Jilly: Boxing the Chimp

Don't let her take chargeI hadn’t planned to post about this yet. I’m only just getting to know my Chimp. I haven’t given her a name or figured out what sends her into overdrive, but I intend to try, because according to Dr Steve Peters, consultant psychiatrist and best-selling author, it will make my writing life a whole lot easier. Apparently if I can get my Chimp happy and contented, and keep her that way, she won’t keep trying to hijack my attempts to Finish The Book.

My plan was to write about this later (or not at all), and come to think of it, that’s probably the Chimp in action. She doesn’t like me to struggle in public. She likes me to get things all worked out before I share them with other people (I guess that’s why I prefer to ask for critique after I’ve finished a draft). Then I read Kat’s post about Writer’s Fatigue and thought this would be the perfect moment to talk about my early experiences with the how-to book The Chimp Paradox.

The author, Steve Peters, is best known in the UK as a sports psychologist, and especially as adviser to the professional cycling outfit Team Sky. The team was established in 2009 with the explicitly stated goal of putting a British cyclist on the winner’s podium of the Tour de France within five years. I remember asking my husband if he thought they’d do it, and him saying unequivocally ‘no chance.’ In fact, they achieved their goal in 2012, and again in 2013. Dr Peters knows how to help people reach for the stars. I read recently that he is also going to the World Cup this summer with the English soccer team, and at that moment I was feeling especially frustrated with my progress (or lack of it), so I decided to investigate and see if the man had any advice that could be applied to aspiring writers. Half an hour later I was reading his book.

The Chimp Paradox offers a simplified model of how our inner mind works, and a system for managing our emotions and thoughts so that they help us to achieve our life goals instead of derailing us. There’s much more in the book, about working with others, goal setting, and defining happiness, but I’ve been concentrating on the inner mind stuff, because I can relate it most directly to my writing.

There are two aspects of ‘chimp’ behavior that I particularly recognize – negative, demoralizing thoughts like ‘What if nobody wants to read this book when I’ve finished it?’ or ‘How can this possibly be taking me so long?’ and insidious, distracting ones like ‘This book is taking forever anyway. It won’t make any difference if I take today off.’

If you’d like to hear Dr Peters explain his model, check out this link to his presentation at TEDxYouth Manchester in 2012.

Here’s my personal take-out from the book so far:

  • There are two independent thinking machines in our head that interpret our experiences and suggest a response. One is our thinking, rational ‘human’ brain. The other is instinctive, emotional, and given to making snap judgements (the Chimp.) Ever had a conversation with yourself inside your head? Chimp.
  • The Chimp is faster and more powerful than the human; it will jump in and react first if you let it. It can take over, lead you to say, feel and do things that you know you don’t want.
  • The Chimp is impulsive and believes in instant gratification. It doesn’t care about long-term goals.
  • Your Chimp is what it is. You can’t change it, but you can (and should) learn to manage it.
  • You can’t control it by sheer willpower. It’s too strong.
  • You can (and should) learn your Chimp’s drives. You’ll get a lot less trouble from her if you can find a way to keep her fulfilled and happy – for example, if your Chimp is very territorial, it will help if you can get an identified work-space (say, your own desk) and maybe a clearly defined job description.
  • Ways to manage your Chimp:
    – if your Chimp has worked itself into a state, you may need to exercise it – find a safe way for it to let off steam and air its concerns without interruption – before you start to reason with it;
    – box the Chimp – reassure and convince it that the human can be trusted to handle the situation, using facts, truth and logic;
    – distract it or reward it – ‘when I’ve written this scene, we’ll have half an hour for coffee and browsing.’

As I said at the start of this post, I’ve only just met my Chimp, but I’ve started to notice when she’s talking to me. I can definitely hear her voice in my head. When I go into the kitchen for a glass of water she starts looking for fun things to eat or wondering whether we should cook something time-consuming for supper instead of going back to finish the scene. So far I’ve been rewarding her for good writing behaviour, but according to Dr Peters that’s a quick fix. I need to know her better and figure out how to settle her down, because later this summer we’ll be facing a much bigger challenge: she doesn’t believe in my presentation skills and she hates the idea of me pitching my manuscript. She’s already getting stressed and defensive because she’s scared I’m going to suck at it. I hate to admit it, but she has a point. When I figure out how to reassure her, I’ll report back 🙂

What do you think?

