There sat Giannis Antetokounmpo, patiently waiting for the first questions to trickle in from reporters. His team, the Milwaukee Bucks, had just lost game seven of a gritty, hard-fought playoff series with the Boston Celtics, who now move forward in their quest toward this year’s NBA finals, as Antetokounmpo and the Bucks head home.
Antetokounmpo was a bit more somber than usual, a bit less joyful. But you couldn’t describe him as heartbroken. He certainly wasn’t depressed, or distressed, or even unhappy.
And although his team had just been defeated, Antetokounmpo wasn’t defeated.
“At the end of the day, we were playing sports and there’s a winner, there’s a loser,” said Antetokounmpo. “But at the end of the day, this is a learning curve. Nobody promised you’re going to be in the second round [of the playoffs]. There’s people that have never been in the second round; There’s people that have never been in the NBA finals. So, in my first seven seasons, I’m not viewing it as, ‘I lost.'”
“It was a learning experience, so hopefully, this moment, instead of thinking that we lost something, we can gain and learn in order for us to put ourselves in a position to win another championship.”
There is a lot of wisdom in those words, which are rich in lessons for entrepreneurs, business leaders, and anyone else chasing their version of success. But beyond that, this interview was a master class in emotional intelligence–because it gives a firsthand demonstration on how to use principles of psychology to control negative thinking and emotions, using something I like to refer to as the blue dolphin rule.
What’s the blue dolphin rule? And how can it help you understand and manage your emotions, putting you one step closer to achieving your goals in life?
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How the blue dolphin rule helps you control thoughts and emotions
Emotional intelligence (EQ, for short) is the ability to understand and manage emotional behavior. This ability allows you to keep your thoughts, emotions, and feelings in balance, so they aid you to successfully reach your goals, instead of hindering you from achieving them. This is why I like to describe EQ as making emotions work for you, instead of against you.
Consider Antetokounmpo’s interview, for example. How does an extremely accomplished NBA superstar deal with the failure of not winning a championship, and what can you learn from that?
When you work hard to achieve a specific goal, it’s easy to get swallowed up by negative emotion when that goal doesn’t come into fruition. Depending on where on the spectrum your personality falls when it comes to traits like extraversion and neuroticism, you may be prone to focusing on critical thoughts when this happens.
We could describe critical thoughts like these as white bears.
In psychology, the white bear problem (which stems from a teaching known as ironic process theory) states that as you attempt to suppress certain thoughts, you actually increase their frequency. The concept draws from a quote in a Dostoevsky essay from over a century ago, when the Russian writer stated that if you try not to think of a polar bear, you only invite that thought to come back with even greater force.
So, how do you stop the white bears of self-criticism and overwhelming failure?
The blue dolphin is a replacement thought, a different point of concentration. It’s a go-to, something you can immediately switch your focus to if your white bear comes to mind.
We see Antetokounmpo use the blue dolphin technique when he’s faced with tough questions from reporters:
Reporter: What stands out about coming up short in this series? Is it that you didn’t shoot enough three point shots?
Antetokounmpo: Obviously, we didn’t make enough threes. On the other hand, [I] couldn’t be more proud of the guys and the effort they gave.
Reporter: You started good, and missed more shots as the game went on. Did the legs feel heavy at all?
Antetokounmpo: Legs heavy. Body heavy. Mind heavy. Everything was heavy. Nah, I was just trying to be aggressive. At the end of the day, it’s game seven, and I’d rather keep playing, keep coming, keep being aggressive than go into passive mode. I can live with that.
Reporter: Hey Giannis, how do you digest the finality of the season? Do you watch the film, let that sink in?
Antetokounmpo: Nah, it’s over with. It’s over with. Ain’t no film for me. Just gotta go back, get some break, and get on the court, start getting better, try to improve parts of my game. Hopefully I can come back healthy, in a good place, keep enjoying basketball, and come back ready for my 10th season.
You can do the same thing when you encounter negative thoughts about your own perceived failures in business, and in life:
White bear: You lost your job. This stuff always happens to you. You have the worst luck in the world.
Blue dolphin: That job was never going to take me anywhere. Now’s my chance to try and make money on my own terms, doing something I actually enjoy.
White bear: You’re so behind. You should be months ahead of where you are right now. You’re never going to make it.
Blue dolphin: Look back at what you’ve accomplished over the past six months. You’re so much further ahead of where you were. Keep up the great work; good things will happen.
White bear: Seriously? Another failed business idea? Maybe you’re just not cut out for this sort of thing.
Blue dolphin: Even the most successful business people fail much more than they succeed. I’ll just keep trying, and continue learning from my mistakes. Each failure is another step closer to my goal.
The next time you encounter what first feels like dismal failure, remember this little psychological trick–and the NBA superstar who showed you how to apply it.
Treat every failure, not as a loss, but as a gain–a learning experience that puts you one step closer to achieving your goal.