Overcoming a Bad Case of the "Yips"
by Mark Goulston

"What doesn't break you can make you stronger."

It's something you might say to a pal who missed out on a promotion; it's a platitude that might console someone who's looking for a silver lining in a cloud of disappointment. But is the platitude true? Can disappointment and rejection really make us stronger? Or is it just wishful thinking, a gracious attitude to show the public while we crumble in private?

I've found that what doesn't break you can make you stronger. It doesn't work automatically, though. You have to make it happen.

Not long ago a client of mine -- an entrepreneur -- came up with a formula that worked for him. Over the years, he came to realize that every rejection led to an emotional cave-in. He dealt with it through behavior that was self-defeating, if not downright self-destructive: drinking binges, drugs, spending sprees, overeating, or sexual forays that left him feeling guilty. He was trying to make himself feel better by saying, "Screw you!" to a world that had, well, screwed him.

Over time, those coping methods stopped working. What's worse, they made him feel ashamed of himself. The result? Lower self-regard than he had before the original rejection.

Last year, however, when another of his "sure thing" ideas bit the dust, he took 48 hours, brooded a bit, and felt sorry for himself. But he didn't do anything to try to "make himself feel better." Soon he began to come up with useful ideas that might work next time. He also realized that the ideas would never have occurred to him if he hadn't been rejected two days earlier. Ordinarily, he would have been too busy trying to "feel better."

Now when he runs into a setback, he takes a deep breath and repeats to himself: "Let time pass. Don't do anything to make it worse." Within two days, he learns something of value. It's like clockwork, he says, although he's not sure why. I think it works because mature people, when hit with rejection and self-doubt, seek to understand and correct what went wrong so it doesn't happen again. Immature people, on the other hand, look for relief, deluding themselves with the wishful thinking that it will never happen again.

Just as foresight can turn defeat into victory, so, too, can hindsight. While on vacation, a senior vice president of strategic planning worked hard on a new business plan (nice way to spend a vacation, eh?), only to have it ripped to shreds during a meeting with the CEO, COO, and other executives in his company. In the past, he would have blamed others or beat up on himself. But not this time.

Instead he took an index card after the disastrous meeting and wrote down what he would do if he had ito do it all over again. "Instead of becoming so invested in my idea, I would have surveyed the other people whose buy in I would need," he said. His note to them -- and to himself -- said, "What would be something that would be impossible to do, but if we could do it, would rapidly grow our company?"

So yes, pain and loss can translate into motivation and improvement -- provided you do the translation work. And there are many languages to use, inside and outside our industry.

A professional golfer, winner of several major championships, contracted an affliction known to many in his sport. It's called "the Yips." It happens when you try to putt, lose the touch, and punch at the ball instead of stroking it smoothly. It has ended careers, professional and amateur. Golfers will try anything to overcome the Yips: crazy-looking putters, odd grips, even odder strokes, copper bracelets, hypnosis, visualization, psychics -- all to varying degrees of success.

This client found a different approach. He looked into the difference between a winner and a champion . Winners have talent, he decided, and when they're on a roll, they win. Champions have not only talent, but heart. When the roll stops, golfers with mere talent watch the wheels come off. Champions reach down into their heart and pull out fierce determination. In his view, you can't even begin to develop heart until you hit adversity.

He stopped using gimmicks and instead began closing his eyes every time he stepped onto a green, saying to himself, "This is your opportunity to see if you have heart." With that, his game changed. The Yips abated, and he started making tournament cuts again for the first time in a year.

Just because you don't win doesn't always mean you lose. Maybe that "loss" is what it takes to find your heart. When it comes right down to it, which would you choose to be: an occasional winner or a permanent champion?

Usable Insight: Scoring a knockout helps you succeed in the short term; learning you can take a punch helps you succeed in the long term.

Mark Goulston, M.D. is a specialist in Emotional Intelligence and heads Sherwood's Executive Coaching, Team Building and Sales Training practices. For more information visit: www.shrwood.com. Contact Mark at: mgoulston@shrwood.com.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Mark Goulston. All rights reserved.

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