Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Healthy Improvement Attitudes

Today's post is a day late, because I decided that what I was working on yesterday--after some consideration--was just not very interesting to read.  A conversation earlier this morning inspired this one instead.  It's about improvement, and why the people who might deserve to have the most self-esteem and cause for celebration can be extremely down on themselves.

The reason is simple: in order to improve, you need to focus on things you don't do well.  People who are really interested in improving and succeeding are going to therefore pay lots of attention to their mistakes, and become their own worst critics.  If they have other critics willing to chip in with helpful advice, it might diminish their self-perception even further.

So let's say you're somebody interested in playing better.  You want to meet a high-standard of performance or behavior.  So the logical thing for you to do is ask, "what am I doing wrong?" because you don't need to fix what's going right.  As you become more knowledgeable and self-aware, you see more and more mistakes.  And over time, because you focus on the mistakes rather than the successes, you don't even think you're getting better.  You might think you're getting worse!  And the only reason you'd be thinking that is because you're trying very hard to get better.  In short, the people becoming more knowledgeable, the ones who put in the most effort, can be the people with the lowest self-esteem.  It's from this kind of perfectionism and dedication that both skill and frustration are born.

How do you keep this from happening?  How do you maintain the drive and dedication to improve when that same drive can make you feel like you aren't getting anywhere?

One of the most important things you can do is to remember to give yourself credit for your successes.  The whole point of training is to become more skilled and successful; if you don't stop to appreciate the things you do well and honestly evaluate your skill (both for better and worse) then you will never experience the emotional payoff that comes from improvement.  Did you do something today you normally don't succeed at?  Is your play a little sharper in some respect as a result of your practice?  Be honest!

One problem I've had in the past was comparing myself to the highest possible level of skill, no matter what I did, no matter what skill level I was at.  I would imagine the best known player of a game, or even simply compare myself to absolute perfection, and if I fell short, assume that I wasn't any good.  Even if you don't take it quite that far, that can be a really disheartening way to look at yourself.

Also don't forget that when you have competitors and rivals, they are probably trying to get stronger too.  If you're all improving together, you might not detect a relative difference in performance, even as you all become more skilled.  One way to avoid this trap is not to just evaluate your wins and losses, but also the different things that you and your opponents are doing.  Victory and failure are relative, but the precision and difficulty of actions can be more objectively measured.

They key here is to remove absolute focus from your errors.  There are no perfect players, and even amazing players have off days.  The thing that sustains you during these difficult times is to remember that your worth is not equal to your failures, because--and this is just a guess, but I think it's a good one--you don't only fail.  You might screw up in embarrassing ways, sure.  They might seem like screw-ups that nobody else experiences.  But I can guarantee that if you sit and watch other players and only look for their mistakes, you will find a surprising number as well.  And since you're doing that, also try paying attention to how they respond to those mistakes.  My own experience is that players who laugh and joke about their errors, or shrug them off and say, "whoops, I'll try and watch out for that next time" without obsessively dwelling on them, seem to make fewer, have more fun, and play better overall.  They're also more fun to be around and promote more positive training sessions.

Remember; your mental energy and your attention are limited resources.  When you spend time thinking about one thing, you can't spend that time thinking about something else.  Time that you spend obsessing over mistakes and convincing yourself that you're a weak player is time you could spend focusing on the game and becoming a stronger one.  If you have an even split between between positively reinforcing your successes and examining your failures for information, you get the best of both worlds.

Keeping this in mind, it's interesting to consider the ego-champ stereotype: why is it a common notion that champions and highly successful people are more likely to be egotistical jerks?  A big part of it is confidence.  It can be hard to have confidence if you perceive that you make many mistakes, but high confidence is important for performing well under pressure.  So it's a useful cognitive shortcut to just assume that you make none.  The kinds of people who think that they are perfect are--as you may have experienced--actually far from it; they believe they can do no wrong, and refuse to notice mistakes and flaws even when you point them out.  These kinds of people never improve or change... so how do they ever become champions?  The stereotypical ego-champ is that person who realizes over time that they are super awesome at their game, and equates that with infallibility.  They see the fruits of their training, let it inflate into an identity of imagined perfection, and become immune to the reality that they aren't perfect.  Ironically, that denial can serve them very well under pressure that would normally crack other people.

Which isn't to say that all champions and skilled players are egotistical.  To repeat, the people who become good and keep themselves grounded are the ones who do all of the following:

--Constantly focus on self-improvement;
--Take the time to appreciate their successes, and congratulate themselves for doing things well;
--Give themselves room to make mistakes without equating those errors with low self-worth.

It can be really hard to tell a player interested in improving that it's okay to make mistakes.  The more you want to be successful, the less likely you are to be okay with errors, and the less you want to become complacent.  But if you only think in terms of mistakes, and never assign credit to success, you have to wonder why you're bothering to try and succeed in the first place.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week.


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  3. Focus on the process. Everything else is a distraction.