2016: The Year Of Less
Life is like my golf swing. The more I simplify, the better it gets.
I feel this with every fiber of my being and my experience on and off the golf course never fails to bear it out. I know what it’s like to be “in the zone” and I sure like being there.
The question is, why can’t I be there more often?
I know how to make a good golf swing. Relax, have trust in all my practice and experience, turn back and hit the ball. That’s it.
But that doesn’t always happen. I’ll hit one shot like a pro and make a beginner’s mistake or a monumental mental error on the next. I’ll patch together an amazing streak of pars with a birdie or two thrown in to boot, then take a sharp turn to double or triple bogie land.
Same at work. Sometime the ideas just flow, then it’s writer’s block than can last for a week or more. One day I’ve got the audience in the palm of my hand during a presentation, the next I can’t establish even a hint of chemistry or common ground.
We perform at are best when we are relaxed, focused, optimistic and keep things relatively simple. When I step up to the ball with total confidence, the result is nearly always positive. I wasn’t thinking about my grip, stance, weight shift, swing path, straight left arm or other infinite details of the golf swing. I just visualized a good shot, stepped up, and hit the ball. As I stand and savor my shot hanging high in the air with that slight right to left draw, I think, “Damn, I’m good. I can hit it like that every time. I’ll never hit a horrible shot again.”
The ironic fact is that relaxing isn’t easy. If it were, “mindfulness,” yoga, self-help, psychotropic pharmaceuticals, psychotherapy and new age mysticism wouldn’t all be lucrative industries. Some of us are born relaxed, but for most of us, counterintuitive as it seems, relaxation requires a tremendous amount of hard work.
I can tell myself to relax and clear my mind before each golf swing all I want, but those bad thoughts and distractions still find their way into my head. Sometimes I even worry that I’m not relaxed enough and things spiral down from there.
Many of those who love the game understand that golf is a wonderful metaphor for the layers and complexities of real life. Similar to facing a difficult shot over water with a small landing zone, I was frequently filled with anxiety before starting new business meetings and presentations at the beginning of my career. Will they like me? Will they think I’m smart? Aren’t I really an imposter and won’t they see right through me?
I overcompensated with energy, cockiness and aggressiveness, completely unaware that my fears were not reality based. This is not unlike the way I sometimes overcompensate on the golf course by swinging too hard. (In both cases, you’re off balance and the results are generally not good.) I had no idea of my own abilities or potential, which led to getting in my own way and more than my share of unforced errors in both personal and business relationships.
This changed for the better over the years with progress coming at an exponentially faster pace as time went by. A large part of this can be attributed to one simple factor. I’ve paid my dues.
I always say that I’m not really in marketing, I’m in the mental health profession. Understanding the emotional needs of consumers and your peers is critical to success, with the latter being far more important. Knowing yourself, how you relate to others and what’s needed to get into your “zone” are also essential.
For me, that’s daily meditation, exercise, reading, writing and brutally honest self-assessment. A healthy diet and enough sleep. Maybe a few more drinks each week than I need, but hey, I’m in marketing, give me a break. On balance, it’s all very good.
This vigilance in staying healthy – physically and emotionally – along with keeping on top of current events, trends in popular culture and what’s going on in the business world; it’s hard work, but it ultimately generates confidence – the foundation for relaxation. The details need to be mastered, one at a time, and then integrated, in their own time, into the big bigger picture, whether that’s a golf swing or a business career.
But even if you’re not at the point in your life or career where you have the experience to boost your confidence, the art of relaxation and focus is still critically important. To start, it’s far more difficult to consider new ideas or absorb information when there’s a minor hurricane swirling through your brain. More importantly, feelings of ease and comfort facilitate listening.
I was once very nervous with silence or even the threat of silence in a meeting or conversation. My insecurities would often cause me to rattle on, filling up the space in attempts to both to demonstrate how smart I was as well as avoid any awkward silences.
Now I find that there’s a lot of truth in the old cliché, “less is more.” I have cut down on the number of slides in my presentations, I try cram less into my lessons when I’m teaching my graduate students, and I consciously cut down on my talking points in meetings. In other words, relax, don’t try to hard to make an impression, talk less, listen more and ask good questions. The result is more relaxed interactions with far better outcomes. My intelligence, passion and personality still come through (for better or worse!), but by creating more space and ease in the conversation, I am convinced that people feel that I’m truly listening and that I implicitly understand that it’s not all about me, it’s really about them.
As for my golf, I have to work harder to relax in two ways. I still worry far too much about outcomes. The idea is to eliminate the “what if’s” as I’m standing over the ball. Again, just line up, take a good swing and not worry so much about where the ball is going. And then it comes down to aligning my behavior with my goals. If I really want to break 80 this year, I’ll need to take some lessons and practice once or twice a week, at minimum. Only when that smooth is swing drilled into my muscle memory will I have the confidence to stay calm and focused, acknowledge but dismiss the inevitable negative thoughts that will emerge, and simply “grip it and rip it.”