By Dr. Allison Belger
“It is easier for one to take risks and to chase his dreams with a mindset that he has nothing to lose…”
~Chris Jami: Author, poet, singer
“Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.”
~Baltasar Gracian: Spanish writer and philosopher
Yesterday, on Facebook, I asked for article ideas, as I was under the gun for this weekend and didn’t have anything in the hopper. I received a number of great ideas, and as is often the case, a few seemed to coalesce the more I thought about them. For example, one person suggested that I target fear and the role it plays in preventing us from optimizing our potential. Another reader suggested that I address the high levels of anxiety that often plague high-achieving athletes and executives, holding them back from even greater success.
It seems to me that these two ideas come together around the notion of “nothing to lose.” When we act from a standpoint of having nothing to lose—whether or not that is literally the case—we are often able to give our best effort and not hold back. When we tell ourselves that there is no downside to trying, we may be free from the hang-ups and anxieties that burden us with the possibility of failure or loss. We may be able to access our true potential – in sport and in life – instead of being hindered by a fear-ridden mental game.
Take successful executives or high-level athletes: If their identity is wrapped up in a certain role or level of success, it may become harder to let go of the image and the expectations inherent in that role. Vulnerability and fear of failure loom large for those who feel encumbered by success and the appearance of perfection; this sometimes makes it difficult to fully engage in an effort that may involve some level of risk. Instead, the achiever may retreat into a zone of perceived comfort—a place where he or she can rely on past achievements without risking a stumble or fall that would tarnish the image.
We may have heard stories about the highly successful executive or athlete who becomes paralyzed by anxiety and fear, losing the competitive edge. Perhaps, as my reader suggests, this is because of the phenomenon of having “everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Think about it: if you’re an admired “elite” athlete at your CrossFit gym, aren’t the stakes higher for you psychologically as you venture towards a competition or the CrossFit Open? If you head into the Open and don’t perform as well as expected, you may come out with a bruised ego and a public identity that is different from your reputation as a great athlete. However, if you are an “average” CrossFitter, not known for your athletic prowess, you may be able to tell yourself that you have “nothing to lose,” giving it your all, venturing into competitive territory, and putting your best foot forward. As an “underdog,” you may be unfettered by fear of failure and thus may out-perform expectations. Essentially, you will be perceived as a hero for trying.
I know, I know. CrossFitters are a unique breed, not prone to such human, emotional frailties. CrossFitters rise above mundane irrational behavior that might involve low self-esteem following a poor performance, and certainly CrossFitters would never treat each other any differently based on lackluster results in a competitive setting. Sorry for the sarcasm—I’m getting at the fact that, regardless of best intentions and positive attitudes, even experienced CrossFitters can succumb to fear, anxiety, and a need for validation and public acclaim. Of course this may apply to elite athletes in any sport; the higher you’ve climbed, the harder the fall.
So what can we do with the fears involved in putting ourselves out there, especially when we have had success at something in the past and there is more at stake than we’d like to admit? Exploring a “worst-case scenario” may help. In other words, when overcome with anxiety about how much there is to lose should you engage fully in a risky endeavor, try writing down the worst possible outcomes that you can imagine. Then, review each one from a rational perspective, pretending that you are advising a friend, and consider how likely this is to happen. Specify the real outcomes that would follow, and think about how “terrible” they actually would be. And, perhaps most importantly, try to separate your own feelings and expectations from what you imagine might exist in others. Translation: we often project onto other people our own desires and fears. We may convince ourselves that our spectators will be disappointed or appalled if we demonstrate vulnerability or have an imperfect showing on some version of game day. In fact, those people just might be our biggest supporters and would simply love to watch us give our best effort, pursuing a goal as though we “have nothing to lose.”
So the next time you’re up against an event or presentation–or simply an opportunity to take on a new challenge–try to operate from the perspective of having nothing to lose, as opposed to being burdened by fear of a less-than-perfect outcome. The reality is that most outcomes are imperfect; it is the meaning we take from our outcomes that defines who we are and how willing and able we are to try again the next time. Appreciate your history of success, but don’t be trapped by its hold on you. Be open to the effort, uninhibited by the prison of your own rigid expectations. You will be a hero for trying, and you may even have fun along the way!