How to Adapt the Mindset of Champions for Everyday Challenges

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Several years ago, I researched what made for successful salespeople in my industry. The goal was to spotlight correlative traits and skills in potential new hires. Some of my findings were unsurprising. Successful salespeople had a tendency for self-motivation, discipline, and perseverance. But the interesting finding was the difference between good salespeople and great salespeople.

Good and great salespeople followed different paths to success and actually had very different skills, motivations, and methodologies. In order to further understand the difference, I started looking for examples of what I would call “winners,” and “champions” in society and found they, too, followed similar but different paths.

What brings me back to this research today is that we are all facing challenges and setbacks due to COVID-19, the economy, and our divisive political climate. Many of us need motivation or at least a roadmap to help us go that extra mile. We all need to string together small every day wins to become our own champions in this challenging time. This is why I thought I would share the following roadmap and include useful adaptations to get you through everyday life.

Wannabes, Winners & Champions

Let’s start off this with some less than scientific terminology. The world has many Wannabes, Winners, and Champions. Wannabes tend to be born with observable talent, physical and/or fiscal advantages, but they never actually make it to the winner's circle. This can happen for several reasons.

  • They fail to put in the effort.
  • They are early bloomers who lose their advantages as others catch up.
  • They specialize in something too early and burn out.
  • They specialize in something for which they never had a passion.

By comparison, most Winners likely they have some combination of talent, resources, and effort — so that they can hoist themselves up onto the top of the winners podium at least once at some level.

Now getting to the winners circle even once is a more than satisfactory result. But true champions make it there time after time and even in different arenas. So, what makes a Champion different from a Winner? A Winner is someone who gets to Wimbledon. A Champion wins Wimbledon. A Super-champion wins Wimbledon, the French, US and Australian Open multiple times. Similarly, it’s why some musical artists are one hit wonders (Winners) and others cross genres and even decades (Champions). It’s the difference between founding a single successful company and multiple successful companies. Super-champions are household names even to those who don’t follow a particular sport, industry or genre. But we don’t need to be Super-champions, just learn from their methodologies.

Based on my research, Wannabes have talent and/or access to resources plus goals, but no motivation. Winners have talent and/or access to resources plus goals and extrinsic motivation. This creates a confidence in their abilities that can lead to even more wins. Champions, however, have all of the aforementioned, but both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation (discussed below), plus what I call a G/P/S plan (grit, play and systems), all of which combine to give them confidence in their abilities and more importantly, confidence in their systems. This is what leads them to success even after the worst setbacks.

Talent & Goals: Not as important as you think

“Talent is common; what you invest to develop that talent is the critical final measure of greatness.”

— Anson Dorrance, UNC Women’s Soccer Coach

One thing that all Wannabes, Winners, and Champions have in common is some basic level of talent. Sometimes it may take us awhile to find our talents. Sometimes the hard part is aligning our interests with our talents. Talent can be physical, mental, or related to a personality trait. Talent is subjective so hard to define. But if you can do something with more ease than others and with better results, there’s a chance you might have some talent. However, talent should not be limiting. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Which is why it takes more than talent to be a Winner or a Champion.

If you are feeling like a Wannabe right now, you are not alone. We are in a marathon for which none of us have trained. However, the motivation you need right now is simply to take one first step towards your goal, whatever that might be. If this is you, I highly recommend reading The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Set Themselves up for Success, by Jeff Haden. Its main thesis: motivation builds after that first step. Take a small action. Start the process and the motivation and confidence will follow. The entire difference between a Wannabe and a Winner is taking that first, small step.

Motivation: extrinsic, intrinsic or both?

“Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them―a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

— Muhammad Ali

Extrinsic motivation is external, it’s doing something for a reward or to avoid punishment. This is often enough to propel someone with talent and goals into the winner’s circle. External rewards could be monetary, the respect of colleagues, reaching a personal goal, or simply making it to the end of the day. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, comes from within and it prompts you to do things for your own enjoyment. Unlike Winners, who can succeed on extrinsic motivation alone, Champions have both types of motivation. They are motivated by the work itself, not just the end result.

How can we relate this to our everyday lives? Understand that the extrinsic rewards that may have previously motivated you on a daily basis, may have disappeared. It could be monetary, i.e., your business has flatlined during COVID-19. It could be the regular recognition of a job well done by colleagues, which is hard to emulate while working from home. It could simply be the reward of a structured workday, which has been completely blown apart by working at home and caretaking responsibilities. Simply recognizing that your rewards have changed can be helpful. If possible, see if there is a way to create some sort of personal extrinsic reward. Reward yourself for a job well done no matter how small. In addition, try to focus on the parts and aspects of the job you intrinsically like and find ways to expand those areas.

The Grit/Play/Systems Program

When looking at champions and Super-champions in all aspects of life, every single one incorporated some form of grit, play and systems. Here’s a quick overview:

Grit is the Foundation of Champions

“To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal. To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

— Angela Lee Duckworth

When you look at champions, the astonishing fact is that many of them were late bloomers or had to overcome some level of adversity. They were not individuals that anyone other than themselves and close members of their family would have picked to be Champions based on their early years. Tom Brady was the NFL’s 199th draft choice in 2000. Elon Musk couldn’t get a job at Netscape. Serena and Venus Williams had less resources and played through racism. Bruce Springsteen grew up with a schizophrenic father and faced his own mental health issues. One thing they all had in common was that through adversity they learned the skill of “trying.” They had the motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic) to keep going when the easiest option would be to quit.

If you want to understand the power of grit, I recommend reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. For Duckworth, grit is not about the intensity of effort, it’s about consistency of effort over time. For those who have had to overcome adversity or challenges, they learned that through consistent effort, they were able to take actionable control of their destiny. That’s a superpower — to know that you can change your future. It’s what makes Champions optimists. They view challenges as temporary and specific. They have a growth mindset, meaning that they can learn or create systems to overcome their current situation.

