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  • Writer's pictureKen Lubin

The Pygmalion effect; Success in Sports and Business

Last week I was having a conversation with two executive athletes. The topic turned to the correlation between high achievement in sports and business. Specifically, what factors are present that lead to success in both areas. A lot has been written about this subject and on the surface, this makes sense. We discussed a few attributes that make this correlation particularly relevant.

I’ve been involved with the sport of Triathlon for over 15 years. In 2004, I participated in my first sprint distance event and had a particularly underwhelming performance. That said, I wasimmediately drawn to the sport and fell in love with it instantly. After a few sprints, I began competing in Olympic distance, Half Ironman and ultimately Ironman distance events. The Ironman is 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike followed by a 26.2-mile marathon run which all must be completed within 17 hours. What attracted me to the sport was how linear it is; to complete the event, the athlete is required to swim, bike, and run a certain distance within a certain time. What could be more tangible and binary? You either achieve the goal or you don't. There is a pre-defined metric that needs to be completed on a certain date. In business that's referred to as a deadline.

The Pygmalion effect is a phenomenon in psychology wherein high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area. Conversely, lower expectations lead to poorer performance, and in both cases, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we expect from ourselves and the more others expect from us, the harder we push ourselves to achieve our goals. To achieve objectives in sports and business there are several key elements that are typically present.

Preparation - Nobody would wake up one morning and decide to compete in an Ironman that day without logging hundreds of hours of training. If they did, they'd almost certainly guarantee themselves failure. Oftentimes people have a deadline, a project, a quota, or some other tangible goal they need to achieve. Yet they do not prepare effectively or put in adequate time and effort. Preparation isn't just doing the work. It's thinking, planning, and visualizing different scenarios and what-if analysis. What if I cramp up, what if I get a flat tire, what if my stomach acts up after 10 hours, what if...? By preparing and mentally having gone through these situations dozens, if not hundreds of times, we develop psychological resiliency and an attitude of success. Professional athletes employ mental coaches that teach them to visualize successful performance. They imagine the shot they are about to take and use mental imagery to envision it in their mind before executing. As the expression goes, Hope is NOT a strategy. Creating a plan, working on it, and ultimately executing that plan is what separates success from failure.

Consistency - Every successful athlete or executive I speak with has a routine. These routines can vary greatly but the underlying element is consistency. Some people are early risers and like to train in the morning before the responsibilities of family, work and life begin. Others stay up later and use the afterwork hours. Either way, they follow a predetermined routine. An example may be "I get up at 4:30, have some coffee, head to the gym, come home, shower, get the kids out of the house, and then I spend 45 minutes reading some articles and preparing for the day. By 8:30 I'm on the phone or responding to e-mails etc. At the end of the workday, I list the tasks I need to achieve tomorrow and prioritize those by A/B/C. I work on the A's first, then the B's etc.” This all sounds sensible and reasonable, right? The challenge becomes the days we wake up and do not want to get out of bed at 4:30. It's cold, it's raining, we stayed up too late, we're stressed out, or maybe we drank too much cabernet. Whatever the reason, we all have those days where we do not want to follow the routine. The days we don't want to, but still execute the routine is where the highest achievers separate themselves. In training, I refer to those as "maintenance days". Maybe you don't run as far or as fast, maybe you don't lift as much, but you showed up and put the work in. A lot of attention is now focused on the concept of constant or iterative improvement. If you can improve 1% every day or even every week, what would that look like after a month? After 3 months? After a year? Consistency is the key ingredient to achieving goals.

Relentlessness - Regardless of the preparation and consistency we put forth, inevitably there are unforeseen circumstances that arise. It is how we handle these that define our character and identity. A friend recently shared an African Proverb that encapsulates this point: "Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors." There will be challenges along the way we have not planned for. Perhaps there's a colleague on your team you just don't sync with. Perhaps it’s a prospect or a client who is impossible to please. The initial reaction for some is to become negative and self-doubt creeps in.

I was reading an article recently by Dr. Benjamin Hardy who that summed this all up. When the "Why" is strong enough, you'll figure out how. When you envision an outcome so passionately that you can literally feel your future-self having accomplished that goal with such clarity, it almost becomes a foregone conclusion that you will achieve that goal. It becomes part of your identity. If we can achieve relentless courage to believe with every fiber of our being in a stated goal, thoughts of failure cease to have any real significance.

The question I'll leave you with today: Have you found YOUR Why?

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