How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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Decoding my personal truth: how to figure out what to do with my life (and still ideally pay my bills!)

These days, people are increasingly using executive coaching for the purpose of ‘figuring out what to do with my life’ (and ideally still be able to afford living in the Bay Area!)  From high-ranking executives at globally successful companies, to startup founders who’ve sold their company and are now free to roam, to Bay Area transplants who’ve grown disenchanted with the tech scene- all have entered my practice ready to decode their personal truth, find their greater purpose, and build a personally meaningful roadmap toward their version of success.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”  Albert Einstein

Our personal truth serves as our unique roadmap, helping us navigate toward a future created with purpose.  Every day we make choices that steer us on our personal path- our inner beliefs, preferences, sense of right and wrong all come together to drive the direction we take in life.  In his book Unapologetically You, behavioral science academic and author Steve Maraboli advises us of the importance of this position: “Live your truth. Express your love. Share your enthusiasm. Take action towards your dreams. Walk your talk. Dance and sing to your music. Embrace your blessings. Make today worth remembering.”  

But what if we aren’t sure of what we are meant to do, and our greater purpose seems unclear?  How do we ‘know’ what’s right for us?

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Disenchantment A new Netflix toon with a title that captures the sentiment of many.

How can we be sure of ‘what’s best’ when we make choices for our future?  Some people feel a deep sense of conviction about their life’s purpose- “I was born to make music. I was born to build.  I was born to heal.”  Other people don’t feel this depth of clarity, and take aim for their future by solving tangible problems first- they develop a range of practices, skills and resources to prevent commonly avoided hardships like sickness, injury, poverty, social isolation.  Others feel satisfied knowing they’ve contributed to offsetting the needs of their family, community, or are embodying their religious tenets faithfully.  Even with recognizable success, some people may still wonder if they they’ve adequately challenged themselves to fulfill their personal destiny or greater purpose in life.  How can we ‘know’ if we’ve made the right choices for ourselves? At some point, a person’s experience of happiness and purpose comes back to personal taste, or preference for achievement.

Cultural expectations, opinions of people we admire, and social influences related to the times further shape our notions of what an ideal, purpose-driven, meaningful life looks like.  How have outside influences shaped your assumptions about what you should do with your life?  Without awareness of what’s driving your thoughts, feelings and behaviors it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of chasing goals without fully understanding if it’s personally important to do so. We can distract ourselves by measuring outcomes in size, volume, impact, or accumulation as a marker to indicate the degree of our success.  We may even learn to rely on these outcomes to tell us how satisfied we should feel.   

Three Exercises for discovering personal truth-  how do you ‘know’ yourself?

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor- cognitive psychologists seek to understand human perception- the process of how we experience our emotions, how we develop mental representations, and derive genuine fulfillment from our experiences.  

Bring to mind some of your favorite moments in your past.  When you think about places, recreations, or experiences that you enjoy for the sake of the pleasure they gives you- try to uncover the why behind the attraction, or the feeling they’ve given you.  Identify your preferences in the following areas, simply based on your experience of them: how do you ‘know’ you like them?

  • areas in nature (cliffs, beaches, snowy mountains, open fields, woods, etc)
  • Sounds of specific musical instruments, musical genres, or eras of music
  • Social activities at a party (group games, exploratory dinner conversations, group cooking, dancing, people watching, etc)
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2. Can you identify how external influences or mental representations play a role in how you developed these preferences? 

  • Consider how your family, social circles, workplace or local communities have shaped your understanding of how to best spend your time.
  • How does the narrative you’ve adopted about your personality style (e.g. loner, leader, helper) shape your predictions of trying new experiences and how you’ll feel about them?
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3.  Imagine moving to a society where areas of achievement, compensation for work and the social status of various roles were completely different than what we know them to be now.

  • Can you imagine choosing a role/occupation (a collection of responsibilities and activities) without knowing how this society thought of it?
  • What would you be doing? (Starting an original project? Building a team after evaluating competencies in people? Leading growth?)
  • How much of your attraction to these elements are because you’re familiar and/or been successful in doing these things in the past?  
  • If you found out there was one additional responsibility within this role/occupation that you were apprehensive to take on, what would that be?

