What Every Athlete and Business Person Must Learn

If you can’t manage your emotions you can’t manage anything. In some ways this is called the Aussie spirit. Recently we saw Mick Fanning attacked, harassed, engaged, interact, play with a great white shark. (depends which “save the shark campaigner disguised as a shark expert you read). It was a fascinating study in human emotion. Mick Fanning is one of the worlds leading athletes and during the interaction with the shark he had the presence of mind to save himself and act logically. That’s a powerful gift given the circumstances. However, when he reached safety and into the arms of his companions his emotions surfaced. So it wasn’t so much the lack of emotion that saved his life it was probably more his ability to set his emotions aside. Whether it’s in business or in sport this is an important skill.

I teach business people about emotional awareness. Over 200 leaders in Australia have taken the Emotional Awareness process into their sport and business lives including one client, a leading stock broker who was recently quoted in the Australian Financial Review:

“he learnt about keeping your emotions in check. Now …….. is applying those lessons to small-cap stockpicking.” 

As an athlete the same applies. For example if you are running or paddling an ocean ski or riding in a race you have to learn the difference between muscular tiredness and personal tiredness. You are not your muscles. Now I know that sounds ridiculous but you can be still healthy and full of energy when your muscles are tired and this is really important because it works in the opposite way too. You can be tired but your muscles may still have plenty of fuel and and therefore can continue to perform well in race. You have emotions but your muscles don’t. To learn the difference between how you feel and how your muscles feel is very important for sport performance. In my early days of professional running and rowing I would hear myself think how tired I was and in that statement there was no difference between my muscular tiredness and my emotional tiredness. 99% of the time it was emotional tiredness. In other words I was feeling tired, uncertain of success, emotional and mental fatigue but my muscles still had plenty of mileage left in them for the race. The ability to put my emotions aside during race became critical for success.

And it’s the same in business but a little harder than in sport. It’s harder because the working day is longer, usually 8 to 10 hours. Secondly, it’s harder because we have five to six working days a week and we become exhausted and then the separation of emotion becomes harder and harder as the week goes on. And as weeks add up to months and months add up to years we start to merge emotion and work, which is, in essence, called bad self management and results in early ageing, redundancy and ill-health too young. The damage can be permanent in the form of stroke and heart failure.

When people search for work life balance they are actually searching to separate emotion from work. Lets call it recovery. But because their emotional work process is clumsy the only way that they can handle the buildup of emotion from work is to find non work personal time to allow the fatigue and exhaustion (emotional) it to dissipate. They haven’t really worked hard with muscles, but it feels like it.

That process of using personal time to recover from work time is perfectly fine if we work one hour a day, or like Mick Fanning, have a 30 second interaction with a wild animal and the rest of the week to recover from it. But it’s not just 30 seconds. Typically we work 40 hours a week or so and therefore the demand for time outside of the workplace to dissipate that emotional build up is possibly more than a weekend, or evenings can provide.

New process are being introduced every day to help people deal with this emotional buildup. Yoga classes and meditation practices are being introduced so that after eight hours work a person can spend 30 minutes to an hour discharging the build up of tension and emotion. There’s red and white wine, TV, etc etc.

But all this is dealing with cause and not effect. The cyclist who is racing and knows how to separate their emotion from their muscular tiredness will not need as long a period of recovery after the race than his competitors who need to discharge of the emotional exhaustion. Obviously, the best solution is to operate in a way where it simply won’t build up in the first place.

So the secret here is to understand what is an emotion and what is work. For the sports person is to understand what is emotion and what is muscular tiredness. As I’ve mentioned earlier my estimation is 90% of all fatigue during sporting events is not muscular. And in business 90% of all the tiredness and exhaustion and burnout is caused by emotion not work.

In our way of life emotion has become part of our life. If you ask the person what is emotion they will struggle to give you anything but a negative definition of it. For example: is happiness and emotion? Is it bad bad emotion or a good emotion and therefore should we be just eliminating negative emotions and leaving the positive (see positive psychology)? Should we be dealing with the emotional stories that keep bringing up negative emotions (see therapy) or should we be dealing with building resilience which is in some ways denial that emotions exist (see emotional intelligence)?

For me it’s all too complicated. A spade is a spade. The difference between an emotion and something else is like chalk and cheese. The struggle for most people is that feel good sells and so most people who are offering advice around the motion are also offering feelgood, because that is what will eventually build their business. A spine surgeon doesn’t have the luxury of emotion. If you need an operation on your back you need an operation on your back. There is no feel good about it. It either needs to be done and gets done or it doesn’t.

Recently I had back surgery. The first time this occurred was in the Himalayas of Nepal when I developed a cyst in my lower back inside the spine that compressed my spinal column into 10% of its normal volume. Because the spinal column is full of nerves I couldn’t walk. Three days after I went to visit the surgeon I was in surgery. 18 months later, due to a complication in the surgery I had to go back in again and have the same operation. There was no emotion apart from mine at having to pay the bill and suffer the recovery period. It’s now 12 months since the last operation and my back is in pain but it is not so severe that I need surgery. Now it becomes emotional. Now people have choices, options, different ways of looking at the problem. And everybody has a different opinion except my surgeon. He simply says you don’t need surgery. I admire this man at his work because he is not allowing emotion to intrude on his working day.

Imagine a spine surgeon who was emotional. The difference between success and failure in spinal surgery is the smallest of movements of the surgeons hand. Imagine if he introduced the variables we introduced in our workplace of liking and disliking the patient, Feeling good or feeling bad about this operation, of wanting to have the weekend off because he was feeling exhausted from too many surgeries yesterday? The parallel between the back surgeon and your job is perfect. The privilege we allow ourselves to be emotional in our workplace is so that we can communicate. If we communicate without emotion there is no engagement and so there is a great movement in the business world right now to cause better communication by engaging more emotion. But by engaging more emotion there is a greater cause of stress people are going home or tired and begging for more balanced time. You don’t have to buy into this.

Communication at work are two different things. Just like the cyclist with sore muscles. You are not the work. You are not the communication. And this is the key to Going home from work with more energy than you came to work with. It is not dispassionate. It is not carelessness. It is knowing when to communicate with emotion and to know that those emotions did not reflect you are but how you need to communicate. Actors have to do this all day everyday. Then it’s a matter of doing the work. You’re not the work. You are the results of the work because the results of the work give you things that you need to fulfil the values that you think are important in your life. It’s very simple but it’s very easy to buy into the current mess of engaging more emotion without teaching people how to be separate from the emotions they engage. You are not your sore muscles, you’re not your work, you are not your emotions, and this is why it’s so important just spent 30 minutes a day connecting to know who you are before you put on a business suit or a wetsuit.

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