The Power of Optimism

A great deal of pressure was heaped on the young shoulders of Matt Biondi in the run up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988.  He was one of the United States great hopes for multiple medals in the swimming pool. Comparisons were being drawn with the legendary Mark Spitz who had won seven golds in the 1972 games.    In his first event, the two-hundred-metre freestyle, he finished a creditable third.  Great by most people’s standards, but disappointing for Biondi and the hard-to-please media back home.  The next event was the one-hundred-metre butterfly.  Having blasted into an early lead, and dominated the race all the way, he made an error of judgement on his final stroke. One more stroke squeezed in with a metre to go would have seen him home, but he chose to coast and stretch for the wall instead.  In doing so he was pipped by a fingernail and beaten into second by an unknown swimmer, Anthony Nesty, from Surinam, not a country renowned for swimmers, let alone gold medals.

biondiThere was much gnashing of teeth and criticism levelled at Biondi from afar. This was not the start to an assault on seven gold medals that the American public expected, and many started to write him off.   There was at least one person who did not, however.  Marty Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, watching proceedings on his television, had belief, and evidence, that Biondi had what it would take to come back from these disappointments and go on to achieve success.  Continue reading

Learning from Wimbledon (revisited)

It’s one year since I wrote the post called Learning from Wimbledon.  Andy Murray had just lost an emotionally charged final to Roger Federer. His tearful speech in front of a packed Centre Court and millions more on TV was hard to watch. But, despite the despair and pain that he (and his followers) felt, it was clear that something had changed. His raw talent was clearly good enough to win the major prizes. His tactical awareness was not in question. His physical fitness had been transformed such that no-one in the game worked harder to ensure they were able to go the distance.  The final piece of the jigsaw for Andy was conquering his Inner Game. For years his temperament had been called into question. He cracked at the big moments. The pressure placed on him by the British media and public, hungry for a British Wimbledon men’s champion, was becoming unbearable. If Andy was to succeed, it was going to be a victory inside his own head that would secure the breakthrough.

andy-murray-wins-wimbledon-2013-1373217266-custom-0The Inner Game is played out completely inside the brain. To succeed in the Inner Game one must quieten the ‘voice’ in the head that judges, criticises and worries. It can act in many subtle (and not so subtle) ways, but basically it does one of two things. It either causes us to dwell on and regret past events (e.g. a poorly executed drop shot at the end of the last rally that cost you the game), or it worries about and raises anxiety levels about future events (e.g. if I don’t win my next service game, my opponent will be serving for the match). Neither of these thought processes are useful or conducive to delivering your peak performance. To perform at your best, you need to be operating neither in the past nor in the future, but with total concentration on the present.

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Resilience in the moment

“A good half of the art of living is resilience.” ~ Alain de Botton.

As companies embark on another tough year ahead in 2013, and a climate of ongoing uncertainty, they are increasingly placing ‘resilience’ as one of the most important qualities they are looking for in their people. But, how do you recognise resilience in people, and how do you help people develop it further?

GlaxoSmithKline have defined ‘resilience’ as: “the ability to succeed personally and professionally in the midst of a high pressured, fast moving and continuously changing environment”.  

Traditional views are reflected in the language often used to describe resilient behaviour:

  • “Bouncing back after being knocked down”
  • “Taking the blows and coming back for more”
  • “Living to fight another day”
source: northjersey.com

source: northjersey.com

These expressions are adversarial and have their roots in war-like and conflict-driven situations. It is arguable that a mind-set of resilience, steeped in this language, is likely to generate more friction than collaboration.

  • What would it feel like to be resilient ‘in the moment’?  Not walk away to ‘re-group’ and then come back re-charged and ready for the fight.  Not retreat in order to re-think your strategy and make sure you win the argument the next time.  
  • But instead, there and then, you were to demonstrate emotional resilience, to really hear what was being said?
  • What if you could ‘flip’ the situation, get behind what was being said, and assess the dynamics objectively and not react?
  • What if you could show genuine curiosity in what’s happening, to hang around long enough to ask questions, to listen deeply, and to hear people out?
  • What might happen once they have been heard?  What different level of engagement might then be possible?

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Throw away the ladder and start climbing

Do organisations and companies really still talk about the ‘career ladder’?  Well, it seems they do. They still live on in the minds of people and, some companies and organisations do still promise rising talent a fast-track route up the ladder, in return for loyalty and extended service.

Reading Leadership Freak’s post today,  I was inspired by a much more meaningful metaphor for the 21st Century than the ‘career ladder’  –  that of “The Climbing Wall”.

photo source: journal.davidbyrne.com

Multi-directional  While ladders are unidirectional, stifling and create ‘log-jams’, on a climbing wall you may move laterally as well as vertically. You may even choose to take a downward step in order to gain a more favourable foothold that will help propel you on an upward journey.

