Dopamine or Adrenaline? Your success could rely on you knowing the difference.

The June 2013 issue of National Geographic has as a main theme:

“The New Explorers – The Risks They Take”

The questions they pose have relevance in EVERY aspect of our lives because they are essentially exploring how we deal with RISK . . . 4 significant quotes:

  • “WHY do we do it (take Risks)? What makes an explorer face danger and yet press on when others would turn back?”
  • “But as the danger increases, the number of people willing to go forward shrinks, until the only ones who remain are the extreme risk takers, those willing to endanger their reputation, fortune, and life.”
  • “When you’re talking about someone who takes risks to accomplish something – climb a mountain, start a company, run for office, become a Navy SEAL – that’s driven by motivation, and motivation is driven by the dopamine system. This is what compels humans to move forwards.”
  • ” . . . unlike dopamine, which can push us toward danger in the course of achieving certain goals, adrenaline is designed to help us escape from danger.”

“Adrenaline Highs” are a rush, but they’re not sustainable . . . nor are they necessarily voluntary. Folks who thrive on adrenaline rushes tend to be careless risk takers . . . extremists who seek one thrill after another.

Based on this article, I see now that these thrill seekers are seeking adrenaline highs more than seeking to achieve a real goal . . . It’s a dance into danger followed by fight or flight . . . Reacting their way through life.

Then, there are these folks who are DRIVEN by their elevated dompamine systems. These folks are more calculating and goal oriented.

They are in it for the long haul.

They want to make a sustainable difference in the world.

They’re less interested in fame and fortune.

When we talk of “MOTIVATION,” we think of FORWARD motion towards an objective – goal – dream . . .

I’ve heard before that we cannot create motivation in other people . . . we can only find the motivation within them and draw it to the surface.

We find what accelerates their dopamine system, and we FOCUS on THAT.

Great Leaders know all about dopamine (although they likely don’t know it by name) . . . they simply know that as they’ve traveled their own journeys, they acknowledge the danger and risk in everything they do and weigh that against their motivation to succeed.

These Leaders – Explorers – Visionaries, seldom find success quickly (over night) . . . They use the “How do you eat an elephant?” theory by taking one bite at a time . . . knowing that with each step forward, they come closer to the goal.

Other people seldom notice these folks until they appear “suddenly” at the TOP, and it is then (and ONLY then) that everyone is AMAZED at their bravery and greatness.

These folks take “CALCULATED RISKS” because, for them, mission accomplishment is more important than bravado, heroism, fame, fortune . . .

the funny thing is the way the “math” works.

When Felix Baumgartner parachuted from 22.6 Miles up – Reaching 843.6 MPH (Breaking the sound barrier), everyone thought he was CRAZY . . . BUT he said:

“I was not frightened. I had practiced . . . (space) is breathtaking but hostile. Without protection we have no business up there.”

He and his team had spent more than 5 years preparing for the single jump, and he said:

“But if you look carefully at the details, you find out the risk is minimized as much as possible.”

Activating your own (and other people’s) dopamine systems requires FOCUS on a specialty over a long period of time so as to be ready (prepared) for the big event (Goal Achievement).

Life lessons from National Geographic

What’s your preference?

Intentional Motivation FORWARD?


Reactive Thrill Seeking?

It’s your choice 🙂

Published by Barry Owen

Strategist-CEO of Pareto Realty Real estate sales Professional Inviter-Facilitator-Practicer of Open Space Technology Opening safe space for people & organizations to self-organize around issues & opportunities BarryOwen.US Invite-Listen-Love

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  1. So basically how one can elevate his dopamine system to be more calculating and goal oriented? Basically my question is how one can get most out of his dopamine high..?

  2. While I appreciate this article, and the emphasis on calculated risks (e.g. Felix Baumgartner), I think I disagree with the overall conclusion that to be an Explorer/Adventurer one should focus on dopamine and avoid adrenaline. Yes, too much adrenaline seeking leads to self-destructive behavior, but I don’t think the evidence supports the idea that Explorers seek out dopamine instead of adrenaline.

    Consider Felix Baumgartner, or entrepreneurs such as Bryan Johnson, Elon Musk, and many others… they tend to be drawn to activities that have higher mortality rates, such as: Flying (they fly their own planes), racing, climbing, skydiving, etc.

    It’s hard to say which is cause and which is consequence, but it looks like their activities include a lot of adrenaline seeking compared to the average person. Balancing that, being somewhat calculating and not self-destructive is the part that requires skill and self-discipline. We see the cases where that breaks down.

    To be an explorer, one has to risk some unknowns. Unknowns are by definition not fully calculable. So, the risk cannot be an entirely calculated risk – only estimated, approximated. There is then still a strong element of raw risk, actual danger. You can bet that involves adrenaline.

    If you avoid adrenaline seeking and maximize dopamine seeking then you will likely feel at home in a community context: You get your rewards by belonging, by proving something to others and earning their praise and love in return. It’s a short reward loop with rapid repetitions, and in a supported context with lower raw risk.

    Would you characterize explorers or entrepreneurs as strongly community oriented? Probably not. It seems more likely that we would characterize them as somewhat selfish, and while they are often leaders (they make decisions, take risks) their leadership position tends to separate them from the community (is your relationship with the CEO really the same as with another colleague?… didn’t think so).

    A Felix Baumgartner, an Ernest Shackleton, Amelia Earhart, Jusius Caesar or Elon Musk finds reward while being different and outside of the average community role. They may not be praised for always looking after the best interests of their families and dependent. They may not be held up as an example of responsible behavior. But they get their rewards elsewhere, from the rush, and – if they become notable (like the examples mentioned rather than the multitude forgotten) – they may be envied or admired.

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