to help people unlock their potential, is basically the quest for himself.

He started to study economics, and after his master’s degree, he started with his PhD/s. Wouter says that economists try to find out why people do what they do and make certain decisions. And then, around 2005, he tried to leverage the latest neuroscientific insights on how the brain works into the field of business. 

Can success be predicted?

Wouter admits that predicting success is very difficult. Many assessments claim that they can, but he invites people to share that data with him because the validity of success measurements for complicated roles or situations doesn’t go higher than 25% or 30%. 

Based on the data that showed a lack of serious predictive ability of all those models, Wouter and his team changed the approach. They didn’t focus on success factors that have a finite or definitive effect on success. Instead, it tries to find out which variables contribute in a sense that you can modify or adapt your life to either leverage them or overcome those problems. So, he adds, it steps away from a lineal causal model. 

To illustrate how this works, he used himself when he was a football player as an example.

“I was a defender and my height is 174, which is relatively small for a defender. And basically, that raises the question of whether you should move to right wingback because that’s then usually what happens, or you start to jump higher. You train and practice to make up for that ten centimetre you’re losing. And as long as you make that decision consciously, then it becomes a decision that you’re starting to manage and influence your success rather than, at the end of the line, looking back and saying, I don’t know why, but I never won any header. So it’s trying to understand the underlying variables that contribute to what we would say, your phenotype. The way you look or the way you act, rather than just judge people on that outside picture of success.”

Wouter confesses that after he started his academic career, he realised that he would have been able to make an informed decision on whether or not it was feasible that he would make it to the top 1%.

“I could have saved myself a lot of time, and I sacrificed quite a bit. I’m not complaining, and it was worth a lot, but at the same time, I spent quite a bit of my youth trying to be healthy, fit, and on time, skipping summer holidays, skipping family gatherings, and spending time with friends to try and be the best footballer that I could be.” 

For him, if there’s a way to help people know whether that dream we have or that thing we aspire to be will work,  then it makes sense to make that decision as early as possible. 

“How can we help people make those decisions earlier if we can successfully predict success and say, well, this is not for you, this is for you? And I believe there’s a time and a place for everyone, so it shouldn’t be exclusive, but it does mean helping people get on the right path and get them into the right positions at the right time in their career.”

Wouter argues that people need failure and understanding that some doors close and you won’t be able to open them back up again. That doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t other doors to explore. 

“And I think that drives my self-expansion, ambition, and aspirations to do what I’m currently doing, to try and find other doors that I can try and unlock and open up.”

Challenging our default mental models

Through his neuroscience studies, Wouter discovered that the brain uses mental models to process billions of stimuli and data points daily. We have a very simplistic view of the world compared to how it actually is to be able to cope with what life throws at us. And that varies from the sound of a car passing by right now or a thought lingering in the back of our heads because of something we experienced this morning. 

“We have this mental model or set of rules that we use to navigate life automatically. And what we found is that there are several limiting beliefs about who you are and how the world functions, which play a significant role and have a significant impact on the way that you’re able to activate your talent. And it’s almost as if you start to live the story that you’ve been told by others.

Wouter explains that we are born with 50% of the DNA from both of our parents – what he likes to call your factory default settings. When we understand that, it’s a very liberating thought on the idea of authenticity. It’s just a gift from your parents. It’s not necessarily the best setting that there is. It’s just a combination of the settings that they were able to provide to you by chance. 

He uses the analogy of a mobile phone’s default ringtone.

“For the rest of your life, you start to experience stuff that either builds on that factory default setting and starts to build on the idea that this is the best ringtone ever, which it isn’t. It’s just the first setting, or somebody starts telling you this is a ringtone you should never listen to again. And then that forms the new you or the new reality. And I think this is where my work has been trying to contribute most and where it’s been inspiring most. It’s not about being right about that story, it’s about finding a story that works for you.” 

So, for Wouter, it makes sense that people believe what they do because it combines everything they’ve been pre-programmed with and their nurture, the things they’ve experienced. And it also makes sense to hold on to those ideas because you have to live by them every day. 

“You have to be able to go all in on how you think the world works, but at the same time, be open and curious to find out if there’s something missing in your current model that helps you understand or explain at least what’s happening so that you can use that information to further expand yourself.” 

Wouter argues that people often get caught up in the concept of authenticity, where they minimise themselves into a one-dimensional, stable human being. He sees it also in leaders who say, ‘This is my type of leadership, or this is the thing that I aspire to because X, Y and Z’. It creates followership if you do that with conviction but also bankruptcy if you don’t update soon enough. 

