It was June of 1992 and the Portland Trailblazers were pulling ahead of the Chicago Bulls in game 1 of the NBA Championship. As a Bulls fan, I was flat out nervous because it seemed as if the game was slipping away from my team. Coach Phil Jackson called a time-out to inspire his Bulls to find some fortitude and develop a strategy to stunt Portland’s momentum. Jackson’s talk worked and his star player, Michael Jordan, emerged from the time-out with an intense concentration and focus. In the next 18 minutes, I watched Jordan hit six three pointers. It was incredible. At one point, Jordan looked over to the sideline and shrugged his shoulders seemingly surprised by his own performance. Jordan later described this experience as being “In the Zone” and he was able to replicate “the Zone” over and over again during the course of his storied career. Michael Jordan wasn’t the biggest guy on the court and he wasn’t even the best athlete in the NBA, but he was able to consistently operate on another level than his competitors especially at the end of a game when the championships were on the line. When others would choke under pressure, Jordan would enter the Zone, take over the game, and lead his team to victory.
Psychologists started to study Jordan and other athletes who were operating at peak levels and found that they all have an uncanny ability to focus on the process involved in executing the micro-behaviors necessary to perform well. For instance, basketball players in the Zone don’t worry about things outside of the self, like bad referees or a trash-talking opponent. Instead, these athletes have an intense focus on the internal things they can control like ensuring that they have good form when they shoot a free throw or the footwork necessary to execute a jump shot. Professional golfers operating in the Zone focus on the mechanics of their swing, not on the daunting conditions of a fast green. The examples were endless. No matter what sport they studied, researchers found that athletes in the Zone focused on the process, not the outcomes.
Interestingly, research has also demonstrated the experience of the Zone isn’t reserved for just high performing athletes. Artists, authors, engineers, composers, CEOs, and people from many other disciplines are able to experience this same sense of being “in the Zone.” They describe an intense focus on the process when in the Zone, that is characterized by a calm relaxed experience of the present moment. Some of these high performers report that hey lose their sense of self in what seems like the effortless focus on the small behaviors that are the building blocks of success. My hunch is that you have probably had small moments of being in the Zone over the course of your life. Think about moments when you have been so engaged in a task that you have lost track of time and place and were fully engrossed in the moment. You were so focused on enjoying the process that you let go of the outcomes.
That’s the Zone.
Believe it or not, the idea of the Zone has never been more relevant to us culturally than it is today. Chronic stress continues to mount in the pressure cooker of unbelievably high expectations for everyone from grade school kids to business leaders to soccer moms. Thankfully, the researchers have again been able to shed some light on the problem: most people who struggle with stress tend to have negative thoughts about their life and tie their worth to pleasing people, meeting the unrealistic expectations of others, and meeting internal expectations of perfectionism. Ironically, the stress we are experiencing culturally is driven by an unhealthy obsession with outcomes, which just happens to be the exact opposite of living in the Zone.
We all need to take a cue from Phil Jackson: let’s call a time out, step back from the stress of our life, and create a strategy for living in the Zone. The key here is to recognize that the path to peace and happiness is actually the same path that will ultimately lead to peak performance in our professional life and in our relationships. We must become obsessed with process over outcomes. This starts in the battleground of our minds as we confront the challenges we face every day. The goal is to understand that whether we are dealing with a complex business problem, a difficult relationship, or vexing bad habit we are responsible to do our best to build insight, over time, into how to respond in healthy ways to these stressors. We have to practice the healthy behaviors. But once we have executed the little micro-behaviors that we have understood as healthy, it is imperative that we release the outcomes. If you are a parent who has a disrespectful kid, all you can do is treat that child with respect as you draw appropriate boundaries. You can’t control the outcome of how your child responds. If you are a professional who is struggling to meet quarterly numbers, all you can do is continue to do your best to learn creative strategies to increase your sales. Obsessing over the outcome of whether you actually meet your quarterly goal next month will not in any way help you meet that goal. No matter what stress you are encountering, focus on the process. Focus on doing the next healthy thing. Engage fully in the moment by intensely focusing on the small behaviors you have learned are associated with success. Then…release the outcomes. My hunch is that, just like Michael Jordan, you might one day look back and be surprised by how peaceful you are and maybe even by your own performance.