Tiger Woods on the Brain

In a recent interview, I was asked what effect all of the time we spend in front of a computer has on the brain. Setting aside the effect of staring at a screen might have on our neurons, I immediately thought of the incredible access we have to information over the internet.

Unfortunately, it’s a double-edged sword. It certainly saved me a lot of time and trouble writing my recent book, but I also find I know far more about Tiger Woods’s sexual peccadilloes than I care to. In the past, my knowledge would’ve been limited to what I could pick up from the tabloids while I stood in the checkout line at the supermarket. Now I’m just a click away from the article in the Hindustan Times on the “25,000 pounds on orgies with hookers” he spent, and it doesn’t even appear until tomorrow.

Despite the fact that I’m the one that decides to click on such articles, it’s easy to fault the internet for clogging my brain with garbage. But like every aspect of our experience, it’s not so much what something is, but what our minds do with it that determines its worth. The brain is a vast network of relationships, and when one piece of data is linked to another, the mind can generate valuable insights even from information that seems worthless at first glance.

The internet vastly extends the network of relationships, because it gives us access not just to bits of data, but to other minds making connections between the bits of data. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Gail Collins frames the “hysteria over Tiger Woods” as a useful way for us to gain respite from the really depressing news on healthcare reform and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Sam Tanenhaus links the story to the historian Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between celebrity and heroism. Celebrity is created by the media, while heroism is a result of the acts of the individual. Our focus on celebrity is an indication of the decline of society’s values. But by trying to remain aloof, Woods has paradoxically allowed the media to define him, both for good and for ill.

This same theme is picked up by Belinda Luscombe in an article in Time. She writes that Woods’s wife Elin should take a lesson from Jenny Sanford, the “new hero” of “cheated-upon spouses.” “Sanford deftly and subtly grasped her part of the narrative and spun it. Hers is not the story of a dull wife who was passed over for an exotic soul mate in Argentina, but rather the tale of the true captain of a family ship, unbowed by the squalls.”

By refusing to stand by her husband at his news conference and through her own interview with AP and a profile in Vogue, she defined herself, preempting the media’s spin. We now see her through her own, self-created narrative.

My link is to organizational leadership.  Most cognitive scientists now believe that our minds work through stories, and we are defined both for ourselves and for others through the story we tell. As Tiger Woods has learned from his silence, in the absence of a carefully crafted story, others will impose their own story on events. The story we tell is not just a pejorative “spin,” but an heroic act.

All organizations have a collective story their members tell. In times like these, marked by devastating layoffs and examples of corporate greed, the story being told is not good either for the business or for the individual. It saps any sense of loyalty and desire to work for the common good, and it leads to lives of not so quiet desperation.

Leaders need to create a counter-narrative with an aspirational vision of the future that gets people committed and excited. The story is told with words, but it’s also told with decisions and actions. There’s no magic to creating stories, for they are just what the individual leaders need to tell themselves to ensure their own commitment.  By thinking about what we need, we’ll know what others need as well.

Maybe following the Tiger Woods saga isn’t such a waste of time after all, but one of those teachable moments we keep hearing about today. Then again, maybe every moment is teachable, if we make the right connections. To be valuable, internet links need more than just a mouse click. They need an open mind.