Updated: Oct 24
The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi had a ritual he performed on the first day of training. He would hold up a football, show it to the athletes who had been playing the sport for many years, and say, “Gentlemen, … this is a football!” He talked about its size and shape, how it can be kicked, carried, or passed. He took the team out onto the empty field and said, “This is a football field.” He walked them around, describing the dimensions, the shape, the rules, and how the game is played.
This coach knew that even these experienced players, and indeed the team, could become great only by mastering the fundamentals. They could spend their time practicing intricate trick plays, but until they mastered the fundamentals of the game, they would never become a championship team.
My topic is about cognitive or thinking foundations for a successful life, of which I propose there are only two. I realize I have broken the unwritten code of a list of at least three, but since we are talking about foundations, I just could not get myself to make stuff up simply to reach a more acceptable number. I think that most of us intuitively know how important foundations are, but we get distracted by the latest news, drama, distraction, or urgent matter and never get back to building the foundations that help make us champions in all areas of life.
The foundations which I will discuss apply to every person, including you. It does not matter your race, health, past experiences, income, job, or education - or any other label you might apply to yourself (male, female, tall, short, fat, skinny, etc.). These foundations are built on universal scientific principles that are simply a part of being human.
What is a foundation? Let’s look at a man-made and a natural example.
If you live in some type of building it has a foundation. Even a tree house has a foundation, but we will discuss that in the next paragraph. If you live in a high-rise apartment your foundation likely goes deep into the earth and includes tons of concrete and rebar and seismic engineering. If you live in a simple one-story house your foundation likely consists of a few feet of concrete with rebar and not much else. So,the foundation must be matched to the size of what is built on top of it. If you were to decide you wanted to add a second floor to your simple house you would likely require an engineer to tell you if the current foundation could sustain that much addition to your house. Why? It seems obvious, doesn't it? You cannot put more on top of the foundation than it was designed to hold. If you ignore the laws of physics you get cracked foundations, cracked walls, and under duress like a strong wind or a mild earthquake significant damage and even structural failure.
In nature foundations start small as a seed and grow in sync as roots, trunk, and branches. In these ways - size, growth, and natural adaptation - you as a person are much more like a tree than a house. Every tree starts with a seed of some type. Planted in the soil the seed simultaneously grows roots and a stem, both being required to grow and thrive. As the top grows the roots grow, they are in sync. This model makes possible growth to huge size and amazing benefit to man and nature. If the top ever grows faster than the roots, what happens? At the next big wind, the tree will blow over, it fails.
While a house and a tree have their roots in the ground, your roots are in your head, your brain. When you are born your brain is oversized in relation to your body. That is because your brain is central to the growth and development of your body over the first 15 to 20 years of physical progress. Even after your body and brain have reached their mature size your brain has the miraculous capacity to continue to adapt and increase in capacity.
You want to avoid failure as a growing dynamic human being. There are two cognitive foundations that allow the rest of your mind to grow with balance and evolve to accomplish amazing things. If you fail to develop those mental foundations the rest of your growth and development becomes frustrated, stunted, and inconsistent. At its worst it is like a tree blowing over in the wind, except your mind has the capacity to recover all on its own, with some effort. Your brain's capacity to recover and develop is called plasticity. Scientists have used common terms to describe this like "where you fire, you wire". So, if you focus on developing these foundations at any point in your life your brain will adapt and grow those connections facilitating even greater accomplishment, better relationships, and balance.
Think of these two foundations like yin and yang. These are the Chinese symbols that represent balance in the universe. These foundations are opposites in many ways (fire/water), yet complementary and even essential to each other. Strength in one without the other results in a weak foundation. Combined and balanced you have a foundation that is strong enough to support whatever you build on top of it. A final point before I describe the two elements is that every person has them to some degree, but they must be developed through effort. They represent a set of skills, which, if mastered, allow you to develop more advanced skills.
This is like learning the numbers then addition and subtraction first. With those core math skills, you can multiply and divide, hopefully at least learn basic algebra, and if inclined go on to become a math genius. Without the foundations you will struggle more than necessary and never achieve the benefits of the higher skills. Next, I reveal the two mental foundations, starting with self-efficacy.
