Be your best when you’re at your worst
When I started writing this, I wasn’t sure what to call it. After considering several titles, I decided on “Be your best when you’re at your worst” because that’s what this post really boils down to in the end. At any rate, I’m going to attempt to tie together many of the various subjects I’ve written about or touched upon in previous posts. I’m doing this because I continue to see people of all ages struggling with the challenges that life throws at us. I hope to make people aware that we get out of life what we put into life. Yes, life is full of challenges that can also be opportunities if we choose to see them that way. Life is mysterious, exciting and rewarding. For me, it’s the unknown that drives me. What’s around the corner or over the horizon is what excites me. It’s the thrill of exploring and discovering all that life has to offer that fuels my passion. It’s not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Do you know what fuels your passion and how to tap into it and sustain it during good times and bad times?
I’ll begin with my standard disclaimer. I have no shortcuts, super-hacks, magic wands, pixie dust or silver bullets. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. In fact, it probably won’t. Like a diet or a type of workout, each of you will need to test, experiment and evaluate several different options to discover what works best for you. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something that fits you like a glove. But only if you’re lucky. If you’re like the rest of us (myself included, of course), you’ll need to cobble together something from the bits and pieces of several different approaches to tailor-make your very own solution. Take success, for example, is money, fame and power really success if you’re too burned out to enjoy it? How do you define success? How do you define happiness? How do you want to evolve? These are crucial questions. Are you with me so far? OK, let’s get started.
Dealing with life’s challenges
There are no guarantees in life. You may wake up tomorrow or you may not. Life will throw a never-ending stream of problems, challenges, opportunities and even successes at you. Success, of course, is up to you to define – not anyone else. One thing you can be sure of is that life is all about cycles. When you’re in a period where you feel like you’re “circling the drain” of life and about to do a “faceplant,” why not use that fear to motivate you? Why not use it to help you build resistance and keep expanding? How do you do this? By choosing to get started. That’s the first and most crucial step you must take. And it may be the hardest. Like many other endeavors – whether it’s struggling to write the first few words of an article or getting into your gym gear to begin a workout routine – it’s going to scare you. You may be tempted to quit – again and again. And this is where you need motivation, grit, passion, personal accountability and plain old hard work to succeed. And, if you don’t have your motivation in place and your goals lined up so you know where you’re going, you’re going to get de-railed. More about those traits later. Your approach to friction in your life is also important.
Dealing with friction
Everyone has friction in their lives. Friction comes in two flavors: good and bad. Let’s look at the bad first. Bad friction reduces our output and wastes our energy. I’m talking about stuff that somehow or another interferes with important matters. It’s “busy work” and other “crap” that doesn’t really matter. It’s stuff that just “gums up” the works. If it slows down our productivity, we need to eliminate it and reclaim our time, says Steven Kotler, head of the Flow Research Collective, who has been researching peak performance and access to flow states for years. But friction can also be good if used correctly. Deploying or removing a little friction between yourself and a negative activity can help prevent you from slipping into a bad habit or it can help you maintain a good habit. Let’s say you want to break the habit of interrupting important work to check every email that comes in. You can accomplish this by making your email password harder and more complicated, so it becomes more difficult to access quickly. You can also use such simple, time-saving activities as putting out the clothes you’re going to wear the night before. To sum up, insert more friction between yourself and the activities you want to avoid and remove friction between yourself and the activities you want to encourage. Get the picture? Before you can change something, you must know what has kept you from changing. You must know what is getting in your way. And to do that, you must access your unconscious.
