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Lead With Your Strengths To Build Your Confidence

  • May 5, 2013
  • Mark Schulman

In his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, Tom Rath wrote, “People who do have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life.”

When you are confronting a presentation, communication or performance that is giving you considerable anxiety, Focusing on what you do best and what you have rehearsed the most is an obvious way to build your confidence.

This is musician-turned-entrepreneur David Kalt’s modus operandi. He lets his excitement for a topic take over. David doesn’t focus on the analytical world of raw numbers, hypotheticals and analytics. He wants investors to see his dream, the vision of what he wants to build and where he wants to take the company. “I have a CFO that can do the other things.”

When David tried to adapt to the world of numbers, he became really intimidated and felt he didn’t have much strength.

The world of anxiety is not the “real” world. Anxiety is distortion. That’s not where we want to live. Our natural state is not a state of anxiety; it’s a state of focus and calm. When you’re anxious or fearful, that’s your fight or flight state. That’s only appropriate when you are in basic survival mode. Assuming that your basic survival needs are taken care of, when you are in presentation mode, anxiety and fear are usually unnecessary and inappropriate.

Kalt recalls a dominant business partner he really struggled with. They fought, a lot. They had trouble communicating.

“I actually had to figure out how I was going to deal with him and my anxiety around him. I realized that in order for me to succeed in that business relationship, I had to figure out how to play to my strengths and how to be in offensive mode.

David stepped down as CEO several years later and discussed the situation with his former partner.

“The chemistry between us made the company unique, but my memories are of fighting and bickering. Some of that anxiety did bring about greatness, but only as I figured out more techniques to better communicate and control my emotions. I gradually started to figure out how not to wear my emotions on my sleeve, how to be much more in control. One of the things that people tell me in business, and in personal life, is that I don’t have a whole lot of filters—and you’ll find that with passionate people. I had to figure out how to have better control of my communication and emotions in ways that would raise my game.”

David thinks of performance anxiety like a habit you can let go. “A food habit, a smoking habit, a communication habit—fear or anxiety, that’s a habit and you have to say you don’t want to be like that.”

I’m a musician, and musicians love to party. But partying for me isn’t about drugs or alcohol; rather it’s a state of mind—one of release, happiness and playing full out.  Getting in that groove is far easier when you’re doing something you know you’re good at. Develop a method that works for you, and do it when the potential for anxiety arises.

Former Fresno State kicker Kevin Goessling consciously reminds himself to be confident. “Whether it’s a field goal, a drum roll, whatever it is, you’ve done it so many times, you’ve practiced it and your body is not going to forget how to do it. The only thing that will really affect that is your mind getting in the way by trying to micromanage.”

To put that busy mind at ease, Kevin addresses his thoughts: “Thank you very much. I hear what you’re saying. I’m going to kick now.”

It was special teams coach John Baxter who inspired Kevin to trust his instincts, telling him that the human body doesn’t understand negative words. As parents of a young child, my wife and I have make this a cornerstone of our approach—we remind Zade of what she can do rather than what she can’t.

Kevin cites one of his favorite books, The Inner Game of Tennis, which describes Self 1 (the teller) and Self 2 (the doer). “You’ve got to make Mind A let Mind B do the work,” he says. “I just have to remind myself that my mind isn’t what’s kicking the ball. It’s just giving me a couple of cues.

“I’m teaching my brain to understand what it doesn’t know and what it doesn’t control. If I try to control what’s out of my control, then I’m just going to screw myself up. If you can control it, you don’t have to worry about it, and if you can’t control it, then don’t worry about it. So either way, no worries.”

I learned many years ago to treat that dubious inner voice like a small rebellious child. Just because my mind kicks up negative thoughts, doesn’t mean I have to believe them. Like Kevin, I talk back. “Thank you for your input and comments, but I’m going to do what I have trained so thoroughly to do. OK Mind, have a nice day and talk to you later!”

It sounds a bit crazy, and it may look a bit crazy if someone’s watching, but my spirit is guiding me, and that’s the real me. The mind can chatter away and have tantrums—especially mine—but I never take it too seriously. Address it. That will quiet the chatter and give you more clarity. My mentor, Jim Samuels, calls it giving your mind a “receipt.”

Kickers are such solitary figures in an otherwise team sport. That’s what Clint Stitser learned before his intro to the pro sport on Dec. 5, 2010, when the Bengals played against the defending champion New Orleans Saints.

“The Bengals coach basically explained to me before the game that there’s no loyalty to kickers in the industry. You’re a hired gun, and if you miss your target, well, you’re fired and that’s just the way it is. You better accept it, and if you can channel those emotions, good for you; if you can’t, you’re probably not going to last very long.”

Essentially, Clint had to acknowledge that, accept it and have confidence in the kicker he trained to be. He went three-for-three on field goals before he missed an extra point kick (PAT).

“I missed a point after touchdown in an NFL game, which for a rookie kicker is career suicide! I came to the sideline and I was frustrated, upset. At that point, guys on the team essentially no longer talk to you because they assume they’re not going to see you anymore.

“So, I’m sitting on the sidelines with the knowledge that, at some point in time, I’m probably gonna have to go back in again. The only thing that I can do is just let go. I absolutely have to perform, or for sure I’m gonna be gone, and I’ll never get a shot again. You miss a PAT again, and you’re axed regardless. It’s insurmountable.

“I feel like crap, and the coach of the Bengals is well known for riding players. He’s in your face, in your ear screaming at you. He’ll be yelling at you for something in the first quarter that happened four kicks ago, and he’d still be upset about it and asks to see pictures of it from the printers on the sidelines.”

Oh, I should also mention that Clint’s wife was in the stands. She was five-and-a-half months pregnant with their first child. He could have ridden that situation into serious meltdown. But he didn’t. He took a deep breath, and realized that this could be one of the biggest comebacks of his career.

“There were times in college when we would lose a game, and the coach would use the phrase ‘draw a line in the sand.’ It was time to make a decision. So, I dragged my foot along the big white sideline and drew a line in the sand. ‘I’m making a comeback, and I’m just going to let go. Screw it. I can’t be paralyzed by this, because I’ve trained too hard to be this way.’ The next time we got sent out on the field for a PAT it was good, and later I kicked a 47-yard field goal. But I’ll never forget that point in my career when I was most vulnerable, right there on the sidelines, for the 10 or 15 minutes after that missed PAT, knowing that I might never go back in.”

From the business perspective, Leigh Gallagher of FORTUNE gets more nervous speaking in person than she ever does on television. For her, TV is like being at a dinner party, where everyone shares their thoughts on a topic. Live speaking is a different animal all together. So, she reminds herself of one simple, powerful point.

“Someone decided that I belong on that stage and that I have something to say to these people. That’s what you have to keep in mind,” Leigh says. “There may indeed be an expert in the room who knows more about the topic, but maybe they can’t speak as well as you or maybe they don’t know how to smile and be light or whatever. You are up there for a reason. Someone picked you and asked you to be there because they thought you could do it.”

Actor Jeremy Piven reminds himself that he’s becoming fearful of what his mind believes is a bad thing. “I don’t have to give in to this,” he says. Jeremy compares the process to meditating. You start thinking, and you panic. You worry that you’ll never be able to meditate, that your mind’s too busy. Or you say, “Oh look at that thought. That’s a nice thought. I’ll just tuck that away for a moment.”

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