Foundation #1 Self-Efficacy
The first foundation or set of skills fall under the concept of self-efficacy. This is the exercise of control. It is focused on the prefrontal cortex of your brain (the area behind your forehead). Strong skills here result in self-esteem, confidence, the ability to create and carry out a plan, resilience and more. At its core self-efficacy is a belief in your skills and can be specific like "I am good at math" or more general. I focus on the general areas which fall under several categories:
Self-awareness and feedback - Without some awareness of what is going on in your own head you are unlikely to be able to develop the beliefs and skills necessary to be effective. The same could be said for receiving feedback. This internal and external view of your performance is essential for the next skill, learning.
Learning - Is the skill of taking internal and external feedback and gaining new insights and perspectives. Without learning you are doomed to stay stuck at the same level of performance.
Intentionality - This skill combines your values with where you want your life to go. As the country song says, "if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything". Without intention you are like a sailboat in the ocean with the sails up, but nobody is steering the boat. With intention your goals and plans have energy behind them, and you are more resilient in the face of setbacks.
Creating plans/goals - In my writings I sometimes refer to “being the architect of your life”. Every great outcome starts with vision, plans, and goals. Without these your results are chaotic and inconsistent. These allow you to focus and open your mind to opportunities that align with your goals and thus see and accomplish greater things than you could ever contemplate without them. This is essential for synergy (the amazing condition where 1+1=3).
Carrying out plans - Once you have made your plans the next set of skills deal with the execution of those plans. This is the getting things done part of planning. This really requires resilience, focus, and intent to mobilize personal motivation and accomplish the lofty goals you have set.
Belief - In a list of hard skills this one may seem out of place. At its core, however, self-efficacy is a belief. I believe that I can plan and carry out steps to accomplish it. I believe that I can learn from my failures. Without belief there is no efficacy.
Foundation #2 Self-Compassion
The second foundation and set of skills are related to self-compassion. Like self-efficacy this skill is developed in the prefrontal cortex or executive areas of the brain. This is where you exercise complex behavior, control your impulses, create associations, and formulate and carry out plans amongst other complex and adaptive functions. These skills fall under three categories:
Self-kindness - Is the skill of being as kind to yourself as you are to a close friend or family member. Research has proven that self-kindness makes you more able to identify your weaknesses and be in a mental state to successfully deal with them. With self-loathing you are less capable of doing something positive about the very thing you are beating yourself up about, creating a negative spiral.
Common humanity - Each person, you included, is a unique miracle. With nearly 8 billion souls on the planet, however, the odds of someone or perhaps millions of someone’s sharing your concerns, trials, and opportunities is good.You don't need to feel alone. Like you, none of these fellow travelers is perfect.
Mindfulness - This term represents skills of awareness and non-judgment. Without awareness you are missing key feedback. By purposefully not judging that feedback,you are better able to use that feedback in your intentional journey of life. Mindfulness has many levels and modes of practice, but for the purposes of building foundations it requires a few minutes a day to contemplate without judgment. The benefits of this practice are many including reduced stress, resilience, and development of the executive centers of your brain. This can be accomplished through practice in meditation, affirmations, prayer, and pondering. You choose the ways that work for you.
Can you see how these complementary, yet distinct sets of skills create a foundation for your successful life? What does this amazing person look like? Strong yet humble, resilient yet not selfish, confident while recognizing their small part in a larger common humanity, accomplished while being self-aware and attendant to the needs of others. With stronger development of these foundations, society starts to become more just, equitable, and exciting for all people. Yet the journey is intensely personal and must happen at the individual level. I sincerely wish you every success in life, starting with building these powerful foundations. If you feel you might be lacking in one or more skills, I encourage you to pursue a path to gain those skills remembering to start small like a seed. It truly is never too late.
© Copyright 2020, HVASF
HVASF exists to reinforce intrinsic motivation, the foundations include self-efficacy, self-compassion, and self-esteem. I have created affirmations and related insights which you can learn more about on my website www.hvasf.com. More recently I have partnered with artists to create beautiful art and affirmations and placed them on useful things like cell phone covers, my shop can be found here hvasf.redbubble.com. Have a great day - and if you want to see posts and updates please check out my Facebook page, and if you think it could be a positive part of your life - like the page. :)