These exercises are meant to help you uncover and tap into your personal truth, creating a guiding force for making choices in the big picture of your life path.  Be patient with yourself, track the evolution of your thoughts, feelings and insights throughout the process.  You’re on your way to ‘knowing’ yourself better than ever before.

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Lost a Job or suffered a career setback? Don’t flip out, take these steps.

Today’s job market is faster paced than ever, with swift role changes around every corner.  Learning you’re out of a job, whether it has to do with your performance or not, can be a tremendously stressful life event.  Job loss often ranks among the highest in stress on a list of life-altering events such as a death in the family, divorce, and serious illness.  In other cases, losing a key manager that was positioned to train you and advocate for your career advancement can also feel like a huge setback.

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These experiences can lead to feelings of panic, grief, anger and turmoil about what to do next.  If you let it, getting caught in a tailspin of emotions after a professional setback can keep you from moving forward in a productive way.  Allow yourself a good rant with your friends and family (not your colleagues) about the misery and injustice of it all.  Then it’s time to roll up your sleeves and pull together an action plan so you can get on with your life.  No one wants to stay paralyzed like a deer in headlights after what feels like a dismantling career blow.  If you find yourself struggling to build momentum, consider enlisting an executive coach who can be a strategic thought partner in creating your next career come-back.

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1. Flip the script.  Major changes like the loss of a job or manager who was critical to your advancement can lead to emotionally derailing thoughts, rattling one’s sense of direction and purpose.  When clients in my coaching practice share professional setbacks with me, their emotionally charged reactions are often fueled by the perception that they’ve lost control of their future.  Particularly for the hard-driving, high-achieving ‘Type A’ people that make up Silicon Valley, this feeling is particularly intolerable.  Rant. Breathe. Shake it off. Hit the restart button. Relocate superpowers.

 Adam* had spent the last 2 years pouring all of his time and talent into an early stage startup after leaving a lucrative but uninspiring job at a large corporation.  He’d given up higher compensation for the chance to hone skills and autonomy typically not accessible at his level of professional development.  When the company shutdown unexpectedly as a result of cofounder conflict, he couldn’t stop ruminating about his decision to stay with the startup for as long as he had, and felt cheated thinking of all the financial sacrifices he’d made.

After losing a job, it’s completely normal to re-think every decision you made that contributed to the grim outcome of being out of a job.  People can get stuck obsessing about the past, especially if they feel jilted.  Moving on can feel like an unfair concession,  but dwelling on the past will only impede your ability to start over, not vindicate you.  Take inventory of what you’ve learned, where you are developmentally in your life, and let that inform how to prioritize your next work move.  Ask yourself “how have I changed?  What new insights am I taking with me? What opportunities am I free to pursue now?”  To develop an empowered point of view- flip the script.  Rebuild your narrative about what happened, and what’s going to happen next in such a way that you feel emboldened to turn the storyline into one of courage and success.  This is not to be mistaken for ignoring the role you played in how things transpired, or fail to learn from how you got there.  But those decisions are done and dusted, and now it’s time to move on. Develop a new narrative that captures the best possible scenario.  A few examples to illustrate the point:

Reactive thought: “I sacrificed for nothing, and losing this job is evidence that that my gamble with startups is a failure.  I’ve lost time and money and now I’m behind in life.”

Reframed thought: The calculated risk that I took gave me firsthand, invaluable experiences and insights that I could not have gained otherwise.  I now have clarity on what types of opportunities are best suited to my priorities in life.  With that knowledge I can start again with improved focus and direction to achieve my goals.”  

Notice the different approach to defining one’s progress and success in life- instead of measuring yourself by outcome alone, evaluate how capable you are of responding to life’s setbacks and challenges with aplomb.

2. Work backwards from the future.  Fast forward for a moment in your professional trajectory.  What specific learning and skill mastery will you need to successfully advance?  Staying focused on solutions, flexible problem-solving, and the ability to dig your way out of complex situations will aways be seen as evidence of competency under fire by future employers.

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Catherine* landed a coveted role at a prestigious financial firm after graduating with honors from an Ivy League university.  She was meticulous in architecting her career trajectory, parlaying her work experience to train in a new area of finance under the tutelage of a managing director at a different firm.  When this manager left for a rare work opportunity elsewhere, her chance to develop skills outside her wheelhouse was cut short.  Emotionally immobilized and without a game plan, Catherine was at a loss for what to do next.

