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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

Ten Ways to Move from Survival Mode to Growth Mode

We can't be in growth mode and survival mode at the same time. Let that sink in.

Think of a time when you were performing a task that held high stakes for you, because it was something that mattered. It could have been something you were doing for work. Or perhaps it was something in an athletic event. Maybe it was a personal endeavor. It could have been something academically oriented, like taking an exam. Whatever this task was, all you could think about was how important the outcome of it was, and the more you focused on not messing up, the more you messed up. We have all experienced this before. This is because our mindset was in survival mode, instead of growth made.

Not to sound repetitive, but it bears repeating: We can't be in growth mode and survival mode at the same time.

Often when we are in these situations, we are so fixated on the desired outcome that we see anything else as failure. Therefore, our energies and attention are focused myopically on survival. As a result, we become tight both mentally and psychically, and it is difficult to perform well when our minds and bodies are stressed. I have seen this happen quite often in various domains.

Usually around this time of year, many college basketball players who are either seniors or grad transfers start fixating on what's next. Instead of focusing on each and every present moment when they play, they start pressing too hard mentally, trying to force things, because they think every missed shot or messed up play will derail their dreams of playing on the next level. In other words, instead of focusing on "letting the game come to them," they are focused on not messing up. In doing so, they actually put more stress on themselves and often mess up more.

I also see it with coaches in just about every sport. It sounds simplistic, but the ones who focus on winning, usually find ways to do so, as opposed to the ones who focus on "not losing." The ones who focus merely on survival (not losing), typically cultivate a mindset of scarcity instead of abundance, and they end up losing more.

We see it in the corporate world as well. How many times have we seen a boardroom presentation when the presenter is so nervous to make a misstep that the whole presentation becomes nothing more than one huge misstep? It is painful to watch. Cringeworthy.

Think back to your school days, either college or high school, to a time when you were taking a high stakes exam. The outcome of this exam was important to you, so you were nervous. For some reason, your sole objective was not to miss questions, instead of focusing on getting questions right. This caused you to second guess many of your answers. It brought about much anxiety.

All of the above scenarios are examples of being in survival mode. For some of us, this is our default mode setting. Below I offer ten ways to help you move from the survival mode setting to the growth mode setting, where you can perform at a higher level with less fear of failure. When we have less fear of failure clogging up our mental bandwidth, we have more headspace to successfully focus on the important task at hand without the constant inner-critic in our mind holding us back from what we want to accomplish.

Ten Ways to Move from Survival Mode to Growth Mode

  1. Get into the habit of seeing mistakes, missteps, or falling short of a goal as part of the growth process. In other words, there are no "failures" if there are lessons learned from the experience. Win, lose, or draw, you can learn and grow from the experience. Spend time reflecting after the experience and "pull out" the stuff that is going to help you grow and get better the next time around.

  2. Play the long game by focusing on the process instead of the outcome. This sounds so cliche, as every coach in the universe says this in their respective press conferences. However, there is some great wisdom here.

  3. Don't expect to be perfect. No one is perfect. Expecting not to be perfect will erase much of your fear of failure. This will enable you to have more confidence in taking risks towards achieving your goals.

  4. Start paying attention to your inner dialogue in your mind. We all have that voice in our head that berates us when we mess up or fall short on a task. We often talk to ourselves much more harshly in our minds than we would ever speak to a friend, colleague, teammate, or loved one. Next time when something doesn't go your way, instead of berating yourself internally, speak to yourself in the same way in which you would encourage someone you care about who is going through a hard time. In other words, coach yourself up. Make this a habit. Turn that voice in your head from your biggest enemy to your biggest ally.

  5. Before you perform a high stakes task, instead of mentally engaging in the "What if this all goes wrong?" worse case scenarios, engage mentally in "what if this all goes right?" scenarios. Do this every time, and you will flip the script in your mind to focus on success instead of failure. Doing so will lessen your stress before performing.

  6. Every now and then, ask yourself this question, "What is the worst possible thing that will happen if I mess this up"? More times than not, very little in your life circumstances will change on the outcome of a single task or performance. Just knowing this should relax you quite a bit and enable you to focus and perform better.

  7. Plan for the future but focus on the present moment. When we take care of each and every present moment, the future will take care of itself and usually bring us the results we desire. There is an old question: How do you eat an elephant? The answer: one bite at a time. Our fixation with the future is like trying to eat an elephant all in one bite. It's impossible. We should take little bites to accomplish a goal.

  8. Mental imagery helps. Take time to close your eyes and visualize yourself accomplishing your goals. If you can see it, you can be. Do this often. See yourself doing the things that will help you do what you want to do.

  9. Breathe to Succeed. Do this often. Before you perform, take six deep breaths: inhale slowly through your nose- hold it for one second- then exhale even slower through your mouth. This does three things: carries oxygen to your brain for focus, lowers your blood pressure, and it drops your heart rate. This performance enhancer is good to do while you are performing as well. Try to sneak in a deep breath or two every now and then.

  10. Have a sense of humor. Most things in life aren't as serious as we make them out to be. Having a good sense of humor about life in general and of ourselves takes a lot of stress off ourselves. It also makes the process of high stakes situations less stressful and more enjoyable.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:

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