The Inner Game of Entrepreneurship
Here’s the most important thing I’ve ever learned as an entrepreneur, 8 words that create a profound shift:
You can change your zip code, the direction of your business, even your outward appearance, but if you don’t change your state of mind, then the same circumstances that have always held you back from achieving success in your life and your business will persist. You’ll fall victim to the common pitfall of distracting yourself with external changes when the inward reality is that nothing has actually shifted.
Developing your Inner Game is one of the most critical aspects of becoming successful, especially in the performance-based, ever-changing business world. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs struggle to decipher what it really means to achieve their top Inner Game. Let’s be honest, none of us has ever taken a class on inner management. No business school I’m aware of even bothers to address the topic. The only people I’ve known who’ve had access to any type of inner management skills training are professional athletes. And that was solely because those athletes recognized the need for it. Even in the elite athletic world, where most are on par with their competitors physically, have the same level of training, follow similar diets, etc., the winner is always the person who’s playing their best Inner Game.
Inner Game, whether for athletes or entrepreneurs, is the same construct. The context is different, but in both settings, we must face the same inner battles when having to perform at our best. For us entrepreneurs, the context could be pitching our top value idea to a potential investor, giving that crucial make-or-break speech, being interviewed by the media, or giving a big presentation. Regardless of the context, you must always present your best self and move toward your goal, even when you’re utterly afraid to do so.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that in those peak performance moments, it comes down to staying mentally present. I avoid thinking about the future (i.e., outcomes) or finding myself stuck in the past (i.e., worrying about messing up like I did the last time). Bottom line: in order to win as an entrepreneur in those moments of peak performance, you must remain centred and present.
Here’s a personal example:
Having developed two global martial art brands, I’m often asked to be interviewed by journalists, podcasters, etc. As an introvert by nature, I don’t relish these requests. To be honest, I don’t feel that I’m very good at that sort of thing. I give my best performances when I’m coaching on stage. I also know, however, that being on the right podcast saying the right thing at the right time can be very beneficial for my brands. But given my introverted nature and the fact that giving speeches and interviews is not something I’m fond of, I can quite easily become overwhelmed by anxiety. My heart starts to race, my palms get clammy, and my mouth goes dry.
In those moments, I find myself worrying about what to say next or holding onto the past – that part of me that’s not fond of speaking in public. Over time, I’ve learned that staying in past- or future-based thinking often leads me into trouble, and my ability to perform in the moment begins to degrade. I start to lose my train of thought or stumble over my words. I’m sure you can imagine how damaging that can be. If I don’t sound like I know what I am talking about and do so with self-assurance, people listening will lose confidence in me and my brands.
The lesson I’ve learned from these experiences is that there’s a sort of paradox around performing at your best: developing your Inner Game means that in order to bring out your best performance, you must focus your mind, detach from the past, and remain unconcerned about the future. Let me say that again: I cannot stress enough the importance of not getting caught up in past- and future-based thinking when you have to perform at your best because it will distract you from actually performing at your best.
So, how do you make that happen?
You must first distinguish between observing your thought process rather than engaging with your thoughts. In other words, you need to develop the ability to notice your thoughts and not be run by them. For example, during an interview, I may notice that I’m becoming focused on the future (what to say next) or concerned with past mistakes (previous mess ups when answering the same question I’m being asked in that moment). In order to successfully ‘notice’ my thought process, I must first recognise that I’m projecting into the future or holding onto the past. Once I’m able to do that, I then need to gently anchor myself back to the current moment, the only place where I can be fully present in the experience at hand. The present is the only space in which past mistakes and future expectations do not exist in your mind. Easier said than done, I know.
A good stating point is simply to notice that most of the time, your thinking runs on automatic pilot; it’s habitual. Part of upping your Inner Entrepreneurial Game is to crack open the habit and become more intentional about how you choose to direct your mind in the moment, especially those moments in business where you have to bring your best game.
You can experience your ‘monkey mind,’ the mind that’s always on automatic pilot, right now. Read the following instructions and then sit for a few moments, observing, before you continue reading.
Instructions: Close your eyes and observe your thoughts. Just sit quietly and notice what goes on in your mind when you’re letting it do its own thing.
You probably noticed that your mind was all over the place, occupied by thoughts of the past or projecting into the future (e.g., “How much longer must I close my eyes? I want to keep reading.”). With more practice, you will begin to notice that the majority of your thoughts are focused on either the past or the future.
If you learn to become aware of the ways in which your mind habitually shifts into the past or future during your normal day-to-day routine, then when you’re called upon to perform at your best, you’ll find it much easier to notice what’s going on in your mind in those peak performance moments. Naturally, those are the most difficult times. But if you can catch your mind traveling back into the past or forward into the future, then you stand a much better chance of doing something about it.