Sumesh Nair

Non Cogito, Ergo Sum

Head of Sales (South)

I think therefore I am – Rene Descartes

Recently I read an article on Intelligent Life that made me explore the concept of ‘thinking’. Sometimes, thinking can be a bad idea. People or teams in Leadership roles, Sales, Marketing and other functions handling that human element often find themselves facing this dilemma. Let me explain this with an example.

It was the 5th set of the semi – finals of US Open 2011. Roger Federer was battling his younger opponent Novak Djokovic for over 4 hours and needed just a single point to win the match. As Federer prepared to serve, the crowd roared in anticipation of the next champion, while Djokovic merely nodded his head to possibly what could be taken as an acceptance of his fate.

The shot that followed is described by tennis legend John Mc Enroe as “one of the all-time great shots”. The result – Djokovic won the game, set, match and went on to win the tournament.

Let us analyse what went into that shot: Roger Federer plays a text book shot serving fast and deep to Djokovic’s right. In what appeared a certain unchallenged shot, Federer moved up to mid court only to find himself stranded, uncomprehending, a few seconds later. Djokovic returned the shot with a loose limbed forehand shot with lethal precision that Federer could not get anywhere near it. The nonchalance of Djokovic’s shot said it all. Later at the press conference, Federer in his quiet fury was heard introspecting “How can you play a shot like that on match point?”

Back home, we have watched Sachin Tendulkar bearing the weight of a billion people on his shoulders as he goes out to bat and fails miserably during crucial moments, notably during his captaincy days.

What is it that makes these great sportsmen choke up, in situations that they had mastered during their early career, which got them to become great in the first place? Federer’s inability to win grand slams or Tendulkar’s inability to win matches as Indian team’s captain hasn’t been due to physical decline as much as new mental frailty that emerges at crucial moments. This ‘choking’ as it is called in sports jargon, is something that happens when players become self- conscious. By thinking too hard, they miss the fluid physical grace required to succeed. As these players age and become older they find themselves being rattled by their opponents who tap into that resource that they as ‘all time greats’ find extremely difficult to reach – ‘unthinking’!

‘Unthinking’ is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. This applies to not only sport, but many other spheres of life and in less dramatic terms, to all of us, in corporate world. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense. The higher the stakes, the more overthinking is a problem.

Unthinking is not the same as ignorance – you can’t ‘unthink’ if you haven’t already thought. Djokovic was able to pull off that wonder shot because he had played thousands of variations of the shot with multiple opponents on and off the court.

Let me wind up by giving a probable solution to do away with overthinking.

Learn to enjoy what you are doing. Research has shown that enjoyment is something that success and analysis can dull. As the deal chases become bigger and the stakes become higher, most of us in Sales and Leadership who would have seen that client situation enact or the exact same sales storyboard a hundred times, would be forced to do a rethink on aspects what should ideally have been second nature.

Drawing a reference to ET, as we grow from strength to strength, with rich experiences under our belt, it is all the more important that we thoroughly enjoy what we are doing. In this age, we are more prone to self-reflection, analyzing every aspect of our lives, micro commenting on our own lives online etc.

Much of this might be worthwhile, but we need to put thinking in its place. Sometimes all it takes while bringing in that all important deal or brokering that large acquisition is an expression of careless joy, stemming from the wealth of experience, aided by common sense.

It certainly worked for Djokovic.

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