When it comes to achieving success, you may fall short if you merely focus your thoughts on being successful. You greatly increase the likelihood of success when you "see" yourself succeeding.
I'm not talking here about "The Law of Attraction," although some overlapping principles probably exist. What I'm talking about is the power of visual focus. Over the past year I've done quite a bit of reading on neuroscience, and while I'm certainly no expert, I've become an even firmer believer that, to succeed, people should be aware of the power of where they place their focus.
In fact, one of the twelve "Dan-isms" I've taught my clients for years is "you go where you're focused." That's because I believe that for most of us, our focus – that is to say, both our actual visual focus and the focus of our mental images – is often more powerful than our thoughts. You could think of it as saying the pictures in our head are more powerful than the words in our head.
One illustration of this, as mentioned in my book, Creating Passion-Driven Teams, was realized many times while riding my bicycle growing up. While riding up long inclines I would be pedaling hard and watching the ground several yards in front of me as I went. When I saw a small rock I would think to myself, "I'm going to miss that rock," but if I was looking directly at the rock, even though my brain was saying "I'm going to miss that rock," I invariably ran over the rock anyway.
Over time, I learned to shift my visual focus a few inches to the left or right of the rock. When I did that, my bike tire consistently went to where my eyes were directed. Interestingly, if I shifted my visual focus but mentally told myself "I'm going to run over that rock," I still missed the rock, despite my mental self-talk. My bicycle tire followed my line of sight, not the words in my head.
So how will our mental images help us achieve (or not achieve) success? The answer lies in how our brains operate. Our brains grow "hardwired" neurons in response to routine activities we undertake so those activities can occur without much electrochemical effort, which is very energy intensive. This feature of the brain leaves more electrochemical energy available for processing new situations and new information we encounter.
By repetitively seeing mental images of ourselves succeeding, our brains will literally start to reform themselves into being more efficient for achieving success.
If my rock story is not enough to convince you that our mental image choices matter, allow me to quote from a 1977 study on the power of mental imaging involving college basketball players. Seventy-two players were divided into four groups, and over six weeks each group experienced 15 minute practice sessions for free throws, preceded by 10 minutes of "prep time." The experimental and control activities occurred during the prep time. The four groups experienced different prep times as follows:
Group 1: Five minutes of relaxation and five minutes of guided visualization.
The guided visualization involved the players listening to a recording that instructed them to feel the same sensations they would feel the moment they approached the free-throw line. As the players sat with their eyes closed, the physical sensations they were likely to feel and the sounds they were likely to hear were narrated. Then the players were instructed to visualize themselves making perfect shots.
Group 2: Five minutes of relaxation followed by five minutes of inert concentration activities, (provided simply to control for 10 minutes of time).
Group 3: Same as group 2.
Group 4: No special preparation. Just 10 minutes of repetitive drills followed by 15 minutes of free-throw practice.
Again, all four groups had only 15 minutes of actual physical free-throw practice each session during the six-week experiment. After the study, all four groups were tested for their ability to make free throws. Their results were:
- Group 4: No improvement at all.
- Groups 2 & 3: Slight improvement.
- Group 1: Significant improvement.
Over the years, similar studies have occurred in karate, tennis, and marksmanship, always with similar findings.
So how can you apply this to your management and leadership ability? The best answer, according to neuroscience research, is routinely invest time to see yourself succeeding. This is not saying positive affirmation statements, such as "I am a successful person." You must clearly identify and articulate the specific behaviors you want to have as well as the physical and audio sensations you are likely to experience when you need to be displaying the behavior. Then imagine yourself actually doing the successful activity, and doing it flawlessly.
Anyone can do this. The research is there, and the results are always the same. Therefore, to give yourself the winning edge, you must regularly "see" yourself doing it. So the only person holding you back - is you.