When elements outside of our control topple our specific strategy for achievement, it can feel like our route to get from point A to point B has been destroyed.  Take a solution-focused approach and identify alternative routes to stay on target.  Imagine where you want to be two steps ahead in your career path, rather than focusing on what’s directly in front of you.  I asked Catherine to share with me what type of role she would be competitive for had her manager stayed and provided the specific guidance and training she’d wanted. 

“Let’s say you got everything you wanted from the current role you’re in, and now you’re interviewing for your next advancement.  What markers of success can you draw attention to in your interview?  What specific qualities and skills will you need to have demonstrated to be competitive for the next level of growth?” 

Catherine shared that she would need to demonstrate a high level of autonomy in her day-to-day work operations, process communication effectively between various parties involved in decision-making, and show success in developing and maintaining relationships that lead to new business.  From there we mapped out specifics around whom she might target for support and how, identifying internal and external resources for mentorship and learning, and personal routines to help her stay on track.          

None of these approaches are particularly swift or easy.  They take a high level of personal discipline and an ongoing willingness to course-correct when you notice yourself going astray.  Keeping people in your life who are closely aware of your intentions and support your efforts helps!  With practice and mastery, these steps will be to your overfall benefit by helping you cultivate new and effective resiliency skills when life throws you a curveball.

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*Names have been changed for privacy

 

Millennial men ask “Is it ever ok to approach women in public?” How to meet women in the age of #metoo

Downtown San Francisco during the work week is always swarming with millennials in clothing styles meant to convey ‘simple, smart and purposeful’ yet for many, dating life is proving to be anything but that.  The millennial clients that I coach through professional and personal life goals came of age in a time when digital technology had already changed how people communicate, disrupting social rules of dating among other mainstays of modern society.  Thirty-nine percent of Millennials admit to interacting more with their phones than the actual people in their lives, making them even less likely to to talk to strangers without clear cause in their everyday comings and goings.  Many millennial men who’ve achieved professional success are now ready to marry, but are realizing the strategies they used to find casual sex partners aren’t cutting it for finding ‘the one‘.  With no time to sift through dating profiles or spend nights in bars, these guys are engaging coaching to develop proactive dating strategies that set them up for success in their daily activities.

“I want to meet a really smart woman, much smarter than me!  Someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals, driven by values that we both share.  I want to be attracted to her mind more than anything! But she should want to be healthy and fit and enjoy being sexually active for us to be truly compatible.  Financial independence is important too, since living here is so expensive.  Is that too much to ask?”

That’s Silicon Valley in a nutshell, and honestly that’s not even a tall order compared to what my high-achieving female clients have on their marital check-list.  So while online dating has been effective for solving most people’s casual sex needs, it feels agonizingly inefficient to most people ready to meet someone marriage-worthy, especially with personal brand consciousness and FOMO influencing millennials’ major life decision-making process.  I encourage my single clients to attend curated social events or engage in recreational activities with a male/female ratio that benefits them, increasing the odds they meet people of similar caliber who share mutual interests.  I ask them to take the approach“if I had to solve this problem in the next two weeks, how would I do it?  What can I do to get started today?” which gives people a sense of urgency and gets them ready to apply practical solutions in the here and now.

After mapping out a few actionable plans with a male client, he earnestly asked “is it ever ok to just approach a woman in public these days? You know without coming across as desperate or creepy.” Admittedly I was taken aback by this question – I was struck by the difficult task of overcoming social anxiety they’ve spent less time addressing thanks to technology, while leveraging enough social finesse to engage others in a respectful and compelling way.  Many millennial aged men understandably prefer to play it safe in unclear circumstances, or risk coming across like a cheesy pick-up artist (PUA).  Have millennials come to rely exclusively on dating apps, social introductions, singles bars and events that serve the function of bars to form romantic connections?  Has the heterosexual male to female ‘cold call’ approach become totally obsolete?  Like the evolutionary equivalent of the human appendix, wisdom teeth or tonsils, once useful in our dark past but at best should remain dormant or at worst may trigger pain and suffering? Fox Monkey GIF by Animation Domination High-Def-downsized_large

