“Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
~ Howard Thurman
Last summer, I spent a lot of time thinking. I’d been feeling confused about the unconventional way I work. My motives felt good, and my actions usually resulted in greater performance from, and connection with, my clients. And yet, I also realized that my approach to mental performance was unusual. Unusualness often invites suspicion, even when (maybe especially when?) you detect it in yourself.
I found clarity one evening, while wandering in the woods. I was listening to a series of podcasts. One was about self-trust, and the other was about the relationship between ambition and religion. The message of the first podcast was to treat yourself the way that you would a loved one when it comes to self-care and trust. The message of the second podcast was that ambition for helping others is probably good in a moral, and even spiritual sense, and that these desires should be trusted.
As night descended, I switched on my flashlight, and a realization came as swift as the illumination now brightening my path: What if the only thing about me that really needs to change is the belief that there are things about myself that need to change? What if my strange way is precisely what’s needed to help someone? What if all my self-examination and suspicion is ill-guided?
What a wonderful and terrifying idea.
In the beginning, these thoughts felt reckless. In the past, I’ve held my self-scrutiny as a point of pride. I’ve thought of this habit as evidence that my actions are controlled and well-considered—as if extensive consideration and control assure correctness or goodness.
With more reflection, I began to realize that what I was calling self-scrutiny was really just fear. The process of letting go of self-scrutiny was a painful and, at times, exhausting struggle with my own ego. Was it right to think l could I learn to control myself less? Or, perhaps more accurately, how could I learn to give a different part of myself the control?
This essay is an answer to a call from within myself. In it, I hope to highlight the importance of living authentically and finding one’s own personal sense of meaning. I invite you to come with me as I attempt to weave these ideas into a bright chord within you that draws you closer to alignment with your full power.
In my work as a mental performance consultant, my job is to find ways to help people access the best that is within themselves. If there is one rule about this process, it’s that no one’s best looks like another’s. From person to person, the methods accessing one’s best differ enormously. Interestingly, though, the pathway to poor performance is surprisingly similar across individuals.
Nearly all of the thinking traps that prevent people from excellence are thoughts like, “What if I can’t do it?”, or, “What will people think?”
Somehow, even though I’ve known about these traps for a long time, and even though helping people through thinking traps is part of my profession, I still got caught up in a few over the summer. It doesn’t matter how much you know about high performance, a big part of life is learning to deal with the same types of problems over and over again.
If you’ve ever conquered your own thinking traps, only to wind up feeling the same doubts later on, I’ve got good news for you: You’re human!
Thankfully, there’s a way to get past limiting thinking patterns.
In my work with elite athletes, and through my own personal battles with self-criticism thinking, I’ve discovered that freedom comes from two things: 1) aligning one’s work with one’s values, and 2) learning to trust one’s natural inclinations and instincts. When these elements are in place, our craft (whether it be a sport, or a job, or a hobby) can become a vehicle for personal growth, development, and revelation.
This summer, when I was caught in a spiral of self-criticism, I wasn’t considering my values or my strengths. I was plenty worried about what others thought. But, I had silenced my own inner voice.
Have you ever done the same?
If so, you may want to ask yourself the following centering questions:
When you answer these questions honestly, you’re listening to your real self. If you’re like most people, these questions probably made you aware of some common themes in your value system. What were they? Discovering your own recurring themes of meaning can be extraordinarily useful and orienting. It’s like finding your own inner compass.
On the other hand, identifying things that are deeply meaningful for you may also produce some internal tension. Did you feel tension as you asked yourself the questions above? If so, that’s okay, too.
Sometimes, becoming aware of our values makes us feel uncomfortable because we recognize the space between how we’re currently living and how we aspire to live. Nazi concentration camp survivor, reverred psychologist, and philosopher, Viktor Frankl, put it this way:
“Tension is not something to be avoided unconditionally, and peace of mind, or peace of soul, is not anything to avow unconditionally [. . .] What man needs, first of all, is that tension which is created by direction.”
~ Viktor Frankl
In other words, Frankl is saying that finding and pursuing one’s meaning can create some discomfort, and that this is a good and healthy thing.
Modern happiness research supports Frankl’s position. Study after study has shown that people who engage in challenging, meaningful, pursuits experience higher well-being than those who do not.
