Jeffrey is my neighbor and a competent tennis player. He said bitterly, “Nothing is going right today. I don’t know what is wrong with me.”
For years I was an enthusiastic tennis player and had periodically seen similar tantrums. I had myself sometimes felt equally frustrated when nothing seemed to go right.
My eyes opened when I chanced on Tim Gallwey’s classic The Inner Game of Tennis. In tennis, as in any game, when you are playing, there are really two persons playing in the court or on the field. One is the Performer, the person who is striking the tennis ball with a racket or kicking a football, and the other overlooked one is the Critic, the person who is constantly judging everything you do. The Critic is ever-present and forever mumbling, “You missed that ball! You are going to lose the game this way,” or “You did well this time! Keep doing it if you want to win.”
This perennial, on-the-spur judgment that dogs your steps can kill you. It certainly kills your performance. If you play against Andre Agassi or Roger Federer, you are up against a giant. You need not just the skill and will to win, but also the clear mind to watch, learn and flex your play to match their deadly wizardry. The last thing you need is a mind clouded by endless admonitions of a relentless Critic.
During your performance, you don’t need moment-by-moment praise and blame to torment or at least to burden you. The time for evaluation is before, when you develop your skill or plan your strategy. Or after, so that you learn more about your strengths and foibles and can hone your next game. When you play or work, you don’t need acclaim to inflate you or reproach to cut you down to size. Experts say that praise can set you on an inflexible and fatal course and censure can dishearten or even unnerve you. Haven’t we seen a person or a company continue on the same path of success until the bitter end of failure? Haven’t we known a skilled, spirited player suddenly lose all verve after a few reverses?
You may think a Performer needs praise or blame to perform well. No. What a Performer needs is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow.’ Like a river that flows at its own rhythm, you flow when you perform smoothly and effortlessly, at your very best. In that state, you are fully absorbed, fully focused, fully in charge. If I am playing tennis, I should be engrossed in playing my best, unconcerned about a hit or a miss, the idea of a score or a prize far from my mind. This is not very different from what a wise charioteer told a princely archer on the eve of a murderous war: Don’t focus on the result. I just have to do what I have to do: play tennis as well as I can.
When I write, I want to write as well as I can. I know I do better when I forget about other things – friends, movies, taxes, annoyances, all of them – and get totally engrossed in writing the best of which I am capable. I don’t need anyone at my elbow, cursing me or cheering me on, just the peace of mind to stay on my course and deliver the best prose a mortal can generate.
It matters little that I cannot write like Victor Hugo and produce a stunning novel of 500,000 words. If in writing my little pieces, or in doing anything of value to me, I can devote my heart and mind, achieve the joy of completing the task I have set for myself, and achieve peace and joy, I have gotten into the flow and unseated the inside Critic.
Let me see if I can have a word with Jeffrey and explain any of this.