Psychological Mastery is the Ultimate Competitive Advantage

In the introduction to his classic book, The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey imagines our lives as a long series of activities, all of which can be thought of as games.

Whether it’s a literal game of pick-up basketball or chess, or other more complex “games” like starting a business or raising a child, we can think of life as a series of more or less serious games. And in order to play these games well, he argues, we need to understand that every game has two parts: an outer game and an inner game.

Here’s how Gallwey defines the outer game:

The outer game is played against an external opponent to overcome external obstacles and to reach an external goal. Mastering this game is the subject of many books offering instructions on how to swing a racket, club or bat, and how to position arms, legs or torso to achieve the best results.

This outer game is what most of us think of when we imagine any activity we’ve explicitly learned about, whether it was solving equations in Algebra, creating a budget, or practicing a yoga pose. Most of us are fairly comfortable playing many of the outer games in our lives. Some of us have even achieved a lot of success in, for instance, business or sports by learning to play the outer game very well.

But Gallwey goes on to make the case that it’s the inner game that often prevents people from playing certain notoriously tricky games well—think of weight loss or saving for retirement—or from reaching truly peak levels of performance and satisfaction in games they play adequately or even fairly well:

Neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

The book is a fascinating and mind-opening read, even if you have zero interest in tennis. One of the most intriguing implications of the book is the potential for leveraging excellence in the inner game to overcome natural disadvantages we may have in the outer game.

In the rest of this article, I want to explore how learning to become a student of the inner game—a student of our own habits of mind and psychology—may give us the boost we need to get unstuck and achieve much higher levels of mastery and satisfaction in the various games of life. This is the art of psychological mastery.

No one goes to school for mental and emotional health

From a young age, most of us learn at least the fundamentals in several important areas of life:

  • Intellectual. We go to school and learn at least the basics of arithmetic, spelling, history, biology, grammar, and most other common academic subjects. We may not be experts at solving differential equations or writing novels, but we know our multiplication tables pretty well and can manage to write a pretty clear email without too many spelling mistakes.
  • Physical. Many of us also grow up learning some basic ideas about physical health and wellbeing. We know we shouldn’t eat too much candy, that we should brush our teeth every day, try and exercise at least a few times a week, and check in with our doctor and dentist at least once a year. Whether we actually do these or not is another story—but at least we know.
  • Social. Finally, most of us learn the fundamentals of good social interactions from a young age. We were taught to chew with our mouth closed, say please and thank you, look people in the eye when we’re talking to them, or what’s appropriate to wear to work vs laying around the house on Saturday morning.

But unlike our intellectual, physical, and social development, almost no one learns the fundamentals of psychology and how the mind works. This is shocking given that our mind influences everything we think or feel or do every single day of our lives!

Consider the following:

  • Do you remember learning how to tell the difference between a thought and an emotion?
  • Were you ever taught how to validate someone’s emotional struggle rather than rushing in with advice and trying to fix it?
  • Did you spend your childhood practicing Assertive Communication and learning how to differentiate it from the 3 other (unhelpful) forms of communication?
  • Do you remember quality instruction in how to analyze behavior functionally, to look for the internal rationales behind seemingly bad or dumb decisions?
  • Did you take a class in college on sleep dynamics and how to create and maintain effective sleep habits?
  • Did you learn the difference in grade school between empathy and sympathy? Fear vs anxiety? Hopes vs expectations?
  • You were required to pass Behavioral Modification and Reinforcement 101 before having your first child/pet/employee, right?

Maybe you were incredibly lucky, but I certainly didn’t grow up learning any of these things! And I’m pretty sure 99% of us don’t.

But why not? If we spend hours upon hours memorizing facts about European History and solving Algebra problems, why don’t we spend at least a little time learning about our own minds?

Nothing against Algebra and European History, but are they really that much more important than understanding the fundamentals of how our minds and psychology work?

Most of us are taught how to use our minds, but few of us are taught what the mind is and how it works.

