Part 1 of 4 in The Apple, the Line and Your Emotions series.
“Vasbyt!” is an expression I grew up with. Literally meaning, “Bite down and hang on!” in Afrikaans (my first language), it is used as an encouragement on the sportsfield, in real life – whenever adversity is faced. It conjures up the image of a dog biting down on a rope and hanging on for dear life, even when dragged around; with grit and determination, refusing to let go.
In business and in life we need to show this kind of grit from time to time. Some of us come to this naturally, others have to work on developing this skill. And yes, this is a skill that can be improved over time.
I learnt this the hard way, when as a soft, young man fresh out of university, I had to become a soldier as all young able white males in South Africa were legislated to do back then. During an intense period of three months we were trained to become hard, killing machines; able to withstand severe hardship. We were allowed very little sleep, we were constantly kept off balance by a group of screaming corporals. We had to run everywhere, we were constantly and severely punished as teams with extra physical tasks (like carrying heavy logs) when any one of us showed resistance or weakness. Slowly and steadily we learnt to dig deep and show the mettle we are made of. We learnt the true value of having grit as part of our armour.
What I learnt during this period was that by far the most crucial part of this was emotional and psychological. Once you could reach this place where you were able to ignore the screaming, the chaos and your physical body pains, and instead focus on what was important, what needed to get done, nothing could touch you or steer you off course.
Today, even though we live in a civilized society, grit can be your superskill to propel you forward, to help you outsmart your competition. Leaders and companies with grit can move quicker, focus on the most important, survive adversity and chaos, and carry through to a place of value and profit others simply cannot reach. It is firstly a huge competitive advantage. It comes with a spectacular gift: Once you master this skill, you are able to start living in a place of abundance, of sharing and supporting; a place where happiness and ultimately joy resides. Mastering the skill will not only impact your productivity, it will be a game changer for your life!
But how can you learn to have more grit?
Through my coaching practice and working as a MacKay CEO Forums chair, I am in the privileged position to watch and learn from some amazing leaders. I can observe them doing great things, changing the world for the better. I also see their struggles and their realness as human beings on the journey of life and leadership. I see how they face hardship. Sometimes I stand in awe of how much grit and determination they can show during their times of “Vasbyt”!
I have noticed four game changers the successful ones use. They employ these tools to endure and even prosper during times of adversity:
- They are constantly working to control their thoughts
- They constantly work to keep their thoughts above the line
- They constantly work to master their emotions.
- They constantly choose happiness.
(Did you notice that there is constant work involved in all of these?)
The mind is incredibly powerful. These leaders are aware of their thought processes and especially how devastating and disempowering it can be if we allow our thoughts to run wild. They know how to button down, still their minds and focus on the important.
I use a simple exercise in my workshops to show people how powerful the mind can be, and also how easy it is to focus your mind.
I call my exercise, “The Apple”.
This is how it goes, I use these very words:
“Please find a comfortable way to sit. Uncross your arms and legs. Let them rest lightly, but solidly. Feel your body grounded in one place. Breathe easily and focus on your thoughts.
I am inviting you to come on a short journey with me. If you feel comfortable enough, I invite you to close your eyes.
Picture yourself walking outside in nature.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and you can feel the sun’s warmth on your arms and face. As you walk, you see a tree in the distance. As you approach it, you can see some ripe apples hanging from its branches.
You reach up and pick an apple. You see a fresh drop of dew glistening off its skin, catching a ray of sunlight. You turn the apple in your hands, bring it to your nose and get its smell. As you take a bite, its flavours fill your mouth. You slowly chew and feel it in the back of your mouth before swallowing its flesh. You savour it for a moment and all the cares of the world are left behind.
When you are ready, please open your eyes and come back to the room.”
Once everyone is focussed again on the room, I ask about their experiences. I ask what colour their apples were. Most typically saw red apples. Some may say a green one. Some get specific and mention cultivar names like Gala or Golden Delicious or Granny Smith. I also ask them what their apple tasted like. I typically get “sweet”, “cool”, “tart”. Some may remember it tasting crisp or cool on the tongue. Someone in the crowd may get carried away and tell us all about their whole journey discovering the apple orchard!
It’s a fun exercise and everyone is smiling at this stage.
Then I ask the million dollar question,
“Who, while thinking of their apple, had one single thought about their troubles of the day? Who spent one second on their priorities and tasks that are waiting, their worries or woes or any of the thousands of thoughts we normally have in our minds all the time?”
The answer always is no one. If you were focussed on your apple, it is quite easy to keep your mind in one place. If you involved your senses (like the feel of the sunshine on your arms, the smell and taste of the apple in our example), it makes it even easier.
I then emphasize that this is a very important aspect to remember as far as your mental toughness or grit is concerned. It may feel a bit frivolous, even perhaps a bit artificial, but this exercise clearly shows that you are able to control your mind by focussing your thoughts. Everyone can do this this.
This skill becomes crucial when you find your mind in a place that is not working for your best interests. An example of this is that when we feel overwhelmed. Many people describe this as a time when they have thousands of thoughts. Thoughts that are not necessarily helpful; not necessarily connected to one another; that keep our minds captive and leaving us with feelings of anxiety and of being stuck.
This state is also called ‘ruminating’ and there are some excellent TED talks on the subject, especially by Guy Winch (one of his most relevant speeches are available by clicking here). When we get stuck in these ruminations, it is a time when our ability to focus our thoughts becomes very important.
Later on, in part three, I’ll bring some more tools, but for now focussing your thought and then reframing, will allow you to take that negative thought pattern into a productive one. You will be able to start thinking of solutions and possibilities, instead of being stuck in a spiralling pattern of despair. By just mastering this simple skill, you will be able to start finding more happiness and joy in your life!
I use an apple for this exercise. You may want to use any other image, accompanied by its sounds, tastes, smells and feelings for the same purpose. Some people visualize their ‘happy place’ like a waterfall or a mountaintop. Others go back to a favourite time in their past when they felt safe and loved. It’s up to you.
I’m an apple guy.
(Next article: The Line).