We don’t know what we don’t know
While this sounds obvious, you’d be surprised how many people seem ignorant of this. Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, “we can be blind to the obvious, and we are blind to our blindness.” Take a minute to think about that. Is the unconscious that powerful? The short (and long answer) is yes perhaps much to our surprise. “We like to think that our conscious mind is the master of ceremonies. But the truth is that 95% of your brain activity originates from unconscious realms,” according to Dr. Sarah Sarkis, Clinical Psychologist and Optimal Performance Coach at the Flow Research Collective. This is the way our brain is designed to work. The unconscious plays a major role in just about every feeling, thought or decision we make at the conscious level, and most of the time, this works out fine. The unconscious has no doubt or uncertainty. That takes place in our conscious mind. However, according to Dr. Sarkis, the unconscious has a hair-trigger. “Before you could ever reason your way to a decision, the unconscious has shaped your trajectory. The unconscious feels like intuition, behaves like certainty and presents itself as conviction. The unconscious fills in the gaps, but it also leaves us vulnerable to cognitive and emotional blind spots, for which we are blind.” But the news is not all bad. The more we understand how the process works, the more aware we become and the better choices we can make, for example choosing to focus on motivation and ferocity.
Motivation and ferocity
What’s so important about motivation and ferocity? Steven Kotler’s fantastic book “The Habit of Ferocity,” explains what they’re all about and why these are so important. For one, you need both to achieve flow, which is best defined as “an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best.” Consequently, it plays a vital role in achieving our goals. But, if you want to “accomplish the impossible,” you need more than flow, according to Kotler. Top performers seem to quickly and automatically arise to any challenge without a great deal of contemplation. Navy SEALs preach: “we don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we sink to the level of our training.” Does that mean that top performers don’t wring their hands and have their doubts? Of course not. It’s just that the combination of motivation and ferocity prime them to be ready to tackle the next challenge and make decisions quickly. Other skills, such as grit, personal accountability and passion, are also vital if you want to push yourself through hard work to grow as a being or “accomplish the impossible.” I’m not talking about “Jedi mind tricks,” either. None of this information is a secret, especially the concept of goalsetting.
“Proper goalsetting requires setting both high and hard goals that are accomplished over years and clear goals accomplished one minute at a time,” according to Steven Kotler. This involves breaking these big goals into manageable small goals. You also must know which goal to focus on at which time, i.e., you must pay attention to the job at hand (the clear goal) and not the reason for doing the job (the high and hard goal). A good way to accomplish this is to jot down daily lists. A word of warning: don’t put too many things on your daily “To-Do List.” There should be just enough to challenge you and allow you to be your best. But even goalsetting isn’t enough. You need grit.
Grit is best described as passionate perseverance. It also includes mindset, which I’ve written about in previous posts. Grit will not only enable you to “push through” a difficult task at hand but through many, many difficult tasks over the years. Grit will not only keep you on the path, but it will also enable you to overcome the obstacles in your path. Great, you’re probably thinking. Easier said than done, right? Right – it takes hard work. Kotler says we should train perseverance (think of the SEAL saying: “the only easy day was yesterday”); willpower (think of the business saying: “eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse can happen to you doing the day”); growth mindset (think: “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right”); and passion (think: “get obsessed and stay obsessed”). Got it? Great! But what about the lows of life? The ones that can “flatten you” – if you let them!
Life’s lows can be a major bummer. We’ve all experienced them, present company included. But some cope better than others. The difference is that successful and happy people have learned how to turn pain into work and then into success. They’ve learned how to take all the crap in a life and “flip” it into a force for good. I mentioned earlier that peak performers learn how to make decisions quickly to overcome perfectionism and analysis-paralysis. But to do this, you must have clear goals. You must know where you want to go before you start. If you don’t, how will you know when you’ve arrived? It’s a matter of choice and practice. I say practice because simply having the knowledge of something is not the same as practicing it. Otherwise, you’re what the ancient Greeks called an Akratic, meaning you know better, but you just can’t seem to do better. So, the best way to be your best when you’re at your worst is to put down all the effort and hard work needed when (drumroll please) you’re at your very worst! That’s when you need to “double down” and train even harder. And here’s a piece of advice for you “perfectionists” out there: nothing will ever be “perfect,” so, get over yourself, get out there and get going!