Over the past few years, the phrase “Trust the Process,” has entered the mainstream. The process means the (sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes arduous, always necessary) steps needed to get to where you want to go. I choose to use the verb engage instead of trust, because it is active. Engage the process means keep your attention and energy on the steps, not the goal. “The problem of judging ourselves based on outcomes,” performance skills coach Ben Oliva explains, “is that we lose track of the things that get us the best outcomes. By focusing all our energy on the outcomes, we end up getting worse outcomes.” Stick with the how and the what will naturally flow out.
Engaging the process is an extension of focus because it means deal with what’s in front of you. Shift from doing the whole thing, to simply beginning. Shift from spending hours on something to spending just a few minutes getting it started. It shifts you into the present moment (the only place where the future gets created.). On a macro level, engaging the process helps defeat burnout because it shrinks our world to a manageable size, which in itself, gives us focus, moments of victory, and confidence.
Kobe was the ultimate process guy. He was so committed—to studying, to practice, to learning and gaining an edge, to being a student, even after he was already the best player in the world! As a young child in Italy, Kobe’s would get tapes of NBA games mailed to him, which he’d watch “the way most children do a Disney movie.” As a player, he understood the need to never skip steps, which is why he preached the basics; he once said the way you know you found something you love is if you “love the process” itself. Kobe treated practice as important (if not more important) as the game because that’s where the work happened. He knew that without practice, there is no game. And he never saw it as a grind; it was always a privilege.
UCLA Coach John Wooden—who won a jaw-dropping 10 titles in 12 years—knew about the power of process. When he watched his players during a game, he didn’t even check the score. He’d be focused on “if the players were making quick, straight-line cuts…or banana cuts.” Because he could infer how they were doing based on how sharp they were moving on offense. He trusted the process that much. In his mind, a player cutting correctly would be doing everything else correctly as well. “It’s the little things that are vital,” he once said. “Little things make the big things happen.”
Bob Richey, head basketball coach at Furman University, has the rare distinction of never having a single player leave his school without a degree. He’s not just an impressive coach but a great guide and teacher of young minds. One thing he said to me which I can’t get out of my head is, “you can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe.” It means you need a stable place to launch from, especially if that something aims to be impactful. This was a common theme in our conversation: making sure you’re steady where you stand. Bob is an enthusiastic process guy. He separates recruits into two groups: the gain-minded and the growth-minded. “In order to sustain high performance consistently,” he told me, “you have to love the growth not just the gains. You have to love improving… not just the results. You have to love the learning, not just the information.” This is what engaging the process means—not only valuing the finished project but all the pieces along the way. If you’re only interested in reaching the summit, you’re going to have a hell of time climbing the mountain.
Only working with the end in mind is bound to burn you out. Why? Because you only can finish once! And even then, it’s a brief moment in time before you have to move on to the next thing. The outcome is fleeting, while the process is always. On top of this, the outcome is not always in our control. If we engage the process but don’t emerge victorious, we can still feel the work was valuable.
Engaging the process means viewing failures as part what we do, not some setback to get over. Too often we forget that the failures go hand in hand with the work. If we lean into our misses, we open ourselves up to their lessons. The process allows us to believe: I win even when I lose. An analysis of high performers found that they were “yet” people. They understood how to properly react to failures. “Even a dramatic career failure can become a spring to success if you respond the right way,” a Harvard Business Review study found. Responding to losses as feedback is the distinguishing feature between the good and the great.
Poker players have a term for judging a hand solely based on the outcome: Resulting. It is a mistake because it means you’ve lost sight of your process and have gotten caught up in what happened. Luck can and will fall on anyone, but good process is the difference maker. In Poker, resulting is considered a mark of a beginner. The pros follow their process whether they win the pot or not.
W.I.N: is a concept popularized by Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz and I have made it central to my work. W.I.N stands for: What’s Important Now? If mindfulness or meditation doesn’t sound like your thing, that’s fine. But living present doesn’t require anything more than striving to make things manageable. You can literalize this if you want. When you get up in the morning, ask yourself what’s the most important thing I need to do today? Write it down if you have to or type it into your phone. When you put your head on your pillow that night, check it off. You have a clear, demonstrable thing to account for your day. This also gives you a little victory to celebrate instead of waiting months or years for the larger ones. That feeling will give you a boost, motivating you to do it again the next day. Pretty soon you’ll be lining up a few days in a row like this. Focusing on the little steps along the way allows you to get real time feedback, plus the satisfaction (and chemical boost, because of dopamine) of checking off some boxes. Marathon runners don’t make it through 26.2 miles by thinking about the finish line. They take each mile at a time. Yes, we need a big picture in our minds to be motivated, but sometimes we need a narrow window, an immediate box to check, to feel accomplished. You cannot do any of the big things you want to do in life without doing the small things—they’re what the big things are made up of.
So learn to shift your focus to the process, micro-steps, and tangible markers of incremental
progress. There is no stairway. There are only steps. Strive to create positive, forward momentum. Win THIS meal. Win THIS workout. Win THIS sale. Win THIS meeting. Win THIS phone call. You achieve success by winning as many moments and opportunities as possible. How does a team pull off a massive upset when they are the underdog? For one, they do not focus on winning the game. Instead they focus on winning THIS rebound. THIS loose ball. THIS free throw. THIS stop. The process is always in front of you; the outcome, is fleeting, brief, and may be out of your hands.
Sustain Your Game teaches you how to bring your A game to every area of your life. With advice from top CEOs, journalists, social scientists, and more, you’ll learn the framework for how to beat stress, stagnation, and burnout. Sustain Your Game will help you be the best in your arena, wherever that may be.
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