Once upon a time men were far more likely to approach women in public outside of well-defined social circumstances, when our society was more deeply rooted in the notion that ‘masculine persistence wins the heart.’  American media largely produced by men has been dominated by storylines that convey if a woman responds to a man’s advances with disinterest, she can be persuaded to change her mind through a combination of charm, wit, and low-key psychological warfare.  This dynamic calls for female passivity, contributing to how women are treated as ‘fair game for romantic pursuits’ in public spaces.  The time of reckoning for gender inequality has come with the #metoo movement, an activist-led eruption of female empowerment that has become a global phenomenon, upending the longstanding tolerance of objectification and abuse of women for the purpose of male sexual gratification.  Though gender equality across all realms has a long way to go, it is still possible for men to safely and respectfully engage women in public by learning to read social cues with greater sensitivity.  It will likely not be easy or feel comfortable.  As I said to my male client “approaching a woman in public is graduate-school level game– we’re working on social skill mastery at the kindergarten level- first things first.”  (My clients are sturdy and know I don’t dish out what I know they can’t take!)

If you want to approach a woman in public but are unsure of how to proceed, take the time to read the situation closely.  This may take time you don’t want to spare- but keep in mind, a rushed approach increases the chance of a failed mission.

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HOW TO’S:

  • Make sure this woman is not wearing a wedding ring.  This is an easily avoidable rookie mistake!  Practice discreetly checking out left hands in various situations so you can be ready to quickly assess when it matters.
  • Respect women’s time.  Does it look like the woman is in a perceptible hurry?  Is she engaged in an activity that she’d probably prefer not to have interrupted?  If she’s busy working on a laptop she probably won’t welcome small talk- wait until it’s obvious she’s taking a break to speak to her.  Is the woman clearly relaxing, enjoying a meal by herself or having some personal downtime?  If she responds with only a fleeting or absent smile, minimal verbal response or eye contact, take the hint and keep it moving.  Persistence in the face of a minimal response is only going to feel uncomfortable and annoying to her.
  • Pay attention to eye contact.  Has the woman made purposeful, positive eye contact with you at least a few times?  Catching a woman’s eye once might be accidental, twice might be her checking to see if you are still looking at her.  Women naturally check their surroundings for their own safety, and women find they need to keep an eye out for guys who might be staring, stalker style.  Your job is to make sure you come across as friendly and safe– if you’re so nervous you can’t smile in the split second you catch a woman’s eye, you might not be ready to approach a woman in this manner.  Practice talking to women you don’t know in social settings where people are clearly expected to mingle so you develop a sense of how to accurately read non-verbal cues.

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  • Drop the idea that channeling alpha male confidence will lead to a positive outcome.  Guys are really attached to the idea that exuding cool confidence is what women want.  It’s refreshing and much more likable if you can manage to be yourself and talk with a woman like she’s a person not an object to win over.  Better to be awkward and able to laugh at yourself if the situation calls for it!  Take it from a woman- we’re often just as concerned with first impressions, and you’ll make it much easier for her to respond to you if open with something genuine and friendly.

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  • Ask her opinion about something related to the shared situation you’re both in, and be sure to listen and show appreciation for her response.  This is simple enough to do, especially if she’s in nearby proximity.  Respond with something of equal tone, and if possible include an opportunity for her to keep the conversation going.
  • Get out of your comfort zone, and use light-hearted humor to break the ice.  Authentic self-deprecation and self-declared inexperience is an easy way to gain a moment of sympathy from women.  Women are natural care-takers, teachers and experts in many, many things!  Guys, if you put yourself in a situation where there are women who are excellent at something, you will stand out not only because you’re willing to risk looking foolish, but also because you’re interested in something they clearly enjoy.  This only works if you demonstrate a genuine interest in learning.  If you keep at it long enough, women will likely take pity on you and offer some support.  I’ve seen it happen a million times before!

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Adopting these strategies aren’t meant to guarantee that you’ll get a date after perfecting them, but can work to start an engaging conversation that could potentially reveal a reason to stay in touch with a woman as result.  Good luck out there, and you’re welcome!

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Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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New year, new goals, now what? Ten lessons from some of Silicon Valley’s fastest rising founders.

