The Professional Mindset
Have you ever wondered why so many CEOs and high-achievers (including sports superstars like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky) are so taken with the game of golf? It’s not just because they get to wear white belts and plaid pants.
(With apologies to everyone who lives along the banks of the Cuyahoga, here is Tom Wolfe’s definition of a white belt and white shoes worn as part of the same outfit. Mr. Wolfe calls it a “full Cleveland.”)
But back to golf.
The reason high-performance professionals are often smitten with golf is that golf, more than almost any other sport, requires the player to perform over and over the following mental/emotional action:
To focus exclusively on the shot in front of him, no matter how horrifically he has just screwed up the previous shot(s).
This exercise is identical to what the World Bank President or the NBA champ have to perform in their day jobs.
Golf makes performance of this action particularly difficult because unlike full-speed sports like basketball, football, tennis or hockey (where the player is in motion), golf makes the competitor execute each stroke from a standing start. As anyone who has ever tried to sink a three-foot putt under pressure knows, this is where the mental game (aka psyching yourself out or “choking”) rears its ugly head.
All this is a long wind-up to the concept of the professional mindset.
What exactly is mental toughness for the artist and the entrepreneur?
Let me offer a definition based on our previous discussions about Track #1 and Track #2, i.e. our pure-soul trajectory versus our commercial trajectory.
The professional mindset means being able to maintain your focus on Track #1, no matter what is happening on Track #2.
Or, expressed a different way:
The professional does not react emotionally to success or failure.
The professional maintains, as her touchstone, the trajectory of her lifetime practice as a pure artist or entrepreneur. She follows her bliss. She serves her own Muse.
The pro may have to work on Track #2 to put food on the table (or she may sell her Track #1 work to those who are buying it for Track #2 purposes). But she never loses sight of her Track #1 trajectory, the path of her artist’s heart.
Consider Bruce Springsteen. Or Neil Young or Martin Scorsese or Toni Morrison. These artists’ careers have been blessed in that, almost from the get-go, their Track #1 work—i.e., what they were doing from the heart, pursuing their own Muse—has paid off on Track #2 as well.
These artists’ voices have been so authentic and their points of view so powerful that they have pulled Track #2 (the commercial world) over to their Track #1.
They are lucky—and they are good.
You and I may not be able to travel that same happy highway. I can tell you, I’ve sold out so many times I’ve lost count. My railroad car has bounced along Track #2 for many a mile. At the same time, I have had my Track #1 work flamed and flogged and given up for dead. And occasionally the opposite has happened: Track #1 has paid off big-time on Track #2.
Which brings us back to the Pro Mindset.
No matter what happens, up or down, in the world of the marketplace or the sphere of “what other people think of our stuff,” we as professionals must keep our eyes on the prize—and that prize is what WE OURSELVES think of our best stuff and what trajectory our true-heart work is propelling us upon.
A career like Springsteen’s or Neil Young’s unfolds organically from album to album, each one different and yet each one hewing to its distinctive Springsteen-ness or Young-ness. Their Muse is leading them. They are not following the market, the market is following them.
You and I must keep our eye on the same ball. Our own ball. No one said this was easy. All of us have fallen on our faces again and again trying to do it. But the objective remains the same:
To permit ourselves neither to be cast down by failure nor over-elated by success, but to judge by our own standards and no one else’s how true we have been to our heart’s calling—and to never take our eyes off that star.
To quote the Old Philosopher:
“As you travel through life
Let this be your goal:
Keep your eye on the doughnut
And not on the hole.”