Keeping Options Open  The climbing wall allows you, at times, to have your feet in two different places. Having ‘a foot in two camps’ as you navigate your career, allows you to weigh up your next best move. This may temporarily be challenging, but It keeps your options open, and provides greater flexibility. We are increasingly seeing people operate in this way in the world of work, having more than one job, straddling disciplines, and changing career more often.  The possible routes you can take on a wall are endless, limited only by your imagination, while the traditional ladder concept makes it difficult to change, typically forcing you to come off the ladder and start again on a new one.

photo source: photography.nationalgeographic.com

Cooperation  You also have more opportunity to cooperate while on a climbing wall than you do on a ladder. People can more easily climb side by side, learning from a mentor perhaps, or with a coach who is simultaneously supporting and challenging.  You can also see people who may be in your way, you can take detours and move around them, rather than sit patiently waiting for them to move up the ladder ahead of you.

Breadth and Diversity  Multi-directional “wall climbing” in organisations, connects you with so many more people, aiding diversity, creativity and collaboration. Of course, we need deep specialists, and, in some technical areas, such as medicine, engineering or law, it is important that people become ‘expert’ in their chosen discipline.  However,  everyone can benefit from a broad awareness of other functions and disciplines, helping them become even more successful in their chosen speciality in the long run.

In today’s economic climate, possessing  a breadth of skills and experience is vital, and being ready and prepared to move in different directions, as circumstances change, is an essential asset.  Waiting your turn on the ladder, blinkered to what is going on around, is a dangerous strategy, leaving you exposed in a rapidly changing world.  In evolution, those best able to adapt, survive. Being fleet of foot, multi-skilled and able (and willing) to change direction, are the attributes that will help people thrive in this rapidly-changing and increasingly unpredictable world.

To discuss your future career aspirations and consider how you can enhance the flexibility, resilience and adaptability you will need to succeed, simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to contact you for an initial chat.

Breaking Barriers

As the London Olympic Games draw towards their close, it has been exciting to watch records tumble and barriers being broken. Of course, not all barriers are measured by distance or by the clock. Some of the most fascinating are psychological barriers.

Andy Murray appears to have broken a personal barrier in winning his Tennis singles gold medal. Regular readers will have read Learning from Wimbledon a few short weeks ago which described the progress Murray was making with his Inner Game. At the Olympics he buried the anguish he experienced a month ago, by defeating two of his fiercest opponents in quick succession, something he has found tough to do previously. He played unbelievably well, out-hitting, out-moving and out-thinking both Djokovic and Federer. A huge breakthrough, which may well see Murray move on to achieve much more success in future championships. .

Michael Phelps broke the barrier of all-time most decorated olympian – 22 medals – 18 of which are gold. This is a phenomenal achievement, even in a sport that provides more opportunity than most to multi-event. Phelps has set the bar at a new height for someone else to emulate in years to come.

Oscar Pistorius broke a barrier of a very different kind, becoming the first double amputee to ever take his place in an Olympics starting line up. He qualified from his heat to reach the semi-final of the 400m. A remarkable story which has cleared the way for future paralympians to stake their claim to be able to qualify for full olympic participation. New barriers will no doubt have to be overcome, but Pistorius has shown it is possible.

Some barriers are broken with increasing regularity, most notably in the swimming pool and in the velodrome, the latter no doubt assisted by advances in cycle technology. Others stand defiantly unobtainable, such as the long jump record which has stood for over 20 years. What fascinates me most of all is the psychological nature of breaking barriers.

Perhaps the best known example of this in the sporting arena is that of the mythical 4 min mile ‘barrier’. Until 1954, many actually believed that it was impossible, and perhaps even dangerous (or fatal) for anyone to run a mile faster than 4 mins. Roger Bannister became the first to make the breakthrough, and opened the floodgates for many others to do the same very soon afterwards. Soon the record was being broken over and over again. Those people who were soon running sub-4 minutes on a regular basis, were clearly physically capable of doing so, in the same way that Bannister did. The barrier they broke was inside their head, not on the track.

Running the 100m had a similar ‘magical’ barrier for quite some time. Once 10 sec was broken by Jim Hines in 1968, many others soon followed. The 100m final at this week’s Olympics was won by the extraordinary Usain Bolt. Had Asafa Powell not pulled up with an unfortunate injury, there is no doubt that every runner in the race would have gone under the 10sec barrier.

No-one has yet gone under 2 hours for the marathon, but it is getting closer with the current world record for men standing at 2hr 03min. It will be fascinating to observe how long it takes for the first person to run 1hr 59min 59sec, and how long afterwards we have to wait to see that time further reduced.

What is going on with these symbolic barriers, and what learning can it provide for other areas of life? In business, when people say it’s impossible, do they simply mean it’s not been done yet? Does it mean that Continue reading