Finding Win-Win When Entering a Storm

Have you ever had a meetings/exam where it feels like your entire future is riding on the outcome? Our performance is critical, but we can’t perform at our best since the stress is so high: failure means that I am not the person I think I am/wish to be. In reality, even passing/achieving my goal will not make me feel whole, at least not for long.

So, here are the real outcomes by this scenario: I “win” and I still feel incomplete or I fail and I feel devastated.   Even when I win, I lose.

The first time I had a situation like this was when I was taking my oral candidacy examination for my doctorate. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, candidates give a presentation of their research proposal and then are grilled for a couple of hours by a panel of typically 5 faculty. Though the questions tend to focus on the proposal itself, any tangent is considered fair game. Because the questioning is both deep and broad, preparation requires up to 4 weeks of devoted preparation. If you fail, you may be given a chance to retake it. If not, or if you fail the make-up, then you’re out. Adios muchacha.

Despite this crazy set-up, I think it’s accurate to say that I went into my oral exam completely calm and did a pretty good job. In fact, some of the feedback I got was that my presentation was one of the best they’ve seen.

What made the difference?

Ironically, I had ambivalence about being in school and so was not emotionally tied to the outcome. I had recently taken a short leave of absence from the program because of my self-doubt about my ability to complete the degree. When I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do, I re-enrolled. Therefore, I went into the exam completely open to their feedback regarding my ability to advance. Who better than a panel of faculty in a 5:1 exam to determine whether I am suited to continue? If I’m not, then it’s better to know now I reasoned than after investing in another 3 years of school. If they decide I am suited, then maybe this is the right path for me after all. In other words, I took the intent of the exam to heart (to determine whether I’m suited to advance) instead of making it a referendum on my self-worth.

Therefore, I can change the calculus from the original lose-lose scenario.   If I am pursuing a goal that is wrong for me then I am more likely to be invited to pursue a different, and more satisfying and fulfilling pathway.  If I feel whole going into the meeting and open about the outcome and the path that it will put me on, I can truly get as much advice and guidance from the meeting as possible, instead of just trying to prove myself. In addition, by being open instead of stressed about the outcome, I can put my best foot forward. A real win-win-win.

How can this perspective improve your performance or quality of life? Given that a high stakes meeting may not be in play for you now, what does feel high stake in your life? How can you switch a lose-lose to a win-win scenario?

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