At a friend's 60th birthday party, I was introduced to his 13-year-old. "What do you like to do?" I inquired. "Well, I play soccer, but my favorite sport is rock climbing," he replied. This kid lives in Brooklyn, New York, and the last time I was there, I didn't see any outdoor rock formations. Yet a Google search turns up a number of cool indoor courses. It turns out that many schools offer competitive climbing as a letter sport. Kids like my new friend compete both as individuals and as a team.
We talked for 15 or 20 minutes, the longest conversation I've had in years with a 13-year-old. My fascination was due in part to the fact that I had once tried climbing and failed. It isn't hiking! The occasion was a segment I was taping for a television news program. I went into it lighthearted and utterly unprepared. After maybe, MAYBE half an hour of instruction, I was on my way, and soon found myself stretched between landing points, gripping a ledge for dear life. I froze, tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat. I couldn't think what to do next. Move this hand to the right? This foot up? Stay here? The instructor finally talked me past my fear and eventually, I made it to the top, completely spent. In an hour, I had been pushed to a psychological edge.
Expert climbers handle the mental challenge in part through visualization.
In a recent issue of Climbing Magazine, I found an article by Amanda Fox and Susan Costs that suggests picturing the route you have in mind and rehearsing each move until you have mastered it. You actually see your hands on the rock, feel the sun on your back, and experience tension in your arms and legs.
Visualization is a type of meditation. I have found a similar technique helpful when working with leadership teams to clarify their vision and strategy. This approach allows you to skip right over the "how would we ever do this, it's impossible" part, and focus on a "future state" that already exists.
What I hadn't thought to do was to employ visualization in the middle of a stressful situation. Imagine your toughest current business challenge.
If you're stuck, you can start to feel angry, tired, even despair. That can paralyze you.
Climbers get past it with deep breathing. Sending oxygen to the brain helps you relax. Once you are in a better state of mind, you can actually identify the next "decision point" where you will rest and plan your next move. Taking any climb one segment at a time gets you to the top with far less stress, and, once there, you may even experience exhilaration.
"Anxiety comes from shifting your attention too far into the future, to the unknown, say Fox and Costa".
As the calendar turns and we head toward the end of the fiscal year, the pressure is on. Many of us are living in an unhealthy, stressed mental state. Taking a deep breath and focusing on today, or the next hour, is a good tip. December 31st will come; if all we think only about how tough the climb is right now, we will be miserable and maybe paralyzed. Mental toughness isn't just about mind over matter. It's about reducing the challenge to small segments, reaching decision points, and focusing on the the best path forward, a section at a time.
By the way, if you are interested in learning more about how to get your team into a productive future state of mind for strategy discussions, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.