I continue to be inspired by so many of the athletes currently competing at the Olympics in London. One of the most inspiring to me this week was Joanna Rowsell of the Great Britain who, along with her teammates, won gold for cycling and in world record time.
Her success was preceded by years of self-esteem issues caused by the condition alopecia areata which caused her to lose virtually all of her hair by the age of 11. Hats and wigs ultimately provided little comfort against the emotional symptoms of the distressing incurable disorder.
At age 15, Rowsell was identified by scouts, the catalyst for her discovery that she loved cycling and she was good at it. Rowsell said:
“Cycling was another thing for me to focus on. It suddenly didn’t matter what I looked like, it was about performing on the bike and that’s what I was judged on.”
This is one of the key skills in achieving happiness in life: Refocusing attention.
Focusing on what you don’t want however is much easier for the brain than realising and deciding what you do want. In coaching, if I ask a client what they want for themselves, it is not uncommon for the client to respond by telling me the things they don’t want. This is easy to do. It will be something that you already have in your life that you don’t enjoy and that you want to be different. It is already regularly grabbing your attention each time that it annoys you.
Getting clear and making a decision about what you do what for your life is a much bigger step for the brain to take. Often it is not something that is already in your life, so in many ways you are attempting to manifest something out of nothing. Moving into the unknown turns on all kinds of warning bells in the mind and often you’ve barely even made the decision before the brain will start coming up with a whole list of reasons why it won’t work.
But as Joanna Rowsell has shown us, persistence and courage pays off.
Important side note here: Redirecting attention is different to ‘shutting down’ attention through distraction. Some people have things in their life that they don’t want and rather than redirect their attention to go after what they do want and working through the inevitable challenges as they arise, they bury themselves in one of their many possible distractions, e.g. work, TV, sport, the day-to-day busyness of life, complaining, personal dramas.
Redirecting attention on to a goal that will move your forward in your life and tap into your inner happiness is a simple idea, but not easy. That is why so few people do it. The irony is that its not easy because so few people do it. Given redirecting attention is a skill that can be learned, the more often you do it, the easier it gets.
Redirecting attention well also requires a good level of self-awareness to ensure you can tell the difference between redirecting attention and seeking distraction and admiting when you are doing it.
I’ve worked with people who bury themselves in their work and are convinced that it needs to happen in order to support their family and/or pay bills. Of course earning money needs to happen. Self-awareness allows you to get real and notice when you are burying yourself in your work in order not to face challenges at home. Self-awareness lets you get real about the underlying reasons for anything that you do.
Simple and not easy. Not easy because it can often be a grey area. Thinking about Joanna Rowsell again, she did an excellent job of redirecting her focus and putting her energy into an inspiring goal that moved her life forward (and even got her a gold medal). I also imagine in the process that there were days when getting on her bike and doing what she loved served the sole purpose of distracting her from something horrible and ignorant that someone had said that day about how she looked. At least Rowsell’s distraction on those days was likely still moving her closer to her dream. Distractions like TV, eating and complaining are not likely to do that.
Simple and not easy. We’re talking about the game of life here. What I know is that everyone is doing the best they know how to do. We all make mistakes and emotional pains can hurt just as much (if not more) than physical ones.
So keep going. Self-awareness comes from learning. Learning comes from making mistakes and a willingness to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is the highest form of courage.
Many thanks to Joanna for her inspiring courage.