I’ve recently applied to a job opening at Unsettled – it sounded like a marvellous (and fun) opportunity to learn more about teaching and coaching people, part time, and I seem to still absolutely have the travel bug. They’ve asked three questions and applicants to pick one for the cover letter. I really wanted to go with “the most important thing I’ve learned from leadership”. To talk about how, through yoga, mentoring and our company, Drungli, I’ve learned that sometimes your job is not to push but to make your people stop. But I just couldn’t make it work even after a whole lot of trial, so I’ve resorted to another of the options.
I still think knowing when to stop is a valuable lesson: in certain circumstances, you must cut your losses and however hard, gift a fresh start to everyone involved. But maybe my reasoning didn’t really come together because I knew there must be something more interesting and productive I’ve acquired from being in leadership roles. Well, I needed a fantasy book to remind me, The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson. His heroine, Shai, is a Forger and thief of exceptional skill and knowledge.* In moments of the gravest danger she has a mantra, become the person who can deal with this.
It took me back to my first handful of times teaching yoga to others, practising before my certification exams. Somewhere in there it dawned on me: the person opening the door to her friends and the person stepping onto the mat was different. Even though I was inexperienced, I sensed that in order to hold the space, deliver instructions and gently correct, I need to become someone else, somebody more. This fantasy of a good teacher, modelled on my favourite classes and yogis. Maybe I didn’t have all the knowledge, maybe it was only a handful of times that I’ve practised, but it didn’t matter. I had a mental model of 1) what is expected from a yoga teacher 2) what kind of teacher and person I myself wanted to become.
I realised I can slip into this character at will – from then on it became less nerve wrecking to prepare for the exams.
Why is this such an important lesson? Because we can all do this in times of challenge or crises. We can picture that person underneath our layers of worry, self-doubt and -critique. We can give it a fiercer sounding name – think Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce. We can decide to slip into character and lean in, if only just for a little while at first.
It is a little bit like faking it till you make it, minus the fact that we tend to associate faking with less effort, trying to get away with something. It does require enormous energy to first define who this persona (or personas) of yours is, based on your goals and aspirations. It demands courage to show that face at the next meeting or social function, instead of going with the default settings. But thinking about certain tasks and challenges as a role to perform can make you dramatically more likely to succeed.
A lot of us do this, more or less subconsciously, anyways. Doctors, expected to display a calm, reassuring, still slightly dominant presence. Bartenders and waiters, switching on “friendly” mode even if they had a really bad day. Entrepreneurs pitching, digging up all the faith and passion they can find to convince others about believing in their ideas too. Often our job description and company culture provide the guidelines for this role we are expected to play. Most of the time, the explicit expectation gives us permission to slip into the role and doing it for the others (colleagues, employees, bosses) help us do better. Which begs the question, why is it so difficult when you set out to create something by yourself? I think it’s simply harder, figuring out what this superhero self is supposed to be like when you don’t have the base of external guidelines and expectations. First, you need to justify saving yourself. Then, you have to think long and hard about what are the challenges you are about to face and what kind of person you need to become to face them. Or more precisely, which aspects of your personality do you need to come out and play.
I don not know what kind of challenges you are facing. I don’t know who you are and what your fantasy self needs to do better than your everyday persona. But I do know there are certain straightforward things you can do to prepare.
Amy Cuddy talked brilliantly about power poses in her TED talk. We learned from her that you can achieve 19% increase in testosterone, and a 25% decrease in cortisol, just by taking up a power pose** for 2 minutes, thereby making yourself actually feel more powerful and less stressed. This, in turn, leads to a lasting effect of more powerful presence, self-confidence and more assertive communication. Go ahead, it’s only 2 minutes from your life, it can’t hurt to try.
Costumes – both how we feel in them and how other people perceive our look – are powerful. There is a reason why doctors wear white coats, role play goes sexier and less cheesy if you put on the sexy maid costume for it instead of just picking up a feather duster. Why certain jobs still require employees to put on at least business casual clothing. There is a powerful interaction between how we feel in clothing that matches the role we need to play to succeed and how other perceive us in them. When intention and reaction match up, it serves as the perfect feedback loop. I dress like I’m competent and can hold my shit together – you treat me like I’m competent and can hold my shit together: I’m justified in my belief that indeed, I can keep my ducks in a row. There is no definitive outcome yet, but studies seem to show dressing the part is indeed important for success, especially in a situation when you need to be perceived as powerful. Sure it is the result of a social construct, but wouldn’t you take advantage now that you know that?
Spend some time with invisible work. It is not enough to adopt the mantra and decide that from now on you’ll have this superhero self at your beck and call. You need to have fairly good ideas about what this role should look like to be able to embody it to any real effect. Choose a good day, normally less riddled by self-doubt, talk to a friend, colleague, client who thinks highly of you. Try to see what is already there from the fantasy, as others can often see it sooner and better. Then write yourself a job description to this self, a guardian and fighter who can push through the things you find challenging. It’s a lot like creating a brand actually: you want to focus on a handful of values you want to represent and use them as guidelines for behaviour. Think about the desired effect and what you can do to achieve that. However, there is no need for one persona to know all the answers. When we ask what would Jane Austen or Steve Jobs do, we think about a very specific aspect of them, not the entire complex human being.
Going back to my yoga teaching example, I knew the key things are going to be radiating a certain calm, confident instructions and a lot of attention to the people in the room with me. The costume was my yoga gear – different from the one I practice in – and interestingly it all came with a change in the pitch of my voice too. Stepping on the mat I could let this persona take over. I wasn’t Orsi anymore, an inexperienced yogi thinking who am I to tell these people how to practice? I became the teacher, who simply guides and corrects and holds the space, because that is what’s needed.*** Of course, it is only one role for one specific situation. I need others for networking or times when I dread launching a new project so much it’s paralysing. And it helps to know exactly what this better version of me needs to do to get there.
I won’t say imaginary selves will magically solve all your problems, they really won’t. Especially not if the fantasy about who you could become is not rooted in reality, who you already are to some extent. But every now and then, being able to slip into a well-defined role will help you push away your worries, act more confidently, hold out longer when inspiration doesn’t just happen. Maybe you are not the person who can deal with it all the bloody time – honestly, I doubt any of us can. But for the really important moments, conscientiously choosing to play the role of a more compelling you, you can tap into a lot more strength.
* She breaks into the imperial palace and almost gets away with it, would her ally, the Fool not betray her. Captured, she has to apply herself to the challenge of recreating the Emperor’s lost soul. I love how forgers can only change materials or objects if they understood their histories and how do they perceive themselves. It’s a good book, read it.
**Like standing with your hands on your hips, feet shoulder-width apart, chin tilted upwards or the smug CEO pose, sitting with your feet on the table, hands clasped behind your head. Basically, poses taking up as much space as possible. I’d say that Warrior 2 is a great yoga position to achieve the same effect.
***Mind you, this doesn’t mean that you have to relinquish all vulnerability or always have all the right answers.