There are times in life when we face a goal or a challenge that seems daunting. Like the world right now with Covid-19. It may feel beyond our capabilities in its magnitude or difficulty for us to manage. Whilst it may not seem like it at the time, a challenge, whether we choose it or whether it ‘appears’ in our lives, brings us huge opportunity to learn and change. It pushes us out of comfort zones, stretches our abilities, helps us develop resilience physically, mentally and emotionally, and gives us a focus to challenge our energy towards.
In any situation, I find it helpful to frame the challenge in a positive way, by defining more clearly what is my ‘WIBA’. This stands for ‘Wouldn’t It Be Amazing’. For example, on becoming paralysed my first WIBA was “Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the sky again” after spending three months in a hospital bed. My WIBA during Covid-19 lockdown is “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this totally changes how I / we behave and interact with our planet.”Creating a positive WIBA can generate incredible focus, momentum, action and learning, and given it’s something you are inspired toward, motivation will rarely be lacking.
A sports psychologist once asked me what percentage of achievement I might assign to mental attitude versus physical form. “80% physical, 20% mental” I mused, pondering the correct answer. Apparently, Ranulph Fiennes attributes his success in climbing Mount Everest at age 65 to being 90% positive mental attitude and 10% physical ability. There is, of course, no right answer – it must be different for each of us and will vary from day to day. There is no doubt, though, that if we go into any situation thinking we’re going to fail, we probably will do just that. Maintaining a positive mental attitude at all times is a vital ingredient of success. As Henry Ford is famed for saying “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”
When pursuing a WIBA we come up against all manner of hurdles. These are an opportunity to dig deeper and examine the beliefs we hold that are perhaps limiting us. Our beliefs are based on our past experiences, and contribute to our perception of the world, and a different set of beliefs could really change that. To enhance your abilities and possibilities, it is useful to check out what beliefs you might want to change. WIBA’s also bring opportunities to examine the skills and systems that we have in our personal or working lives, and an opportunity to upgrade, add or change those.
Here are a few approaches that have helped me change unhelpful beliefs…
(1) Check out your stories…
I was never a confident cyclist. In fact, when I decided to try and become a Paralympic handcyclist, I had only ever done two races, and come last in both of them. The story I told myself back then was “I just cycle for fun and I’m good at riding slow for a long time”. In my first year of training for the London 2012 Paralympics, that was the story I told myself. I rode more than ever, thought I was training hard, and was certainly investing a lot of time…but a year later, I was no faster, and still coming last in races!
I had a story running in my head that went something like “I’m not an athlete”, and I decided to work on changing that belief. I tried a more positive belief out: “If I train hard, maybe I can become good enough to get to a Paralympic Games”. It worked out, and I made it to London, and to my shock, won a silver medal. For the next four years, I worked on changing a belief of “I never win” to “I can win”. I didn’t suddenly burst with confidence, but by changing my story surprising things happened. In 2016 I won the gold medal in the Rio Paralympic Games. Where we put our thoughts and attention, our energy goes. The simple act of changing a collection of thoughts can change our beliefs and hence our life.
The stories we tell ourselves are just narratives we have invented. It is important to notice what our stories are, because they can hold us in place and keep us stuck. They are just programs we are running about ourselves that are often unhelpful, and we can work on replacing the underlying beliefs with new ones. Just like you can change a scary movie to a comedy, we can change the movie we are playing inside our own head. With the emergence Covid-19, it is an ideal time to check out our beliefs. What has driven our past behaviour and how can we potentially change?
(2) Check out your thoughts and words…
The stories we tell ourselves are a collection of words. Their power is immense, but what might surprise you more is the power that even one word can have on changing your reality.
About two or three times a week, I have a really intense training session. I used to call it my ‘killer’ session. Now imagine waking up in a morning with the prospect of something killing you. Just that one word is enough to destroy our motivation. I used to delay my training for hours, postponing the inevitable. A friend suggested that I call them my ‘gold’ sessions instead of ‘killer’…and the result was surprising! I suddenly felt ready to engage with the hard work, knowing it was only the intense sessions that would ever get me fitter and improve my chances of making Paralympic dreams a reality.
