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The Value of Not Trying

The 2015 Masters at Augusta in the United States showcased the greatest golfers of our era and was won by a 21 year old – Jordan Spieth.  Jordan’s win was emphatic and his style effortless. In contrast to his performance, was that of Tiger Woods. Despite what one might feel about him personally, Tiger is one of the greatest golfers to ever have walked a fairway and a four times winner of the Masters Tournament. His form has been elusive over the last few years. He has struggled to regain the flow and magic that was once so dominant and various coaches and experiments with different techniques have seemed to confuse and set him further away from the confident and dominant golfer that he once was.

For Jordan, he walked on to the course last week with little profile or pressure to perform from the world media. For Tiger, he was greeted by endless questions about his absent form. I was and still am fascinated by this contrast of confident, fearless youth, versus the battle-weary veteran who has already achieved greatness and is now trying to find it again. There is something almost mystifying about it – how can a man like Tiger suddenly forget how to play golf?

In actual fact, Tiger had a pretty good tournament – he finished high on the leader-board and there was a glimpse of the old days. That said, it was hard work to watch compared to the smooth effortless conviction of Jordan Spieth.

One potential theory for this difference concerns their attitude. Arguably, Tiger is conscious of his track record and reputation – feeling the pressure to maintain his previous standard and form. Coming second even, for a man who has won so many times, is falling short of the old magic and he would have to defensively explain the result. Jordan however has nothing to lose and everything to win – there is no pressure and he can feel hopeful, optimistic, free to express himself and “have a go.”

In business, high performers and senior executives can often fall into the trap of over-thinking and frankly, trying too hard, especially if they have had a successful career to that point. This can slow them down, creating clunky decision making, faltering communication and tentative leadership. Self-doubt creeps in to their style – the last thing you need when you are being watched by the rest of the organisation who are looking for sure-footed direction and belief.  They can become concerned with the loss of their reputation, feeling only as good at their last deal. Accordingly, they try harder, potentially become more risk averse and lack some of the boldness and confident decision making that can turn an average plan into a screaming success – they lose the freedom that comes with hopefulness and this infects the business too.

People talk about “losing their mojo.”  The more they try different things to get it back, the further away they move from the natural, instinctive ability that originally made them successful. Tiger is a good example of that.  Most importantly, one finds that the sportsman or Executive stops having fun and that is immediately visible to those around them. In several coaching assignments recently where Executives have found themselves in this situation, they have been initially shocked to hear us advise them to “stop trying so hard.” “But surely I need to work harder to find out what is going wrong?” they say. Actually, remembering the hopeful optimism and enjoyment of doing something that you are fundamentally good at is often all you need. You can over-think, try too hard and as a result lose the feel and the magic that led to your success in the first place.

So, if you find yourself struggling to do things you used to be very good at, take the pressure off, find the fun you had when you first started and loosen your grip – you might be surprised. Above all, don’t become a captive of your own reputation – it can paralyse you.

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