“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” -Alice Walker
May 9, 2009 – The first round of the NCAA lacrosse tournament – Navy vs. Duke down in Durham, North Carolina. Duke had firepower up and down their roster and was playing great lacrosse at the time. On the other hand, we entered the tournament injured and coming off a couple bad losses.
We all knew it was going to take a Herculean effort to go down into Durham and beat the Blue Devils on their field. We took a solid week of practice into the game and came out ready to play.
From the first whistle, it was a dogfight. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of bite.
At halftime, we were down 10-0. We were getting smoked. We had no answer offensively, defensively, and everywhere in between. Duke came out in the second half and extended the lead to 13-1. A warm evening rain fell gently on us in the fourth quarter as we tried to claw back. Final score – 14-5.
I stayed on the field after the game and sat on the bench as the spring rain patted me on the head. I watched as Duke took their time getting off the field, enjoying a first round win and the feeling that comes with it. They would eventually bully their way to the final four.
But this story isn’t about Duke or the game. It’s about what leadership lesson I took away from getting my lunch money taken during the biggest beatdown I ever endured in my college athletics career.
Don’t Run Into Battle Scared
Personally, I had a terrible game, tallying one assist and what felt like twenty five turnovers. But that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is the feeling I took into the game that I believe led to such a poor showing. As I said, Duke was a great team. They were big name players, wildly athletic, and on a roll. I was intimidated.
Intimidated and probably a bit insecure. The feeling that transcends our lives and is sometimes misrepresented as jealousy, it was the feeling of inadequacy that they had more talent, better schemes, and untouchable players.
Taking a deeper look, it’s fascinating to look this feeling of intimidation from a scientific perspective. The nervous system has been evolving for over 600 million years.
Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: seek out a reward or avoid a hazard.
Science show’s it’s natural for humans to get intimidated. As Neuroscientist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. states, “Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, procreate, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you.”
He continues, “Science has proven that negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally positive ones. The alarm bell of your brain — the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) — uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news. [Basically], it’s primed to go negative. That helps explain why negative events and experiences get stored much quicker in memory than do positive events and experiences.
Therefore, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.”
Modern day intimidation looks like a job interview, speaking up in class, or leading a team where people are constantly looking at you for answers. And with this, comes modern day insecurities. The constant, subconscious comparisons and evaluations we assess with one another that can quickly tailspin into a lack of confidence.
Erasing intimidation can be painstakingly difficult. Confidence is a cruel mistress that can come and go like the wind. Being a leader is understanding that you are a person of value; a critical piece of the world’s machine that has plenty to offer to the people around you.
It is a genuine belief in your abilities and the cognizant recognition to focus on the positive, despite the science that pulls you towards the negative.
Be aware that Mother Nature evolved a brain that habitually tricks us into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).
This is a great way to pass on gene copies and keep us alive, but a pitiful way to promote quality of life and become a leader.
We all have insecurities. We all have the ability to be intimidated by a person, place or a moment. But it’s those of us that remember we carry the experience, the energy, and the opportunity that are great in that moment.