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It's a Mental Game

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The past few weeks have been grindingly hard on most of us without regard to gender, race or size of our business bank account. Many business people I've spoken to including both owners and lenders feel as though they are trying to breathe through a straw and that oxygen is in short supply. How do we get past feelings of being so lost and insecure?

Polls are telling us that consumer confidence is close to a 40-year low, suggesting that the economy is in worse shape now than in times that seemed much darker, such as the early 1980s. At that time inflation and unemployment were into double digits. If for a moment we ignore the stock market, many of the current economic indicators including inflation and unemployment, don't paint a picture nearly as negative as consumer sentiment suggests.

So why are so many smart people so gloomy? For one thing, I feel that popular media is pouring out a constant drumbeat of bad news, much of it ill informed. Reporters are being asked to do stories involving economics and history, two subjects that most of them have only a flimsy grasp on. If you are listening, looking and reading, your day is dominated by predictions of gloom and doom. I'm told by those who know that this is an atmosphere that can lead to a psychological condition caused by prolonged exposure to unpredictable negative events called "learned helplessness."

Without subjecting you to a long explanation on the subject, learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being (or animal) has learned to act or behave helpless in a particular situation, even when they have the power to change the unpleasant or even harmful circumstance. The American psychologist Martin Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at Cornell University in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. The original scientific experiments involved placing yokes on dogs, exposing them to mild electric shocks and studying their behaviors.

We are currently a bit like the yoked dogs in the experiment, being exposed to an alarming sequence of economic and stock market disasters. Just a few years ago it was the dot-com stock bubble. Then our cherished housing prices took a hit followed by jumping oil prices and the banking crisis. We were hit bam-bam-bam with these surprises and they were in direct contradiction to the sage advice being doled out by financial advisors and the media at the time.

Here in the world of small business ownership, we are accustomed to being on our own. One of our learned behaviors is to ignore people who say that we are bound to fail and that the ideas we are committed to are a certain pathway to oblivion. We don't have the option to call McKinsey and Company to have a thorough study done or to bring in an outside team of extremely smart people to chart a new course. In author Tim Gallwey's book The Inner Game of Work he says "There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game." The outer game is played to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from reaching their full potential. As my buddy Wally "Famous" Amos is fond of saying, "success is an inside job."

You may already know that I'm no fan of most of what is tossed at us by mass media. From my perspective it might be useful to think about how we consume news. We have access to news 24 hours a day on TV, radio and online -- but much of it is sensation-seeking rather than sense-making. Even stories about the economy take the shape of gossip about people who are struggling, who have lost their jobs and can't pay for the mortgage or gasoline. A conscious effort to analyze and explain these economic crises is not only an important journalistic duty; it is also a very important element in maintaining a positive aspect in our national mental attitude.

The sky is not falling, just the bloated valuations that we've assigned many of our possessions. We may be creating an economy not quite so heavily based on simply consuming things that we don't really need. Small business could be leading the way in manufacturing items that are to be sold into a healthy export market. CEOs of America's great large businesses may be realizing that Wall Street is not really their friend. All of us have to remember that our inner game fueled by focus and determination will determine whether we land on our feet or on our heads.

By the way, I predict that the next likely shock to stun us and send media and politicians scrambling will be in the health care industry. To corrupt a popular phrase from revered newscaster Paul Harvey, "stand by for more craziness."