It’s horse racing season, which, if you’re like me, consists of watching three races, marveling at the 110 pound human on horseback wearing goofy uniforms. While I watched the Kentucky Derby, I wondered what the race would be like if the horses ran unencumbered by the jockeys on their backs. Horses seem to naturally enjoy galloping at full speed and running along side each other. They do it in the wild without bearing the little guy with the admonishing whip and constraining bridle. Why is the jockey necessary? Would the horses refuse to run or run more slowly if they were liberated from human manipulation?
Humans intervene, I’ve concluded, to direct the horse toward fulfillment of its capacity for excellence. The horse is an energetic beast, designed to run, and full of power and stamina. Left alone, the horse’s energy could be distracting, making it unlikely that a race around the track would occur. The jockey, therefore, guides and directs the horse toward a purpose, and encourages it to run at optimum speed. Without a person in control, the horses might not realize that people have put on fancy clothes to see them run. Even before the horses leave the gate, humans have a crucial role. The numerous training staff and caretakers devote years to prepare the horse for races, exercising it and giving it high quality nutrition and pampering that many of us would envy. Nothing is left to chance; everything is done for a deliberate purpose.
Create purpose and meaning
When we pursue a goal, we are consciously training ourselves for improved performance. We approach our daily tasks in a purposeful way, reminding ourselves of why we have specific goals—every moment is a step toward attaining proficiency. Like the horse trainers, we need to act deliberately and intentionally. Each day should be scheduled and planned to the finest detail, including rest breaks and time to check emails. A planned day focuses energy and sweeps away irrelevant activities that we do to reduce anxiety rather than to accomplish a task.
As I watched the horses race, I noticed that, as the finish line approached, the jockeys whipped the animals’ ribs to convince them of the moment’s urgency. This got me thinking about goal setting and the persistence it takes to gallop toward a desired outcome. To harness our energy, we pay attention to the relation between thought and action, strategy and performance. Constant awareness about this relation keeps us committed and engaged. This is a self-regulating mentality, our version of a jockey. I’m not advocating that you buy a whip to flagellate yourself. I’m encouraging you to realize that striving for a goal requires direction, persistence, and urgency.
As we move forward, we need to consistently focus our energy and behaviors so that they are aligned with our goals. A thoroughbred isn’t trained to pull a dung cart. Writing your goals in specific, attainable, and time-bound formulae, and sharing them with your manager, will make your efforts—and even your failures—purposeful exercises toward being proficient. A blend of near and far goals is the recipe for proficiency. Diligently working to meet short-term goals satisfies your need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Striving toward long-term goals situates you in the grand narrative in your head. In the short-term, there is purpose; in the long-term, there is meaning.
Purposefulness is linked to meaningfulness, thereby forging together your daily actions and mental needs. This mental composite will consistently affirm your learning mentality, a key element of success. To actualize purpose and meaning in your life, take the perspective that you don’t simply work at a bank, you are a banker; further, you are John Smith’s banker and you help manage the finances of the Smith family as they save for their kids’ college tuition. You care about the Smith family because you have internalized the values, interests, and functions of your career, as you have defined them, in a way that ennobles your work. Incorporating your career identity into your personal identity brings order and harmony to your life. The resulting authenticity will liberate mental energy that would otherwise be wasted by internal conflicts and attempts to mask insincerities.
The process of being your career—not having a career—will sow the seed of intrinsic motivation. When intrinsically motivated, your mind is focused on the task at hand, and the doing of it fills you with positive emotion. Performance becomes its own reward. This is important because, according to psychologists, intrinsic motivation increases performance, persistence, satisfaction, and creativity. It is a mindset of inquisitiveness, overcoming challenges, and developing competence. Work doesn’t need to be a frustrating burden performed from necessity. Psychologists have discovered ways in which work can be fulfilling and the cause of positive emotions.
Organize your thinking to feel the flow
Before you can enjoy your work and flourish in your career, it is important to establish order in your consciousness. Controlling the contents of your mind will enable you to identify and take advantage of optimal experiences. You will realize what success looks like in a specific context, and you’ll be aware of what it will take to succeed. An organized mind clarifies vision and establishes a systematic approach to tasks. The result will be a sense of mastery, of having mentally processed what is happening around you—not to you—and determining how you will influence the things that matter most.
Psychologists have studied how people are affected by optimal experience, during a state of mind called “flow,” in which goals and behaviors are aligned and the individual immerses himself in the moment. During flow, everything makes sense, no effort is wasted, skills are applied appropriately and efficiently, and consciousness flows with the task at hand.
Beware of adjectives
When making sense of your experience, pay attention to how you use adjectives to describe how you feel about your career requirements, tasks, and work environment. Above all, attend to how you adjectivize [my word] your manager and yourself. Describing this relationship will go a long way toward how you experience it. It is natural for you to want to control your destiny, to feel that your input is valued, your efforts are acknowledged, and your development is supported. Tell your manager that you feel this way, and be prepared to explain why. Seek autonomy support from your manager by explicitly telling her what your plans are and how she can help. Specifically ask her for the opportunity to independently solve problems, make choices, and contribute to decisions. Always assure her that, in the end, she is the manager and therefore has the final word.
Request immediate feedback when possible, signaling to your manager that you value her function and therefore you are open to her advice. Each of you wants and needs to expect predictability in your interactions. It makes sense, therefore, to keep your manager up to date about your progress and obstacles toward it. Share good and bad news, successes and setbacks. Don’t keep silent about what you consider most important. People are terrible at reading each other’s minds, especially when the stakes are high, when emotions are connected to financial security.
Gallop toward proficiency
Proficiency is the fruit of challenges met, obstacles overcome, and dedication to development. It is achieving your goals, advancing toward expertise, and raising your expectations. The coachable employee strives for proficiency. She lives in a world of action, self-monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation. She is not inflated by a notion of her potential, which would be released if only things were different. Having potential, unlike proficiency, is a concept devoid of action. It implies that you have yet to begin. Everyone has potential, a condition in which something might occur, but those who experience flow and intrinsic motivation know that immediate action and immersion in tasks are much more rewarding. A Kentucky Derby champion horse has proficiency; a constipated elephant has potential.
Next month’s article will be about seeking and accepting feedback as contributions to your development.
Dr. Joseph St. Meyer has earned bachelor's degrees in psychology from the University of Iowa and in history from Northern Illinois University. In 2013, Dr. St. Meyer was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. His intellectual training focuses on the origins and developments of modern psychology, philosophy, and politics. He has taught at Stanford University and delivered research papers at universities nationally and internationally. Dr. St. Meyer is a senior consultant at St. Meyer & Hubbard. He writes about coaching and coachability, especially the relationship between thought processing and performance.