Mindset (a mini-series)
Good morning, Team Room –
In The Fighter’s Mind, Sam Sheridan recounts a quotable story – and question – from travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux. Theroux asks returning innocent adventurers what he calls the “awkward question.” After some drudgery of a trip, he’ll ask them “Why?” Many travelers search and stumble for an answer. Some answer, “Why not?” I like this answer! In the early 1990s, after Gerard d’Aboville rowed a small boat across the Pacific, Theroux asked him the “awkward question.” d’Aboville answered, “Only an animal does useful things. But I wanted to do something that was not useful, not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do.”
We don’t know definitively that it’s only humans, but every thing we do as humans – every move we make – has components of cognition (thinking), physiology (physical), psychological (feelings, emotions, perceptions), behavioral (we do something in some way), and if interacting with at least one other person, our actions have a social component (social, emotional component, a team component). Underpinning – or maybe it’s the umbrella sitting above – all of these components of humanness is what people often, and very casually, call mindset. I’m speculating that animals aren’t discerning in their mindsets and could be wrong. For the things we humans do that are “not useful, not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do,” it is for these situations that humans need mindset. Otherwise, for every action, decision, or choice we would simply follow instinct. A perfectly acceptable and preferred course of action in the wild.
I’ve long been fascinated with mindset. Especially my own. But other people’s as well. What is it? How do we develop it? Or how does it emerge? What are the elements of mindset? When people casually say things like, “It’s all about your mindset!” They are typically promoting some culturally well recognized “way of thinking.” Some mode of positivity or mental toughness or set of words easily referenced: stay optimistic, carpe diem (seize the day), you only live once, or “it is what it is.”
The problem with casually referencing mindset is that it’s done in the absence of context or purpose. Not all mindsets are appropriate in every situation. It turns out that optimists are the most likely to die or go crazy in prison camps, but live the longest in safety and security. It’s true that you “only live once.” But you only die once too. And it either “is what it is” or “it is what you make it.” It sort of depends on if you have a fatalistic or deterministic worldview. All mindsets depend on context. Their usefulness is dependent upon more than just a cliche tag line. Why? Because you, and only you, deploy the mindset. And within the context of your own cognition, physiology, psychology, and social situation, to produce a desired behavior. And you only have your lens, your worldview, your history, and your perspective.
In this mini-series, what I’ll be sharing are the sixteen (16) mindsets (one each week) that have been most useful to me in nearly all aspects of my life and work. Along the way, I hope to paint a perspective of mindset that is neither prescriptive nor definitional, but rather contextual and situation dependent.
Here’s what I’ve learned about mindset…
Mindset #1: Warrior or Victim
The grandmaster of all mindsets for me! In Dave Grossman’s book, On Combat, we get the argument that there are only two types of people in the world: Warriors and Victims. There are thousands of contrasts of these two mentalities:
- Warriors understand fear. Victims pretend fear doesn’t exist.
- Warriors use fear to “heat the house.” Victims let fear “burn the house.”
- Warriors get better by 1% everyday. Victims never get better because they are looking for shortcuts and gimmicks.
- Warriors either win or learn. Victims see setbacks as losing.
- Warriors know everything is impermanent. Victims desperately hang-on to status quo.
- Warriors focus on their preparation, attitude, and effort. Victims wait for the perfect conditions.
- Warriors give. Victims take.
- (And on-and-on…)
However, we know right away if we’re cultivating a Warrior or Victim mindset when we hear ourselves use either “Have to…” or “Want to…” language. Listen for “Have to…” or “Want to…” language in everyday conversation. Conventions of language reveal how we see the world. And language helps to imprint images in our minds. If you listen closely, you’ll hear people say “I have to go to the gym today” or “I have to prepare for this presentation today.” And you’ll hear other people say they “Want to get ready for their next opportunity or next engagement.” Thankfully, “Have to…” and “Want to…” language isn’t permanent and doesn’t necessarily make you a Warrior or Victim. It simply gives you a place to focus and check your mindset. You know you’re tracking towards a Victim mentality if you catch yourself preceding everything with “Have to…” language. Similarly, you’re closer to a Warrior mindset if you “Want to…” be doing what you’re actually doing. Even if it’s uncomfortable or undesirable.
After years of being asked my definition of mental toughness, I summarize mental toughness this way:
When your desire for mission accomplishment is greater than your desire for comfort.
When your desire to achieve a thing is greater than your desire for the easier way, or the comfortable thing. A very simple example of mental toughness is if I’m training for the local 5K road race, do I train as much in perfect weather as I do in freezing rain? Why? The mission hasn’t changed one bit. The 5K is still the 5K. I’m simply making a decision as to wether my desire to race well in the 5K is the same when it’s sunny as when it’s cold. In making these decisions about mission versus comfort, we’re simply placing ourselves somewhere on the Warrior / Victim spectrum.
Many of us can identify with how difficult it is to keep a team all engaged and moving in the same direction. Is everyone focused on the right things, empowered, and executing well? Leading teams typically involves frequent course corrections, conversations, redirects, etc. Normal team interaction stuff. We can often find ourselves avoiding what we might call “the hard or uncomfortable” conversation and default to “it will work itself out.”
This avoidance of discomfort (preserving your personal comfort) in lieu of doing what’s best for the team (the mission) is a dangerous road. We can slowly make ourselves a Victim, getting used to the Victim mentality. We’er much closer to a Warrior mentality when our desire (decisions) are aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish and don’t change when we’re faced with an uncomfortable situation.