We all need grit right now and while we don’t know when the current COVID-19 pandemic will end, we know that it will. We simply need to sustain our efforts to get through each day until it does. In order to do that, we need to reflect back on times where we have done this in the past and flex those muscles. Two things that will help are the next two elements of the G/P/S program: Play and Systems.

Champions Play Everyday

“I trained 3–4 hours a week at Ajax when I was little but played 3–4 hours a day on the street. So where do you think I learnt football?”

— Johann Cruyff

One thing all Champions do is incorporate play into their daily programs. This seems counterintuitive in today’s intensely focused world of overachievers. But play isn’t just a healthy distraction, play is where we have an opportunity to create, try something new, and learn skills that we wouldn’t attempt under more pressure-filled circumstances. Play is defined as doing something with no end result in mind.

For example, think back to when you played pickup sports or any kind of neighborhood game. You were forced to create the teams, make the rules, make decisions based on the rules, and work out disagreements all without supervision. In addition, in a pickup game, you can be free to try something new. Contrast this to today’s youths, who don’t have time for play. Even if they participate in a sport, it’s always on the clock and under watchful eyes of coaches and parents .

Another word that can be substituted for play in recent years is “flow” or what we used to call “being in the zone.” This was documented in the book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; but my first exposure to it was way back during my tennis years via The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey (which apparently is a favorite book of Tom Brady, based on an instagram post back in January 2017 just prior to the infamous Superbowl victory that solidified his GOAT standing).

Flow or “being in the zone” is when you are so wrapped up in what you are doing that you are entirely present and oblivious to distractions or even time. Flow is something that can happen in your work. For me, when the writing is going well, I’m definitely in the zone and flowing. That’s why I try to incorporate writing as part of my work when times are tough (like right now). For other, more extroverted sorts, it may be outreach to friends, colleagues and even clients. Find your flow and make sure it is part of your daily program.

Play is also important both inside and outside of work. Unfortunately, play is the first thing we cut out when times get tough. But it should be the last. Before I learned about “flow” I used to advocate that we all should have our “non-negotiable passions.” Something immersive in our life that is not controlled by others and for which we commit to making time. It could be reading, meditating, learning something new, (enjoyable) exercise, calling a good friend just to chat, trying something creative, or simply going for a walk. But make the time — just 20 minutes a day for 30 days until it becomes a non-negotiable habit — the world can wait.

All Champions have Systems

If there is one mindset to incorporate from Champions it’s to create systems. Systems are the difference between Winners and Champions. Why? Because systems lead to sustainable success. Today we are in a marathon where we need to string together more wins than losses, and systems are the key.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

— James Clear

This is one of my favorite quotes from James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones and I highly recommend it as a good follow up to the Jeff Haden book on motivation mentioned earlier.

Why do systems work? For a few reasons. First, if it’s a good system and we follow it, we should have results. Having systems to follow limits the possibility of derailment after poor results. It gives us something to focus on. Second, systems focus on items within our control. Most of us feel angst or even anger when faced with issues and obstacles that are out of our control. Good systems bring our focus back to activities we actually do control. And give us next steps when something goes wrong.

Take Olympic athletes, for example. Ever wonder how an athlete who trains their whole life for a single race that doesn’t go well gets up and races again? A true Champion does not blame themselves, but they look at how they can improve their systems so that failure does not happen again. They can go back to their system and tweak it if need be, or improve it. They got to their race because of their confidence in their systems, not themselves. This is how they also avoid slumps. Slumps happen when we lose faith in ourselves, However, if your focus is on your system you can escape that mindset.

In our current situation, systems are more important than ever as many of us are juggling work, caretaking, even homeschooling and our own mental and physical health. Start small, but focus on what is working. Then build off that. Don’t blame yourself for not getting something accomplished, focus instead on how you can tweak your system to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It also helps to prioritize tasks. When everything seems like a priority, the next question to ask is what can I do once that will eliminate even more tasks in the future. For example, when I first began wearing readers, I was constantly misplacing them. This is why I now have two systems. First, I buy enough cheap ones so they are in every room of the house and also in the car. In addition, I have a bowl inside the front door to put all the extras. This way I can find them when I need them. The initial expense and effort of buying a couple of pairs has saved me more time and frustration than I can calculate. This is basically what systemic thinking is.

For more on systemic thinking, check out Dan Heath’s Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

All Champions have Teams

The last thing that separated champions from winners is that they had teams of people around them and they stuck with those teams for most of the duration, through the good and bad times. One hit wonders jump around from coach to coach, company to company, and relationship to relationship. This often makes them loners.

Clearly, being a functioning member of a team is easier said than done right now, with the job losses and isolation. But if you have good people around you, congratulate yourself and express your gratitude for them even if you might not be feeling it right now. If you are feeling alone, please reach out to someone. For some, this is one of the hardest times we have ever gone through and will ever go through again (hopefully). It’s okay to ask someone to help you build the playbook you need to make it through these next few weeks and months.

Conclusion

As mentioned in the opening, we are in a marathon, and one we didn’t plan on running. Simply getting through the day requires effort and likely a total mindshift. What I shared with you today are some insights as to how Champions create a playbook for continued success both in their original pursuit of a goal and in other ones.

Hopefully, we can all borrow from this playbook and incorporate at least some of the Champion’s mindset for 2021. However, if you still need a little motivation that is also fun, I recommend reading, or better yet, listening to an audio version of Matthew McConaughey’s recent memoir, Green Lights. It’s an homage to how he does his own version of the Champions playbook to overcome setbacks, learn from mistakes, create systems and focus on goals and yes, he manages to have a whole lot of fun along the way.

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