How to find Flow & Performance in our life's greatest work
"The ice had just been cleaned and flooded. I would be racing the first pair. Will the surface have hardened enough? Will it be harder for the last pairs, giving them an advantage? It didn't matter; I was ready to skate on jelly or on concrete."
Clara Hughes, 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
It’s always a battle against ourselves.
The path to our greatest work, our moment of highest performance, could be one step away. It could be literally knocking on our door. Deep down we know this is what we were born to do. We have that feeling in our gut that this is exactly who I am and where I need to be.
But so many times we don’t walk through that door - we don’t take the leap.
Fear and doubt materializing as a voice in the back of our head telling us we're not good enough, that we will be a failure, that laughs at our dream of greatness. This voice is convicting - and we’ve been conditioned to listen to it subconsciously for years. Decades. That time you sang a solo in choir class and someone laughed at you. When you forgot the words to that speech and had to start over - feeling ridiculed by the audience’s whispers. When your friend jokingly said you looked fat, or imperfect, or not good enough.
Every time we choose to go against our gut and intuition and give into that voice of fear - it gets a little bit stronger.
I recently had an opportunity to lead an incredible team building workshop for a successful and fast growing technology organization. It was a huge opportunity and I was thrilled when I landed the business - the session was a GO.
I was equally terrified.
Here was the CEO and executive team putting their entire trust in me. In a few weeks time I would be expected to stand in front of a group of 30 employees and facilitate a meaningful and valuable experience that would enable them to connect, grow and thrive as a team.
The Rabbit Hole of Fear
The fear was already setting in.
On one hand my head was telling me that I was totally out of my league - way over my head - and it would all come crashing down on me in an embarrassing disaster. On the other hand, my gut was telling me this was exactly what I was born to do. The door was right there and I was holding the key.
To be honest at the end of the day both signals were nothing more than soft indicators - points of feedback that ultimately did not directly inform how capable I was deliver a great experience. But which voice I chose to listen to would have a profound influence on everything I did leading up to standing in the room - if I would make it there at all.
Let’s start with what happened directly after I accepted the contract. The voice of fear started trying to convince me that I needed to start planning my escape, what excuse could I come up with to get out of this commitment? I needed to back out so I would save myself the risk of failing - I wouldn’t even give anyone the opportunity to call me inadequate or out of my league.
I would be safe.
On the other hand when I tuned into my gut I got lost in full “Flow visualization” of what it would look like to lead this group through a transformational experience. I pictured the energy in the room and the types of conversations and interactions that would take place. It felt so good to be seeing the “perfect session” play out in my mind.
Over the coming weeks I internally observed the ebbs and flows of moments of anxiety and nervousness as well as total excitement. At a certain point the notion of cancelling was off the table. To my disappointment that voice of fear didn’t disappear - it simply shifted shape, it evolved.
The fear started to attach itself to the content... “Tyrell people will think this introduction is stupid. There will be crickets when you ask this question - you will be standing all alone in awkward silence.”
Shifting energy & visualizing performance
As the weeks turned into days before the session I implemented a critical strategy to help me leverage the energy I was draining into the anxiety and nervousness. I made the commitment that whenever the pang of anxiety hit me I would immediately count it with a long deep and controlled breath. Simple right? Then, I would force myself to visualize a single snapshot of the session where we are flowing as a group. Then I would remind myself this is the reality I am going to create.
Within 30 seconds I was back in the driver seat. It didn’t mean the fear and doubt weren’t there - they just had so little power in this scenario it rendered them ineffective in sucking any energy from me.
There is a compounding effect that takes place here too. By the day of the session I had gone through 100's of these mini 30 second Flow visualizations.
But as anyone who has given a big speech, had a pitch day, an interview, or a championship game knows - the day of brings with it a whole new problem set of fears and mental challenges.
A strategy for gameday performance
As I began driving to the destination where I was to meet the team I recalled something Dr.Jeff Almon, my movement coach, shared with me a few weeks previous.
“Feel your feet”
“Huh” I replied
“Feel your feet. When your mind is in those downward spirals of suffocating thoughts or overworking problems just focus on feeling your feet.”
What Jeff was telling me wasn’t just some kind of silly trick to get my mind off of whatever I was over-spinning on, there is a powerful neurological impact this cue creates.
It has to do with how we move between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Sympathetic, more commonly known as fight or flight, is your bodies natural process of preparing all systems for some kind of intense excursion and survival. Your blood is rerouted away from the skin and to critical organs, your heart rate increases and your mind moves into a “survival at all costs" mentality.
Jeff's point, when we focus our cognitive energy on the voice of fear and doubt it causes a sympathetic response - we are essentially requesting our body to move into a fight or flight state.
“Tyrell, feel your feet”
This cue is meant to be a trigger. Firstly to get your mind completely off that voice of fear and doubt in your head. It forces our mind and body directly into the present moment. And so as we begin to focus on the physical pulsing and vibrations in our feet, a neurological shift occurs occurs - we start transitioning to a parasympathetic state. Our body begins to open up blood flow to our skin, endorphins and hormones - prerequisites for flow and high performance - begin to be pumped. If you try this you’ll notice even after a couple minutes you feel lighter, more energize and likely in a more positive state of mind.
You have unlocked the door to allow “Flow” to happen.
Without "feeling your feet" the ability to perform at your best simple doesn’t exist. We are incapable of taking the risks required for our greatest performance when everything in our being is focused on surviving the worst case.
Quiet before the dance
Driving to the destination with this in mind I flipped on some music. I started with some incredible jazz. In “Yes to the Mess” Frank Barrett describes the highest level of leadership akin to a great jazz soloist - I didn’t truly grasp what this meant until I was in the car listening to Halsall getting ready for my own leadership performance.
I was starting to feel it.
I literally began feeling my blood being pumped to my skin, gut and heart. I was floating. The voices of fear and doubt were gone. Their role in this story were over. I had done my homework and prepared to the point where I knew there was no story these voices could convince me of. I had fully embraced showing up and leaving everything on the floor. "Let the cards fall where they are".
My feet were on fire.
High Performance - when time slows down and magic happens
6 hours later I walked out of the 3 hour session buzzing. I texted Tash “Tash I killed it”. I had exceeded my greatest expectations for how the session went - more importantly I had blown the CEO and exec team’s expectations sky high as well.
I took a moment to acknowledge the even more important accomplishment - I stood up to the fear, the voice didn’t win this round. I chuckled as I recalled the feeling of panic and drowning only a week earlier. But despite hindsight being the validation that this was in fact my best work in the world and doing it again would be a breeze - those voices will be back.
There will be another challenge, another opportunity to grow and do my life’s best work. That fear and doubt will do whatever it can to stop me. Sometimes they will. But I will continue to do whatever I can to jump into the deep end where I know the key to Flow and high performance lives.
Where from here?
The application of this story lives in every single one of us - in everything we do. As I think about stepping into the Discus circle to compete at World Championships, and eventually the Olympics, this is the exactly mindset I will need to employ to succeed.
I encourage you to find your door, your 'I was made for this' opportunity - if it scares the hell out of you take that as encouragement. Staring at your door, with key in hand - the only thing left to do is 'feel your feet' and then bang that thing in like your life depends on it.
Your best life does.
photo: Wendy Shepard