by Adam Kreek
I think it’s television’s fault. The screen has given us such a personal view. We see exquisite slow motion, golden beads of flinging sweat, muscles bulging, athletes with contorted faces pressing toward the finish line with more than even they knew they had… And then the victory. YES! Together with the athlete, our hands are flung into the air; we hear the roar of spectators. We feel triumphant. We can only imagine the athlete’s boundless joy.
I have a secret to share. Having won more than 60 medals in international competition as an Olympic rower, I can say with confidence that there is one emotion felt by athletes that you will never see – and many athletes won’t even admit to. That emotion? Pure relief. Thank GOD I didn’t mess that up.
My career now takes me around the world sharing tools and strategies of high performance and motivating professionals across disciplines to get across the finish line and into the winner’s circle.
Greg Lemond, the acclaimed Tour de France cyclist once famously said, “It never gets easier. You just go faster.” The same is true in your professional life. It never gets easier. In fact, the better you get, the harder it gets; the more responsibility you take on, the more is expected of you. And in turn, the more successful you become, more success is then expected of you.
Writer’s block is the perfect metaphor to teach the skills of mental toughness. Writers will tell you they sometimes feel paralyzing anxiety and depression. They are reduced to a virtual bankruptcy of self-worth, left with only the faint hope that maybe someday – some lucky day – their muse will miraculously show up with a mystical, magical energy and return the writer to productivity.
Recently, I was coaching a successful screenwriter and author from Los Angeles. He’s working on a book and suffering through the process. “I just can't get any fxxxxxx words on the paper! I sit there and I sit there, and everything that comes out is pure crap.”
I offered him a simple reminder: “What you’re doing is perfect. And it’s supposed to be hard!” We worked on developing his mental toughness and in short order he returned to being productive.
We often forget that our careers, or our “work”, is meant to be just that: work.
I’ll never forget the winter before the Olympics. I was sitting on a beat-up couch in the damp living room of a teammate. It was dark, rainy and cold. Not surprisingly we were both depressed. We both had a successful racing season the previous year in Milan, Italy, but felt the weight of expectation for the upcoming Olympic Games. We were getting faster, sure enough, but the job was also getting harder. We knew that grinding through the long and wet winter months were required if we were to have a fast racing summer. That didn’t make our job any easier. I was constantly generating Olympic-sized doubts about my ability to perform. I sometimes wondered why I was even on this path. Couldn’t I be doing something more productive or meaningful like digging water wells for thirsty kids in Africa, or becoming a physician and healing the sick? My job seemed pointless at times. I’m making a rowboat go fast - what the heck was I doing with my life?
My teammate sighed and held up a white paper with blue lines and three holes punched into the left-hand margin. He had scribbled notes all over the front and the back. “I’ve written how depressed, angry, insignificant, insecure, unhappy and suicidal I feel right now. I am putting this paper somewhere safe. Next Olympic cycle, when I only remember the incredible summers, I am going to read this paper. I need to remember how much emotional labour is required for success!” We both started laughing. How could it feel so good to feel this bad??
Ironically, it can be the suffering that gives us meaning. In a recent study, researchers from Stanford University and Florida State University discovered that one of the best predictors for a meaningful life was stress. Those who suffered through the greatest number of stressful events were most likely to view their lives as meaningful. These studies point to the paradox: Whatever you care about in life – parenting, work, relationships – is often accompanied by stress. And that’s what helps us find meaning.
So remember this: Don’t be depressed about being depressed. Don’t get angry about getting angry. Don’t be unhappy about being unhappy. Whatever it is that’s causing you stress is sometimes a necessary precursor to finding purpose and meaning and success. Remind yourself: Winter’s here, but summer’s coming!!
Kreekspeak Tips for Mental Toughness:
1. Know, understand and believe that your work is supposed to be tough.
2. You chose this career. You could have chosen a different career, but you didn’t. You worked very hard to get here.
3. Your current blockage will likely reveal your deeper purpose and give you meaning.
4. Write down everything that is difficult about your situation. Demons feed on incomplete thoughts. Writing completes your thoughts and slays your demons.
5. Find a teammate, colleague or friend to suffer with. Misery loves company
Are you doing something difficult? Do you feel overwhelmed? Guess what? You’re supposed to feel this way. Your emotions are working properly. Your muscles won’t get stronger unless you tear them through exercise. You develop your mental toughness the same way. The stress you are feeling is an opportunity for growth. Your suffering is the tax you have to pay to do something incredible. Your metaphorical summer will arrive and you’ll gain the joy of achievement and find your purpose – after you feel relief, of course.
Thank GOD you won't mess that one up...