(3) The power of negative thinking…
There is a book about confidence by Dr. Rob Yeung, and I’d like to share one of his ideas before explaining what I mean by the power of negative thinking. He refers to ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. If our head is full of negative thoughts, this affects how we feel, which in turn affects how we behave, which then affects who and what we attract in our life. If we’re allowing our doubts to run riot, this cycle often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of a negative outcome.
The opposite are CATs – Capability Affirming Thoughts.You may have heard people call them positive affirmations or helpful self-talk. CATs help you think constructively, encourage your confidence and lead towards a more successful outcome.
Whilst I support a positive mental attitude, it can also be very helpful to embrace our negative thoughts. In facing challenges I often have more ANTs than CATs. Rather than dismissing the ANT’s, I find it useful to pay attention to them. I list them all. Then I think about how to turn each ANT around. I ask What can I do to alleviate that concern, doubt, or insecurity…?That way the ANTs seem to become an extremely helpful way of mitigating risk and helping to counter problems before they arise.
For example, when we were preparing to ski across the Greenland icecap, I had plenty of ANT’s. Being paraplegic, many of these related to the management of my personal care such as, How can I prevent frostbite? How am I going to go to the toilet without getting a frostbitten bottom?Collectively these ANTs could have stopped me from attempting the month-long unsupported journey. But the solutions that arose kept me safer than ever: such as monitoring the temperature of my feet and legs with a fish-tank thermometer as it has multiple gauges, and to the invention of the worlds first ever carbon-fibre, titanium-legged potty with snow-feet.
To address any current challenges, try making a list of any ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts, or words) you have. What is one thing you can do about each of your ANTs to help you gain confidence to progress forwards? Also, list the CATs (Capability Affirming Thoughts, or words) to remind yourself of the skills and positivity you have. Try paying attention to the words you are using, and whether they are helping or hindering you.
(4) Check out your resistance…
Succeeding with a challenge or a goal inevitably means some hard work, and that very likely means you will find some resistance. You may avoid practical things. Are you finding it easier to watch the news or Netflix in lockdown instead of getting immersed in that task you’ve been putting of?Or you may have questions popping up like What if I can’t do this? You might allow yourself to being scared off by these thoughts, or thrown off course by your avoidance, BUT this resistance is actually great. Weightlifters are wasting their time if the weights they lift cause no resistance. Just like you only grow muscle fibres and get stronger when there is resistance in a gym, the same applies to anything. When we feel resistance, your first urge may be to give up, but in the resistance lies the chance for growth. Just like molecules need a minimum amount of energy – activation energy – to undergo transformation, so do we. The only way you’ll get your rocket out into orbit is if you bust through that resistance. So, next time you feel it, embrace it, because it offers you a path to change and empowering surprises.
Nobody said it was easy!
So of course, it might be nice if we could achieve all of this belief and change by reading a short article. However, you’ll have to decide how much you want to accomplish your challenge or the change you seek, and how much you’re willing to commit to getting from your current scenario towards your WIBA. We are reminded of in the spread of Covid-19 that progress is exponential: it’s often slow to see impact at first, but things soon compound and big shifts can happen relatively quickly. It’s our choice: give up on early, or commit to change?
So practice noticing your stories and changing the underlying beliefs to positive ones; change your words and thoughts to more helpful ones, use your negative thinking to help you be better prepared, and embrace the resistance. Surprising things will unfold!
Thanks for listening or reading this second article. Over the coming weeks I will share one a week, each with a theme that I hope will be useful for you. Each theme has been a gift that I have learned from each of the Quest 79 journeys, so if you stay tuned, I will be taking you on a virtual travel experience, exploring both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Next week the topic is vulnerability, something I learned about during the ‘Wild Way’, a journey along the Carretera Austral through the wilderness of Patagonia.