What do you do?
If you’re like many of us, you make excuses. You need more sleep. It’s too cold. You don’t feel 100 percent. You just really, really don’t want to run today.
Now, imagine the same scenario for an elite athlete. It’s 5 a.m. It’s cold. They’re tired. Their bed, like yours, is nice and warm. But when that alarm buzzes, they’re up. Day after day, month after month. What’s their secret? What do they think about? The answer is:
They don’t. They—to quote a certain brand’s catchphrase—just do it.
Read enough quotes from the world’s most famous athletes, and they’ll tell you pretty much the same thing, which I think Muhammed Ali puts best: “Champions have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
You’re (probably) not trying to become a professional athlete. But doubtless there’s something you want in life that you don’t have yet. Maybe it’s to quit your current job and start a company. Maybe it’s to write a novel. Maybe it’s to go back to school, or change careers. What’s stopping you? It’s not your ability. It’s your mindset.
In a widely-read piece for Medium, John Gorman writes that what prevents most of us from achieving our dreams isn’t laziness: It’s fear.
“Fear doesn’t manifest itself like you think, because oftentimes we don’t give it the chance to,” he writes. “Fear isn’t always the sweaty palms that stop us cold in a job interview — fear is generally what prevents us from applying in the first place. It’s so subtly limiting that we often build around it without even noticing it’s there.”
The fear is there for a reason: Taking a flying leap into unchartered territory is scary. What if your new startup fails? What if you’re not actually a great writer? What if you lack the skills and qualifications to start that new career?
You won’t know if you don’t try. But I don’t mean trying once, failing, and giving up. Because you will fail. Everyone does. The key is to keep trying. Michael Jordan, indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time, was not initially recognized as a great talent—as a junior, he didn’t even make his high school’s varsity basketball team.
Jordan was devastated. But rather than quit, he used his disappointment as motivation. When he was tired and wanted to give up, he’d picture the varsity list hanging without his name on it. “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life—and that is why I succeed,” he’s said.
With whatever you do in life—sports, startups, etc.—your goal should be not to fear failure, but to grow from it. When I was first launching JotForm, I badly wanted to hire a software developer I’d known for a while.
When I met up with him to pitch him on my vision, he turned me down. I felt embarrassed and defeated—for a few weeks. After that, I decided to use the rejection more productively, asking myself how I could make JotForm more appealing, and how I could create a culture that attracts and retains talent. Rather than giving up, I worked on answering those questions, and both my company and I became stronger for it.
Overcoming fear has a lot to do with our innate belief in our own abilities. Let’s look again to athletes. Dr. Stan Beecham, a sports psychologist and the author of Elite Minds: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success, tells Forbes that there’s a misconception about athletes who consistently outperform the competition, in that they must want to win the most.
“The reality is that’s not true at all,” he explains. “It’s that people that win and succeed at a high level, they don’t actually think about winning. They simply believe they’re going to do well.”
This belief in oneself stems from what’s called “prime confidence:” As Dr. Jim Taylor (also a sports psychologist), says: “Prime confidence is a deep, lasting, and resilient belief in one’s ability. With prime confidence, you are able to stay confident even when you’re not performing well...Prime confidence also encourages you to seek out pressure situations and to view difficult conditions and tough opponents as challenges to pursue. Prime confidence enables you to perform at your highest level consistently.”
Michael Jordan didn’t allow the setback of not making the varsity team to crush him. Instead, he used it as fuel to motivate him to try harder and get better. As he put it: “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.”
“You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible — and no one can keep you from this.” - Marcus Aurelius
Yes, it’s important to have long-term goals. But sometimes, we get so caught up imagining them, we fail to put in the work we need to do today to achieve them.
“Everything sucks at first. Very few things suck forever,” writes Gorman. “You don’t train for a marathon by running a marathon over and over. You build up to it. Slowly. And you get better at it.”
The problem with focusing on getting better is that it’s about the future, says Beecham. You can’t get better now. But you can do your best. As Beecham says:
“When the mind goes to the future, you quit performing at your best, so what we know about when human beings are at their best, they don’t go forward in the future. They don’t go backward in the past. They stay present, and the mind gets really quiet, and you function optimally. The problem that I have with better is it keeps pulling you to the future.”
If you’re working on achieving a long-term goal, it helps if you enjoy the day-to-day grind that’s going to get you there. Studies of college-level and professional athletes have found that the most successful repeatedly described loving not only their competitions, but their practice, too.
“The women that I’ve worked with that medal are the ones that really enjoy the process,” Teri McKeever, head swimming coach at UC Berkeley who has also trained Olympic swimmers, tells the Atlantic. “They enjoy the working out as much as they enjoy the competition. They love that idea of pushing the limits and learning and being challenged emotionally and physically.”
In other words, enjoy the journey and the progress you make along the way. Before you know it, you’ll reach your goals.