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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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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#Squadgoals for grownups: how to build your social crew with confidence

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The Bay Area is home to a large number of people who relocate here for improved work or educational opportunities.  After settling in, most find themselves wanting to establish new local friendships, set up a social community, and increase their sense of group inclusiveness.  Many could benefit from developing their social crew with confidence, a.k.a. #squadgoals for grownups.  For some, building new friendships in an area brimming with overachievers in tech can feel intimidating, and lead to a sense of social isolation and loneliness.  Others who feel more comfortable in high achieving social contexts may find networking for professional purposes easier, but feel uncertain about how to read social cues outside of structured work settings.
One of the first things people can do is aim to understand the role they typically take on in group settings.  Most people can look back to childhood and notice re-occurring patterns in their social lives.  What influential experiences or people shaped your beliefs about friendship growth?  How did you come to understand yourself in comparison to others in a group dynamic?  Taking historical inventory can help people better understand and reflect upon their unique social development.  Why did some groups feel enjoyable and easy, whereas others felt uninteresting or even toxic?    Here are a few examples of young millennials working through social challenges:
29 year old  Jason “I’m bummed that some friends who said they’d do a 10k with me a few months ago ended up flaking- it felt pretty rude.  One person basically said they’d go if another mutual friend was going, but not if it was just me.  I feel like my social value in the group is lower than I thought, and now if I don’t go, it just proves I don’t have much influence.”
25 year old Sunako “I feel nervous in group settings, even when everyone in the group is a friend of mine.  I get worried that I don’t have anything interesting to contribute to the conversation, and I feel like everyone is smarter and funnier than me.”
28 year old Kiaan “I haven’t found a group of friends like the ones I had in NYC- I used to have a group of friends I could just hit up for random stuff, you know, grab a drink or a bite, shoot some hoops, whatever.  I can do that with work people here, but it’s just not the same, you know?  I don’t really connect with people here in the same way.”
Around the same time I decided to pen this article on #squadgoals for grownups, my daughter (who’s in the 3rd grade) hosted a sleepover for ten of her friends.  There’s nothing like watching a group of kids resolve social predicaments over and over as a way to examine the social nuances of group functioning.  As someone who’s well liked by her peers, makes new friends easily, and has successfully welcomed newcomers into her friend group, I wanted her to weigh in on what can help people feel confident in social situations.  I was hoping she’d give me a few basic points of reference to build upon how and why friendships grow stronger, and how to best enjoy social groups.  (The secret is out- multi-tasking parents are not opposed to having our kids do our work for us whenever possible!)  She offered the following tips in plain language, pointing out the most important tenets of developing friendships and navigating social groups.  These universal concepts are timeless, and I truly believe apply to all ages and social strata.  As we get older, we can overcomplicate things, take things too personally, and assign unnecessary value to social roles that undermine our confidence and ability to enjoy others.
  • If you’re feeling shy but would like to make new friends, it helps to remember: no one wants to play alone.  Everyone likes the feeling of being included.  By being part of a social group you can enjoy things differently than when you’re alone.  A group is only fun if people in it are getting along well.  How you can help this happen?  There are different ways you can be included in a social group.
  • If you want to build a leadership role within a group, you have to gain other people’s trust that a suggestion you have is going to go well and be fun.  Some people really like coming up with new ideas for the group, and other people like to add their opinions to a new idea.  A good leader pays attention to other people’s opinions and preferences when they’re coming up with suggestions for the group.
  • Everyone feels good when their idea is used for a group activity, so it’s good to take turns and let other people suggest ideas.  Be enthusiastic about their idea, and pay attention to how they’d it to go.  They’ll probably invite you back to do stuff with them again.
  • Move on from an activity that isn’t working well and don’t take it personally.  Focus on paying attention to what people find fun, and accept that some times an idea doesn’t go as planned.  Just let it go, and do something else.
  • It’s ok if you don’t enjoy coming up with ideas for the group- other people will still really like including you because you make a point to enjoy their suggestions.  They’ll keep including you because by participating you add to the fun of the group, and you’ll become closer friends with others that way.
  • Sometimes you might want to do an activity that other people in your group don’t want to do.  You have to decide what’s more important to you in that moment – doing the activity you had in mind, or doing something with the group.  If other people aren’t interested in joining you for this activity, you should focus on the reasons unrelated to you to that have probably influenced their decision.  You should not take it personally.  Just move on and stay focused on having fun, what ever you decide to do with your time.
  •  If you decide to do something different than the group, you can always meet up with them later, you don’t have to feel like you’re not part of the group anymore.  By getting together with the group another time, you get a chance to do different things, and other people can do the same.  If people in a group get mad anytime someone wants to do something different for a change, it’s probably not going to feel as much fun in the long run.  The best groups should still be able to have fun when people come and go at different times.
  • Most new friendships are established and reinforced because people enjoy doing the same types of things- even doing them alone these activities are fun, but by sharing the experience with other people, it adds to the fun.  In the beginning maybe you don’t feel that close to someone new, but as you do an activity with them, you end up feeling more comfortable and closer to them.  Before you know it you’re very close friends.
She makes it sound pretty simple, right? 🙂
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