The Mental Game
Having coached, mentored and trained nearly 3,000 entrepreneurs, corporate executives and public sector leaders over the last two decades and been coached and mentored myself by global entrepreneurial icons, I have come to the realisation that my stints at Oxford & Stanford had failed me in one big way.
While my intellectual rigor got nurtured, my ‘hard’ skills got sharpened, and my networks multiplied, I still seemed to be missing a trick or two. And, remarkably, I found it so in most of those nearly 3,000 individuals as well.
As I studied this further, it became apparent that only a few (1 percent or so) had taken the not so widely trodden path. They hadn’t only worked on their skills and networks. They had a more potent WMD – “weapon of mass domination”!
They had worked on their mind.
Their mindset was their foundation of success and the driver to everything since with any experiences they had their interpretation of that was subject to their mindset. Just like it is with all of us. It’s not the negative events that make us unhappy. It’s our negative reaction to those events that leads to unhappiness. As someone recently said to me, you can’t keep a bird from landing on your head but you can prevent them from making a nest there!
My goal with this article is to share some habits and strategies that I’ve used over the years to both protect and nurture both my mindset and that of entrepreneurs I’ve coached.
The danger for so many people - especially those with big ambitions - is that they measure themselves by their ideals, their notion of how things should be, and this completely blinds them to any progress they’ve made and the opportunities in front of them. They fall into the gap – the permanent distance between their ideals and where they actually are.
Like the horizon, the gap is always there, and it is always moving away from you. I can choose to live in the gap and always measure my success by what I failed to achieve as an outcome and remain eternally miserable – or I can measure backwards by looking at where I came from. At the end of the day, it’s about progress, not perfection.
Protecting Your Confidence
Protecting one’s confidence is the most powerful way to protecting one’s mindset and this requires our inculcating specific habits into our daily regimes. Whether you are pitching for a project that feels beyond your current abilities or demonstrating a skill that feels rusty, there are dozens of everyday challenges that can shake your confidence. And when you lack confidence, you put a lid on your potential. Some people suggest that you “fake it ‘til you make it,” but that’s bad advice, says Angie Morgan, the author of Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success. Confidence isn’t a skill, it’s an emotion. You can manage it. In fact, unpacking your confidence is a part of self-efficacy.
Here are three simple habits to get you flying. Whether you choose to adopt them or not, don’t forget - you need to practice whatever mindset you want enough such that when game time comes, you are ready to play with that mindset. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said, don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap (short-term results) but by the seeds that you plant (in your mind).
The single most powerful, scientifically backed, strategy to protect one’s confidence is to practice more gratitude. Daily. There are so many books and tools on this, such as gratitude journals, but I’ll share a way of thinking about this, which my coach graciously shared with me, that hopefully gives you an easier way to decipher it.
P - People
O - Opportunities
T - Things
E - Experiences
N - Nature
T - Thoughts
So, for example, in the case of “P”, which people are you grateful for today? Or perhaps for those in living in Dubai, stuck in traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road and cursing away in road rage, what opportunity are you grateful for? The opportunity to live in such a great city as Dubai versus trading a place with someone in another country where conditions are less privileged. At the end of the day, it’s all about perspective and practising gratitude is an amazingly simple, yet powerful, strategy in this regard.
2 Being present
We complain of there not being enough time and that a lot is going on. The thing though is that there’s more than enough time, when you use the time you have. The question is whether you are you mentally there when you’re physically there?
How can you expect entrepreneurs to win the market when they are not present and their brains are constantly in reactive mode? Reactivity is a problem people have been contemplating for thousands of years. And, yes, it’s a bigger issue now than ever. Research shows that even in our free time, we often don’t do what we enjoy most - we do what is easy. Your brain doesn’t want to waste energy. So, it’s always a bit lazy.
Problem is, the world is not lazy. These days it’s constantly shouting at you. We’d like to plan and follow through or accomplish goals undistracted but the world seems to be working against you. It is not acting in our long-term benefit. So when we just react, we don’t usually make the best choices. And we’re rarely achieving our goals.
Several habits can be deployed to deal with this:
• Practicing mindfulness – be it an app, yoga or whatever can get you to take control of your mind and focus on something external to your thoughts – a breath, a part of the body or an external sound. A study from Emory University found that 20 minutes of daily meditation is associated with activity and connectivity changes in the region of the brain that controls attention, allowing you to disengage from distraction.
• Staying calm and taking a pause. Something fun is saying “Come play with me!” Or something scary is in front of you and you want to run away and procrastinate. So just pause for a second. Remember stress makes you dumb. Stress and reacting leads to dumb behaviour.
• Reminding yourself of your goals every morning. Let that become your screen saver or your post-it because thinking about your longterm goals when you are tempted by distraction gives your brain a sense of control and can release dopamine which will make you feel better and more motivated.
In fact, in Third Circle Theory, Pejman Ghadimi explains that 78 percent of people envision their lives no more than one to three years into the future, living week-to-week. 20 percent envision five to 10 years into the future and become enormously more successful. Just two percent envision their lives in whole - “beginning with the end in mind” - of who they want to be the day they die. Consider these words by Elon Musk: “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” It’s obvious how that vision determines his daily behaviour.
3 Three big wins
Just before I go to bed, I review my day and decide what my three wins were. Regardless of anything else that happened during the day, I had (at least) three wins, and I visualise each of them in turn. The second part of the exercise is to imagine the day ahead and choose what my three biggest wins will be tomorrow.
Doing this lets me fall asleep feeling good about the day I’ve just had (regardless of any possible negative experiences I came across) and wake up excited about the day ahead. I go out and try to have the three wins I imagined, but I often have even bigger ones - which just gives me great material when I do the exercise again that night.
When you take time to acknowledge and experience your achievements, you build a strong foundation and have ready points of reference to use when you feel challenged.
Aman Merchant, a Dubai-based serial entrepreneur and co-founder of The Impact Hub Dubai.