While working at Rockwell group, someone once joked that David Rockwell manifests spectacular and exuberant projects in the world because he didn’t trip in college :) While having no basis for believing this, it got me thinking about the impact our chemistry has on who we are as innovators.
I’ve been excited by Dr. Helen Fisher’s ideas on how 4 chemicals — two neurotransmitters, and two hormones — have an outsized impact on our Nature. She described this in a talk I attended where she used cake decorating as an illuminating example: how people dominant in one of these four compounds decorated vastly different cakes.
It’s a simple model: we all have these 4 chemicals in relative amounts and the mix tells us a lot about how we process and act in the world. Although the actual neurochemical landscape is more intricate, let’s focus on these four compounds for the sake of our discussion. (You can hear Dr. Fisher’s excellent talk on the subject here):
Dopamine-dominant individuals are natural explorers. They thrive on unpredictability and novelty, embracing risks and infusing their work with bursts of creative and productive energy.
Serotonin-dominant individuals are meticulous builders and planners. They approach challenges cautiously, meticulously laying out plans and executing them deliberately.
Estrogen-dominant individuals prioritize the needs of those they design for. Estrogen also enhances integrative thinking, involving various brain regions to solve problems collectively.
Testosterone-dominant individuals are analytical and resilient. They excel at high-level thinking, often possessing clear and concise visions. Their competitive nature drives them to execute and deliver.
Given identical cake decorating materials, people dominant in one of the above types deliver cakes, respectively, that are explosive and surprising, carefully designed using every decoration tidbit, highly personalized (like a smiley face), and bold (put the biggest item into the cake and say they’re done.)
Imagine four test tubes, each filled to varying levels with these compounds, influencing the behavior of your family members or close colleagues. Try identifying the two most dominant compounds in each individual. Later, you can expand it to new people in your ecosystem — it’s helpful as a way to get a read on the chemical makeup of clients and collaborators. It’s become a useful habit of mind — providing insights into the teams I engage with.
Dr. Fisher also sheds light on how these diverse chemical expressions impact communication. For instance, giving high energy, dopamine-fueled answers to questions posed by a serotonin driven interviewer might fall on deaf ears. They would prefer to hear the details and an execution plan, and not share in your lively, enthusiasm for the effort. So awareness of our chemical interaction, can help us speak in a language others want to hear.
It’s plausible that personal chemistry even shapes our career choices. With a surplus of dopamine and estrogen, I find myself an innovation strategist, jumpstarting new projects, and helping teams pivot to the new and unexpected, all while deeply caring for the end recipients of our products and services.
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