Past Experiences Guide Present Sensations
For nearly three decades, the neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett has been studying where emotions—calmness, panic, nervousness, and so on—come from. One of her discoveries is that present sensations are a function of past experiences. “In every waking moment,” she writes in How Emotions Are Made, “your brain uses past experience to guide your present sensations.” That is the theme of this SIX at 6.
Your Confidence Comes From Your Work
With 1.9 seconds left in overtime of Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals, Dwyane Wade went to the free throw line. Wade and the Heat were down by 1. The series was tied 2-2. He told Tiger Woods how he prepared to make those high-pressure free throws: “The night before,” Wade said, “I was in the gym at midnight. And I was like, ‘I know games come down to free throws. No matter what happens, it’s going to come down to free throws.’ So I was in the gym and I had my cousin standing next to me, I had him right in my ear talking shit to me. And so the next night, I get in that same situation where I got to make these free throws. And I just went back to last night in the gym. I just went right back to that. I was like, ‘I just hit 200 of these last night. I got this.’” “That’s so good,” Tiger says. “It’s like,” Wade says, “your confidence comes from your work.” “Correct,” Tiger replies. “You’ve done it over and over,” Wade says. “You’ve seen yourself do it.” “Correct,” Tiger says, “thousands of times.” Wade hit the two free throws, and the Heat won 101-100 to take a 3-2 series lead. Then in Game 6, he had 36 points to help the Heat win the game and their first championship in franchise history. Wade was named NBA Finals MVP.
In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience to guide your present sensations.
In every waking moment, your brain sifts through its library of past experiences, looking for something similar to what is currently happening. If your brain can’t find anything in your past that is similar to your present, you are in a state of what neuroscientists call “experiential blindness.” If you are at the free-throw line with the game on the line, for instance, and you start to panic—you’re in a state of experiential blindness. Your brain, Dr. Barrett would say, is calling you out. You didn’t put in the work. You didn’t form the past experience needed for your brain to be able to say, as Wade was able to say, “I just hit 200 of these last night. I got this.”
Revert Back To Your Training
Twenty-five meters into the 200m butterfly final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps’s goggles filled up with water. “I was blind for a 175 meters,” he said. Literally blind. But not experientially. “I reverted back to what I did in training,” Phelps said. In training, Phelps often simulated the situation, “breaking my goggles on purpose so that I had to figure out a way to stay calm and to stay relaxed.” He had figured out exactly how many strokes he typically took in the first, second, third, and fourth 50 meters. During those blind 175 meters, he said, “I was relaxed because I reverted back to what I did in training and counted my strokes.” And when he took his goggles off, after the water spilled out, he looked up at the scoreboard, and it said “WR” next to his name. “I swam blind for 175 meters…Won gold and broke the World Record.”
Expand Your Comfort Zone
For years, Alex Honnold thought about climbing El Capitan—a 3,000-ft rock wall in Yosemite—without a rope. For years, he said, “I’d drive into Yosemite, look at the wall, and think, ‘No way. Too scary.’” “To gradually expand my comfort zone,” to gradually cure his experiential blindness, he climbed El Cap hundreds of times with a rope. Fear and preparation are inversely proportional, Honnold says. The level of fear “depends on the level of preparation,” he says. Your confidence comes from your work. Your level of fear comes from your level of preparation. “If something seems really scary, I either put in more time preparing or I just don’t do it.”
Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
“Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks,” Anthony Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential. Literally, “put in place,” mise-en-place is about a cook’s state of readiness. He tells the story of a cook who didn’t properly prepare his station for a busy shift. The cook was panicking, making mistakes, and falling behind when the head chef walked over to the cook’s station and pressed his palm down on the cook’s cutting board. “You see this?” the chef asked, raising his crumby-and-filthy covered palm. “That’s what the inside of your head looks like.” The good cook, Bourdain continues, comes to live by what they say in the military: prior preparation prevents poor performance. And, poor preparation predicts poor performance. And panic.
Belief Is Overrated. Generate Evidence
Ryan Holiday likes to say, “Belief in yourself is overrated. Generate evidence.” Your confidence comes from your work. Your present sensations come from your past experiences, from your training, your preparation, your evidence.