Why Overthinking Kills Creativity and Athletic Performance and How to Quiet The Mind

“Fear doesn’t go away,” said Steven Pressfield in The War of Arta must-read for everyone. “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

What is this battle that we face when we aspire to create or when we engage in competitiveness? It’s easy to believe that it’s an external battle of removing distractions and trying to control our environment, but what champions and successful artists understand is that the internal battle is where the war is won. If you’ve ever played a sport or engaged in an artistic activity, you’ve felt it: there’s a voice in your head that tries to sabotage you and make you nervous. It makes you question your shot, stance, posture, style, and form. You go from the freedom and enjoyment of playing to the fruitless realm of judging.

Bad art and weak athletic performance all stem from the same seed: overthinking.

My friend Greg Ciotti recommended me this fantastic gem of a book called, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey. At first, reading about tennis didn’t seem at all interesting—and Greg admonished that this book was a perfect example of damn good writing—but within the first few pages it was obvious that this wasn’t completely about tennis; it was a book about our internal struggles that affect our performance.

In the foreword, written by legendary coach Pete Caroll, he said:

“Introduced to The Inner Game of Tennis as a graduate student years ago, I recognized the obvious benefits of Gallwey’s teachings in regards to performance in individual sports. As I grew more familiar with the benefits of performing with a quieted mind. … Once you understand the principles of the Inner Game, you will be able to quiet your mind, focus clearly, and truly play the game”

We’ve all heard the maxim, “You are your own worst enemy.” This means that whatever is causing us great stress is not outside us but within us. As an avid basketball player, this is too true. Sometimes an opponent’s insults can get in my head, making me angry, and in turn, greatly hindering my performance. If I miss a shot one too many times, I scream and curse, disrupting my focus and performing worse than before. In writing or drawing, I can overthink my words or pencil strokes, to the point where nothing gets written or drawn.

Gallwey called it the Self 1 and Self 2—the same way Daniel Kahneman posited that our brains are comprised of two systems. Galleway said:

“We have arrived at a key point: it is the constant “thinking” activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.
When a tennis player is “in the zone,” he is not thinking about how, when or even where to hit the ball. He’s not trying to hit the ball, and after the shot he doesn’t think about how badly or how well he made contact. The ball seems to get hit through a process which doesn’t require thought. There may be an awareness of the sight, sound and feel of the ball, and even of the tactical situation, but the player just seems to know without thinking what to do.”

For an artist or athlete to get to a point of comfort where they naturally behave without self-judgement is a daily practice, and never a destination.

Gallwey shares his wisdom on the mindset of overthinking and why returning to that essence of playing is so essential:

“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. . . . The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in. . . .
Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. “Childlikeness” has to be restored. . . .”

This “childlikeness” is synonymous to the concept of play. Play is when we are intrinsically motivated to pursue an activity. It gives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, regardless of praise or outcomes. We simply do it because it makes us feel alive—or rather, because we must, because there are no other choices.

Almost every coach that I’ve had in my life concluded their motivational speeches with, “Go out and have fun.” Back then I never understood why a great speech would be end this way, but by developing an understanding of that wisdom, it now makes perfect sense.

Quieting the mind is what brings us back to that essence of play, where we discard self-judgements and allow for self-expression to breathe. Inadvertently, this state of mind allows us to wholeheartedly express our creativity. Gallwey said [emphasis mine]:

“For most of us, quieting the mind is a gradual process involving the learning of several inner skills. These inner skills are really arts of forgetting mental habits acquired since we were children.
The first skill to learn is the art of letting go the human inclination to judge ourselves and our performance as either good or bad. Letting go of the judging process is a basic key to the Inner Game; its meaning will emerge as you read the remainder of this chapter. When we unlearn how to be judgmental, it is possible to achieve spontaneous, focused play.”

