It's Time to Burst Your Own Bubble and Ask for Advice

It is not a weakness to ask a question or seek advice.  I would argue the most insecure people are the ones who do not do that. 

When people talk about presidents in a bubble, what do you think they’re talking about?  They’re basically saying the person isn’t open to negative feedback because they don’t’ want to hear it or people are afraid to give it to them.  You’re the same.  


People underestimate the power asymmetry that exists between them and the people who report to them.  It’s huge.  

The President of the United States is the extreme of it, but believe me, if you have people reporting to you, they see you as all powerful. You control their lives, you set their compensation. If they have future aspirations in their career you’re the person they’re relying on.  You have all the power.  So you’ve got to ask them for advice.  

What normally happens, and I used to do this for years, is I sit one-on-one with each of my people and say, can you give me a suggestion?  And the reason I say one-on-one, no one wants to criticize you in front of others.  They’re not going to do that unless they’re suicidal, but most people are not.  

So you ask them, "Can you give me one thing I need to do to improve?"  And the reaction you’re going to get is, “nothing I can think of.”  So then you’re going to have to sit and say, "No, I’m really, really serious.  I really want to improve and can you help me?  Just give me one thing that I can do to improve, a specific action I can take."  The person will sit there, usually beads of sweat forming on their forehead.  And they’re starting to think by this time this is some weird, perverse loyalty test or some sick trick that you’re trying to play on them.  But you say, "No, I’m really serious, I really want your help.  I really would appreciate it."  

So then, reluctantly, they say something.  And I say “reluctantly,” because the moment they say it they immediately regret it.  They wish they could take it back.  Why?  Because it’s devastating and it’s devastating because you know it’s true.  You know everybody must think it.  It doesn’t sound very good.  You then thank them, try not to act devastated, they leave, you then call home and you ask, “Am I like such and such?”  And on the other end of the line there's a pause for a moment and they’ll say, “Yeah, that does sound like you.”  And you realize, oh my god, oh my god.  I really have a problem. 

And you will improve, you’ll take action, you’ll improve and you’ll get better because almost invariably when people know what they need to improve on, they do get better.  That person, by the way, will tell peers out there, "Boy, this senior person asked my advice!" And what happens over time is word gets around that you want advice and people start coming in and giving it to you. And for me in my career, what used to happen is people would warn me before a little problem became a catastrophe.  They would say, “I know what you’re trying to do yesterday in that thing you did, but it didn’t go the way you thought and now you’ve got a problem with three people out there and you better go fix it.”  And it would save me from all sorts of mistakes.  But you see when you do that you’re no longer alone.  You’re not so isolated and you’re not doing your job all by yourself.  I haven’t met a leader yet who can be a great leader of a group all by themselves.  This engages your people.    

And some people say, "but it makes me look vulnerable, it makes me look weak."  I would argue the opposite.  It makes you look strong.  It is not a weakness to ask a question or seek advice.  I would argue the most insecure people are the ones who do not do that.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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