Sep 072011
 
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intensity

Intensity Is Good, But Control It

Early in my life, I only knew one level of intensity:  HIGH.  I grew up in a very competitive environment and no matter what I did, I had to win.  If not, it was not pretty.  I made it ugly for myself and for everyone around me.  This required me to be very intense all the time, basically living in a constant state of stress.  It was a double-edged sword, as that intensity allowed me to accomplish some things that I may not have otherwise, but it came at a big price.  Due to my level of intensity and competitiveness, I was unable to enjoy anything just for the sake of doing it.  When I look back, I think, “what a horrible way to go through every day”.

The good news is that with time, I’ve been able to learn to have different levels of intensity based on the particular situation at hand.  This transformation has been part standard maturation and part daily battle with myself to “lighten up,” except when it’s necessary to ratchet up the intensity.  Don’t get me wrong, by most standards, many would say I’m still pretty intense a lot of the time, but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be.  I think my wife and family would agree that I’m a little bit easier to live with now after this “transformation”.  The really good news is that this change to someone who is capable of what I like to call “dynamic intensity” has not lowered my productivity at all.  In fact, it has increased it, particularly in the area of creativity.  When I used to have just “one gear,” it was tough to get into a creative state of mind, as I was too busy “getting it done”.

The metaphor I like to use for this “dynamic intensity” is one I’ve heard attributed to the Navy SEALs, but I do not know if that is accurate.  I have not found an authoritative source that talks about its origins.  If anyone knows, please drop me a line.  The metaphor for “states of awareness” is color coded and goes like this:

Level White: I call it “zoned out”.  Living in your own little world, oblivious to what is going on around you.  This is basically a relaxed state with little presence of stress.  You can think of it as sitting on the couch watching a brain-numbing show that’s somewhat engaging.

Level Yellow:  This could be called “semi-aware”.  You know where you are.  You’re not “zoned out,” but there still is not much stress present.  You could think about it as being in the supermarket, where your biggest stress is whether you’re going to have a shopping cart accident with another shopper.

Level Red:  This is when you are very aware.  You have all your senses turned on and you’re paying attention to all of them.  You are assessing your situation to determine whether you need to act to protect yourself, either physically or in a business setting, verbally.  You can think of this one as walking down a dark street at night, alone, and hearing some noises that have you concerned.

Level Black:  At this level, you are in “fight or flight mode”.  It’s everything in Level Red, plus you are now acting based on your senses.  This is the primitive fight or flight response that fires up the amygdala and most likely sends a burst of adrenaline into your blood stream.  This state was covered in detail in another article I wrote about using the GAMES Approach to overcome your fears.  You can think of this one as being in that dark alley late at night and having someone walk up behind you and grab you around the neck.

I have found it very helpful to keep these four “states of awareness” in mind as I go through the day.  What I have found is that there is sometimes a tendency to perceive a situation as requiring a level of awareness much higher than it actually requires.  I have also found the opposite to be true, where it is tempting to not take a situation as seriously as you should and adjust your state of awareness accordingly.

One thing that has become crystal clear to me is that it is not healthy to always be in the same state of awareness.  It is very important to move between the states of awareness as needed, throughout each day.  Hopefully you will not have a lot of circumstances that cause you to go to Level Black, but if you do, then by all means ratchet up your awareness and be prepared to “do what you have to do”.

In my experience, many people go through most of their lives at Level White, never challenging themselves and thus never needing to change their state of mind from “zoned out”.  That’s a state I wouldn’t choose for myself or my loved ones, at least not on a constant basis, but “to each their own”.  We like to spend some time “zoned out” or “chilled out,” in order to relax from other more intense activities, but spending the majority of the time there would be unstimulating and boring, in my opinion.  Depending which activities and challenges I’m doing, I like to spend most of my time vacillating between Level Yellow and Level Red.  What I’ve become a lot better at with time is moving more easily between the levels and not carrying the “baggage” from the previous level with me.

How about you?  Where do you spend most of your time?  Do you find this metaphor helpful in thinking about controlling your “states of awareness”?

I look forward to your thoughts and questions.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

paul@companyfounder.com

www.companyfounder.com

 

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Jun 272011
 
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Performing In The Zone

When you’re “performing in the zone,” or “treeing” as it’s sometimes called, it’s almost as if you can do anything. In business, sports or any other pursuit that requires skill and concentration, when you’re “in the zone,” it’s as if the action slows down in front of you. In that state of mind, you’re more focused, you can better anticipate what’s coming next and as a result, your performance is at a much higher level than you typically experience.

