Our brains are effectively "wired" by the technology we use, especially the tech we use when we’re young.
Your Brain on Books
If you’re a Boomer, the primary technology in your classroom was a book. You read for thousands of hours, and that did things to your brain. Your brain learned to be still, to focus, to ignore distractions. Reading is like swimming in the deep end of the pool rather than playing in the shallows.
If you grew up reading a lot, you got really good at deep thinking, at putting things in context, and in order. You learned to think deductively (top-down reasoning in which you grasp the big idea first, the details and examples later).
Also, you got words. You can use language effectively when you talk or write. Finally, deep reading feeds long-term memory. The pace of reading is perfect for moving ideas from your short-term attention into your long-term vaults.
As technologies go, reading books isn’t fast, but it can make you smart--good at critical thinking, imagination and reflection. If you grew up reading, you developed a particular kind of literacy suited for the time when you grew up.
Pretty, Shiny Things
Generations that grow up online develop an entirely different literacy.
Reading isn’t all that natural to the brain. It’s hard to make our brains sit still and read. (Remember first grade?) Our brains are drawn to movement, variety and color. This ancient behavior helped humans survive. If you’re walking the savannah, you need to notice everything that moves because it might be something you can eat or that can eat you.
The internet returns our brains to that natural state of distractedness. Even if you grew up reading all the time, by now you've rewired your brain to skim and scan and pinch and click. And it feels good. When we move through online bits of info, our brain cells fire, releasing rewarding feel-good chemicals. The internet lets us fire lots of connections really fast. We want to keep exercising those circuits. We want to stay distracted.
In fact, if you wanted to design something that would captivate a distractible brain and rewire the brain’s mental circuits, you’d design the Internet. Repetitive, intensive, fast, interactive and rewarding, it's a brilliant distraction machine.
Your Brain Online
If you are Millennial or Gen Z, you probably scanned the text above and jumped here to read a sentence or two. And that’s OK. You can find out a lot by skimming. But you may not learn it deeply, and you're less likely to remember it later. That may be OK, too. You may not need to remember info later. But it’s a tradeoff. Speed for memory. Speed for precision.
It's a tradeoff. Speed for memory. Speed for Precision.
Lots of hours online gives us jugglers' brains. We handle lots of balls, but none of those balls is likely to be remembered for long. We practice twitch-speed, go or no-go decisions. We develop 3-D thinking, extensive peripheral vision and adroit mental mapping. We learn to think inductively (details and examples first, the big idea later).
A Word to Gen X: Congrats!
Congrats. You are the bridge between books and blogs. As an Xer, you know both the analog world of books and the digital world of hyperlinks. Of all the generations, you crossed the digital fault line first. This is why you can write memos and analyses and also make split-second decisions based on visual data. You’re effectively literate in two languages.
What You Must Learn Now
Bookish Ones: Your skills are terrific. The way you think is valuable. But you may need to learn to work faster.
1. Try intentionally revving up the engine when you're in a fast-paced meeting. Practice making points quickly.
2. You may also have to become more comfortable with taking risks. This means using inductive thinking, seeing a few examples and making a leap. Or, as they say, throw something against the wall and see if it sticks. This is less linear than the kind of thinking you're used to doing, but it may help you work faster.
3. Come up to speed on tech. Ask for training that works for you. That means training that is built deductively. For more detail see 4th Quarter Careers: Part One and Fourth Quarter Careers: Part Two.
4. Finally, find somebody with an internet mind to mentor you.
Internet Minds: Your skills are terrific. The way you think is valuable. But you may need to develop deeper, more reflective habits in order to create ideas that work.
1. In meetings, take a sec to evaluate ideas thoroughly before you propose them.
2. Practice breaking your ideas into steps and communicate those steps so others can follow you. If you need one, find a presentation coach. Practice what you want to say before you say it in order to find precise and effective words.
3. Develop your memory. Once a week or so, choose a few facts that are important to your work, that you'd like to be able to use easily. Simply repeat the facts (silently or aloud) a few times to move them into long-term storage.
4. Finally, find someone who learned from books to mentor you, especially in your writing skills.
What skills do you need to learn now? Join the conversation! Tweet us at @AmyLynchGenEdge, and don't forget to include your #generation.
Amy Lynch is an author, generations researcher and consultant who helps companies harness the power of generational intelligence. Contact Amy about speaking at your next conference.