Brain Tattoo


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There’s an idea I’ve held inside my brain, like some kind of brain tattoo, indelibly stamped. It’s been there for some 30-years now. It goes something like this: “You’ll feel better when it quits hurting”. I’ve applied this to all sorts of things from business to personal. It came to mind as I was scaling organizations, or launching products on unreasonable schedules, or dealing with people issues. And for sure, it came to mind whenever I was trying to change some personal habit, especially fitness-related stuff. Though I credit it for a certain kind of perseverance and resolve, I realize it also forms a blanket ideology that everything worth having also has to be hard.

To have a braintattoo is to let an idea or construct inform everything.

Tattoos were once considered permanent, but no longer. It’s now possible to remove them, even if partially.

I’m thinking the same must be true for Brain Tattoos. To remove a brain tattoo would be to remove a belief system you no longer wish to inform everything else. Perhaps that belief system served for a time, but it no longer does. Perhaps it is an outdated notion. Perhaps you have grown beyond it.

Certainly I’m ready to let go of the “it must be hard” brain tattoo. But then, I started to wonder if I could choose a tattoo to imprint on my brain, what would it be?

What would yours be?

10 Responses:

  1. Lauren Ackerman. April 25, 2013 at 9:49 am  |  

    Great post! I am so glad that you just posted this! I was just thinking about the same concept because I recently read an article about optimists and wondered if there was a “tattoo” that’s on her/his brain and if others could obtain that tattoo. Versus a tattoo, I was thinking about it as a layer of colorful but transparent gas or something that surrounds one’s brain, affecting and influencing what comes in and what goes out. Because complex gases are created by a mixture of atoms/elements, what are the “atoms” that can recreate or form new tattoos on our brains?
    I wonder too if it would be helpful to have tattoos for different situations, or 2 different tattoos – one for info coming in and one for info going out. Like you, I have the “it must be hard” tattoo. It’s tough because challenges are fun! One of my favorites on the other hand is “no matter what was or is…what could the future look like and what can we do now.” Kind of like the cliche “be in the moment” but I find the idea of a tattoo helpful when trying to live out that concept in everyday life.

    • Nilofer Merchant. April 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm  |  

      One reason why it is important to name the belief is this…sometimes it informs something it shouldn’t inform. So to see it for what it is, a belief … Not the only viable belief helps us to be more conscious and mindful. I’m convinced the happiest people are the ones able to see the difference between, I am having this thought to I am this thought.

  2. Michael Felberbaum. April 26, 2013 at 3:28 am  |  

    One of the removal techniques is the practice of sitting meditation. Most people don’t realize just how revolutionary it is. Tattoos just seem to fade away over time. It’d be like a computer with its operating system fully programmed just stopping one day and then, when it started again, doing something it was not programmed to do. So I think a meditation practice naturally removes these tattoos. So why replace them? Why not see what its like to operate with fading tattoos?

    • Nilofer Merchant. April 27, 2013 at 2:13 pm  |  

      Michael –
      “most people don’t realize how revolutionary it is”. … possibly because it requires purchasing nothing but actually just doing it. 😉

      • Michael Felberbaum (@MFelberbaum). April 27, 2013 at 5:47 pm  |  

        By the way, though I work at Yale and have little to do with business, I greatly enjoy the depth and insights of your work. I also set my wife up to subscribe to your blog. As you point out, meditation is free and it is somewhat revolutionary that something free could be the most valuable. It’s also revolutionary in the sense of upheaval: maybe the only thing that can safely overthrow the regime of ego!

  3. Kirti Kandade. April 26, 2013 at 8:56 am  |  

    A Tattoo *I* would choose to have is “no pain -no gain” or “its got to hurt a bit, before you see success”; slightly different from the ‘tattoo’ you’ve mentioned but related. And, inherently you’re right, unless we have something that ‘informs’ -we could blithely sail through life w/o an understanding of how our decisions are shaping us. The more informed we are, the more ‘critical’ choices we can make -and be happy (or happier) about that decision.

  4. Heidi Sloss. April 26, 2013 at 4:56 pm  |  

    Great post. I meditate twice a day and always spend time tatooing thoughts and beliefs I want on my brain. Lately I have been playing with: What would you do if you knew you could not fail. Guess I am being influenced by my reading (currently) of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

    • Nilofer Merchant. April 27, 2013 at 2:11 pm  |  

      Ah, Heidi – I love that you are meditating. It lets you be more conscious and intentional about beliefs guiding you. I do some walking meditation but I feel like this is a practice area I’d like to do more of… Thanks for the nudge by example.

  5. Seth Marrs. April 28, 2013 at 7:42 pm  |  

    The biggest one for me is “If I’m not busy I’m not working hard”. Even though I constantly find that the quite times are when I gain the most inspiration and am most creative I still have a hard time letting myself put aside time to reflect and think. I’m pushing hard to remove the “Busy” tattoo.

  6. Heidi Forbes Öste (@ForbesOste). April 29, 2013 at 4:19 am  |  

    Nilofer, another great post! Thanks for sharing. In that light I would have to say my tattoo was once Knowledge is Power and I sought to learn everything I could and be a knowledge keeper. Now I realise the power in that knowledge comes from the act of sharing it. In that light, the knowledge is nothing when not shared. I now live by Knowledge is Power, Sharing is Powerful and find it greatly fulfilling. Enjoy your meditation. I look forward to sharing a walk again with you sometime soon.


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