Friday, April 29, 2011

Want to Build Your Confidence? Preparation is the Key.

“Fake it until you make it”, an expression popularized by Mary Kay Ash, always sticks in my mind for building confidence. It’s a good sound byte if you’re in the in the glare of the media, leading a team, running an organization or performing in front of an audience. We all squirm if a person shows discomfort, doesn’t recover graciously from a faux pas or whines without offering a positive way forward. But, it’s only a coping strategy, with little long-lasting effect unless coupled with the real builders of confidence.

After witnessing Patrick Chan wow the world with his gold medal performance at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships, it’s clear that more than a mental mantra works. A number of media stories before the Worlds reported Patrick’s exhaustive preparation, especially for the quad jump which has not been his strength.

“Preparation equals security equals positive emotion equals better performance” as Tony Schwartz author of Be Excellent at Anything puts it. It’s that “deliberate practice” focus, 10,000 hours or more, documented by researchers such as K. Anders Ericsson, that makes the difference. Scientists, artists, athletes, people in the military and related professions, doctors, etc. know this well.

The manifestation of confidence is best seen when we’re under pressure. Do we fold or rise to the occasion? It’s hard to do if you haven’t practiced, if you are not prepared, as Justin Menkes asserts in his Better Under Pressure and a recent HBR Idea Cast. He describes three ways for top CEOs to become better prepared and thus build confidence:

1. Be realistically optimistic: no one likes to hang around a pessimist

2. Be subservient to purpose: that’s what fires people up

3. Find order in chaos: there is always a way through complexity

You don’t have to be a top CEO for these to apply!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

While Rory McIlroy Had "Stack Attack", I Washed Floors

The father of the 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel usually takes a pill and goes to sleep instead of watching his son battle it out in the last round of a tournament. “Wake me up when it’s over” he tells his wife who has no problem with the uncertainty and the tension. I can identify with the father. I felt so badly for 21 year-old McIlroy at the tenth hole and thereafter that I had to channel my emotions elsewhere (washing floors).

After a brilliant three rounds and being atop the leaderboard each day, to topple to a final round 80 to a tie for 15th is excruciating. Young McIlroy must have felt the weight of Northern Ireland on his shoulders when the wheels started to fall off.

Sports psychologists understand the phenomenon and how to treat it. The unpredictable event (which most athletes fear) triggers a chain of events because the athlete gets distracted with negative thoughts. That, in turn, causes loss of confidence, shallow breathing, emotional anxiety and a tightening of all the muscles. Not ideal for a fluid golf swing. The good news is that the “yips”, “meltdown” or “paralysis” can be prevented at best and managed before a “death spiral” ensues. No doubt, Rory will become a keen learner of avoiding this scary phenomenon and will be better for it.

But, this can happen to anyone in the workplace too when the pressure is on to perform and the situation is not totally controllable. That is, it depends on many variables and sound decision-making along the way.

What are some of the tips for working through situations when you are thrown a curve?

1. Prepare for each inevitability. Have a game plan;

2. Practice deep breathing and meditate daily (even for 10 minutes a day) as they develop frontal lobe resilience in the face of adversity;

3. Turn a negative thought about the situation into “what is the silver lining here?” thought. Optimism generates mindfulness (and clarity about the next action) whereas pessimism causes mindlessness (and confusion).

4. Use the time gaps in-between having to perform to stay in the present and not dwell on what just happened. For example, if we simply tune into our surroundings (sights, smells, sounds), we automatically remain in the present. Better still to view nature as it calms all of us down.

Positive psychology researchers have a mantra: emotions drive thoughts and thoughts drive motion. What we can control is our thoughts: what we think when an event is not to our liking occurs. It takes practice but eventually becomes ingrained (to change our thoughts into more positive and productive ideas).

Neuroscientists also have a mantra: What we pay attention to grows (more connections in our brains) with the corollary that our brains know how to start something (a new neural network), not stop (untangle a dense network). That means, we can change the automatic pathways in our brains (eventually) in reaction to challenges: when we work on starting something new (or improving a thought process), the new grows and the old wastes away.

Ironically, the military understands this as men and women subjected to their boot camps and who make it through the various stages typically become “mentally tougher”. I’ve been reading about the Green Berets’ training in Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces by Linda Robinson. The grueling conditions under which men and women are subjected and the practice for any imagined possibility builds confidence and adaptability.

In ordinary life, anything that makes us stretch has a similar effect: marathons, tri-athlons, iron mans, meditation, yoga, goal-setting, journaling, learning a new language, etc.

“Educating our emotions” is a life-long process. Rory found that out the hard way, very publically at the 75th Masters tournament. He has the money and the maturity to obtain good coaching and practice new ways. But, money is not needed to toughen a mind nor is it necessary to join the military or run marathons. The basis requirement is the resolve to do so and the belief that it works.