I was asked to speak on this topic just the other week. It’s a commonly posed question – one that’s often directed at sport & performance psychology professionals – which isn’t all that surprising. After all, the idea of being our best is attractive and seemingly attainable.
While definitions of “our best potential” differ, it’s not remarkably controversial to claim that many people across many fields aren’t very good at achieving this.
My wife and I welcomed our first child into the world last month. Over the past year, lots of our friends have done the same, and so I’ve had an opportunity recently to do some child-watching (as creepy as this sounds, it’s a wholly innocent practice).
It’s my belief that while infants don’t have much in the way of potential, they maximize what they’ve got, thanks to a few simple but deeply-ingrained neonatal qualities. They are qualities that infants possess thoughtlessly, but that we older folk lose sight of, as a result perhaps of too much thought. Here’s how living like a baby may help bring us closer to living our own best potential:
Babies are always passionately in the moment – Notice how attentive a baby is while looking at something. This level of focus has a face: eyes wide open, gaze fixed, breathing steady, curiosity spilling out of her ears. And the object needn’t be significant; a baby will invest just as much attention in staring at a priceless Rembrandt work as she does a caterpillar or her own toes. It becomes more difficult, over time, to do things with that level of complete engagement and total absorption in the moment. I’m not suggesting you start paying more attention to your toes, but there is value in re-learning art of paying attention. Think of how often we’re not fully attentive, and how easily we allow our minds to wander onto something totally unrelated to the content of the class/practice/task. Best potential won’t be lived without really “being” wherever you are. Babies are purely in the moment, focused only on what’s in front of them. Which, usually, happens to be their toes.
Babies always practice purposefully – Babies practice skills with purpose. They never just go through the motions – there is intention behind even the simplest acts. When a baby walks, for instance, her purpose is to explore her surroundings, to learn her territory, or maybe simply to get better at walking. Her energies are devoted to walking. Rarely do we walk with our minds so quietly and purely on our gait (this stands to reason, as we’ve become fairly competent walkers over the years). However, many of our daily activities, even those like sports practice, phone conversations with a relative, or a dinner date with a partner that require purposefulness, are approached purposelessly. It’s tempting to go through the motions, with a “let me just get this over with” attitude, as that approach affords less attentional demand and therefore more cognitive ease. Most of us attend class/practice not to learn or improve, but because we have to. Consider the ultimate difference in performance if you were to enter your next sports practice with the purpose of improving a clearly defined, specific part of your game versus not having a focus or purpose at all.
Babies are completely ok with not being perfect – Let’s consider walking once more, and how frequently a baby falters, falls, and fails while learning to walk. Beautiful to watch is the absence of self-esteem issues, which prevents them from getting upset for very long. Sure, tears may flow, but only ephemerally. They will always pick themselves up and try once more. It’s hard to image our high current level of walking competence had we given up after our first failed attempt. Babies don’t give up – at least not as easily as we typically do – because imperfection is accepted, even if subconsciously.
Babies are never self-conscious: Take a moment now to reflect on your reaction if you were to soil yourself, rather audibly and in projectile fashion, in front of dozens of family members. Some level of self-consciousness would (well, should) ensue. A baby routinely performs this very act, and thinks absolutely nothing of it. She is completely uncaring about how she is being perceived. I’ve had someone recently comment on my shirt being too wrinkled, and it ruined my morning. Maybe I should take a leaf out of my baby’s book, keeping my bowels in order along the way, of course.
The act of paying attention is an art form, one that improves with practice, and one that allows us to maximize whatever task is presently at hand. To move forwards, look backwards, and live like a baby.