From “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (cult 1989 American science fiction comedy)
Anyone in the UK will know that over the course of the last 12 months, the Post Office has celebrated the magnificent achievement of the UK gold medal winners in the London Olympic Games by painting letterboxes gold in their area. This one sits on the corner of Hilltop Road and Divinity Road, here in Oxford. The more keen-eyed of you will see it’s dedicated to our local heroine, Lily van den Boecke MBE, paralympian gold medal winner and coxswain of the mixed coxed four.
You may remember in my blog post, “Keeping You Eye On The Prize” how impressed I was by the courage of athletes processing around the stadium at the Opening Ceremony. Their courage is in confronting their fear again and again of losing – because of injury, accident and of failure to make the grade. And yet they keep on, keeping on.
To be the best in the world, you need to be prepared to confront both your fear of failure and of success. Michael Jordan according to the National Basketball Association “the greatest basketball player of all time” said,
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Each time you are given a promotion, a new appointment or perform up a level, you discover that new set of skills, language and culture is required – and what is more, a new world picture. It can take a while to adapt to this new way of being. In these acclimatising days, your confidence is likely to be challenged. You are entering a zone of ‘cognitive dissonance’, where whatever you have understood up to this point may be useless or in conflict with what you are now learning. It’s likely to cause you discomfort. You may well be working in a highly competitive environment – and who isn’t, during this economic period? I imagine you’ll find this dip in your confidence unwelcome and inhibiting. Each time you speak, you’re nervous and unsure. You ask yourself what others think of you. This can be particularly true if you’ve been appointed over the heads of former colleagues. To your surprise, you become self conscious and awkward. Your performance is impaired.
Many bright women in science and engineering I know and work with have what’s rapidly becoming known at “Imposter Syndrome”. As Wikipedia puts it: –
Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
In fact, it’s what makes them excellent at their jobs. That worm of doubt has sharpened their wits and compels them to redouble their efforts. They remember the vital detail, construct the convincing argument, dedicate themselves over weekends and travel extensively for work. They look immaculate, impressive and at the top of their game. And yet, and yet…… they are trapped in a vicious cycle – the more they’re pursued by The Furies, the more The Furies pursue them.
So how to turn these unrelenting dark shadows into kindly enlightened ones? How to “be excellent to yourself, dude”?
- Be the leader of your own life – take a strategic approach to your career. Recognise your strengths and promote them. Spot what’s important and do more of that and don’t stress over unimportant trivia.
- Have a clear vision for what you want out of life without being too concerned about how to get there. Keep your eye on the ‘what’, not the ‘how’ and the ‘how’ will emerge.
- Say “no” more often to demanding colleagues/friends. It raises morale and increases self respect. Be clear about your boundaries.
- Recognise when to put pressure on yourself and when to ‘coast’.
- Eat healthily – and avoid carbohydrate when you’re tired. Carbs encourage sleepiness.
- Yes, you’ve heard this before – exercise!
- Rest and sleep.
- Cultivate gratitude.
- Stay close to friends and mentors – the ones who think highly of you and nurture your wellbeing.
- Be bold about doing something unusual – it’s satisfying to discover new things.
- Forgive yourself. Sometimes you fall short of your own high standards. Good grief, you are human!
- Feeling guilty distracts and undermines your performance. Accepting responsibility is different. Accept responsibility and sort things out without guilt.
- Find ways to relax. A simple exercise is for just 2 minutes, focus on your breathing. That’s all.
- Keep a list of all the ways you enjoy being excellent to yourself – and keep on doing them!
Instead of being pursued by the “Furies”, the inner voices of self recrimination and criticism, you transform them into the Eumenides “the Kindly Ones” who support and sustain you in victory or defeat. This is real excellence. This is the gold within you.