27 September 2023

Rear vision: How future success can depend on recalling past mistakes

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Cynthia Mahoney says when you are stuck in a job, but lack the confidence to move on, there are ways to break the cycle of self-doubt.

A few years ago, before I made the leap to start my own business, I was totally stuck in an organisation where I didn’t seem to fit.

As a result I lost a lot of confidence in myself and my capabilities.

I felt disempowered and afraid which affected my ability to create change for myself.

I couldn’t imagine new possibilities or identify other options and that caused me to feel angry and frustrated with myself which fed back into my declining confidence levels.

Have you ever experienced this — you’ve had a goal that you lack confidence in your ability to achieve?

Or perhaps you’ve had a staff member or colleague go through this?

For self-leadership or when you’re leading others, what can be done to break this cycle of self-doubt?

I stumbled across a terrific book called Do More Great Work by Michael Bungay-Stanier.

It’s full of useful information and reflection activities to help people make changes in their careers.

One of the first activities was a reflection exercise that transformed my life.

The reader is asked to remember their ‘peak moments’ in life, when they were at their happiest, in their flow, doing work that made them feel at their best.

We were invited to remember this in vivid detail, write down what happened and identify common themes that occurred.

This information was then to be used to inform future decisions about what your great work looks like.

Doing this activity ignited my self-belief; I regained my lost confidence and could now imagine new possibilities for myself.

It was powerful and was the platform I used to motivate myself to eventually start my own business.

So what happened?

For me, I had totally forgotten all the wonderful things I had done in my life.

It was like I had filtered them out of existence and I was only allowing myself to see myself through my gloomy, negative present day glasses.

When I remembered the courageous things I had done, the creative projects I had initiated, the fabulous people I had teamed up with — that made a difference.

It was like the gloom lifted and the world was full of colour, vitality, vibrancy, meaning, positivity and, most importantly, possibility.

I remembered my best self; that I had had a lot of successes in the past and this gave me total belief that I would be able to do it again.

It also confirmed that I was in the wrong place currently to thrive.

I’ve since learnt that there is hard science to back up why this technique of remembering past successes.

It can be used to help us overcome doubt about current challenges we are facing.

When you remember something, your brain is rewiring the connection between neurons — literally changing its structure.

If you’ve had successes in the past you’re more likely to take actions to repeat these successes if you have vivid positive memories about them.

I’ve developed a model to help explain the process which I wanted to share with you.

There’s a reality that you lack confidence and belief about achieving a goal.

You remember past successes. You also go beyond remembering and re-experience them, remembering the feelings you felt and making this as vivid as possible.

This reminds the brain that we’ve had success before, positively affecting neural pathways.

This then revitalises our confidence and self-belief. We are then more likely to realise success.

Remember Dumbo, the little elephant with the big ears who didn’t believe he could fly?

His friend the mouse gives him a ‘magic feather’ and when he holds this in his trunk Dumbo believes he can fly and he does.

Turns out the feather was just a feather, it wasn’t magic at all and Dumbo eventually realises he can fly without it.

Our memories of success are like the feather — we then believe we can succeed and we do.

So if you’re doubting you can succeed with a goal you have or challenge you’re facing, I’d encourage you to experiment with this reflection exercise.

As a leader it might be worth applying your coaching skills to ask questions of your staff that enable them to access memories of their past successes and build their confidence.

Observe their physiology whilst you’re doing this.

When I coach clients and ask them to remember their successes, it’s amazing to see how their voice brightens, their tone becomes more confident; they are more animated.

You can see them light up — in some ways they become a different person — they are accessing their best self.

You’ve succeeded before and you have the capabilities to do so again.

Just find your own magic feather and see what happens for you. Good luck.

*Cynthia Mahoney works in leadership and personal development, facilitation, coaching and mentoring in Melbourne, she can be contacted at www.cynthiamahoney.com.au.

This article first appeared on the Cynthia Mahoney and Associates blogsite.

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