Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Laurie Santos, famed psychology professor who teaches the most popular course in the history of Yale, encouraged us recently in Harvard’s Leadership and Happiness symposium to substitute “happiness” with “human performance” to describe the teaching we do.

As I look back at how I applied positive psychology to my own human performance this week, I completely agree with Laurie!

Meet my new friend Pincha, the Peacock

In my Friday yoga class, my teacher Aparna Ravichander, focused our exercises to strengthen our shoulders given they are a foundation for so much of our activity.  Having just recovered from a shoulder injury from swimming, I appreciated the theme of our class.

Toward the end of our hour together, Aparna shared that it took her two years of practice to conquer the handstand – a pose mastered usually at the advanced level. Perhaps due to fear or thinking it is just too hard, I don’t even attempt this pose.

Aparna then said that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get there. What matters is working on the setup required to get there.  I thought, this relates to theme 7 of my Project Peak, “to enjoy the journey.”  She then went on to demonstrate a few moves toward a headstand and handstand. I didn’t pay close attention because I wasn’t planning on attempting either.

She then went on to step by step, instructing us to do a few moves. I listened and did each step as she explained them one by one.  Then, when we were done with those moves, she called me out by name and applauded me.  I hadn’t even known what she was setting us up to do.   As we were packing up, I asked Aparna what the pose was called that she had just instructed us the first steps toward doing.  She said “pincha, which means peacock.”

I responded immediately, “the peacock is beautiful,” as I recalled spending time with one up close and personal at a sunset tour in the Bonorong wildlife sanctuary in Australia.  I remember having fun in the lovely Tasmanian refuge, and how I learned that the peacock is my beautiful friend. I was excited to make the “Pincha, my friend the Peacock” the theme for my week’s column.

Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know to be afraid.  I took the first steps toward a pose I didn’t think I could ever do.  I’ve decided that I will continue to take the next steps.

Grace Ueng

The Inner Game

Then, as I sat down to my piano lesson with Teddy the following Tuesday, he asked if I had read The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey. He said it is a classic that he recommends to his students.  The concepts Gallwey espouses are true for all sports, and can be applied to all aspects of life. As such, the author has applied his work mostly with corporations, outside the tennis court.

I am a big fan of sports psychology and applying techniques the world’s best coaches recommend for their athletes, to business and life. I eagerly read The Inner Game of Tennis and share my key take-aways…

Letting go of self judgment to achieve relaxed concentration

The art of relaxed concentration, not trying too hard, is the secret to winning any game.  Gallwey explains that we all suffer a constant battle between our inner Self 1 and inner Self 2. Self 1 (teller) does not trust Self 2 (doer).  Instead, we need to learn to be kind to ourselves, to give ourselves some grace.  One of the favorite sayings of my happiness teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar’s is “Give yourself permission to be human.” Learn to trust Self 2.

Just like in working with a colleague or subordinate, if you do not trust them, they will not perform their best. The same is true with yourself.  The relationship you most need to work on may not be with a colleague or boss, it may be the one with yourself.

Learn the art of letting go and judging yourself and your performance as either good or bad.  I instinctively told myself after I started performing that I should stop grimacing every time I made a mistake as I just thought it was distracting and not good form. Also, saying “I suck” after a performance isn’t helpful.  So I have stopped doing both.  Self judgments become self fulfilling prophecies.

See your performance objectively.  A teacher or coach can help you as an objective third party. A coach’s role is to hold up the mirror, not to compliment or scold, but to take a closer look at your performance and ask questions that will make you see what changes you think you should make and therefore, where to focus.

When the mind is free of any thought or judgment, it is still and acts like a mirror.

Why I was able to do the first steps toward pincha, the peacock in yoga class.  Since I hadn’t known what steps my teacher was moving us toward, my judging Self 1 was absent, and Self 2 was able to take the steps toward a pose that I had always judged as too hard for me.

Change in Mindset

I’ve performed Chopin’s best known Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 twice for my Presto group.  The first time I preceded my playing by saying:

“This is my first time performing this. Thanks for your patience. It’s good Teddy is not here to give me a masterclass.”

Noa Kageyama, a Juilliard faculty member and my piano performance psychology teacher, suggested I recast  my introduction.  So, the second time, I said:

“I started studying piano again to honor the memory of my mom, my first teacher. When listening to Spotify earlier this year, I recalled this nocturne as one that my mom played so very beautifully.  It is my aspiration to someday play it as wonderfully as she did.  I am excited to share with you my latest progress.”

Share why you are playing, what drives you to enjoy it, and why you are excited.  What you say becomes how you play.

Watch and observe those who are experts

In my ConfidenceWorks™ workshops, I have my students do a “Psychological Halloweenish” role play, where they put themselves in the shoes of a great leader they admire and then see how they are able to act differently.  In practicing piano, I listen to many artist’s interpretations of a piece and then focus on playing like my favorite performer instead of focusing on my fear.

Experience (practice) precedes technical knowledge.  There have been several times when I understood suggestions Teddy made only after I practiced the “wrong” way.  There is no substitute for learning from experience.  This is why to be a good CEO, you need to be a CEO.

Teddy doesn’t have to listen to much of my piece before he can start to make comments.  He knows that less instruction is more, as the human brain can work best on one thing at a time.

Then have full confidence in your inner self/body and see how it corrects itself.

Pressing on Presto

At my lesson last Tuesday, I told Teddy that my next performance opportunity was that Sunday, and I’d like to perform Haydn’s Sonata in C Major that my sister had sent me. Knowing that I still had a lot of work to do to feel the inner pulse of the piece, Teddy asked “do you have to perform Haydn this Sunday?”

I said I’d like to try and that I would practice all he taught me in earnest in the coming few days. I believe that I must walk the talk. If I suggest that a client step outside their comfort zone on a regular basis, I must do the same.  Performing in front of an audience provides just that.

After many hours of practice, I decided to give “Self 2” credit and try my best to relax, forget “shoulds” and experience the “is” and staying present.  To help me do that, I decided to focus on making good on the myriad of staccato markings throughout the first movement.

I also have been focusing as of late on improving my breathing – even taking a one hour pranayama breathing class last week. Last month, when I was going through a stressful situation, Suzanne Miglucci, who was present, took me aside and said,  “take a few deep breaths”.   That along with being her listening ear, made all the difference, and quickly too. I decided to incorporate a few seconds of deep breathing into my pre-performance routine.

Have fun!

Many years ago, as I was preparing for a board of directors interview with a Fortune 50 company, I reached out to my wise friend Mike Constantino, then a partner at E&Y, to ask for advice.  He responded simply, “be yourself.”

These days when I speak to someone before they go into big meetings, I suggest what Mike suggested to me and also to just “have fun!”  When giving a major talk, if you appear to be enjoying yourself, your audience will undoubtedly also.

Winning the Inner Game

I relaxed the day before the performance, was upbeat in my introduction, then took a deep breath, focused on my staccato markings and enjoying the experience.  And I indeed, I did!

While I definitely didn’t have anywhere near a perfect performance Sunday, what I accomplished was far more important, I learned to win the inner game!

How can you?

  1. Get the clearest possible picture of your desired outcome and then visualize that picture (for more, see How Visualization Creates Champions).
  2. Trust Self 2 to perform at its best and learn from successes and failures.
  3. Quiet Self 1 and learn to see nonjudgmentally – see what is happening versus noticing how bad or good it is. This overcomes trying too hard.

About Grace Ueng

Grace, a human performance expert, is a strategy consultant and leadership coach with Savvy Growth.  Join her Happiness and Leadership community to learn how you can be happier.