As a former member of the Canadian alpine ski team, Cary Mullen knows something about fear - and the benefits reaped when you reach beyond it.
Mr. Mullen is a World Cup champion, a two-time Olympian and he holds the world downhill speed record. Now a motivational speaker, real estate developer and author of the book How to Win, he says the strategies that helped him to excel in sport have direct application to success in business.
Speaking at The Insurance and Investments Convention held in Montreal last November, Mr. Mullen described how fear once gripped him when he first faced the race course in Kitzbühel, Austria - "the most famed and feared downhill in the world." Not only was the hill incredibly steep, it was also a solid sheet of ice. To make the course especially challenging, course workers had taken fire hoses to it the night before the race.
Mr. Mullen recounted how he had dreamed and trained his whole life for a chance to compete in Kitzbühel. Yet, during his inspection run prior to the race, he had serious self doubts. "I had my stomach in my throat and was thinking, ‘How can I do this?'"
He reflected on his ultimate goal: that of winning a World Cup someday. He told himself that racing in Kitzbühel would help take him to the next level toward that goal. Other skiers shared his fear. One teammate pulled out of the competition, but Cary Mullen went for it and successfully completed the treacherous course.
"It felt so good to make it to the bottom." What he experienced was "an amazing feeling of elation. An amazing feeling of growth," he said, adding, "I think often our greatest moments of elation are preceded by what? That discomfort, that uncertainty."
Mr. Mullen says a parallel can be clearly drawn between sport and the competitive, performance-based world of financial services sales. He urged audience members to examine their own fears, which might be holding them back in their business lives.
After the race, he and his coaches watched it on video to analyze his performance to see where how he might improve. They noticed that at the scariest parts of the race he would pull back a little - a fear reaction. "I have to admit that as a young man I had fear, but most important was my reaction to that fear. It was not serving me."
The solution was not to eliminate fear, but change this reaction. He and his coaches came up with a simple plan. Instead of pulling back when he felt fear during races, he began doing the opposite. "Every time I came to a scary section, I told myself, ‘Lunge forward, lunge forward!' I tried to retrain and recondition my response everyday."
He believes everyone can benefit from this mindset. "The prize is on the other side of our fear. I think we have to lunge in and grab that prize for ourselves."
Mr. Mullen distinguishes between two kinds of fear: survival fear and performance fear. Survival fear is important to avoid blind optimism and risking our lives through carelessness. However, performance fear is what he encouraged the audience to confront. Performance fear is the "fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not being perfect. I think if you strive not for perfection, but for success, it frees us to go to the next level."
Mr. Mullen asked audience members to identify what fear is keeping them from going to the next level. "Is it lunging into asking those deeper, tougher questions? Asking for the sale? Going for that big prospect you've been thinking of, but you've been hesitating on? Investing in your marketing a little differently? What could you be lunging into?"
Measure and innovate
Stepping outside of the comfort zone is another prevalent fear, he adds, but required for innovation. He suggests that re-evaluating techniques to see if there is room for improvement is vital in both sport and business. Even when a technique appears to be working well, it should be analyzed, he adds. Applying this process to skiing brought him to his highest peaks of achievement.
He recounted that during his ski career, Canadian team members were widely known to be the best at sailing through the air, having mastered a compact, aerodynamic position. However, subjected to wind tunnel testing, this position proved to be an inferior technique. "We looked at the data and couldn't believe it. This position was the slowest you could do," recalled Mr. Mullen.
The team experimented with other potential positions and put them to the wind tunnel test. They found another technique that proved much faster, which required having the legs apart and hands behind the legs. Nobody had ever done this position in ski racing before, but it tested faster, he added.
That summer, the team trained in Chile and Argentina and implemented the new technique into their training. After just two days, most of Cary Mullen's team-mates had given up on it. When he asked them why, they said it didn't feel comfortable. "I remember thinking, ‘That's right, when we try to unlearn something and learn something new, that is uncomfortable.' I said, "This tests faster, I've got to practice this until it is comfortable."
He did keep practicing the technique until he mastered it and then returned to Kitzbühel where he set his world downhill speed record, clocking 151 km an hour. This record still stands today. In 1994 in Aspen, he also achieved his long held dream of becoming a World Cup champion.
Identifying what wasn't working and innovating until he found something better allowed him to reach a new level, he added.
"You're the pros at what you do," he told the audience. "I am just asking you the question. Is there a technique you're doing that you could measure to achieve better results for you?"