Doublethink: The Secret to Success of Leading Athletes and Top Performers

It was in 2007, if I rightly remember.

“I am not confused.” I said.

‘Okay,’ said Bill, one of my favorite Faculty at the Academy.

‘But I’m at contradiction with myself,’

He understood.

Then, I assumed it is me being odd about my career choice and plan. While almost every other friend of mine, had their path cleared and defined.

I felt I didn’t. But now, looking back after 10 years. I think I am sorted.

If you see the stone, you don’t see the God. If you see God, you don’t see the stone. I want the ability to see both God and the Stone. This ability to see the contradiction, but accept both may be the secret to success. 

What is Double Think?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F.Scott Fitzgerald

George Orwell in his famous dystopian novel, 1984 first introduces the term ‘doublethink’.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…”

When it was first published in 1948, the idea was so far ahead of its time that many critics argued that doublethink was psychologically implausible, but it is, in fact, commonplace.

Just like my career or any other choice you are facing. There is this moment when you find good in both sides of the argument and arguably bad in both.

The witty, Scott Adams, the syndicate cartoonist of ‘Dilbert’ has interesting concept. He says he tries to argue for both sides of debate. Besides garnering enemies from both parties, he says the mental clarity that he gains is unbeatable.

But most of us don’t entertain that. We take a stand, a position. We either see this or that.

Some examples on DoubleThink

1. You must fit in/ you must stand out

2. Follow your dreams/ find a secure job

3. Rags-to-riches/ money can’t buy happiness

4. Your life is run by fate/ you must exercise your free will

5. don’t lie/ don’t say anything that’s rude

6. you must work well as a team/ you must be a rugged individual

7. express yourself/ wear what is popular this season

8. don’t be a phony/ smile and people will like you

9. act your age/ you’re only as old as you think you are

DoubleThink in Action

‘Doublethink is essential to the success of leading atheletes and other top performers’ – says Matthew Syed in his book, Bounce.

Even more I like how I’ve been using it in action. In the book, Bounce, Matthew Syed discovered this was a common thought process. He cites the Sports Psychologist Mark Bawden who sums the idea of ‘DoubleThink’ as:

“In order to make the sacrifices necessary to reach world class levels of performance, an athlete has to believe that performing well means everything. They have to cleave to the belief that winning Olympic gold is of life changing significance. But it’s just that belief that is most likely to trigger a choking response. So the key psychological skill is to ditch that belief in the minutes before competition and to replace it with the belief that the race does not really matter. It is a form of psychological manipulation and it takes a lot of work.”

I couldn’t agree more. It saves you from delusion, but keeps you contained with the capability to act. Not many can do that.

On one side you have to make a decision based on a realistic estimate of your own weaknesses and the scope of failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute as if there is any doubt that you would nail it.

DoubleThink is the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in your mind simultaneously while accepting both of them AND knowing when to bring the right one to the surface while casting the other aside.

Framework for Action

Now think of a situation, a goal you want to achieve.

Now switch on your ‘rational’ hat. Ask yourself

  • Why do you want to achieve this? Do you really want to achieve this?
  • What are the things that you could gain in achieving this?
  • What are the things you could lose in the process of achieving it and by achieving it?

Now when you actually want to act it out – flick on the ‘Superman’ switch. Mentally note the rational arguments, but believe that you are meant to do this. You are meant to succeed in this. If not you, there is no one who can do this. Act as if you are on top of this. Note the emotional worry, but don’t pay heed to it. Just do it.

It is about the ability to think uber-rationally about the right course of action AND once you’ve decided, act as uber-irrationally-optimisitically that success is inevitable.

Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile barbell stragegy – to be simultaneously super conservative and super aggressive.

It’s a form of mental manipulation, but you can get your thinking together and act on it.

Thenali Raman & DoubleThink

Thenali Raman story wanting both wealth and knowledge. Blessing from God.

I offer you two boons, the Golden cup that contains sweet milk of learning, and the diamond cup that contains sour cup of wealth. Choose any one of them”.

Tenali Rama thought for a while, and before the Goddess realised, took both the cups and gulped down the milk and curd. The Goddess was enraged at once.

“How dare you do that?”, she questioned. Again, Tenali Rama, humbly apologised and said,”Both knowledge and wealth are useless without one another. That’s why I had to have both”.

The Goddess forgave him and went away, blessing him with loads of knowledge and wealth.

Just like Thenali Raman, choose either-or, but to have both in your tool box.

Use it appropriate as the situation demands. Use the rational mind for planning and use the emotional mind for acting.

That is why I don’t like the dichotomy between the goals and systems. We need both.

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