For many of us, 2017 was an exhausting year fraught with political change, devastating natural catastrophes and economic strain.  But Silicon Valley never stops evolving, fueled by talented people driven to create positive change and effective solutions.  I’ve had the pleasure of coaching some of the Bay Area’s fastest rising founders, tech leaders and startup teams as they turned their ideas into reality, started companies that attracted clients with the biggest and hottest names in tech, joined executive teams that launched transformational products, and challenged themselves to take professional risks in new high level roles.  Engaging in coaching helped them sustain motivation and gain clarity through periods of doubt, burn out, and high stakes decision making.

Their pathways to achievement in the startup space are not meant to remain hidden and unaccessible to others who are just beginning their journey.  My goal as an executive leadership coach is to share honest lessons from their pivotal experiences so that others can find encouragement and make progress with aplomb.

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  1. You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done (or the way others have done things for that matter) to “make it”.  For every newly minted ivy league graduate gunning for entrepreneurial success in the startup community, there are countless others who have leveraged their humble education or work experiences with immensely profitable gains.  Not having a degree is no longer a reason to believe you can’t create opportunities to learn and achieve in your chosen field.
  2. Fear and doubt are emotions not behaviors. Use mindfulness to manage your thoughts, which have a direct impact on your emotions.  You can’t rely on waiting for your emotions to ‘be ready’ to start taking on new challenges.  Set yourself up for success by using ‘SMART goals’, a behavioral timeline that is realistic and achievable, at a pace that allows small but measurable progress.
  3. Take your own short cuts.  Use what’s available rather than re-inventing the wheel. Our time and energy are better spent creating impact in unique ways than in rebuilding something that’s now available off the shelf.  Open-source, high engagement educational tools and projects, third-party design tools, and strategic outsourcing are ways to focus more of your time on leveraging your core competencies.
  4. Listen to your gut.  What are you truly curious and passionate about doing?  Find a space to explore and track these thoughts, talk about them with trusted others or engage in coaching to gain clarity around what you want to build towards in this phase of your life, and how to set yourself up to achieve your biggest goals.
  5. Embrace your difference.  Undeniably, the world remains in the grips of a political climate that systemically limits opportunities and equal rights for ‘otherness’ identities.  Yet now more than ever there is evidence that embracing diversity yields unique perspectives that reinvent what’s broken, generating innovative solutions that raise the bar across all industries.
  6. Grow at your own pace. While many people would love to have the problem of achieving rapid success, growing pains that strain one’s functional capacity can feel like a dam threatening to burst.  What’s at risk if you lose control of your growth pace?  It’s not necessary to convince yourself you ‘have’ to accept all the big opportunities that come your way.  Helping founders decide how and when to aggressively prioritize growth opportunities has revealed to me the critical value of pacing growth in the big picture of one’s success map.
  7. Use losses and transitions as a chance to re-evaluate and re-direct your personal vision of success.   The tech industry has the lowest average employee tenure, creating a cutthroat climate for those in the game.    Employment transitions and lost opportunities can feel overwhelming, especially for those whose work identity is a grounding anchor in their self-esteem.  It’s normal to feel uncertain about what to pursue next, especially if it opens up other major decisions like where to live, and what relationships should be prioritized in the grand scheme of one’s life.  Borrow Salesforce‘s ubiquitous alignment tool, the V2MOM.  Creating a personal V2MOM is one way I have helped clients formulate next steps according to their vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures.  It can help to do this exercise with an objective person you trust, or anyone without personal stakes in your decision-making.
  8. Pay attention to how far you’ve come, it’s further than you realize!  One of the most fulfilling parts of being a leadership coach is taking inventory with my clients of how much they’ve learned and grown by tracking their measurable progress.  As a lifelong skier, I’ve always enjoyed taking that moment to pause and look back at the steep, icy, once intimidating run I just came down.  It’s so important to acknowledge where you started!
  9. Surround yourself with people who want to see you win.  Well cultivated friendships and supportive social networks are irrefutably one of the healthiest, most rewarding things we can instill in our lives.  Making friends in adulthood can be intimidating, don’t hesitate to review some surefire tactics for building social equity into your current phase of life.
  10. Engage in mentorship for highest ROI.  Contributing to the collective wisdom of groups you been inspired by reinforces the ‘why‘ in your daily life, and serves as a springboard for reinforcing gratitude and resilience when you need it most.  It’s a way to bring together your values and share in building the communities you believe in most.
 