This is a bummer, to be sure. But maybe there’s a silver lining here…

There’s opportunity in our mutual disadvantage

Because virtually no one receives this psychological education and training, that means almost no one—no matter how many advantages they had in other aspects of their life—is starting off ahead of us in this respect.

We’re all psychological rookies. And when it comes to understanding and managing our mental and emotional lives, many of us are starting from a similarly impoverished place.

I see this regularly in my job as a psychologist and therapist.

Every day, doctors, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, and professors—some of whom are at the very tops of their fields—walk into my office because they’re struggling with some aspect of their mental and emotional life. And their struggles are not just painful, they’re impacting their lives and usually their performance in their jobs and relationships as well.

And guess what? All these people with MDs, and PhDs, and six-figure salaries… They’re struggling with the same things as everyone else is.

And they’re struggling in large part because—just like everyone else—they were never taught at a young age about their own psychology, about how it works and how to develop it:

  • How to manage emotions (What should I do if I have a panic attack?)
  • How to communicate more effectively (Why do my employees seem afraid when they meet with me? Why don’t my wife and I click like we used to?)
  • How to build and maintain self-confidence (I’m incredibly successful, so why do I feel like a fraud?)
  • How to sleep well (I’m doing all the Sleep Hygiene tips and I still wake up feeling like a zombie…
  • How to think about and handle depression (Why do a cry when I’m alone? Why don’t I feel motivated or interested in things anymore?)

No matter how impressive their credentials and achievements look from the outside, most people are struggling significantly in some aspect of their life because they don’t understand and haven’t mastered their own psychology.

And while they may be able to ignore and contain the negative effects of this struggle for a while, this lack of psychological insight and mastery will have negative consequences eventually:

  • Using alcohol to manage stress and anxiety will eventually start to affect the quality of their work and performance.
  • Pouring all their time and energy into their work in an attempt to justify themselves as lovable or worthwhile will eventually lead to alienating the people in their lives who actually love them.
  • Popping increasing numbers of Xanax and Valium in order to avoid their anxieties and insecurities will steadily erode their belief in themselves with terrible long-term consequences.

Now, don’t get me wrong—people who struggle psychologically need help no matter what their credentials or salary. In fact, it’s what I do for a living as a psychologist and therapist!

But it’s crucial to see—especially if you didn’t start off life with many of the advantages of your peers—that there’s a way to rise to the top despite those disadvantages.

No matter how large other peoples’ advantages intellectually or physically, for example, their psychology is usually a limiting factor, sometimes severely so.

But for the person who’s willing to reflect and start to work seriously on themselves—on their own emotional and psychological life—there’s tremendous advantage and opportunity.

Let’s take a look at a few specific examples of how mastering our own psychology—the inner game—can lead to significant advantages in work and life.

3 Powerful Examples of Competitive Advantages that Come from Mastering Our Psychology

Here are a few small examples of the tremendous competitive advantages we can gain by mastering and leveraging our own psychology:

1 | Focus deeply and produce exceptional work by increasing our tolerance for uncomfortable emotions.

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. — Cal Newport

As Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, the rise of smartphones and social media is rapidly eroding our capacity to work intently and with deep focus for sustained periods of time.

We’ve become so accustomed to easy access to quick hits of novelty from the internet that we can barely go a few minutes without giving in to some kind of digital distraction. Consequently, most of us aren’t working at anything near our true cognitive capacity, and therefore, severely limiting the output and quality of our work.

But, if we can overcome this impulse to distraction and cultivate our capacity for Deep Work, there’s tremendous advantage in terms of the quality and quantity of our work and the overall trajectory of our careers.

At its core, our tendency to get distracted and lose focus is a psychology problem.

Deep, difficult work often leads to momentary frustrations, disappointments, confusion, even boredom. And in order to temporarily alleviate these emotions, most people lose themselves in a Facebook feed, or a new blog post, or checking the weather.

To successfully resist these distractions and continue working at a high level, we have to understand the emotional dynamics at play and cultivate our capacity to acknowledge and tolerate these uncomfortable emotions rather than instinctively avoiding them with cheap distractions.

