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A Key to Mental Fitness - Control the Controllable

A Key to Mental Fitness

We are all strong mentally, until we are put in a space beyond anything we have ever experienced before. It is like being lost in a vast ocean without a compass and not knowing in which direction lies land. It could be even worse, like the experience of being actually lost at sea, that my South African friend and valued collaborator at Two Roads - Brett Archibald, former Managing Director of RCI, went through a few years ago. 

Brett was literally lost at sea, alone, without a flotation device, in mid-ocean, 100 kilometres from the nearest piece of land. Showing incredible resilience and mental reserves he had no idea he possessed, he survived 28.5 hours until he was pulled out of the water by a rescue vessel that had refused to give up the search. You can read Brett’s incredible story in his book Alone at Sea , watch a short clip here, and contact Two Roads to have him speak to your people. But for now I will relate one of the many things he did to survive his ordeal.

Brett fell overboard at 2.30am in the morning while on a reunion boat trip with old friends. A spoiled seafood pizza the previous night had caused food poisoning among the men, but Brett was the unlucky one who lost his balance while throwing up against the railing of the storm-hit boat as it rolled and pitched in the angry waters off Indonesia. He was all ready to give up hope. But then thoughts of his family, brought new found resolve. Brett decided to swim for land.

There was however one problem. When you are 100 kilometres from the nearest piece of land, you cannot see the land. So in which direction do you swim? 

Brett had only two items in his pocket. The plastic key card of the hotel room he had stayed in the previous night, and a small ziplock pouch left over from the past. He put the key card in the pouch, sealed it, and allowed it to float. He then followed the pouch for hour after hour. If this was fiction, the pouch would have guided him to land. However it’s not, and it didn’t. Currents rarely flow for a 100 km in the same direction. 

What the exercise did for Brett however, was that it gave him hope for hours at a stretch, it raised his resilience, and helped him continue thinking of out-of-the-box ways to achieve his goal of surviving until help arrived.  In going through this exercise, Brett Archibald learnt a valuable lesson that he today helps our clients at Two Roads with - building resilience is not about solving the problem in the short term. It is about not giving up when things don’t go well, it is about raising the threshold of optimism so that the positivity of the mind prevails, until a solution eventually presents itself. 

Watch this again to get a taste of of the lesson each and every one of us would do well to internalise. 

Simon Taufel makes the same point in his book Finding the Gaps. He writes about taking personal responsibility for what is not working, and talks us through his preparation for a typical day as an elite umpire in a Test match or a Cricket World Cup final, with a billion people watching and second guessing his every decision: ‘In my game, I take full responsibility for my performance on the day and try not to leave anything to chance. For me, it’s about controlling the controllable wherever possible. My pre-game, pre-tour, pre-match preparation is stronger than most others and a lot of work is put into giving myself the best chance of getting the desired outcomes.’ 

But does it hold true for business situations as well? Indeed it does. What do we actually have complete control over, in our workplaces? 

The things that are within our full control, are indeed those that make up the foundations of the success of our teams and our businesses. Think about it. High Performance begins with our values, our behaviours, our attitude - as individuals, as teams, as leaders. Everything else follows from that. From the time we walk into the office to the time we leave, it is entirely within our control how we treat our employees, our colleagues, our customers. And it is not just about being nice and fair to people when things go well. It’s when uncontrollable external factors make their way in - a bad performance appraisal, a rude client or one who breaches your trust, a missed deal, a trading loss. 

As we have conversations around #MentalHealth this week and in the weeks and months ahead, we would do well to remind ourselves of an old adage - 'Prevention is better than Cure'. This is true exactly as much about our minds as it is about our bodies. It is within each of our powers to not let the uncontrollable change how we manage our controllable.  A Key to Mental Fitness

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