Smart solutions when productivity stalls- perspective is everything

You know that feeling when you’re stalled by something that needs to get done?  Even the most efficient people face roadblocks in their productivity from time to time.  This is especially frustrating for people who are used to completing challenging tasks with relative ease.  I recently met with an accomplished young gaming engineer for executive coaching to support his exploration of new work opportunities in Silicon Valley.  He revealed that he’d struggled for hours to complete a cover letter email, and this left him feeling baffled and weary about the whole process of interviewing for new employment.  We used the session to get to the root of what was creating this stall in productivity, and generated smart solutions based on his personal strengths.  Strategy and perspective makes all the difference.

Working with the Bay Area’s talented tech community has taught me this- the smartest people take it the hardest when their performance and results don’t meet their expectations!  Many have grown accustomed to things coming easily to them and have quickly advanced in their chosen career trajectory.  Early giftedness in STEM can sometimes lead to people develop an identity centered around being ‘brainy and capable’.  It may come as a shock when something as simple as creating a cover letter sidelines them and deflates their sense of efficacy.

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Why does this happen?  Over time, our strengths get reinforced as our primary means of solving problems because they get us from point A to point B quickly and easily.  Since these same strengths are also tied to our sense of identity and self worth, we become less willing to set them aside and use other methods of ‘solving’.  Tasks that force us to operate outside of our comfort zone trigger feelings of frustration because we aren’t as effective as we’re used to feeling, which stalls our productivity.  A guy who’s honed skills as a talented engineer, fluent in the most sought after programming languages will probably not be as adroit at English writing composition and will likely need to give himself more leeway in completing a thoughtfully composed cover letter.

Apply a smart solutions formula when your productivity stalls:
1. Conscious self-awareness.  Identify the evidence in your life (historically and currently) of how and when you have leveraged your personal strengths to achieve good outcomes.  How did your strengths allow you to perform optimally?  Result outcomes might be found in academic, career advancement, kinesthetic/athletic, social/interpersonal, emotional, musical, aesthetic, experiential, operational or other realms of functionality.

“I can recognize times in my life when my skills and abilities have allowed me to make progress, overcome obstacles, and reach important goals that have led me to where I am now.”

2. Balanced self-acceptance.  Scientific advancements in human cognition and intelligence reveal that all people possess strengths and weaknesses relative to their overall functioning.  To expect to function only by means of our strengths is unrealistic.  Sometimes we must be willing to step back from our most comfortable mode of operating and acknowledge certain tasks don’t call for our ideal skill set.

“This task calls for specific skills that I don’t practice as often (e.g. writing English composition).  I can’t rely on my core strengths to complete it.  I must be willing to feel uncomfortable if I’m to make progress.  So what?  That’s true for everyone sometimes.  If I let this slower pace of progress demoralize me it could stop me from getting from point A to point B.  Any pace will do, as long as I’m trying to move forward.”

3. Realistic expectations.  Plan to break down larger goals into chunks that are achievable and utilize breaks to regain energy.  Attempting to complete a difficult task in one fell swoop doesn’t lead to efficiency, it’s a set up for failure.  When you’re using your brain to work in less familiar ways, expect to take breaks before your mental energy begins to stall so your overall motivation remains strong.  This way you avoid feeling demoralized and progress remains steady.

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4. Shift perspective.  Pay attention to how you’re evaluating yourself- when we only measure our progress based on ‘results’ rather than ‘performance effort’ we can end up feeling ineffective or lose our sense of purpose.  Another coaching client of mine works in a highly specialized area of machine learning/artificial intelligence (AI).  While there has been genuine advances and exciting new applications here in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world, the field remains experimental, and it still requires time-consuming, exploratory research.  Even the most brilliant minds working together face a sense of disappointment when big breakthroughs don’t happen, especially with constant media hype  fueling the AI frenzy.  If you are working on the cutting edge of new scientific discovery, it may be difficult to quantify progress and demonstrate measurable value compared to an ever-changing larger community.  While it’s natural to want to make comparisons, track and measure your contributions by ‘showing your work’ rather than evaluating yourself on outcome results alone.  By documenting your steps in the scientific process, generating strategic hypotheses, testing them critically through observations and experiments you are creating a useful path of ‘knowledge’ as you arrive at Type 1 or Type 2 errors, etc.  Find value in documenting how you’ve made progress to better direct your future paths of discovery.