In sports we’ve all seen the seemingly magical performances where someone was “playing out of their mind,” like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant putting in 50 points or more in key playoff games and hitting buzzer-beaters to win crucial games. Where do these “in the zone” moments come from? It’s easy to say, “Well, that’s just Michael Jordan, or that’s just Kobe Bryant, or that’s just ___________[insert name of exceptional athlete],” but anyone who has played sports knows, it’s not just the big name superstars that get in these zones. Furthermore, these big name superstars are not “in the zone” all the time.

So, how does it happen? This will not be a post about how the brain works or other technical physiological jargon or concepts. Rather, let’s keep this to trying to think through how anyone can get “in the zone” or “tree” more frequently in their performances. What is the necessary ingredient or precursor to such “in the zone” performances?

The key ingredient typically present in “treeing” and other peak performance experiences is pressure. There is usually some significant pressure or stress present that causes the peak performer to enhance their focus and play at another level. If nothing else has changed in the physical or mental preparation or state of the athlete or other performer, what other than increased focus could be a major contributor to getting “in the zone”?

If stress, pressure and potentially fear are typically present in peak performance, “in the zone” or “treeing” scenarios, what else can be done in order to maximize the probably of a great performance instead of a dismal failure in such situations? In my opinion, it boils down to a couple of concepts we’ve covered elsewhere in the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears, particularly mental rehearsal and positive self-talk. Beyond the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the world, almost all top performers I know and have observed in business, in sports, and all other performance domains, use mental rehearsal (visualization) and positive self-talk to enhance their performance. This “virtual preparation” is in addition, of course, to the extraordinary physical and other iterative preparation they put in on the field, in the boardroom, or wherever their actual field of play may be.

Let’s review what the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears and maximizing performance entails. Here are the elements, which focus in on how the Navy SEALs are trained to overcome their fears in situations that could, instead of eliciting an “in the zone” performance, cause a panic response, which undermines and potentially destroys performance:

[G]oal-setting: This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of extraneous thoughts and concerns and can remain focused on the task at hand. So, for example in the case of the SEAL Underwater Pool Competency Test, when you were underwater and the instructor tangled your breathing apparatus, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”. Rather, you would say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less. You would then say to yourself: I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training step-by-step. Then you would execute step one, step two … etc. In other words, you would block out all extraneous thoughts and factors and focus totally on the task at hand, step-by-step. Can you see how you could use the same approach with any fears you may have in business, sports or life?

[A]rousal Control: This element focuses mainly on breathing. Taking deeper breaths with longer exhales simulates the body’s relaxation response and helps to mitigate some of the effects that the Amygdala’s panic response can create. So, in the Pool Competency example, when the instructor tied your hoses or pulled your mask off, rather than immediately starting to try to breathe rapidly (which you couldn’t anyway if what the instructor did interrupted the air supply), you would calm your mind with a decent exhale and then calmly get to work on accomplishing your goals and following procedures to address the issue, step-by-step. The relaxed breathing is harder to do in this example underwater, but can you see how breathing in a more relaxed fashion in business, sports or the rest of your life, and remaining calm rather than immediately going into panic mode, could help your performance?

[M]ental Rehearsal: Often referred to as visualization, mental rehearsal involves running through in your mind whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, envisioning all the steps, then a calm reaction to any stress and ultimately, a successful outcome. Mental rehearsal is seeing yourself doing it over and over again successfully, as if in a movie. You can visualize the scenario from a first-person perspective, where you are seeing it through your eyes as you perform the actions, or from a third-person perspective, where it’s as if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone else who is watching you perform the task successfully. You should visualize the scenario in as much detail as possible, so it looks and feels as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of research out there that indicates that your mind has a hard time differentiating between a scenario vividly visualized and one that actually occurred. As one SEAL psychologist says, by performing this step of mental rehearsal, the first time you do something “in real life,” as far as your mind is concerned, it won’t be like the first time at all and you may have greater success controlling the panic reaction that typically would occur. While the process of mental rehearsal has been of great assistance in enhancing SEAL performance, can you also see how doing this could help you perform better in all your endeavors?

[E]ndurance: This element is a recognition that this pro-active approach to mastering the fear response is not something that will happen quickly. It is a war of attrition against your Amygdala’s fear response. You will have to have a great deal of endurance and determination as you do as many iterations as necessary to conquer your fear response(s) in your particular endeavor. You will need to commit to stay at it as long as necessary, bravely confronting and conquering your fears head-on, knowing that by doing so, you will greatly increase the probability of achieving greatness in your chosen endeavor. Your mantra should be: As long as it takes, as many times as it takes. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Commit ahead of time. Be brave. Do not give up until you conquer your fears and reach your objectives.

