Rishabh Pant was a budding young cricketer who became famous after the 2017 edition of the Indian Premier League. On May 4, 2017, Pant hit 97 runs for 43 balls in the 42nd match between Delhi Daredevils and Gujarat Lions. His innings included 6 fours and 9 sixes. He was instrumental in overhauling the Gujarat team’s total of 208 runs. Delhi team reached 214 runs in just 17.3 overs. The most revealing insight into Pant’s batting philosophy was provided by Sanju Samson. During the course of their 143-run partnership in 63 balls for the second wicket, Pant gave Samson some useful advice. “I started the innings really well. After hitting two sixes [in an over], I thought about taking a single. He [Pant] came to me and told me: ‘Bhaiyya, zyaada socho mat, bas maarte raho (brother, don’t think too much, just keep hitting)’.” Reflecting on his mindset during the match, Pant said, “I was not thinking I will get out or something like that. If the ball is bad, you have to punish it.” Rishabh Pant has gone on to become one of the important members of the present-day Indian cricket team and has won many hearts with his performance under pressure, the most recent being the most-recent test series India played in Australia in 2020-21.
What works in sports, though, is often true in our work lives too. Most often we can see that when we are working at our best, our minds are quiet and relaxed. Such moments are rare but when they happen, it feels like magic. If according to Rishabh Pant, not thinking too much may help a batsman to stay focused and keep hitting the ball well, then what do all those voices in our heads mean? For instance, we often hear voices within us such as ‘What is wrong with me? Why I am so stupid? Why can’t I do this?’ Often our negative judgments seem to be an automatic response. The question to ponder here is ‘Who is speaking to whom when we hear these voices within us?’.
I call the voice that is talking as our ‘ego-self’ and the one it is talking to as our ‘natural self’. Ego-self is an invented or an acquired self whose formation begins as soon as we, as children, are exposed to the rules and norms of our parents (and through them our society). Ego-self is driven by fear, comparison and judgements. It includes judgments and beliefs about ourselves and the world that we believe and accept as absolute truth, but often it is not. On the other hand, our ‘natural-self’ is the real us! It is all the inherent potential we were born with. It symbolizes our innate ability to enjoy, learn, perform and grow.
Inner Game and Performance at Work
Every performance has two games. One game is played outside and includes the external factors that influence our performance. The other game is played inside between the ‘ego-self’ and the ‘natural-self’. Our performance in any activity can be understood by a simple formula:
Performance = Potential (natural-self capability) – Interference (deprecating ego-self talk)
Performance in any activity, from hitting a cricket ball to solving complex business problems, is equal to one’s potential (inherent capability of our natural-self) minus the interference caused by the negative ego-self talk. The greater the external challenges faced by an individual, the more important it is that there be a minimum of interference occurring within. It, therefore, becomes absolutely essential to develop skills to learn to manage and play our inner game better.
Ego-self is programmed and is much dumber than the natural-self. Imagine you have had a busy and exhausting day at the office. You had asked your colleague to get a particular work done in the morning. As you enter the office, after a long and difficult meeting in the evening, you see a file kept on your table and the work not done. You feel overwhelmed and angry. You think your colleague is making an excuse and is not helping you at work. You react by shouting at her and doing work in anger. The next round of emotions and thoughts are more likely to be even more negative. The downward spiral continues. The above-mentioned sequence of events can be well understood through the lens of ego-self that is quick, judgemental, critical and often fearing (thinking) about how we can be wronged. By assigning the thought of ‘colleague not helping you at work’ to the event of a file lying on the table, you felt overwhelmed and angry and committed to the act of reprimanding the colleague.
Our brains are extremely poor at multitasking – doing two things at the same time. Try observing that when you think about home or some other thing (e.g., cricket, sports) while reading a document, your eyes scroll down to the bottom of the page but what was written on the page does not register in your mind. Similarly, notice yourself eating food while watching television. Oftentimes, either we eat more or we do not enjoy the food as much or do not notice what we are eating when our attention is focused on television. Listening to all the (often negative) voices while performing an activity distracts our minds and may drive us to make wrong decisions. Multitasking leads to increased time and effort to complete a particular task, leads to more errors and accidents (remember you are asked not to talk and drive) and leads to poor quality relationships.
Mindfulness is the tool that helps us ace our inner name. It is defined as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and ‘non-judgmentally’ to the unfolding of experience moment by moment. Mindfulness involves directing attention to the experience in the present moment and a non-evaluative observation of that experience.
The first step towards mindfulness is to have a non-judgmental approach and to accept things as they are. It is the conscious acceptance of oneself and one’s actions as they are without any criticism. Awareness reveals what is going on in the here-and-now where life happens. It sees, feels, hears, and understands ‘what is’ without distortion. Doing multiple things at the same time leads to lack of focus and automatic negative (ego-self thoughts to come in). Focusing our attention in the present moment, the only one we can really live in, is at the heart of doing anything well.
By practicing mindfulness, one can learn to appreciate the fact that not everything we think is true. A lot of how we think and act is programmed and conditioned. Mindfulness can help us understand that the thought of ‘the colleague not helping at work’ you get automatically when you see the file on the table ‘may’ not be true, and that there is a need to actually focus on the cause/reason for it being there. The thought of the colleague not helping at work comes only because you have not focused on the present moment but have allowed your past experiences to color the thoughts you experience now. If we focus on here-and-now, then our first attempt must be to slow down our thinking process, take a pause, and explore the reasons why the file could be on the table.
Mindfulness can be practiced on a cricket ground, while chopping vegetables, while driving, while communicating or even while being in a pressure-packed board meeting. The secret is: if we want to change something, we first need to stop multitasking and increase our awareness of the way it is. This may sound easy, but it is a very difficult task. Just observe how often you are distracted or inattentive even while reading this article.
This is the real (inner) game, and the game never ends!