Ninety percent of coaching is helping people to get out of their own way. In talking to some of the best athletes and executives on the planet for my new book, Do Hard Things, I heard many stories of when their minds were screaming at them to quit, to find a hole to step in, to find a way to excuse poor performance. We are masters of self-sabotage, of getting stuck in our heads when we should trust our instincts instead, of trying to force a performance that is so ingrained that it should be second nature. Sometimes it’s unintentional, other times it may seem more deliberate.
Trying to do anything well exposes you. It opens you up to criticism and questioning from the outside, and wondering of whether you are good enough on the inside. Any time we are doing something where there is a concrete result attached to our name, it makes us vulnerable. Are we fast or strong enough? Do we have what it takes to close the deal or make the pitch? We are forced to confront reality, something that, as humans, we hate doing. It is much easier to live in a world where we can tell ourselves that we are “good enough” at just about any activity we desire to do, without ever measuring up in concrete terms.
We like to walk around with a story in our heads that we are a good, decent, competent person. Whenever evidence presents itself to the contrary, our ego goes into overdrive to rationalize, justify, or explain away why the opposite cannot be true. Our ego does many good things for us, acting like a social immune system that swats away psychological threats. But this works until it gets in the way.
There are several ways in which we can self-sabotage. Let’s briefly outline four of the most common ones. We can self-handicap, under preparing or avoiding putting effort forth so that even if we perform poorly, we can walk away saying “Well, I didn’t really try. If I did, it would have been difficult.” High school and college students are masters at this. Another form of self-sabotage is feedback avoidance. We live in our own bubble, choosing to consume information that validates our views and avoiding anything that might tell a counter-narrative. Authoritarian leaders love this method.
A third way is called the self-serving bias. We attribute our success to internal factors, like our work ethic, and our failures to external factors, such as blaming the weather, markets, or referees. That way if we win, we get the accolades. If we lose, we can blame the refs. Finally, there’s what’s called a downward social comparison. We shift our judgment point. Instead of measuring our company’s success against other organizations that are of a similar size and in a similar category, we seek out those that aren’t doing so well.
It’s human nature to protect our ego, our sense of self. But it can also impair our performance. It leads to all manner of blind spots and also holds us back. How do we get out of our own way? Over the past five years, I’ve tried to figure out just that in researching and reporting Do Hard Things. Here are a few lessons I took away:
1. Let Go of Perfectionism
Hard work is necessary for being good at just about anything. We celebrate hard work, and rightfully so. But the fine line between productive hard work that leads to better performance, and compensatory hard work that is meaningless, is a tough one to tread. For the highly motivated and driven, extreme levels of hard work and dedication, often culminating in perfectionism, are used to mask our insecurities.
We try to work hard every day, proclaiming #NoDaysOff, when we know that the body needs rest and recovery to adapt and grow stronger. We work on the weekends and at all hours of the night, when research tells us that entrepreneurs are more creative when rested, and working on the weekends decreases our intrinsic motivation and harms our performance over the long haul. We go against what is best thanks to our own insecurity. We can’t stop working, afraid we will miss out or fall behind. It takes true confidence and security to step away.
In Do Hard Things I discovered that the most resilient individuals are able to go all-in, to commit to the hard work when it matters most, but they are equally able to step away when it’s clear that additional hard work would actually hurt rather than help. The performance is what matters, not their insecurities or needs to prove that they are committed. Letting go takes courage. It means having confidence that what feels like a short term loss (stepping away) will result in a long term gain.
2. Develop a Quiet Ego
We don’t want to shut off our ego. We just want to dampen it down to a reasonable level, to stop it from sounding the alarm whenever we aren’t truly under threat. This is called developing a quiet ego. Social psychologist Heidi Wayment has pioneered work in this area. As she told Scientific American, with a quiet ego, “the volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”
A quiet ego is about keeping our self in balance—coming to terms with the need for confidence, but being keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and our situations. It is about being open and receptive to others, instead of defensive and closed off. It is having the ability to zoom out, gain perspective, and understand that a short-term loss is often part of a long-term gain. What you’re after is a dash of self-awareness and reflection combined with a secure sense of who you are. A bit of doubt and insecurity is normal. Too much defensiveness and protection are a sign your ego is too loud. When we mix perception, awareness, and security together, we can move on from the false bravado style of confidence that permeates the world to something more real and genuine.
3. Adopt the Right View of Failure
The more we experience fear of failure, the more our brain ingrains that whatever it is that leads to failure is something we should avoid at all costs. Our behavior shifts from approach motivation, where we are ready to take on a challenge, to avoidance and protection. In recent research that involved the Swiss Olympic federation, those who were more intrinsically motivated were much more likely to make it to the international level a few years later Those who adopted a fear of failure mindset were much less likely to make it to the next level.
The answer isn’t to make failure so awful that we don’t want any part of it, but rather to make it something that isn’t big and scary. Something where we don’t have a surge of stress hormones like cortisol from just thinking about it. Reframing failure as a process of learning and growth goes a long way to dissipate the fear surrounding it. One way to do this is to put space between you and the failure. When we take any loss or rough performance as informational, instead of personal, we can deal with it rationally. It doesn’t attack our sense of self. Reminding yourself that you failed at a single game is a lot easier to get over than when you see yourself, your personhood, as a failure.
4. Get out of your head.
On the athletic fields, one way players choke is when they are in their own heads, trying to force an action that should come automatically. In boardrooms, we do the same thing, consumed by the latest proposal so much, that we can’t think of anything else. In both cases, our minds have latched on to details; we’ve zoomed in so far that we can’t see or think of anything else. The way to get out of your own head is to zoom out, to create perspective.
There are a couple of ways in which we can zoom out. We can use others, asking, or even imagining, what a friend or mentor may advice. We can zoom out temporarily, asking how this decision might look five years from now. We can change our inner voice. Switching from first person to third person creates psychological distance, helping us deal with and handle discomfort better. Or we can use our environment. Research shows that going for a walk out in nature, or even looking at pictures of awe-inspiring natural wonders, sparks creativity, shifts us to see difficult situations as a challenge instead of a threat, and allows us to bounce back and more quickly recover from stress. Nature expands our perspective.
Regardless of how you do it, zooming out when the rest of your brain, body, and environment is telling you that the work in front of you is all that matters in the world right now is vital. Gaining perspective helps create clarity. It nudges your brain out of a locked-in state, allowing you to perform how you know best. It is why the best sprint coaches in the world will tell their athletes to “think in practice, but when it comes to race day, turn your mind off, and trust the work you’ve put in.”
When it comes to performing to the best of our abilities at any task, we have to be able to confront our own limits. We have to be able to find out that we aren’t as good as we thought. We have to accept the hit on our ego. Only when we drop our ego and allow ourselves to explore our limits, do we find out what we are truly capable of. That’s one of the central tenets of Do Hard Things. I hope that you consider giving it a read for a deeper dive on how to perform at our best, no matter what that is.