19 thoughts on “Jilly: Boxing the Chimp

  1. A book I read about Zen Buddhisim talked about “monkey mind”–the monkey who runs around, screaming and climbing and swinging (and throwing feces) when we sit down to meditate. It said that, just as you wouldn’t allow a monkey to live in your home and behave that way, you had discipline the monkey in your head to scuceed at meditation. It sounds like the Chimp is closely related.

    Unfortunately, I suck at meditation, mostly because I’ve never been able to get that monkey under control.

    • That sounds very similar, Jeanne. Maybe you were trying to control the monkey by sheer willpower? One message that’s repeated throughout Dr Peters’ book is that you can’t arm-wrestle the monkey into staying quiet but if you use truth and reason you can reassure it that you, the human, have the situation under control, and then it will stop trying to push you into flight or fight and let you get on with what you need to do. I think this has to be worth a try – I’ve fluffed enough New Year’s resolutions to know that willpower alone doesn’t work for me.

  2. Very, very interesting! I’ve got so many things running around in my head, telling me to do this or do that, or to take a nap. I’ve just kind of slapped the label “Girls” on them, and tried to manage things with them.

    (-: A sweet little chimp who can be bribed with bananas would be very, very nice. I’ll have to think about this. I hope you’ll update us on your progress!

    (About presentations: I think it helps tremendously to remember that you are offering something that the editors and agents need: Content. Maybe it won’t be a right fit the first time, but you will find someone who needs and wants what you have. You are really helping out the agent or editor . . . and you are gaining experience. The more you pitch, the better you’ll get at it.)

    • See, Michaeline, your comments about agents and editors are spot on, and that’s the rational, sensible human talking. The monkey is running around screaming and shouting ‘but what if….they hate it? I make a fool of myself? Nobody wants contemporary romance any more? They laugh at me? I forget what I wanted to say? My story is too British and they think I’m stupid for trying to pitch it in the US?’ and another thousand unhelpful thoughts like that. If I can persuade the chimp to settle down, have a banana and stop gibbering in my ear, I can remind myself of all the excellent points you make 🙂

  3. Thank you for going against your own chimp and posting this now, Jilly. What a gift. It’s put a few things into perspective for me and couldn’t have come at a better time. I immediately recognized that my own chimp (thinking up names!) has been extremely busy lately messing with my head, too.

    I’m going to Amazon to get the book, but first I’m going to draft up a new scene (take that chimp!!).

        • Excellent idea! Unlimited banana daquiris if they stay nice and quiet while we’re pitching 🙂

        • LOL, you know, authors are pretty well known for knocking out their chimps with alcohol. One banana daiquiri before the pitch? Maybe OK. (I’ve lost my head for liquor though.) Further banana daiquiris are rewards for good behavior AFTER the pitch (-:.

          (Gosh, a banana daiquiri sounds so good — we’re experiencing a heat wave in Hokkaido. Which is still coolish for a lot of areas in the world, but the children in my classes are melting, melting as soon as it hits 25 C. I don’t want to translate that into F because I know it’s going to be a frightfully wimpy temp.)

  4. This talk about the chimps reminds me of Amy Farah Fowler’s work as a neurobiologist in The Big Bang Theory (I don’t know if you can get this TV show in the UK, Jilly.) She’s run a number of experiments with monkeys that involve addiction to smoking—usually with hilarious but unpleasant results, especially when she doesn’t keep the monkeys in their cages.

  5. Oh great. First we have The Girls in the Basement, now we have Boxing Chimps. No wonder people think writers are nuts. Haha. Great post. I might check the book out at the library. Not until the courses are over.

    By the way, our group is talking about a ‘reunion tour’ for Nationals in 2015. It would be my first. Those of you who go this year should take lots of photos and post some here. I’d love to see them.

    • I think a lot of people went to RWA nationals last year, before class was over. (Yes, it’s only 2014; they definitely went.) Sounds like a great time was held by everyone who was able to attend. I couldn’t make it, and this year isn’t looking like a possiblity either, so I’ll be looking forward to pics and stories, too (-:.

  6. Pingback: Michaeline: The Mobile Writing Unit | Eight Ladies Writing

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s