How The Picture In Your Head Can Give You The Edge

How do peak performers stand head and shoulders above the rest? Why do some workers put the pieces together that others miss? The secret is rather simple, and starts with what you see in your mind. It’s not about visualization, but something much more basic.

In the neonatal care unit of an Ohio hospital, a nurse was making her rounds just as she would on any other day. She spotted a baby in one of the incubators, examined her and immediately summoned a doctor to administer antibiotics. Lab tests later showed that the baby had sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by an underlying infection. The baby’s condition was serious, and she likely would have died had the nurse not summoned the doctor.

Although this scenario plays itself out every day in hospitals around the world, this particular baby showed normal vital signs as measured by the hospital’s monitors. The baby was eating and drinking normally, sleeping well and had a strong heartbeat. So how did the nurse know that something was wrong?

That was the question researchers at Klein Associates asked as part of their landmark study of why some workers stay focused and make good decisions in stressful situations while others lose their focus and make poor decisions.

Upon initial questioning, the nurse said she just had a hunch, that a gut instinct told her something was wrong. She said she noticed that, despite other signs of normalcy, the baby had discolored skin, her stomach seemed a bit bloated, and a place on her foot where blood had been drawn showed more bleeding than normal.

However, none of these symptoms would necessarily be considered serious in a neonatal ward. In fact, the attending nurse had seen the same symptoms, but did not become concerned because the baby’s other indicators seemed normal. So what made the difference? Why did the nurse who walked by believe something was seriously wrong?

Upon further questioning, it became apparent that the difference between the two nurses had to do with the image they each carried around in their heads.

A Clear Mental Picture Makes All The Difference

The nurse who had a “hunch” something was wrong told the researcher that she had a clear picture in her mind of what a healthy baby looks like. Wherever she went in the neonatal unit, that clear picture in her mind went with her.

The attending nurse, who saw the same symptoms but didn’t realize something was wrong, did not have a clear picture in her mind of what a healthy baby looks like. Consequently, she looked at the "textbook" indicators such as what the monitors were showing and that the baby was eating properly. Because she didn’t have a clear picture in her mind to which she could compare the baby in front of her, she was unable to focus on the more subtle picture of the baby’s state of health.

As an isolated anecdote, this might not mean much. But the researchers found this trend over and over again – not only among nurses, but across a range of high-stress professions. Just as some nurses could focus on patients differently, some firefighters in the study knew instinctively whether to pull out of a burning building even if there didn’t seem to be any obvious signs of impending disaster.

Like the exceptional nurses, the exceptional firefighters had a clear picture in their mind of what a burning building looked and felt like in various scenarios. One fire chief pulled his crew out of a burning building, sensing imminent danger even though the flames were not particularly large. Minutes later, the living room floor where the firefighters had been standing caved in, caused by a fire underneath the floorboards which was not visible to the firefighters.

How did the fire chief sense what he couldn’t see? He became uneasy because the heat felt scorching despite the small flames in front of him. This did not match the clear picture he carried in his head of what a small flame situation should feel like.

Over and over again, those who have a clear picture in their heads discern patterns and connect the dots. They focus on what’s important, don’t get distracted by the other details, and ultimately perform at a higher level. What is true for nurses and firefighters is true for anything you want to do. And it’s especially true if you want to perform at high levels even when the environment around you is stressful or chaotic.

Although this could be likened to visualization, the idea of having a clear picture in your mind is much more basic. While it could involve visualizing different scenarios, it doesn’t have to.

It's simply about developing a clear picture in your mind of whatever the ideal is for what you are doing or hope to do. The effective neonatal nurse has a clear mental picture of what a healthy baby looks like. The fire chief who can sense danger that’s not apparent has a clear mental picture of what a safe situation looks and feels like.

In my experience as a musician, the best performers have a very clear sense of the kind of sound they want to produce and the specific quality of music they want to hear coming from their instruments. Stellar corporate executives have a well-developed sense of what a successful company looks like in all its moving parts. Excellent public speakers know exactly what kind of speech they want to give before they ever step in front of an audience.

This doesn’t mean having an inflexible mental ideal that prevents you from changing course when necessary. To the contrary, by developing a clear mental model of your ideal, you will be better equipped to see the situation in front of you for what it is, spot patterns and draw conclusions from what you are seeing, and know when and when not to pivot.

Nor does this mean having a picture of the end game in your head as a substitute for putting in the work. You still need to put in the work. But the clear picture in your head pulls you in the right direction so that your hard work produces better and quicker results.

Take five minutes and try this exercise: Think about what it is you want to do – reaching a certain level of effectiveness in your chosen profession, or reaching a specific goal, or fulfilling a certain role (such as being a great parent or spouse).

Can you articulate what success would look like? Do you have a clear image in your mind of what success would look like? This could be anything from what a healthy baby looks like to what an ovation-winning speech looks and sounds like, to what you being a great parent or spouse looks like.

You may be surprised that many details you thought were clear are actually fuzzy when you try to create that clear mental picture. Write down which elements of your ideal are unclear.

Next, schedule time to clarify each element until you have a crystal clear picture of your ideal. Once you have that clear picture, you can then identify exactly where your current performance falls short of the ideal and work far more efficiently to bridge those gaps.