Have you “let yourself down” recently? Have courage, and use it to your benefit!

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While away on a business trip recently (in UK), I watched an episode of “Masterchef: the Professionals”, a television show where four chefs compete to qualify for later stages in a competition which judges their culinary skills. Very often the participants stated “I really let myself down” after hearing criticism of their efforts.

I was intrigued by the frequency that I heard this, and wondered why this should be the case.

Possible reasons for this might be:

  1. people often measure themselves at their peak performance, not at their average, or ‘minimum’ performance levels – naturally, delivering any performance under assessment other than peak performance will feel like failure.
  2. people typically measure themselves against “average”, or even “good” competition, but put them in a competition environment which is designed to bring together the very best, then people’s weaknesses become more apparent – such an outcome can surprise participants.
  3. under observation, people often strive for perfection, but rarely manage to get there – not achieving perfection might feel like failure.
  4. people have very high desires/hope, once selected to participate in a competition – people manage disappointment against these goals by telling themselves that they didn’t perform on the day, but retain a belief that they have it within themselves to do better ‘next time’ (whether in fact they do or not).

As indicated under the last item above, it seems that stating “I really let myself down” really means “I really let myself down [this time, but I on another day I could have shown that I am much better]”. This might be true, or it might simply be a denial of the reality that their skills are simply not high enough given the competition/expectations.

Even if it is true, success is often about being able to deliver a result on any occasion, under stress or otherwise, even on days when you’re actually not performing at your best (Manchester United’s recent period of success is a classic example of this).

This reminds me of the drivers of success, so well defined in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” – principally being legacy, hard work, opportunity, and some luck. Making such statements made in response to criticism or failure might a result of attempting to avoid alternatives:

  • I didn’t work hard enough” (emotionally difficult, negative focus);
  • I was unlucky” (possibly arrogant, insincere and disrespectful to winner);
  • It wasn’t my day today” (in fact, this is perhaps the closest to “I really let myself down”, without having the opportunity to position oneself as actually frequently being much better – and there being little opportunity for anyone to challenge this).

Nevertheless, in each round of Masterchef there is always a winner, and that winner has usually suffered criticism from the judges (and maybe themselves even uttered the “I really let myself down” quote before hearing of their success). This highlights that ultimately judgments made of character/performance by those who are experienced in doing so will typically allow for moments of brilliance, and underlying excellence to shine through and make a difference. People who are under assessment should take heart from this.

The most important factor to remember, if you do feel that you have let youself down, is not to let it adversely affect your future performance – ‘letting yourself down’ has the potential to increase nerves, stress, or panic; instead focus on what it was that made you feel that way. What is it that you might be able to do better next time, if given a further chance? (as Masterchef participants do indeed benefit from) – you can’t change the past, but you still have control over your future performance.

Interestingly, reflecing on this made me think that Masterchef can be viewed on two levels – an interesting TV cookery show, or a study in individuals’ psychological response to situations, when under stress. Viewing it as the latter can be very enlightening (while still making your mouth water!).

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