The critical step to understand here is that the moment we assign a value of judgement to an action—this is good or bad—is the moment we engage in overthinking. Gallwey expresses this through the lens of tennis:

“What does this have to do with tennis? Well, it is the initial act of judgement which provokes a thinking process. First the player’s mind judges one of his shots as bad or good. If he judges it as bad, he begins thinking about what was wrong with it. Then he tells himself how to correct it. Then he tries hard, giving himself instructions as he does so. Finally he evaluates again. Obviously the mind is anything but still and the body is tight with trying. If the shot is evaluated as good, Self 1 starts wondering how he hit such a good shot; then it tries to get his body to repeat the process by giving self-instructions, trying hard and so on. Both mental processes end in further evaluation, which perpetuates the process of thinking and self-conscious performance. As a consequence, the player’s muscles tighten when they need to be loose, strokes become awkward and less fluid, and negative evaluations are likely to continue with growing intensity. . . . As a result, what usually happens is that these self-judgements become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

The ultimate goal of an artist and athlete is to return to that essence of play, to view the outcomes of their actions as a source for learning. Gallwey stresses the importance of this throughout the book because it’s seemingly the only way to counter our mind’s natural ability to self-assess everything we do. This is effortless for children because they haven’t formed the habits yet—notice how their fear of failure is amiss when engaging in new activities, and notice how ours, as we get older, is the sole reason why we never find out what’s inside us.

Gallwey talks about learning and playing:

“To me it makes sense to build any system of instruction upon the best possible understanding of natural learning, the learning process you were born with. The less instruction interferes with the process of learning built into your very DNA, the more effective your progress is going to be. Said another way, the less fear and doubt embedded in the instructional process, the easier it will be to take the natural steps of learning. One way to gain insight and trust in natural learning is to observe young children learning before they have been taught, or to observe animals in the act of teaching their young.”

What usually follows our ability to play and stay focused is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called being in a state of “Flow.” Athletes call it “being in the zone” or having a “hot streak.”

Gallwey said:

“In fact, someone playing “out of his mind” is more aware of the ball, the court and, when necessary, his opponent. But he is not aware of giving himself a lot of instructions, thinking about how to hit a ball, how to correct past mistakes or how to repeat what he just did. He is conscious, but not thinking, not over-trying. A player in this state knows where he wants the ball to go, but he doesn’t have to “try hard” to send it there. It just seems to happen—and often with more accuracy than he could have hoped for. The player seems to be immersed in a flow of action which requires his energy, yet results in greater power and accuracy. The “hot streak” usually continues until he starts thinking about it and tries to maintain it; as soon as he attempts to exercise control, he loses it.”

How different our lives become when understand this inner battle. How easy it is to coast through our lives, constantly judging ourselves, without any understanding of the consequences involved. The moment we let go and simply enjoy the activity itself, learning and relearning as we go, only then can we accumulate mastery over our skills and ourselves.

The Inner Game of Tennis is a short, fantastic, and insightful read. It will provide a newfound perspective on your inner narrative when you’re either facing a blank canvas or on the hardwood floor of a basketball court. The lessons is simple but yet equally difficult to embrace: Go out and have fun.

Why Compassion Is Necessary In a World That Stumbles Everyday

“The heart of compassion is really acceptance,” said vulnerability researcher and author, Brené Brown. “The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become.”

And yet, how difficult it is to accept ourselves when, by nature, we seek acceptance from others because of the way we’re wired. As Mathew Lieberman said in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, “The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

At what point in our lives do we lose compassion — the understanding that everyone is different, that it can’t be changed, and that it’s beautiful and necessary? Why do we lose that understanding, or rather, why is it so hard to embrace? As children, we accept others effortlessly, but once culture, media, influences from parents and environment come into play, we lose the ability to accept and instead we champion our ability to compartmentalize others to ultimately feel safe about who we are.

In Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, American author Bret Lott give his one piece wisdom to a younger generation on how compassion is a learned trait and why this is an essential skill all throughout life. It’s easy to travel through life believing that “This is just the way I am” — meaning, it’s harder for me to change my mind so I’m just going to continue acting this way because it’s easy and self-serving. Rarely do we consider how our attitude and behavior not only obstruct us from living but from connecting with people who unintentionally add meaning and enrichment into our existence. It can become intentional, I think, when we learn compassion.