[S]elf-talk: As has been discussed and proven in many other contexts, the Navy SEAL commanders came to the realization that in becoming an effective Special Forces team member, what you say to yourself, particularly in times of stress, is very important. You can say as many as 1,000 words to yourself in a minute, but at a minimum, you are likely to say several hundred words. If you are filling your mind with negative thoughts, you don’t increase your chances of success; instead, you increase your probability of failure. Discipline yourself to focus on positive self-talk. Repeat encouraging phrases to yourself. Find specific phrases or words that are particularly calming for you, or particularly motivating for you. Use them constantly to prepare for scenarios and use them during scenarios that occur, in the “heat of the battle”. Be your own best fan. Be your own cheering section. Prove by your self-talk that you believe in yourself and in the probability that you will succeed. This will help you keep the stress response under control and it will help you succeed in every aspect of your life.

Use the GAMES approach to maximize the likelihood that in stressful performance situations, you will perform “in the zone,” rather than allowing the fear response to take over and “choking,” as so often happens to those who are not adequately informed and prepared.

I look forward to your comments and questions.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com.

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May 202011
 
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We all have fears. It is part of the reality of being human. Those who deny having any fears typically are lying or are not being honest with themselves.

The following comments are based on my work and research with athletes, business people and other elite performers such as Special Forces members. Further resources for information on this topic include many articles, books, audio and video works, including the 2009 History Channel documentary called The Brain. The GAMES Approach mentioned below is adapted from a Navy SEAL approach to dealing with fears, which was covered in the History Channel’s The Brain documentary.

Can fears get in the way of accomplishing your objectives? Can they keep you from becoming great at whatever it is you want to conquer? Absolutely! Fears can stop you dead in your tracks, quite literally. This is due to how the brain functions and sometimes this reality works to your benefit, particularly in the area of physical safety.

However, in the area of “mental safety,” fear can be a real problem. In the brain’s desire to protect you from the unknown and apparently dangerous, it can actually impede you from accomplishing your most important goals.

Rather than focus in depth on the physiological realities that cause you to stop “dead in your tracks,” I’ll give you a basic primer on what happens in your brain when confronted with “scary” situations, then we’ll quickly move on to what you can do about it, so that you can, to quote the Doors, “break on through to the other side”.

When you are confronted with a scary situation, in basic terms, your brain presses the “panic button”. The danger is perceived by your senses then makes it way over to the Amygdala, one of the regions of the brain that deals with emotion, where if the danger is perceived to be real and imminent, the brain starts a cascade effect of panic responses. Your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, your blood pressure rises, and if the level of panic is sufficient, chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into your bloodstream. The fight or flight system is thus activated and you’re in full panic mode, like it or not.

Unless the Frontal Lobes of the Cerebral Cortex can get the Amygdala’s panic cascade under control, or prevent it from occurring in the first place, the likelihood of pushing through your fears is quite limited. The Nervous System response and blood stream chemical effects are simply overwhelming. The problem is that research has shown that the sensory data arrives more quickly to the Amygdala than it does to the Frontal Lobes, where rational thought could potentially prevent the fear reaction from cascading out of control. Then how can the Frontal Lobes possibly prevent the Amygdala from reacting and triggering panic mode? Per The Brain documentary mentioned above, this was a question very much on the mind of instructors at the Navy SEALs Special Warfare Command in San Diego, California.

They came to the realization that they were losing a large number of potential SEALs from the training process due to one simple fact: they could not control their fear response.

Image of BUDS - Navy SEAL Pool Competency Training

Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr

This inability to control the fear response was most apparent in what’s called the Underwater Pool Competency Test. This is the test where SEAL candidates spend as much as 20 minutes underwater with SCUBA equipment, during which time they are constantly harassed by instructors. The instructors will turn off their regulators, tie their breathing gear into knots and generally make it difficult to breathe from the SCUBA tank for more than a short time. This harassment leads to a steadily worsening mental and physical condition and the candidates must do everything they can to resist the desire to surface for air. It is an incredibly strong desire that is extraordinarily difficult to suppress. The human brain has been hardwired to understand that breathing is absolutely fundamental, that we cannot breathe underwater, and without oxygen for any prolonged period, we’re dead.

So realizing that the Amygdala pushes the panic button, and further realizing that the only way to overcome this automatic response would be to get the Cortex/ Frontal Lobes involved, the SEAL commanders came to the conclusion that it was important to be pro-active and condition a “non-panic” response by repeated exposure to the “right” emergency procedures. What it boils down to is that the Cortex / Frontal Lobes cannot get involved “realtime” before the Amygdala at the moment the danger is perceived, as they receive the sensory input more slowly, so the response needs to be conditioned based on practice before any event that could induce panic. The candidates need to override their panic system, based on previously obtained and internalized knowledge and a set of step-by-step procedures and techniques. While there are more, SEAL instructors decided to focus on what they call the “big 4” techniques: Goal-setting; Mental Rehearsal; Self-talk; and Arousal Control. I have added a fifth, “Endurance,” and re-orderded them a bit to come up with the “GAMES” Approach to conquering your fears. Next we will touch on each of the elements of the GAMES Approach.

