Curt Fowler: How We Build Our Brains

Curt Fowler

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Hey. I thought this column was about business! All you’ve been writing about is habits since the beginning of the year. True. And I’ve been waiting for my editor say something like this. 

Let me make the connection between all this writing about habits and our brains to real business outcomes. Organizations, whether non-profit or for-profit, are groups of individuals working together to achieve something they could not on their own. 

Would you agree that the health of the organization is, at least partially, based on the health of the individuals? Have you ever had the flu bug take out 25% of your team? How well did the organization work then? What about physical health? Have you noticed a difference in stamina and performance between different members of your team?

The health (physical and mental) of our organizations depends on the health (physical and mental) of the individuals that make up our teams. The healthier each of us becomes, the healthier our organizations will be. 

Healthy organizations live longer and produce better results. Many studies show this. Look at the work of Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni, Raj Sisodia and the Great Places to Work studies. These all show “healthy” organizations outperforming their peers from three to fifteen times – in real, economic performance. 

Leaders of growing organizations realize the greatest challenge they have is the ability to grow great leaders. To build great organizations we must grow skillful leaders that are healthy in mind and body. 

“Our thoughts create our actions, our actions become habits, our habits make us. Our individual habits make our organizational habits. Our organizational habits determine our performance.”

Brain science is way out of my field, but if we are going to become better individuals that can lead and grow healthy organizations, it all starts with our brains. 

Last week we talked about myelin and how it speeds up the electrical impulses in our brains along specific paths that are heavily used. That is how a great baseball player can see and react to a pitch so quickly. That area of his brain has been heavily trained. The training or “deep practice” changed his brain structure. That changed brain structure results in the desired outcome of hitting the ball. This process is called “myelination.” 

Myelination can happen because our brains are constantly changing based on our environment. This is a concept call neuroplasticity and something I praise the Lord for. We are not stuck with the brain we are born with any more than we are stuck with our bodies. Genetics do play a part. Our genetics are the basic building blocks we are given, but what we can create out of those building blocks is completely up to us. In fact, researchers in the field of epigenetics are finding that our thoughts change our genes. Fascinating stuff. 

How does this work? Explaining that will require a quick dip into the brain science pond. Don’t worry. I am not smart enough to make this complicated. We’ll take the simplified approach. 

Our brains are made of neurons – over 100 billion of them. You’ve probably seen pictures of neurons – flat little things with wiggly looking fingers coming out of every side of them. Those fingers are called dendrites. Dendrites receive signals from other neurons. Axons are long “cables” that reach out and interacts with other neuron’s dendrites. 

When we learn something new our brains encode this information as new dendrites that sprout and connect with other neurons creating a neural pathway. These pathways are the neural “river beds” that form in our brains. As we practice a physical activity or a thought pattern the connections grow stronger and faster along the pathway through “myelination.” Myelin is added to the axon (neural cables) when the brain notices increased activity along that pathway. 

The more we practice, the more myelin is added to the neural pathway associated with that thought or activity. Our thoughts, experiences and physical actions build physical structures in our brains just like exercise builds muscles. We really are what we think. 

How can this help us build better businesses? This knowledge can help us build better leaders by following a three-step process.

1 – Hire People With a Good “Brain Base” – People with a good “brain base” have three things you should be looking for – character, humility/teachability and skills. Those are listed in order of importance. It is very difficult to change character after a certain age. It can be done, but you should not make a practice of undertaking the task regularly in your workplace. You can only teach or coach people who are humble enough to learn, therefore humility is a requirement. Skills are important because people who have already done what you need them to do are going to be better and faster at the job. If you must choose, hire for character and humility over skill. Try to hire for all three.

2 – Focus Them on Areas of Passion and Strength – We are generally passionate about things we are good at. We also put in discretionary effort in areas that we are passionate about. That discretionary effort makes us even better at what we do – through the myelination process. If you can get your team members in the “right seats” on your organizational bus, their performance will skyrocket. 

3 – Coach and Encourage – Great performers in any field have great coaches. They don’t get feedback from their coaches once a year as we do in a typical performance review cycle. They are coached daily. The more often we receive feedback, the quicker we can make corrections. Those corrections lead to better practice, better practice leads to “perfect practice.” 

Perfect practice creates the neural pathways that lead to excellence performances. Whatever we practice gets easier. If I practice good habits, those good habits will become easier to do. Every time I practice bad habits, they will become harder to stop doing. 

Think good thoughts and practice good habits. Your brain will help you deliver outstanding results. 

If you’d like some great resources to help you on your journey you can find them on our resources page at or call me at 229.244.1559.

Curt Fowler is President of Fowler & Company and Director at Fowler, Holley, Rambo & Stalvey. He is dedicated to helping leaders create and achieve a compelling vision for their organizations. 

Curt is a syndicated business writer, keynote speaker and business advisor. He has an MBA in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Kellogg School, is a CPA, and a pretty good guy as defined by his wife and four children.