Lott says [emphasis mine]:

“Words of advice have no choice but to be condescending. That is, the idea of advice connotes that the one giving it knows more about the way the world works than than the one receiving it, when we are all of us stumbling pretty much blind. My parents did, your parents did. I do, you do. My children will, your children will. So set it straight in your head right now: You will stumble.
All that’s left, then, is the perfect truth that we are all stumbling together, so the only word of ‘advice’ I guess I’d want to give, if you’ll forgive my posing as though I know what I’m talking about, is to learn compassion. Unlike clairvoyance or intuition or the ability to grow blond hair instead of brown, compassion is a learned trait, a behavior that incorporates others into our own consciousness: We are in this together. It’s not something passed down at conception, not instilled in us at secret ceremonies. You learn it.
[…]
Real compassion comes from living each day we have with the knowledge we are all of us lost, leaving us with the only real reaction we can have to all the ugliness the world has to dish out at us: Either we do for others what we would want done for ourselves, or we perish, never knowing what joy and fruition our feeble lives are capable of finding.”

To “incorporate others into our consciousness” is a conscious choice, which requires us to pause and reflect in moments where we readily react without thought. I think it’s harder to be compassionate because our brains are great at categorizing cues to help us make snap decisions, which ultimately make our lives easier. If all throughout our lives people with dark-rimmed glasses cut us off and do things we despise, of course when we meet a person of this description at a party or event we may not be compassionate. We tell ourselves, whether we’re aware of it or not, Why give this person a fighting chance when I’ve met people like them before! Easier to give them the cold shoulder and risk any chance of having your expectations being wrong.

Alas, how natural it is to think this way but how unhelpful it is to the manifestation of our character and life. Maybe that person wears those glasses because they’re insecure and want to fit in. Maybe they’ve been wearing those glasses their whole life, before it got popular (again). Maybe they don’t see it as hipster-style the way you do. Maybe they can’t afford another pair.

Challenging our perception requires critical thinking and pause; reaching a different conclusion where compassion can thrive is courage, which is a catalyst for connection. When we have a hard time accepting others for who they are—I understand, some people are truly unbearable—it should be used as an exercise of self-awarenesswhy, exactly, am I feeling this way towards this person? When engaging in this exercise myself, the conclusion is almost always the same: It’s my profound misunderstandings that causes these frustrations and cynicism. When I understand my misunderstandings and get to that place of acceptance, not in a sense of hugging everyone and exchanging phone numbers, but rather to simply observe and accept what’s before me without any negative expectations or attitudes, I can free my mind of the burdens that obstruct me from truly living well. Maybe hugs ensue.

The Difference Between Knowing and Understanding

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two,” said Maria Popova in her timeless essay on wisdom in the age of information. “We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”

Example: We know that exercise is good for us, but we may not understand why. When we understand the benefits and range of factors—the science and the impact on our health, mind, and creativity—this growing understanding should compel us to act, whereas simply knowing does not.

If the sight of people staring at their phones or taking selfies makes you cynical and angry, it stems from a lack of an understanding on human nature and how technology feeds our primitive desires like connection and belonging. This lack of understanding creates frustration, and it’s difficult to be self-aware about the causes of our frustrations, so we sort the chaos into order by tweeting, Facebooking, hating, criticizing, and trolling.

To understand is to see an array of colors within a picture and to appreciate all of them. To understand is to feel the different fabrics and textures, and how each individual part not only supplements one another but is, in many ways, intertwined. In the words of psychologist Carl Jung, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

However, this quest for understanding both others and ourselves must be a deliberate practice rooted in humility, open-mindedness, and patience — a dogged inquiry into the unknown but also a humbling realization that the unknown will always cast a larger shadow. In The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers his perspective on what it means to truly understand something:

“Penetration means to enter something, not just to stand outside of it. When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel their feelings, suffer their sufferings, and enjoy their joy. The sutra uses the word “penetration” to mean “full comprehension.” The word “comprehend” is made up of the Latin roots com, which means “together in mind,” and prehendere, which means “to grasp it or pick it up.” So to comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand something.”