Mastering our own psychology is the key to producing deep, valuable work, which is increasingly more valuable than any number of letters after your name or list of top schools on your resume.

2 | Effectively sell, promote, or persuade using Empathy and Emotional Validation

The language of empathy does not come naturally to us. It’s not part of our “mother tongue.” Most of us grew up having our feelings denied. To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods. — Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Most of us are fixers at heart. The instant we encounter a problem, our first thought is: How can I solve this?

The trouble is, in many areas of life and work, trying to solve a problem before you understand it can have negative consequences.

Consider the recent success of Apple. As a company, they deeply understand consumer psychology in a way that most tech companies miss.

Because of their engineering, problem-solving culture, most tech companies try to sell their products with lists of features: Processor power, storage capacity, battery life, etc. What Apple has always prioritized, however, is user experience—how it actually feels to use an Apple product.

If you’ve ever unboxed a beautifully packaged iPhone or Apple Watch, you know what I’m talking about—just taking the damn thing out of the box feels incredible! But in order to do this well, Apple had to first understand on a deep level what tech consumers struggled with. What were the pain points?

In other words, good product design required being able to empathize with and validate their user’s experiences.

Similarly, if you’ve ever studied effective sales copy, you know the same lesson applies: Before you can make a sale or flaunt your features, you have to empathize with the pain points, needs, or aspirations of your potential customer.

You have to make a meaningful connection with people before they’ll do something for you.

Ultimately, all of this comes down to the idea of validation. Validation means that you consider, try to understand, and genuinely feel what someone else is experiencing before you start problem-solving, selling, or persuading.

Unfortunately, the art of validation is not a skill that comes naturally to most of us. It takes practice and repetition.

The person adept at the art of genuinely trying to understand and validate how another person feels is a force to be reckoned with!

3 | Set effective and productive boundaries by learning to communicate assertively

Many people in today’s society fear conflict and criticism. They believe that in any conflict they would lose and that any criticism would crush them. — Randy J. Paterson

Assertiveness means asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want in clear, respectful language. And it’s something most of us are terrible at doing.

Rather than being assertive, most of us end up falling into one of the three other communication styles:

  • Passive Communication. Rather than respectfully saying no to that last-minute request our boss gives us before vacation, we cheerily say “sure” and spend valuable family time on vacation working on someone else’s work, only to return from vacation more burnt-out than when we left.
  • Aggressive Communication. When another co-worker at the sales meeting points out a problem area in our most recent proposal, we lash out and try to discredit that person’s authority by bringing up their poor performance last quarter.
  • Passive-Aggressive Communication. Rather than schedule a meeting with our boss to discuss our dissatisfaction with our current pay structure, we gossip about her and the company culture with co-workers at lunch.

We fall into these unhelpful communications styles because they’re often less emotionally difficult in the short-term. They allow us to avoid conflict, protect our own egos, and express ourselves without risk of retaliation, respectively.

The problem is, while these strategies may feel better or even “work” in the short term, they end up only making things worse for us in the long run:

  • When we’re in the habit of communicating passively and are unable to say no, we end up over-worked, resentful of others, and lose confidence in ourselves.
  • When we act out aggressively, we end up alienating important and/or valuable people in our lives.
  • When we are regularly indirect and passive-aggressive in our speech and behavior, we lose trust and credibility in the long run and often end up feeling guilty and ashamed of ourselves.

On the other hand, if we practice identifying and accepting the short-term emotional discomfort of speaking our mind assertively, we’re much better able to set healthy, productive boundaries and communicate clearly and effectively with those around us.

Summary and Takeaways

Most people never learn even the basics of their own psychology and how their mind works. Consequently, few people have cultivated psychological mastery.

While unfortunate on a societal level, this means that those who are willing and able to do this—to learn how to master their psychology—can leverage this ability in their work as a competitive advantage, often out-competing others who had significant early advantages.

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