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Lessons Outside of Sport: "Your Insecurities Aren’t What You Think They Are"

Lessons Outside of Sport is an Inside Rival series on what athletes can take from other areas of high performance in the world.

We listened to it so you didn't have to.

Title: “Your Insecurities Aren’t What You Think They Are” on WorkLife with Adam Grant from the TED Audio Collective.

Length: 40:33

Released: June 1, 2021

If you want to tune in yourself, click the image below

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and has won numerous awards for research, speaking, writing, and teaching. Grant hosts WorkLife, a chart-topping TED original podcast, that takes you inside the minds of some of the world’s most unusual professionals to discover the keys to a better work life. You might be thinking, 'What does organizational psychology have to do with sport psychology and mental performance?' Believe it or not, the two heavily overlap. Instead of athletes and coaches being the focus, it's employees and their bosses; instead of championship culture, it's a positive workplace; instead of peak performance for sport, it's peak performance for business and so on and so on. Often, mental performance consultants work with business executives on improving themselves and their teams similarly to mental performance consulting in sport, which is why we were excited when WorkLife covered a topic we currently find running rampant in the sporting world: Imposter Syndrome.

Featured in the podcast:

The episode begins with Adam Grant himself retelling an experience he first began public speaking an interviewing. He describes himself as insecure, with a lot of self-doubt, and even awkward. He realized he had two choices,

"I could only take on tasks where I knew I could succeed or I could take risks that would challenge me to grow."

- Adam Grant.

Considering he has a podcast... I'm sure you've figured out by now which way he went. Truth is, everyone has insecurities and Grant outlines them as those moments of self-doubt where you questions yourself or your abilities. Among athletes, we hear things such as...

"I'm not sure I can do this..."

"Am I ______ enough to do this?"

"How did I end up here?"

"What if I'm not as good as they think I am?" or "What if they realize I'm not that good..."

But first, two terms we need to define before moving on. Self-esteem and insecurity are not the same thing. Self-esteem is how highly you think of yourself (how much confidence you have). Security is how stable your confidence is (so insecure would be how unstable).

In sport, if you're insecure, messing up a play or making one mistake can bring your self-esteem down so being secure means that confidence isn't as easily shattered. You can make mistakes and let them go and move on. You can see how this is crucial, not just in sport, but in life where mistakes are inevitable. Adapting a growth mindset and building resiliency allows us to fail without feeling like we're a failure. With mistakes being a normal part of life, research has shown that insecurity (that occurs naturally during the learning process) isn't actually the problem but rather "[...] how we try to cover up those deficits rather than facing them" bringing us to 'The 3 Mistakes' everyone makes when managing insecurities. To discuss them further, Grant interviews Comedian Taylor Tomlinson.

The 3 Mistakes:

  1. Become paralyzed by doubt

  2. Self-Sabotage

  3. Seek external validation

Tomlinson began her career when her father signed them up for a comedy class when she was 16. Now aged 27 Tomlinson has realized the insecurities she had when she was just 16 haven't really gone away.

"This job [comedy] is really anxiety inducing and so there was a long time when I thought 'should I be a teacher?' I've had panic attacks where, you have to be at a show in 10 minutes and you're like 'I don't know how I'm going to get through this'."

The first mistake, becoming paralyzed by self-doubt, can prevent us from seeing our goals and dreams through. But Tomlinson realized it was only when she put herself out there and performed routinely that she was beginning to no longer be afraid of stand-up. Once you've pushed past the paralysis, the second mistake is that insecurities can stop you from trying hard enough. Grant explains you might not give it your best shot "[...] because you’re afraid to find out that you don’t have what it takes." This looks like when you deliberately under-prepare (hello perfectionists who procrastinate) so you don't have to find out if you're any good. In sport, maybe you skip pre-season conditioning, or continuously put off "that thing" that coach says will get you to the next level. You essentially don't prepare for your sport, or an aspect of your sport, as you would for something else you believe you can actually do.

“You’re squandering your abilities because you’re not working hard enough and it’s because you’re scared and you’re not performing as much as you could because you’re afraid of failing, and you’re afraid you don’t deserve to be here and you’re really only hurting yourself. If you don’t make it, you really have no one to blame but yourself.”

- Taylor Tomlinson

Grant explains this defense mechanism of self-sabotage shields yourself from finding out you're not any good. The trouble is, it works as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and prevents you from becoming good (and thus reaffirming your belief you weren't good). To counter this, you have to make a real investment and take the challenge as an opportunity and give 100% of what you do have. Sometimes, however, we instead become obsessed about proving ourselves to others leading us to the final mistake you can make, seeking external validation.

Research reveals that pursuing validation backfires and basing your self-esteem on others' approval will keep your confidence unstable. A healthy approach is to stabilizing your self-esteem, and make it less dependent on external validation, is by taking up some self-reflection (see The Mental Toolbox for drills on highlight and building strengths as well as performance journaling). Grant suggests to start with...

Who’s approval actually matters to you?

“You can’t change how talented people think you are [...] but you can make people respect how hard you work. So while I’m maybe insecure about who I am and I have reasons to be I know that I work really hard and I feel confident about that.”

- Taylor Tomlinson

What Tomlinson is portraying, as she reframes approval from the audience to approval from herself is, is known as shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Focusing on the activity for its own sake (the mastery or enjoyment of it) instead of the rewards (in her scenario - the audience approval). Grant shares “we’re less likely to become discouraged from setbacks if we shift our goals from extrinsic image to intrinsic mastery” from proving our competence to improving our competence. If you're an athlete, this means worrying less about acing a skill the first time you do a drill and focusing more on gaining a strong command of how to do that drill. In other words, you focus less on looking good and more on getting better.