Books are like maps to a person’s understanding; it’s a way for us embark on a tour into the unknown but with a help of a well versed tour guide. Take for example Debbie Millman’s fantastic book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. She explores the subject of brands by asking experts from a variety of fields: graphic designers, anthropologists, historians, scientists, authors, marketers, and more. Each perspective is a dot that is polished by experience and time, and the book is an attempt to string these dots together to form the jewel of understanding. The book wouldn’t be as powerful if it was only focused on graphic designers. Because Millman interviews people from diverse backgrounds with a range of expertise, it provides a holistic understanding of the subject. Let’s also remember that reading this one book doesn’t mean we completely understand the subject but rather we have started the process to understand. Because of the diversity of thinkers, we have more to ponder and work with.

Pursuing a life of understanding rather than trying to be right is enormously difficult because it requires consistent change not only of our views but our mind. Change is uncomfortable, and just because it’s consistent doesn’t mean it gets easier. A life of seeking to understand requires us to learn how to pause when we feel anger or entitlement or fear, to remember to take a step back and absorb the details that were missed.

As Maria Popova mediated in her 7 lessons learned in 7 years of her art [emphasis mine]:

“We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

For a long time I couldn’t understand why a group of my friends enjoyed going out every Friday and Saturday, buying new outfits and spending needlessly, all in vein of attracting vain people. What’s worse, they failed every weekend, talked about their failures during the weekday, swore to never go out again, but would fall prey by Friday noon. It boggled my mind because how could one not be self-aware about it? How do you remain unaware of your desires and actions leading to repeated failures?

I resented it. But what a profound misunderstanding on my part, and how self-serving it was for me to feel that way. By understanding their personality (and mine), their background (some friends grew up with Happy Hour ingrained into their lives), their worldview and aspirations and mindset, it started to make sense why they did what they did. I didn’t agree with it still, but I no longer had feelings of resentment or, from what I had to really uncover, an accelerated sense of maturity that was somehow superior. When all these dots connected, I realized that an understanding allows acceptance to arise.

It’s easy to be angry with a racist prick. But when you truly understand that person — their upbringing, worldview, personality, family history, where they were raised, the nature of stereotypes, and so many more factors that pushes a person to think and act that way — yes, we pity or even sometimes berate them, but ultimately we need to understand so we can accept who they are. The difficulty is wanting to understand and accept them, because it’s so much easier to resent them, to place them in a container that’s labeled “Broken” and move on.

Life will be way easier by doing the latter, but a part of me believes that a life of understanding, regardless of the stress it produces, is worth living. The way squats and deadlifts tones your legs, exercising an understanding hones and enriches the mind.

If I understand a person or event, this understanding should inspire me to live more positively than negatively, maybe push me to contribute in a meaningful way. The goal is to get out of that place of frustration, baseless opinions, gossip, and to combine knowledge and ideas that helps us lead better lives.

When I think about this topic and need to find my center, I can’t help but return to Marcus Aurelius’s wisdom in Meditations. He said:

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.”

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”

“That it’s not what they do that bothers us: that’s a problem for their minds, not ours. It’s our own misperceptions. Discard them. Be willing to give up your thinking of this as a catastrophe … and your anger is gone. How do you do that? By recognizing that you’ve suffered no disgrace. Unless disgrace is the only thing that can hurt you, you’re doomed to commit innumerable offenses—to become a thief, or heaven only knows what else.”

“Your life will change when you change your mind,” I meditated to myself when I created the Motivated Mastery manifesto. How do we change our mind? By seeking to understand rather than trying to be right; to remain curious as to why we’re here, but more importantly, how we can use our allotted time wisely; to find the knowledge that helps us become better humans; to humbled by the beauty that escapes us; to be self-aware. We mistakenly believe that life is short, until someone like Seneca comes along and pops our bubble by saying, “life is long if you know how to use it.” Knowing how comes from an understanding, an appreciation, and a willingness to find your center in the midst of discomfort.

While we may never truly understand ourselves, other people, the world or the universe, doesn’t that stir a visceral gut feeling to want to find out?