Still, finding one’s own meaning does not always guarantee excellence. Many athletes who I’ve worked with were quite clear about their values, but were unable to summon their confidence. The key to lasting flourishing is understanding how to pursue the things that matter most to you without doubting your unique ability to make a difference.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “Trust Thyself, Every Heart Vibrates to that Iron String.” According to Emerson, trusting oneself is the mark of true genius.
That rings true to me. Every peak performance moment in my life, and every peak performance moment in the lives of the athletes I work with, has been marked with a deep sense of self-trust. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we live this way.
But how do we go about trusting ourselves?
One answer is to learn to stop imitating and simply be yourself. So often, we think we have to meet others’ expectations, or we think we have to do things the way that someone else has done them in order to be successful. I’ve learned that, at the highest levels, this approach is entirely misguided.
A wonderful example of the power of “being yourself” came earlier this year when the Kansas City Chiefs were playing the undefeated Detroit Lions in an early season match up. Late in the game, with the Chiefs losing 30-27, they were given one last, desperate, shot to win. In fact, the odds of them winning the game at that point was 0.1%, according to ESPN win-probability analysts.
Here’s what NFL MVP quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, told his team before the final drive:
“We do not have to do anything else other than being ourselves. I truly believe that. If we just be ourselves and trust in each other, we will go down there, we can put points up…”
Despite the long odds, they won the game. A couple months later, they would go on to produce several more comeback wins in a historic playoff run that resulted in a Super Bowl championship. Such is the power of fully trusting in yourself. It’s the only reliable path to fulfilling your individual potential.
For some athletes, the knowledge that they need to be themselves pays huge dividends. After they understand this principle, they no longer contort their personalities and performances into unnatural expressions.
For others (especially those who, like me, are susceptible to overthinking), it can be challenging to know which “self” to be.
What is the self, after all? What an insanely difficult question.
In my opinion the “self” is the part of you who makes decisions based on love. It’s the part of you who stands bravely for what’s right. It’s the part of you who chooses your preferred craft, who chooses your friends, who yearns to reach out to something or someone regardless of the likelihood of a return gesture.
For most people, there is a lot of fear around revealing one’s true self because doing so makes you different. Most people fear being different, and yet being different is the only way that we can unleash our own unique greatness.
One especially effective way to trust yourself is to learn to be present. Great thinkers like Viktor Frankl and Bruce Lee have said that the present moment is the only one within which we can act according to our true selves. Frankl suggests that we pay full attention to our daily tasks as they come. Similarly, Lee encourages us to stay in the present. Lee says, “The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement,” he said, “you ought not be thinking of whether it ends in victory or in defeat. Just let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.”
So, the lesson from Lee, Frankl, and others is that being yourself can only happen when you’re living in the moment. Right now, being yourself might be reading this essay. In ten minutes it might be making dinner for your family, or planning your week, or beginning some writing of your own.
My challenge for you upon closing this essay is the same challenge I gave myself this summer: Don’t overthink, simply take responsibility for being present, following your values, and trusting yourself in this moment.
Focusing on the present is, essentially, a signal to ourselves that we trust that we can figure out the problems of the future when they arise. It’s also a signal to yourself that the problems of the past are firmly in the past—a place you can learn from, but need not relive.
The opportunity to focus on the present is yours, now. And now. And now. You always have the freedom to decide to trust yourself enough to live authentically in the present. That will never change. It’s, perhaps, the only freedom that can never be taken away from us.
We Must Remember That Freedom Has Always Been With Us.
I’m working under a tree in my front yard. It absolutely sings, let me tell you. The wind is playing with my hair and the light dancing through the leaves dapples my carpet. Yes, I dragged an indoor carpet outside onto dusty, dying, golden grass and this has become the most incredible place to write.
I’m writing following a 7am talk with an athlete where I biked alongside him while he ran. What an unconventional idea?! It was his actually, but it also felt terrific to me. We were focused and relaxed and efficient. His thoughts came fluidly, and my understanding was easy. Both of our souls were visible.
What more will come as I listen and flow? As I relax and act according to myself and listen to the selves of others? As I answer my meaning as I understand it moment by moment and I walk my own path in the dark? I do still feel a little reckless. But I’m choosing to trust myself in this moment and the absence of scrutiny has left me feeling so free. I wish the same for you.
Sometimes the wisdom of our hearts proves to be deeper than the insight of our brains. And sometimes the most reasonable thing is not to try to be too reasonable.
~ Viktor Frankl
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