By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 6, 2014
Boredom alert: this post is about golf.
If your reaction is “Arrggh!”, now is your chance to bolt. I promise, however, that what follows will be extremely relevant to you and me and to our endeavors as artists and entrepreneurs.
Rory McIlroy won the British Open a couple of weeks ago. He was out front the whole way, dominating the field. Rory was kicking butt so totally that reporters began asking him, “What are you thinking about out there? Do you have ‘key thoughts’ that are helping you play so well?”
Rory confessed that indeed he had two specific words that he was repeating to himself. But, he said, he wasn’t going to utter a peep about these words until the championship was over. He didn’t want to shoot his mouth off prematurely and then lose.
Reporters clamored. “What were your two ‘secret thoughts’ this week?”
Rory said, “You guys are gonna be disappointed. My two thoughts are nothing sexy or profound. I just thought ‘Process’ and ‘Spot.”
Process and Spot.
What did Rory mean by this? He explained that “process” meant to him the consistent, repeated sequence of thoughts and actions (his “pre-shot routine”) that he performed before every swing.
Golfers do this. Watch Tiger or Phil. Before every swing, the player goes through his unique, personal, but identical routine. Everyone on tour does this, male or female. The process goes roughly like this:
Study the lie and the distance, take into consideration wind and other external factors, decide what kind of shot you want to hit (high, low, draw, fade), visualize this shot, select the proper club to play it, and so forth—including controlling your breathing, minding the speed at which you walk, adhering to the customary number of practice swings you take—up to the moment of actually pulling the trigger.
That’s what Rory meant by “process.”
His resolution at the start of the championship was, “When hitting from the tee or fairway, I will banish every thought except ‘process.’ I will go through my process and judge myself on nothing else.”
This was Rory’s thought for putts on the greens.
After studying whatever putt he happened to be facing and deciding how that putt would break (right or left or both) and at what speed he wanted to hit it, Rory would then pick a spot partway between his ball and the hole—a lighter patch of grass perhaps, something he could use as a mark to aim at. His entire focus would then be to roll his ball over that spot.
Thus, Rory’s second resolution: “When putting on the green, I will banish every thought except ‘Spot’. Pick a spot and roll the ball over it.”
There is tremendous wisdom in both these resolutions. Let’s examine what they accomplish and the mindset they produce.
1. Both resolutions detach Rory emotionally from the outcome of his play.
He is not thinking, “OMG, it’s gonna be so great when I win this tournament!” or “OMG, how terrible will it be if I choke and lose this tournament?” He’s not letting himself get excited about how well he’s playing or worrying about how well his rivals are playing. He’s not planning his getaway should he blow the tourney, nor is he rehearsing his acceptance speech should he win.
By thinking “process,” Rory has even detached himself for the outcome of each individual shot.
Ball in fairway? Fine, I went through my process.
Ball in rough? Fine, I went through my process.
In other words, Rory is limiting himself to attempting to control only those factors that he can control.
He can control the act of going through his process.
He has mentally let go of everything else.
There’s a word for this mindset. The word is professional.
“Spot” accomplishes the identical aim.
Standing over a twenty-foot birdie putt that could put him four shots ahead of his closest competitor, Rory is not thinking, “OMG, if I make this putt I’ll have the championship in the bag!” or, “OMG, if I three-putt, the momentum will swing to Rickie Fowler and he’ll defeat me and humiliate me.”
Rory is simply thinking, “Roll the ball over that spot.”
Again, he is seeking to control only that which he can control.
There’s a great book by a gentleman named Nick Murray called The Game of Numbers. I’m gonna write about it in this space next week. Mr. Murray’s thesis is this:
If we just keep taking positive steps toward our goal (and refuse to be discouraged if these steps don’t produce immediate success), eventually the law of numbers will start working in our favor, and the outcome will be success.
Of course Rory wanted to win the British Open. His aim was victory.
But he knew that to over-obsess about this ultimate object would not help him perform. His mind would be on the wrong target.
So Rory resolved to focus only on those actions that he could control. Maybe Dustin Johnson or Rickie Fowler were going to outplay him. So be it. In that case they would win and Rory wouldn’t.
We can’t control the outcome. We can only control how we play the game.
Process and Spot.
If you and I are plunging into a first draft of our novel, we can’t let ourselves think, “OMG, this is gonna be better than Tolstoy!” or, “OMG, how the hell am I ever gonna write 630 pages?”
Those are amateur thoughts. They are the thoughts that our own Resistance wants us to think. Resistance wants us to read over our first day’s work and hate it (or love it). It wants that because then we’ll start trying too hard (or not trying hard enough.) We’ll choke. We’ll flame out. We’ll crash.
But if we’re smart, if we’re professional, if we’re thinking like Rory, we will resolve to ourselves, as he did:
1. I can only control what I can control. I will not try to control what I can’t control.
2. I can control the time I put in.
3. I can control how hard I try.
As Rory did not judge himself by whether his drive ended up in the fairway or the rough (because his resolution was simply to go through his Process), we will not judge ourselves on how good or how bad yesterday’s pages were.
We’ll control what we can control.
We’ll produce pages.
As Rory did not judge himself by whether a putt went in the hole or rolled three feet past (because his resolution was only to roll the ball over his Spot), we will likewise resolve not to get ahead of ourselves and start obsessing over Outcome, i.e., “Will I be published? Will this book pay the rent? Will my spouse/parents/school chums finally respect me?”
Nobody can control the outcome.
All you and I can do is stick to our process and roll our ball over the spot.
It worked for Rory.