The take away from Taylor Tomlinson and imposter syndrome (IS)?

1. To push through self-doubt you have to do the thing.

2. But once you're doing the thing, really show up for yourself and do the thing as well as you can. Remember, everyone starts somewhere and this is just your starting point - so why not go all in and see where it goes?

And finally, 3. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

In the second part of the episode, Grant interviews Luvvie Ajayi Jones and she recalls when she was invited, not once, but twice, to give a TedTalk and declined both times due to imposter syndrome (IS) because she was afraid "they would think it’s trash" and she didn't feel ready for that stage. Ajayi Jones, a 2x New York Times bestselling author, having proven success and still feeling like an imposter. How does that happen?

“What happens with imposter syndrome, it doesn't go away [because you're successful], it shape shifts. People think you get to a certain level in your career and all is well, you’re the confident person who is like ‘I got everything handled, I will do it all without a problem’... but we are constantly looking for ways to be better. We never rest in what we do or where we are we’re always like ‘so what’s the next mountain for me to climb?’ You’re constantly looking to prove something so now you feel like you have to earn this spot that you now have.”

- Luvvie Ajayi Jones.

For many of us in the beginning, IS sounds like "I'm not sure I can do this" or "I'm not ready for this" but as you move along it may - as Ajayi Jones characterizes - shape shift into "I need to continue to prove I belong here." When you have achieved something, IS doesn't necessarily go away, that achievement may actually raise the bar. Refusing to acknowledge your victories or thinking you don't deserve any of your success can hold you back and compound from momentary thoughts to everyday thoughts that deepen the self-doubt. But that's not the trajectory for everyone. In fact, just like our blog on perfectionism, there's two sides to this coin as well.

Tomlinson leaves us with, "I would love to not be anxious, but in a way it makes me really good at my job. Being afraid of failing makes me try harder and if I didn't have the fire under my ass maybe I wouldn't be as good." and Grant agrees. Basima Tewfik an assistant professor of work and organization studies, joined the MIT Sloan faculty in 2020. Her recent research includes exploring so-called “imposter syndrome,” which Tewfik says should be called “workplace imposter thoughts” and can actually make people better at their jobs.

"Anxiety is a part of this process - fear of being found out...worried other people are overestimating you. But what we think about it [imposter thoughts] as universally harmful, maybe it’s how to channel these thoughts productively."

- Basima Tewfik

There's no doubt that insecurities can be problematic, but you can also perceive them to be motivators or drivers. Twefiks discusses that people who take these challenges as opportunities report higher levels of mastery later down the line because the mindset becomes "I am supposed to be the expert but there's so much I want to learn."

Other benefits include:

  • Motivating people to focus on others; and,

  • Individuals with IS are rated as better collaborators (more helpful and cooperative).

Realizing IS doesn't have to hinder you just because it's occurring for you if a relief and realizing it can actually benefit you is empowering.

How to harness your imposter syndrome:

First, Grant proposes not to ignore your insecurities but brace them well in advance. He depicts two ways in which people go about this:

  1. The Strategic Optimist; and,

  2. The Defensive Pessimist

The strategic optimist is someone who is inclined to visualize a positive image of the in a way that builds confidence which, in turn, energizes them to prepare. The defensive pessimist, on the other hand, has imagined a worst case scenario that propels them to prepare.

Ajayi Jones admits she's the latter but finds it's a strength.

"I’ve already thought of scenarios A, B, and C. We not gonna let them happen. So, we’re going to try and mitigate risk.”

- Luvvie Ajayi Jones

This kind of mindset helps you prepare but not perform. Grant asks Ajayi Jones what she does then to stabilize that confidence past preparing. Ajayi Jones explains that this is exactly what happened when she received a third invitation to talk and took the opportunity. The function of fear pushed her to practice more and more that when it came time "You know I was saying to myself, 'You got this. You know your stuff. You've been at this for awhile.'"

What Ajayi Jones is describing is her internal dialogue or self-talk. Self-talk is a powerful tool that can help us change the way we think about or appraise a situation, change the way we perceive ourselves, or change how we feel, and thus change how we perform. This brings us to Grant's second point:

The way you talk to yourself matters.

Ajayi Jones uses what we call third-person talk, when you say statements such as "You got it" to yourself instead of first-person talk that sounds like "I got this". Research shows many people tend to do better when we apply 'you' vs. 'I' because it can create distance from the insecurity and it feels like getting a confidence boost from a friend.

Finally, the last way to harness imposter syndrome for yourself is to roll with the comparisons, but keep it to yourself. Instead of comparing yourself to your teammates or peers, reflect on where you're at in regards to your own past performances. Grant says "effortless success is a myth. If it was easy, you've set your goals too low. Yes, achieving hard things often becomes easier over time but anything worth accomplishing always takes effort. As you raise your expectations, don't forget to take pride in your achievements."

Grant leaves us with an exercise I'll share with you to begin your journey with.

Compare your current success to your past expectations.

  • Where were you 5 years ago? 10 years ago?

  • If that 5-10 years younger you found out what you accomplished today, how proud would that version of you be?


If you’re interested in creating bulletproof confidence to start playing better, sign up on our home page to access The Mental Toolbox. The Mental Tool box provides free resources with drills, techniques, and tools for athletes to start practicing today.


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