“There’s this ambidexterity that we need from people to lean, on the one hand, on those talents or those belief systems, and on the other hand, being open into self-expansion, creativity and curiosity to find out and add more to what we know right now.” 

The impact of self-limiting beliefs in business

“I used to think that I was a pretty smart guy, but now even many of my assumptions turn out completely wrong. And this is why I love teamwork so much because it allows you to leverage the diversity of thinking rather than try to all create this one-dimensional force.”

An entrepreneur wanted to sell his 50-person consultancy firm because he didn’t like people. Wouter pointed out that working with the creative and young consultants required teamwork. So, if that was the case, he would certainly need to sell. 

“And then we continue talking. And basically, he said, yeah, but what I find really problematic and annoying and, in a sense, even hurtful, is that during COVID, this company had quite a tough time. So he, as an entrepreneur, had to bring back financial resources from his private wealth into the company to save the company. And basically, when I did that, some of my consultants still had the audacity to ask me for a raise.

Wouter helped him realise that he didn’t dislike people, but rather had an issue with boundaries being crossed. This allowed him to handle situations better and he brought a HR person to deal with these conversations.

“That’s where things get tricky. We use that belief system and we generalise that belief system in thinking, which is the number one error, is that people think and know the same as you do, which obviously is very often not the case. So if you start to project your belief system onto the behaviour of other people, then things get really tricky really fast.”

Explaining Attachment Theory

Wouter argues that our self-limiting beliefs originate in the first three years of our lives. Drawing from the attachment theory, he explains that, as a child, you are supposed to understand that there’s a dynamic between you and your caregiver. 

“We have to go through a couple of stages as an individual where we have to understand that I am a human with internal desires, stakes, aspirations, or even needs. But I also am a human with outer behaviour. And those two are not necessarily always in congruency.”

Wouter argues that we are all faced with a duality between the outer world and the inner world, which includes our thoughts, beliefs and things that are important to us. And that means that in any relationship, there are basically four personas that we need to manage. And we see that in attachment, adds Wouter. A baby thinks that what they feel is eternally true, and it’s everywhere. 

“That’s why, for instance, a baby gets very upset when the parents leave the room. Because it doesn’t have object permanency yet, it doesn’t understand that if something that I don’t see exists, it can come back. And it is also the reason why it’s so upset when it has a full diaper because it literally thinks the whole world is shit.”

We slowly begin to understand that there’s this sense of timing that what is true now is not forever. Also, what is true here is not necessarily true everywhere. And this translates into your empathy system, where you now have to understand that what you are feeling is not necessarily what the other person is feeling. 

“So you have to detach yourself and say, okay, I now realise that my frame, the way that I view the world, and the way that I interpret your behaviour is not necessarily the way that you have intended it to be, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about what you want to accomplish in this situation.”

People tend to be disappointed with other people’s behaviour, yet they never communicate their expectations to them. So, they have no way of knowing that they are about to let somebody down. Doing so, adds Wouter, would be part of the solution. 

So, how do you find out what attachment style you have?

There are two dimensions if you think about yourself and what a child can understand about the world. From zero to three years old, we have virtually no language. We’re unable to communicate our true desires. We may be able to cry or say our first few words. It resonates, but it’s not really what we mean. So we’re very dependent; we only want people to be close because we want them to care for us. 

There are two observations that drive this development early in life. One is the availability of the other. So, to what extent do I experience the availability of my primary caretaker? And based on that, you either start to be able to trust other people and lean on other people, or you’ll say something like, well, I don’t think I can trust you to be there when I really need you. So when things need to be done perfectly, I’d better do them myself. 

The second dimension is, ‘And if I want to get as much attention as possible, do I naturally get it without conditions? What, can I laugh or cry whenever I want? Or do I need to play a trick? Do I need to make jokes or smile all the time? So are there particular conditions?’ 

“And this gets into this two by two matrix where you have high availability, low availability and high conditionality on yourself versus low conditionality on yourself, which then puts you into one of four quadrants. We could put up a small explainer where people can maybe already – depending on where they self-judge themselves– plot themselves a little bit, which gives them a nice indication. It’s very difficult to do that just by self-evaluation. So you need your friends, family, mentors, coaches, or tooling to challenge your hypothesis about yourself.”

Book recommendations 

Synaptic Self

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