Lucy's Newspaper Columns

Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers.  Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.


A mindgame for a new start

This column appeared on March 17, 2000

Whatever makes you think you could succeed at that?

Discouraging words.  Haven't we all heard them?  In an ideal world people encourage each other whenever possible, but we don't live in an ideal world.  There's a saying, "Encouragement is oxygen to the soul."  Do you ever feel oxygen-deprived?

Of course we all need realistic advice at intervals.  The most helpful advice-givers, though, are well-informed, attentive to the advisee, and aware that no one in any field can predict with complete accuracy who will succeed and who will not.

Whenever we make a significant life change; for example, starting a business, we're open to negative inputs.  During the recent period when I've switched from being a full-time corporate editor to running my own
business, I've received my share of these comments.  Others do, too.  Here are some samples:
-To a person making changes that will enhance physical appearance; e.g., weight loss:
   "You're going to look gaunt and your skin will wrinkle."
-To young people of moderate income buying a first house:
   "What if you miss a mortgage payment?  You'll lose it!"
-To the first person in a family to go to college or graduate school:
   "Are you going to go uppity on us?  Besides, where's the money in that field?"
-To a person traveling to a remote or exotic area of the world:
   "Don't you know there are bandits there?  Besides, you might catch some strange disease."
-To anyone starting a business:
   "For heaven's sake, don't you know the failure rate of small businesses in this country?"

To succeed in a new enterprise we often require sustained self-confidence and optimism--not naivete, but rather a cheerful, day-by-day, get-up-and-go spirit.  A "can-do" attitude can be a major determinant of, and even requirement for, success.  However, the most confident person can feel eroded by negative reactions, and we are all vulnerable at times.

How can we avoid such erosion?  We can consider the advice, "Stay away from toxic people."  This doesn't mean, "Drop your friends and relatives."  It does mean that during a startup period we may have to distance ourselves from certain people in order to maintain high morale.

Sometimes, though, we can't physically distance ourselves.  Then what do we do?  Here are some suggestions.
   1.  Realize that most advice-givers mean well; they care about us.
   2.  Realize we're not alone;  this is a common experience.
   3.  Find a cheering section; find friends who will encourage us in a realistic way.
   4.  When we can't avoid the toxic ones, look at their attitudes toward their own work.  For example:  Two friends of mine, women I have known for a number of years, made repeated discouraging comments about my speaking-training business when I started it.  They do not know each other.  They are both successful
professionals, one in a high-income, high-prestige field and the other successful in the arts.  They had always been encouraging to me in other ways, but not about my new business.  I decided with regret temporarily to distance myself from both of them.

Then I looked carefully at their own attitudes toward their work.  I realized that despite their successes they were both ambivalent.  One left her profession at age 52 to pursue another direction.  The other was constantly trying to decide whether she wanted to continue in her work at all.  Each had invested years to reach her current level.  When I saw their own ambivalence toward their own work I felt I had an inkling of why they were negative toward mine.

At a certain point, moving toward goals can become a mindgame.  We know we have the ability, we know what we need to do, and we need to free up our minds, our spirit, our energy.  Athletes such as tennis players
often remark that at a certain level players are similar in technical skill and that those who perform best are those most skilled at surmounting psychological stress.  It's not for nothing that top-level figure skaters, among  others, hire sports psychologists!

To summarize:  we thrive on encouragement but in a new enterprise we may hear discouraging words instead at all.  When another's negative input saps our energy, we can look at ways that person's own experience shapes his or her advice to others. Then if someone asks, "What makes you think you can succeed at that?" we could say,  "I am already succeeding in the first stages.  And it's part mindgame.  What new directions you going in?

Our path toward new achievements might look like this picture:  a clear road, with paths leading to and from it, and a clear and promising light ahead.

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