Advice to a Younger Generation On Taking Dead-End Jobs

From the cartoonist, @gapingvoid aka Hugh MacLeod

Dead-end jobs often provide a fresh reality: a realization for the kind of work you don’t ever want to do. Mine started with sales job at a clothing store in a shopping mall. I knew it was a dead-end job because I shopped there often, and the staff changed every season like their inventory. These dead-end jobs are not intrinsically bad, but rather we make them so. Perhaps the duties don’t resonate, or we feel entitled to higher responsibilities that speak to our passions and skills. Alas, the mindset of the young.

On June 23, 1885, Andrew Carnegie delivered a speech to the students of the Curry Commercial College in Pittsburg. He opened with [emphasis mine]:

“It is well that young men should begin at the beginning and occupy the most subordinate positions. Many of the leading business men of Pittsburg had a serious responsibility thrust upon them at the very threshold of their career. They were introduced to the broom, and spent the first hours of their business lives sweeping out the office. I notice we have janitors and janitresses now in offices, and our young men unfortunately miss that salutary branch of a business education. But if by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning the boy who has the genius of the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the broom.”

While being young and in a dead-end job, it’s difficult to understand the opportunity that you’re in to develop some necessary skills, both for life and for your career; it is only in hindsight that you realize how much your of past experiences, whether good or ill, molded you. For one, it’s about learning patience and paying your dues. If you don’t have the patience to sweep, what makes you believe that you’ll have the patience for more arduous, emotional tasks like selling or pitching ideas or working under harsh deadlines? While you may be skilled and smart, most people will see you as young—and that’s it.

In Take My Advice: Letters To The Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, a collection of letters from people you’ve probably never heard of, American novelist Florence Virginia King offers sound advice for dead-end jobs.

She said [emphasis mine]:

“Get a dead-end-job—they’re plentiful now because nobody wants them. Tell your employer the truth: that you’ll be around only a year or so, but promise to work hard. Keep your promise. Little trumps are the pennies of self-esteem. If you do well in such a job and make yourself indispensable to somebody, you will realize Robert E. Lee’s farewell words to his men after the surrender at Appomattox: ‘You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from a knowledge of duty faithfully performed.’”

It takes a serious level of self-awareness and humility—words that are rarely associated with the younger generation, much less our culture at large—to know that a job is a dead-end, but to perform the duties with enthusiasm and a lens for learning.

What lens is this, exactly? Ryan Holiday, in his must-read book, The Obstacle Is The Way, talks about the things that that we readily avoid in our lives and careers, but essentially why these roadblocks are opportunities in disguises:

“Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. … But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.

Foolishness.

Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies while you save up money or studying for the bar—even after you already achieved the success you sought. Everything is a chance to do and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.”

Sometimes we justify dead-end jobs as a way to climb up a ladder. While this is true to an extent, it’s an unhelpful attitude that won’t last. Business writer Tom Peters wrote a poignant essay titled The Brand Called You in 1997 which continues to stand the test of time in its timeliness and practicality.

He admonished [emphasis mine]:

“Instead of making yourself a slave to the concept of a career ladder, reinvent yourself on a semiregular basis. Start by writing your own mission statement, to guide you as CEO of Me Inc. What turns you on? Learning something new? Gaining recognition for your skills as a technical wizard? Shepherding new ideas from concept to market? What’s your personal definition of success? Money? Power? Fame? Or doing what you love? However you answer these questions, search relentlessly for job or project opportunities that fit your mission statement. And review that mission statement every six months to make sure you still believe what you wrote.

No matter what you’re doing today, there are four things you’ve got to measure yourself against. First, you’ve got to be a great teammate and a supportive colleague. Second, you’ve got to be an exceptional expert at something that has real value. Third, you’ve got to be a broad-gauged visionary — a leader, a teacher, a farsighted “imagineer.” Fourth, you’ve got to be a businessperson — you’ve got to be obsessed with pragmatic outcomes.

It’s this simple: You are a brand. You are in charge of your brand. There is no single path to success. And there is no one right way to create the brand called You. Except this: Start today. Or else.”
Pair this Robert Greene’s advice on the mindset of an apprentice, why rewards are toxic to our careers, and my most popular post in 2014, advice to the young and ambitious 20somethings who think they should be successful by now.