I’ve always been afraid of water. To confront those fears, I decided to learn to scuba dive—even before I learned to swim. One of the requirements of scuba diving certification was to descend under water ten feet, take off my mask and mouthpiece, and then put them back on again. I was afraid I would drown in those few moments underwater and without oxygen.
What if I lost my mask? How would I get back to the surface? After all, I couldn’t even swim. My instructor was with me, and during practice he had helped me several times. But on the day of certification I would need to do it on my own.
My fear of water had not subsided as I hoped it would. I did not feel safe in the water, especially when I was ten feet under.
The night before the test, I spent hours visualizing how I would take off the mask and replace it without drawing a breath or dropping the mask. I walked myself through the exercise time and time again. I saw myself taking a deep breath and then letting go of my mouthpiece. I watched myself pull off the mask with my left hand and hold it tightly as my right hand came around and pulled it back over my face. I thought about how eyes would sting from salt water if I opened them so I would keep them closed tightly. I then observed how I would grab hold of my mouthpiece and bring life-giving oxygen back into my lungs.
I rehearsed the sequence dozens of times. And when it came time for my scuba dive certification, I performed the underwater portion exactly as I had visioned it. Later that day, I dove 100 feet down a seawall!
Little did I know at the time that the benefits of visualizing my performance was based on solid science. Achieving my goal was about more than work and discipline—it was also about physiology.
By visualizing my performance repeatedly, my brain stored that information as a success.
And with each success, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is the chemical that becomes active when we encounter situations that are linked to rewards from the past. Dopamine enables us to not only see rewards, but to move toward those rewards (click to tweet).
This simple concept has implications far beyond scuba diving certification. For example:
BUSINESS LEADERSHIP: Mental toughness is the ability to envision the outcome of an event to trigger the production of dopamine. Sometimes asking yourself a simple question such as, “What do I want this meeting to look like?” and then visualizing your performance is enough to get that important shot of dopamine. Start with visualizing every objection and/or question that is likely to come up in the meeting, and your response to it.
PERSONAL LEADERSHIP: Visualizing can help you see your own ability to perform in difficult or stressful situations (click to tweet). It can help take you beyond your self-limiting beliefs about yourself and move you beyond your current circumstances. Visualizing encourages leaders to ask “What if?” or “What else?” These types of questions open doors of possibility and opportunity. It’s an invitation to move past the status quo.
TEAM LEADERSHIP: If dopamine is associated with increased creativity, leaders can use this knowledge to help their teams find ways to be creative in finding ways to perform more satisfying work. Research has determined that dopamine is produced in anticipation of reward, not as the result of the reward.
The very act of giving your brain a detailed portrait of your end goal ensures the release of dopamine, a powerful mental toughness tool to steer you toward success.
From Victor Frankl: “There’s one reason why I’m here today. What kept me alive in a situation where others had given up hope and died was the dream that someday I’d be here telling you how I survived the concentration camps. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never seen any of you before. I’ve never given this speech before. But in my dreams I’ve stood before you in this room and said these words a thousand times.”
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