Pop quiz: What’s more important? Believing in yourself? Or hard work, practice, and perseverance?
Correct! That was a trick question. The answer delightfully lies along the Buddhist middle path.
It is not uncommon to see one or the other of these ‘mantras’ held up as the ultimate key to our performance in success. Movies, books, motivational speeches, they all strut their view: “You just got to believe…” “Be yourself…” “If at first you don’t succeed, try again…” The all important (and rousing) training montage…
And these are not wrong per se, just reductive. They make for a great story, or they’re intended as a specific kind of boost or guidance.
However, neither aspect on its own is the magic elixir. The two are quite inexorably linked, playing off each other to produce the whole picture.
In a true Niels Bohr way, they are both 100% important.
For the realm of belief…
If we’re weighed down by something in our mental space – doubt, concern, trying to look good, shame – that nagging little voice in our head can totally interrupt our highest levels of performance. We hesitate, second guess ourselves, pull back, stumble, fumble, and in the end, we make a right muddle of it.
When it’s a sports team is flaming out in the playoffs, we call that “choking.” Something has kaiboshed their mental game, and it completely disrupts their actual game. They don’t play their best. Down they go.
If, on the other hand, we’re acting from a place of clarity and in total unity with the activity, we call that being “in the zone.” Ease and grace is ours. Exceptional performances erupt. Legends get born.
Our state of mind and our state of being is vital to our achieving maximum performance.
When we are clear, there is nothing hindering our thoughts and actions.
To perform those actions, we need to know how. We need the skill. And just wanting something doesn’t mean we’re capable of it.
My desire to sing a song like a rock star isn’t going to give me the pitch, or the words, or the rhythm, or the melody. It may get me up on stage, but there’s going to be a gap.
We need kung fu. The actual translation of the term kung fu, that is: “skill acquired through hard work and time.”
That’s what this is. We need to put our time in. Develop our skill. We’re never going to be perfect that first day in. We’re never going to start at the top. We need to learn, and we need to practice. Do the hard work. Try. Fail. Learn. Suck. Suck a lot. Things are messy. We will fall down. That’s ok. That’s what this is all about. Get better. Over time.
It’s a journey that never ceases.
If we doubt yourself, or don’t believe it’s possible, then it’s not even in our wildest imaginations to even try to learn, or to try and do it. Or, our progress is slow, hampered by our own uncertainty. We’re just not all there.
The funny thing about skill is that even if we don’t care about it, and even if we don’t really feel like it, we can still learn a skill. We can still skill to perform our tasks. Skill, in this way, can be quite independent of our desire.
And… so round and around it goes.
They are both profound truths. They are two sides of the same coin.* United, they bring forth mastery.
Our best performance** comes when we’re passionate about the task and excited about ourselves, when we’re clear of unproductive mental chatter, feelings, and concerns, and when we’ve got the skills, developed through lots of hard work and grit, to back it up.
We step up. We get ready. And then, we shine.
* – It should not be overlooked that “believing in ourselves” and reducing the unproductive mental chatter, worry, and etc is also a skill. There’s kung fu available here too. Mindfulness, transformation, possibility, is all something that can be grown. It can also be very hard work, and it may lead through much levels of suckitude and messiness. It’s not something that should be glossed over.
** – It should also not be overlooked, in a triple Buddhist middle path, that the randomness of life and life’s events also plays a role in our results (and we shouldn’t create a disempowering and shameful context around our ‘position’ in life). This is about honing ourselves and our performance, which will allow us to respond in the best manner no matter how life shows up.