A Marine friend of mine was struggling to qualify in the rifle. If you know anything about Marines, they are riflemen first. His inability to qualify was risking his future as a Marine.
At the time, my father was his senior officer and also an accomplished marksman in and out of work. He brought the Marine in, determined to help him so he would not shorten his career unnecessarily.
During the discussion, my father shared his method for successful days at the range.
Visualize the outcome you desire before sleep – your dreams will do the rest
The night before qualifying, think about your shot as you lay in your rack (bed). Visualize still winds and perfect line of site. Imagine an unobstructed bullseye and breathe out as you mentally squeeze the trigger.
My friend later shared his skepticism with my father’s advice. We were young and still thought we knew more than our parents, so it was easy to scoff.
At that point, nothing else had worked, so we agreed he might as well try the idea. Even if it seemed crazy.
I remember seeing him the next afternoon. It’s been twenty years and I’ll never forget the look of stunned pride on his face.
He did not just qualify. He excelled. That year, he went on to become one of the best competitive shooters in the Marine Corps. All from using the power of positive thinking.
Visualizing the outcomes we desire works
I needed no further evidence that positive thinking worked. I visualized the outcomes I wanted the night before a speech, a proposal, or anything where I wanted a particular result. For a decade, positive thinking was my mantra.
Then I tanked. Hard.
I had recently started at a new company and wanted to get off on the right foot with my first project sponsor. In advance of our first meeting, I was prepared and thinking all sorts of positive things.
As soon as I walked in the room, I had the wind knocked out of me with a question from left field. I got off track from my positive thoughts and I crashed. I regrouped, prepared, and thought positively again. And crashed harder.
Positive thinking alone assumes you can anticipate all possible challenges to imagine overcoming them
By the third meeting, I had enough. I knew I had my stuff down cold. But I also knew he was going to ask me something I was unprepared for. So I decided to imagine just how bad it could get.
I won’t share all of the crazy notions that went through my mind, but publicly firing me was probably the tamest one.
My body responded to what I imagined. My adrenaline kicked in and my heart raced. I got through the initial panicked thoughts and considered my response. What belongings would I pack? Who would I call first about a possible job opportunity?
The next day, there was no odd question. It was a productive meeting that went better than I could have imagined if I had used positive thinking.
Over time, I changed completely over to worst case visualization before a major speech or critical meeting. I’ve imagined being pulled off stage in a neck brace and backboard, falling down stairs a la JLaw, and other equally embarrassing and horrifying outcomes.
If we imagine the worst, minor missteps are no longer detrimental to our performance
Funny thing is, none of them have happened. However, other things have. I’ve had my presentation time cut from 30 minutes to 5. My notes have been out of order and I’ve had to wing it. Each time, things still went well.
Ultimately, any misstep was minor relative to what I had imagined. Since I had already triggered my fight or flight mechanism, these minor blips did not engage my adrenaline. I was able to calmly evaluate the situation and respond accordingly.
This does not suggest that exclusively using worst case visualization is the solution.
At some point, thinking negatively will result in the very outcome you fear
At a recent speaking event, I spent the days prior reviewing how I wanted to present my content. The night before, I imagined a few horrific outcomes, per the norm.
The morning of the event, about twenty things went wrong. One of them was a broken hair dryer and frantic call down to the front desk of the hotel. My visual of a comically bad hair day seemed imminent.
The speech went off without a hitch, but I had to do a few calming exercises and maybe breathe into a bag or two. Not something I’d like to repeat.
As with anything in life, a balanced approach is a successful one
After this most recent experience, my advice – and personal practice – for preparing for a big event, speech or pitch has shifted.
- Feel prepared enough to be natural, but not so prepared that you cannot adjust to changing circumstances.
- Imagine a positive outcome in the days leading up to the event and the night before.
- At least two nights before, imagine the ways things could go wrong, little and big. Imagine how you would handle them. Even if it means mentally enduring some laughter or a trip to the ER.
The combination of positive thinking, and preparing for possible challenges, establishes a framework for successful delivery in the face of the unexpected.
I’ll be trying out this new formula leading up to my next speech or meeting. Are there techniques you use to balance confident delivery with the unexpected? I’d love if you could share your thoughts in the comments and keep the conversation going.