The “Other” Destructive Self-Talk Nobody Talks About
Nobody grows up dreaming of a career in middle management. I didn’t but that is where I find myself. Three years ago, I decided that I did not want to put in the effort to reach the senior level I once dreamed of attaining. I was okay with being average and wanted to achieve excellence with other pursuits.
Putting in the effort is only part of the challenge. It starts with self-talk, and I don’t mean the kind of negative self-talk you read about in personal development books.
Nobody talks about middling self-talk — the kind that keeps us locked in a narrow band of averageness. You hardly notice it, but it saps your will and stifles your ambition. It’s nagged me all of my life. What is it?
It’s the self-talk of the average.
I was an average kid, never popular but not unpopular, always somewhere in the middle. My career path followed a similar arch.
My first inkling of middling-self-talk occurred fifteen years ago.
I showed up for work like any other day. I was a car salesman back then. On a typical day, I sold one car. I had never sold two in one day. But on this magical day, I sold four. I knew it was an anomaly. One-third skill. One-third luck. One-third timing. It was the end of the month and management flexed their deal-making muscle to move more cars, allowing for more sales.
They tallied up the numbers after the store closed. The General Manager handed me a wad of cash as a reward for my performance.
“Well done, Davret,” he said. “You can be one of the great ones.”
I’m good, yeah. But I’m not that good, I thought.
I sold zero cars for the next three days. The manager attempted to diagnose the problem.
“You think you’re too good. You forget the skills we taught you. You think you know better. It happens to everyone. Get back to basics.”
I went another day without a sale and analyzed my issues over a bottle Cabernet. I did all the things you weren’t supposed to do: shied away from new customers (I can’t fail if I don’t try), offered weak replies to objections, and then oversold when I struggled (exuding a sense of desperation).
“Okay,” I said to myself. “I may not be a superstar, but I’m not this bad.”
I sold a car the next day and aligned myself with the kind of success I believed my skills warranted. My performance now matched my expectations.
Average. Middle of the pack.
There’s comfort in mediocrity
The crowd doesn’t notice you. You’re one of the masses. Nobody expects you to lead, provide answers or mentor others. Nobody singles you out for poor performance. You coast along, doing well enough to get by.
Being at the pinnacle of your profession or skill sounds terrific in theory, but it requires hard work, occasional risks, and the likelihood of rejection and failure on your way to the top. I think we realize this and get comfortable with good enough.
Where do you start?
Emulate your heroes. How did they get to where they are? These are similarities I have noticed among superstars across multiple disciplines.
When we do what everyone else does, we get the results everyone else gets. In some areas of life, you might be okay with that. You can’t be a pro in everything.
Most of us have one or more passions where we want to excel but still can’t escape the mediocrity plague. You might be chasing too many trophies.
Three years ago, I decided to become a great writer. I’m not there yet, but I improve every day. I gave up several other pursuits to focus on that one thing. It was a painful but necessary step.
Pick your focus and run with it.
You can’t be a superstar in everything. Pick one thing that stirs your desire and stokes your passion.
Now the hard part.
Make a commitment
Commitment is the state or act of being dedicated to a cause.
Commit to escaping mediocrity. Set a goal of continuous and never-ending improvement. You will never achieve perfection, but you can always strive for it.
Say your commitment out loud. Write it in your journal every day.
It takes a split second to make a decision to commit, but the act of commitment must happen every day.
The decision to commit is a good start, but not enough. You need to follow through with your commitment each day.
Change that voice in your head
He can who thinks he can, and he can’t who thinks he can’t. This is an inexorable, indisputable law — Pablo Picasso.
I’ve retained an unusual memory from that magical sales day. The song “One Moment In Time,” by Whitney Houston played in my mind. It was like a subconscious communique reminding me that it was a fluke. Don’t get too used to this, Barry. You ain’t all that. That kind of self-talk guarantees you’ll revert to the mean.
If you catch yourself in this self-sabotage, don’t try and counter it. You won’t convince yourself that you’re gods gift to whatever. Even if you do, you might face the opposite problem of delusional thinking. Instead, neutralize the tirade of silent mediocrity by adding a but.
“I may not be a superstar, but I’m improving. This success proves that.”
This self-talk strikes the right balance of realism and motivation.
Change your behaviors
Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it — Michael Jordan
What do average people do? What behaviors trap them with the rest of the pack? Average writers follow similar behavioral patterns.
Average writers write when the mood strikes them.
Average writers learn something and never put their knowledge into practice or test it in the real world.
Average writers let rejection break their commitment.
You will find similar behavior among the average in any skill, art or profession. They do enough to get by. Yes, I know there are outliers — the vanishingly tiny minority, naturally gifted, who excel without the hard work. But the best of the best work hard. They do things the average refuse to do.
The rules vary depending on the profession or skill, but you will find some similarities.
Average people look for shortcuts.
Average people blow minor risks out of proportion.
Average people stop after the first rejection or failure.
Average people do enough to get by and then coast.
What do superstars do?
Superstars do the hard work necessary to achieve excellence.
Superstars take reasonable risks.
Superstars keep going when they fail or face rejection.
Superstars never rest on their past success.
Look to your favorite athletes, musicians, writers, professionals. They work their asses off. They don’t shy away from challenges. They don’t stop because someone tells them no or because they suffered a painful defeat. They seek the next level. Michael Jordan won six championships and came out of retirement two years later because he had that superstar mentality.
These changes won’t guarantee you reach the top of your profession or skill, but they will ensure you escape the middling state of the average.