Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.*
You've probably had some version of the classic experience of taking your car into the mechanic, only to discover it won't make the noise you brought it there to fix. A version of that for me is doing a playing lesson with my golf coach Jay. I could be snap hooking my ball into oblivion most of the time before he arrives for the last four holes but as soon as he shows up–and before he does or says anything brilliant–I start hitting my shots down the middle. It's like I have just entered a different orbit. His mere presence is often enough.
What is the ingredient in our presence that seems to unlock the capabilities of the people around us?
When I was writing my first book, I had frequent anxiety attacks rooted in a crippling, and common-for-writers, imposter syndrome. I wrote an email to my writing mentor Jay (Conrad Levinson of Guerrilla Marketing fame) sheepishly confessing that "I couldn't imagine that anyone would want to read what I had to write". His classic Jay response was to normalize my stress by putting it into a proper context, stating not to worry, "you are just in the 'can't imagine that anyone would want to read what you have to write' phase of becoming a writer". Problem solved. Crisis averted. It was not so much what he said, which was typically brief and clear, but the love I felt reading it. Fuller of love I went "once more unto the breach".
Presence is not so much something we do or say, it's who we are when we say or do it.
I've had I think more than my fair share of stresses and struggles on the golf course and if there is something I've learned about my long-tenured misery during that game is that it has much less to do with what I do or don't do mechanically as a golfer but who I am when I play. I'm not talking about "golfer" as a general identity; it's the kind of golfer I am in any given moment or even something much deeper and seemingly unrelated.
When I restarted playing golf in middle-age, I was well into being a coach and naturally wanted to partake in golf coaching to accelerate my path to greatness. I booked a four-day package in Scottsdale with the head pro at the John Jacobs school. I had not met Tom prior to then. As we drove the cart to the teaching area on the first day, I was well over a hundred metres from the man when I decided I didn't like him.
The first hour was horrible and I asked Tom why he became a golf pro (I am naturally curious but was also annoyed at that point). "I couldn't make it on the tour." Great. I'm spending all this time and money with a "failed pro" in his version of a back-up plan. But shortly after, I realized that I was learning tons about my swing. Tom might have been a "failed pro" but it turns out, like John Jacobs himself, that he was a "gifted teacher". For the next three days, I learned to select which version of the man I got, as if both were floating in space in front of me and all I had to do was pick one. If I picked "failed pro" mode, that is if I decided to see and think about Tom as a man who couldn't make it on the tour, then I seemed to learn nothing and just got more annoyed and frustrated. When I decided he was gifted at conveying the subtleties of the golf swing, I opened myself to his teaching and then made some major breakthroughs. I loaded different mechanical patterns depending on who I saw him as.
We have many different versions of ourselves to present. Some are effective, others not so much.
I like who I am around Jay the golf coach. Whoever he shows up as works for me, even if he is not entirely conscious of who that is. I liked who I was around Jay the writing mentor. As an older and more grounded man, he was largely very clear about who he was. (Sadly he's no longer physically present, but his spirit lives on in me.) Younger Jay is growing into older Jay.
Who am I when I struggle?
Who am I when I transcend the struggle?
Who am I when I win and when I lose?
Golf performance–like any other kind of performance–is essentially the net effect of many different mechanical patterns (made up of technical things to think, say and do) and a shit ton of luck either way. I have a set of patterns that result in the ball going violently to the left into a pond never to be seen again. I have another set of patterns that results in crushing the ball straight down the fareway onto the green for a short putt for par or birdie. I am a skilled duffer and crusher, though I have a more difficult time choosing the crusher. Whichever I choose primes for the mechanical pattern I load next (which of course is usually outside of my awareness).
We load mechanical patterns based on preloaded and largely nonconscious self-concepts.
I decide who I am before I do or say anything. The result is somewhat built into the identity I assume, as the almost inevitable expression of how it feels to be me in that moment. "Crusher" mode feels awesome. "Duffer" mode feels shitty. I enter duffer mode in golf when I've assumed the identity of "someone who is writing a book no one will ever read" (or any number of less loving self-concepts). They might appear to be strange and unrelated in space and time, but the who precedes the how which precedes the what. The feeling I have as that version of myself–the constructive or destructive energy–is the fuel that drives the pattern. Fucking around with the how is usually less effective than revealing the who.
One of the main reasons I play golf is the main reason I do anything: to learn about who I am and become a better person. It's a personal growth activity to master constructive self-expression. I write for the same reason. In writing, constructive self-expression is not the same as its more artistic (and narcissistic) younger sibling. If I write as an act of narcissistic self-expression, "I have something significant to say". I see my audience as a necessary evil who is there to bear witness to my genius. But people generally don't want to read the musings of an intellectual masturbator. If I enter that mode, I do so as "someone who is writing a book that few people will read".
I have another more nacent self-concept coming into the light: "someone with something relevant to contribute that you need in order to be more effective at whatever you do". When I load that pattern, when I am in that space, I feel better about myself and paradoxically tend to make excellent golf shots too. It lingers into the game. I like myself as this kind of writer and this kind of golfer. These modes affirm my self-worth. This self-concept is constructive. Writing from this place is not self-centred and not self-congratulatory. I've placed my attention and thus my presence on what my audience–you in this case–really needs from me. And whatever that is, it's something that only I can give you. When I golf from that place–even if it seems like it has nothing to do with golf–I transcend my self. I enter the precious zone and tend to load more effective mechanical patterns, with more of the desirable results that follow.
A change occurs in character (in either direction) before it occurs in the material world...who's here now?*
*Walt Whitman (here in spirit through his "leaves of grass")