[G]oal-setting: This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of extraneous thoughts and concerns and can remain focused on the task at hand. So, for example in the case of the Underwater Pool Competency Test, when you were underwater and the instructor tangled your breathing apparatus, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”. Rather, you would say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less. You would then say to yourself: I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training step-by-step. Then you would execute step one, step two … etc. In other words, you would block out all extraneous thoughts and factors and focus totally on the task at hand, step-by-step. Can you see how you could use the same approach with any fears you may have in business, sports or life?

[A]rousal Control: This element focuses mainly on breathing. Taking deeper breaths with longer exhales stimulates the body’s relaxation response and helps to mitigate some of the effects that the Amygdala’s panic response can create. So, in the Pool Competency example, when the instructor tied your hoses or pulled your mask off, rather than immediately starting to try to breathe rapidly (which you couldn’t anyway if what the instructor interrupted the air supply), you would calm your mind with a decent exhale and then calmly get to work on accomplishing your goals and following procedures to address the issue, step-by-step. The relaxed breathing is harder to do in this example underwater, but can you see how breathing in a more relaxed fashion in business, sports or the rest of your life, and remaining calm rather than immediately going into panic mode, could help your performance?

[M]ental Rehearsal: Often referred to as visualization, mental rehearsal involves running through in your mind whatever it is that you are trying to accomplish, envisioning all the steps, then reacting calmly to any stress and ultimately, achieving a successful outcome. Mental rehearsal is seeing yourself doing it over and over again successfully, as if in a movie. You can visualize the scenario from a first-person perspective, where you are seeing it through your eyes as you perform the actions, or from a third-person perspective, where it’s as if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone else who is watching you perform the task successfully. You should visualize the scenario in as much detail as possible, so it looks and feels as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of research out there that indicates that your mind has a hard time differentiating between a scenario vividly visualized and one that actually occurred. As one SEAL psychologist says, by performing this step of mental rehearsal, the first time you do something “in real life,” as far as your mind is concerned, it won’t be like the first time at all and you may have greater success controlling the panic reaction that typically would occur. The process of mental rehearsal has been of great assistance in enhancing SEAL performance; can you also see how doing this could help you perform better in all of your endeavors?

[E]ndurance: This element is a recognition that this pro-active approach to mastering the fear response is not something that will happen quickly. It is a war of attrition against your Amygdala’s fear response. You will have to have a great deal of endurance and determination as you do as many iterations as necessary to conquer your fear response(s) in your particular endeavor. You will need to commit to stay at it as long as necessary, bravely confronting and conquering your fears head-on, knowing that by doing so, you will greatly increase the probability of achieving greatness in your chosen endeavor. Your mantra should be: As long as it takes, as many times as it takes. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Commit ahead of time. Be brave. Do not give up until you conquer your fears and reach your objectives.

[S]elf-talk: As has been discussed and proven in many other contexts, the Navy SEAL commanders came to the realization that in becoming an effective Special Forces team member, what you say to yourself, particularly in times of stress, is very important. You can say as many as 1,000 words to yourself in a minute, but at a minimum, you are likely to say several hundred words. If you are filling your mind with negative thoughts, you don’t increase your chances of success; instead, you increase your probability of failure. Discipline yourself to focus on positive self-talk. Repeat encouraging phrases to yourself. Find specific phrases or words that are particularly calming for you, or particularly motivating for you. Use them constantly to prepare for scenarios and use them during scenarios that occur, in the “heat of the battle”. Be your own best fan. Be your own cheering section. Prove by your self-talk that you believe in yourself and in the probability that you will succeed. This will help you keep the stress response under control and it will help you succeed in every aspect of your life.

So there you have in a nutshell the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears and achieving your goals and “greatness” in all areas of your life. Don’t limit yourself to one or two of the elements of the Approach; use all five. Use them pro-actively and use them together, in concert. Some fear responses are so strong that they will overwhelm anything but a coordinated effort to make sure that your rational Cortex wins out over your emotional, panic-prone Amygdala. In the effort to control the fear response and increase the probability that you will accomplish your objectives and become great in your chosen endeavor, you need all the reinforcements and coordination you can get.

I look forward to your comments and questions.

Paul Morin
paul@CompanyFounder.com
www.CompanyFounder.com

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