There sat Giannis Antetokounmpo, patiently waiting for the first questions from reporters. His team, the Milwaukee Bucks, had just lost game seven to a rough, hard-fought playoff series with the Boston Celtics, who now continue their quest for this year’s NBA Finals as Antetokounmpo and the Bucks head home.
Antetokounmpo was a little more somber than usual, a little less cheerful. But you couldn’t describe him as heartbroken. He certainly wasn’t depressed, or sad… or even unhappy.
And although his team had just been beaten, Antetokounmpo was not defeated.
“In the end we were playing sports and there is a winner, there is a loser,” Antetokounmpo said. “But at the end of the day, this is a learning curve… No one promised you’ll be in the second round [of the playoffs]† There are people who have never been to the second round; there are people who have never been to the NBA finals. So in my first seven seasons I don’t think of it as ‘I lost’.”
“It was a learning experience… so hopefully at this point, instead of thinking we’ve lost something, we can win and learn so we can put ourselves in a position to win another championship.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in those words, rich with lessons for entrepreneurs, business leaders, and anyone chasing their version of success. But beyond that, this interview was a masterclass in emotional intelligence – because it gives a first-hand demonstration of how to use principles of psychology to manage negative thinking and emotions, using something I like to refer to as “the Blue Dolphin.” rule’.
What is the Blue Dolphin Rule? And how can it help you understand and manage your emotions, taking you one step closer to achieving your goals in life?
(If you find value in this article, you may be interested in my full course on emotional intelligence – which contains 20 more rules to help you develop your emotional intelligence. View the full course here.)
How the Blue Dolphin’s Rule Helps You Control Thoughts and Emotions
Emotional intelligence (EQ, for short) is the ability to understand and control emotional behavior. This ability allows you to balance your thoughts, emotions, and feelings so that they help you achieve your goals successfully, rather than hindering you from achieving them. That’s why I like to describe EQ as making emotions work for you instead of against you.
Consider, for example, the interview of Antetokounmpo. How does an exceptionally talented NBA superstar deal with the failure of not winning a championship, and what can you learn from that?
When you’re working hard to achieve a specific goal, it’s easy to get caught up in negative emotions when that goal isn’t accomplished. Depending on where on the spectrum your personality falls when it comes to traits such as extroversion and neuroticism, you may be inclined to focus on critical thoughts when this happens.
We could describe such critical thoughts as ‘white bears’.
In psychology, the “white bear” problem (which arises from a teaching known as the ironic process theory) states that if you try to suppress certain thoughts, you actually increase their frequency. The concept is taken from a quote in a Dostoevsky essay more than 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 more force.
So, how do you stop the white bears from self-criticism and overwhelming failure?
Enter what I like to call the “blue dolphin.”
The blue dolphin is a replacement thought, another focus point. It’s a “go-to,” something you can immediately turn your attention to when you think of your white bear.
We see Antetokounmpo using the “blue dolphin” technique when faced with tough questions from reporters:
Reporter: What stands out about the shortcomings in this series? Didn’t shoot enough three-point shots?
Antetokounmpo: Obviously we weren’t making enough threes. On the other hand, [I] couldn’t be more proud of the guys and the effort they put in.
Reporter: You started well and missed more shots as the match went on. Did the legs feel heavy at all?
Antetokounmpo: Legs heavy. Body heavy. Mind heavy. Everything was heavy. No, I was just trying to be aggressive. At the end of the day the game is seven, and I’d rather keep playing, keep coming, stay aggressive than going into passive mode. I can live with that.
Reporter: Hey Giannis, how are you handling the season finale? Do you watch the movie, do you let that sink in?
Antetokounmpo: Well, it’s over. It is over. No movie for me. I just need to go back, take a break, get on the field, get better, try to improve parts of my game. Hopefully I can come back healthy, in a good place, continue to enjoy basketball and be ready for my tenth season.
You can do the same when you encounter negative thoughts about your own perceived failures in business and life:
White Bear: You lost your job. These kinds of things always happen to you. You have the worst luck in the world.
Blue Dolphin: That job would never get me anywhere. This is my chance to try and make money on my own terms, doing something I really enjoy.
White Bear: You’re so behind. You should be months earlier than where you are now. You’re never gonna make it.
Blue Dolphin: Look back on what you’ve accomplished in the past six months. You are so much further than you were! Keep it up; good things will happen.
White Bear: Serious? Another failed business idea? Maybe you’re just not suited for this sort of thing.
Blue Dolphin: Even the most successful business people fail much more than they succeed. I just keep trying and keep learning from my mistakes. Every failure is another step closer to my goal.
The next time you’re faced with what at first feels like a 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 takes you one step closer to reaching your goal.