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5. Prepare to use trial and error.  If one particular process of completing a task isn’t coming together, try a different plan of action.  Step away from a task and let your brain absorb the learning and develop new insights.  Go back with fresh eyes in regular intervals and adjust accordingly, and practice applying new insights.  According to the latest neuroscience,  researchers have discovered that moments of creativity take place when the mind is at rest rather than directly working on something.  Since creative approaches are so crucial to success, be sure to give yourself space from your work efforts.

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Bringing it all together:  Discover optimal productivity methods based on your personal strengths and challenges.  Practice applying a perspective that takes into account all the moving parts and your abilities before comparing your pace to others.  Remember that everyone hits roadblocks from time to time; taking this mindful approach and using smart solutions will help you overcome them as efficiently as possible.

Are your dating skills ruining your love life? 4 dumb dating habits to drop.

Most accounts of modern dating describe finding lasting love as more elusive than ever.  Thanks to mobile dating apps, dating has evolved into a finger-swiping game of ‘matching’ with people whose real intention for long-term dating is nearly impossible to determine.  Being an executive and dating coach in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me a front row seat to this phenomenon with an inside view of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The highly competitive tech scene here is also known for having an awkward dating culture where both men and women can develop some dumb habits that thwart their long term relationship goals.  I feel it’s my duty to share them publicly, air out the gender themes I see, and hopefully shed some light on the issue so more people are successful in their dating endeavors.

My clients are bright, healthy, charismatic people who bemoan their dating struggles as real a ‘pain point’ in their life.  In my last article on learned optimism, I outlined the rationale for viewing problems through a positive, solution-focused lens, and how to hold yourself accountable for your role in a problem.  When a client tells me “I’d like to meet someone and settle down into a long-term relationship but I’m having a tough time finding them.”  I’ll ask “What strategies are you using to meet eligible people?  Tell me, what are you currently doing to build a long-term relationship with someone?”  This is when the storyline starts to reveal dating habits that can be major roadblocks to developing a lasting romantic relationship.

master-of-none-5.w710.h473A 30 year old male client of mine shared with me how Season 2 of the Netflix hit series Master of None,(episode ‘First Date‘) struck a chord with him.   In this episode, Dev (Aziz Ansari) meets a myriad of women and for various reasons, experiences failure to launch towards a meaningful relationship with any of them.  In 2015, Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg co-wrote Modern Romance: An Investigation, a book that examined the evolution of dating patterns and coupledom. The concept of ‘overchoice’ in dating, an idea first introduced in Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book Future Shock, and later explored in Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice has become a mainstay in modern dating culture.  Ansari concludes that while having access to more potential mates might be enjoyable up front, it eventually makes the process of choosing and investing in someone much harder, and can ultimately lead to less romantic fulfillment.

Dumb dating habit #1:  Going on a never-ending cycle of first dates, waiting for that ‘love at first sight’ feeling to signal when it’s time to finally pursue someone for a long term relationship.

First impressions are often not a good predictor of who’ll be a good fit for a long term relationship.  In my observation, guys need to take initiative and figure out how to emotionally invest in the process of dating if they want a long term relationship.  A lot of men are stuck in a conundrum when they’re looking for a girlfriend- they feel safer with more options, but more options leads to low emotional investment, which leads to a sense of emptiness, which they fill with more creating more options.  It’s a vicious circle!  Men, start by figuring out what you need to do to care more about the person you’re meeting for a date.

Males are commonly raised to avoid vulnerable emotions, and learn to keep a safe distance from their feelings, especially in matters of the heart.  As a result, they can miss out on developing emotional intimacy with someone because they fail to take an active role in building it.  In movies, men are portrayed as reluctant participants in intimacy – cinematic stereotypes such as the manic pixie dream girl archetype evolved in order to protect masculine identity in the face of falling in love.

REBOOT:  If you don’t work to get inside your feelings and figure out how to genuinely invest in caring about the person sitting across from you, these feelings will not mysteriously emerge on their own.  I know you believe you just haven’t met someone who’s attractive enough, smart/accomplished enough, humble and supportive and interested in YOU enough.  If this storyline is sounding a lot like you, it’s time to see it for what it is – you’ve got to rise to the occasion and take initiative.  Make a real effort to be curious, listen, absorb and relate.  Look at it from an economic perspective- wise investments of all kinds pay off big!

Dumb dating habit #2:  You’re using dating as a way to compete with your friends- in this game the last one to get off the single train wins.  

You’re struggling with choosing someone because you’re too busy rounding out your dating options for more bragging rights with your friends.  A proud 20-something year old guy once told me that he and his male roommates had a world map in their house with colored pushpins in it to represent the countries of origin of women they’d each slept with.  Why?  Because it made them look cool to all their friends, duh!  But do you really want to be the last one who still cares about playing this game?  It’s like you’re that last guy in your middle school friend group who still cares about who has the most/best Pokémon cards.

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Dude at some point, it’s not that crucial anymore!  Eventually, most guys want to be with someone that will stand by them when life gets hard, someone to enjoy private moments with, who will honestly be there for them through the thick and thin of their life.  Meanwhile, do you want to still be scrolling through your phone contacts looking for someone who actually cares about what happens to you? (besides your family!  Not your ex either, she’s probably happily married now with a baby on the way.)

REBOOT:  The price tag for a real relationship is steep, and you need to be willing to pay the price.  Commitment, vulnerability, giving FOMO a grown ass man smack down, and dealing with someone’s shortcomings because they have to put up with yours.  When was the last time you heard of getting something worth having for free?

Dumb dating habit # 3:  Not noticing when your mind magically fills in the blanks in someone’s potential instead of accepting the current reality as it stands.  The problem with this is that your brain gets caught in a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations.  This can lead to feeling mad and resentful when the person falls short of your version of them. 

Sometimes women can get ahead of themselves while dating, and lose track of the difference between what is reality and what is wishful thinking.  This happens when they fail to notice that someone isn’t demonstrating a consistent investment in getting serious with them.  When you fantasize a million steps ahead about how your next dates will play out together it can lead your brain to believing it should and it will, and then when it inevitably doesn’t, you feel shortchanged and frustrated, but keep hoping things will improve.  Unrealistic expectations can also lead people to cut things off prematurely which is sabotaging your #relationshipgoals.  Confirmation bias  is a form of faulty thinking with plenty of scientific evidence supporting people’s propensity to believe something is true because they would like it to be true. Motivated by wishful thinking, individuals will stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

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REBOOT:  DO NOT GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF. If someone isn’t consistently making an effort to set concrete plans with you, showing a genuine interest in connecting with you, stop giving him your mental attention!  Be ready to harness some discipline because old habits die hard.  You’re perfectly rigorous about keeping your diet paleo, you’re awesome at limiting your drinking to the weekends, but you let your mind go on a wild goose chase over every text thread in your phone!  You know you’re in trouble if the guy inside your head is always more fun to think about then the same guy whose text messages rarely extend beyond 3 words and you never quite know where things stand between the two of you.  Be honest with yourself.  Why would it make sense to want a relationship with someone who’s hot and cold towards you?  Inconsistency and unpredictability beget failure in building anything of value.  Open your eyes to the people who are making it clear they value you and want to spend time with you.

Dumb dating habit # 4:  You over-rely on dating apps and forget that prospective dating partners are everywhere!  Your attention is buried in your phone and you never (ever, ever) initiate conversation with a stranger for social purposes.  

Pretty much everyone is guilty of digital social isolation these days.  You’ve heard this before from those of us who evolved as human beings before the digital era.  By limiting yourself to socializing through online/text consumption you are actually limiting yourself to a communication method with WORSE social aptitude results not BETTER.  The quality of enjoyment, depth of expression and opportunity to build lasting relationships has evolved over billions of years through face to face communication.  Digital communication on the other hand has existed for a fraction of a mili-second and the jury is out if humanity would even survive if we continue to depend on it with today’s enthusiasm.  It’s not that I think people shouldn’t enjoy all the latest dating apps, follow each other on social media for entertainment, ease and efficiency, but aim to keep practicing your real life social skills.  Every single client who’s taken me up on my encouragement in this area has come back glowing with newfound empowerment and shock, really.  Like “I cannot believe I initiated a social conversation with a total stranger (sober, mind you!) AND DIDN’T DIE ON THE SPOT FROM ANGST.  I CAN DO ANYTHING NOW!!!”  YES!  That is the best feeling!

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Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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