Did this “Psychological Bug” Bring Down Will Smith on his Moment of Glory?

April 7, 2022

So we all know what happened at the Oscars.

The slap that reverberated around showbiz and media platforms around the world.

Initially when that happened, I had several thoughts about it. Why did Will Smith do that? How can somebody with such a clean image tarnish it all in just a few seconds of madness Since there’s been so much opinions and news around it, I shall stay clear of speculating about his intentions.

I also have to preface this by saying that I am in no way condoning violence, because there’s no place for it no matter how big the provocation was, and violence cannot solve any issues.

However, I cannot help but feel sorry for Will Smith. What should have been a highlight moment of his career (and perhaps life), having been in the arena for 30 years, and (finally) winning his first Oscars, Will Smith then tarnished the moment with that moment of madness.

In the aftermath of the event, Denzel Washington remarked, “In your highest moments, be careful; that’s when the devil comes for you.”

This episode reminds me of a profound concept described by Gay Hendricks in his brilliant book “The Big Leap” as the “Upper Limit Problem.” According to Hendricks, each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.

This is often a very unconscious process, and I know this might sound very radical to many of you. But if you really think about it, it may just be running in the background, and possibly sabotaging a lot of what you aim for in your life.

It’s like you push through a previous upper limit thermostat, and deep inside your mind, a little voice says, “you can’t possibly feel this good! Who do you think you are?’ Unconsciously, you do something to bring yourself down to the thermostat setting you’re comfortable with. Perhaps you’ve just won an award at work, then at the gala dinner, you quarrelled with a colleague. Maybe you’ve just clinched a major client project, but at the celebratory dinner with your wife, you got into a fight over her forgetting to call in advance to pre-order the famous lamb-rack at the restaurant you both loved.

If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. It’s happened too many times to me. It’s also happened to many other famous people. For example, tennis player Boris Becker won Wimbledon, the most prestigious tournament, at the age of 17. Before the champagne has even settled on his win, he fired his coach Günther Bosch. The next year, he was knocked out in the first round by a seventy-first-ranked player. Bill Clinton’s lifelong goal was to one day become the President of the United States of America. When he finally became president, he got himself involved in a sex scandal that led to him being impeached and disgraced.

And then, there’s Will Smith.

As I reflected on this situation, I cannot help but relate to the situation I find myself currently. After years of toiling hard in business as a speaker, trainer and coach, I am now finally getting big breakthroughs. I’m booked regularly to speak, train and coach high-profile clients. I feel fulfilled doing work I love, with the gifts that I have, and rewarded by being paid well.

Yet, as I am getting busier and busier these days, I also find myself becoming less and less patient. Recently, I fell out with a mentor I respected highly because I had been impatient in my communications. I also found myself snapping at my wife over trivial matters. I have also been less tolerant of mistakes from my team members.

While it’s convenient to attribute this to the weather in Singapore getting hotter and hotter, I think this is a warning sign for me to be more vigilant that I am approaching my own “Upper Limit Problem.”

Here are some things I can suggest for you to do, to stay vigilant and not fall prey to the “Upper Limit Problem”.

Method 1: Schedule and Do Regular Reflections

As busy entrepreneurs and professionals, we seldom take the time to pause, think and reflect. In a culture of non-stop hustle, we may still meet “productivity matrices” in terms of quantity, but find ourselves locked into an autopilot mode of “GO! GO! GO!” without reflecting and improving the quality of our judgment, decisions and actions.

That’s when we may succumb to our Upper Limit Problem.

My friend Marc Teo, a Productivity Expert suggested scheduling regular reflection time-outs every day. Perhaps a few times per day may seem excessive to some, I certainly see where he is coming from. I do it once (or more) every day, depending on my schedule for the day. I usually do it once at the end of the day, as I wind down for rest. However, if I have a speech, training, coaching or sales call, I would also make time to reflect, even if it’s just 5 minutes while waiting for my lunch. If the army, air force and navy take specific time out to debrief every mission and exercise, I don’t see why entrepreneurs and leaders should scoff at taking even just fifteen minutes out for regular reflections.

Method 2: Regularly Audit your Emotional Triggers

As an empath, I pick up emotions and energy from people and my environment all the time. However, whenever I expressed myself, I was always told by people around me, “You think too much! You’re too sensitive!” So I’ve always had a hard time processing and acting on these feelings. Therefore, I grew up with labels such as emotional, hot-tempered, reactive, etc., and for many years I’ve always felt that it was a massive character defect that I felt ashamed about.

It was only after I read the book “The Highly Sensitive Person” by American clinical research psychologist, Elaine Aron that I understood my tendencies as an empath, a highly-sensitive person (HSP). I’ve learned that this hyper-sensitivity is something that I cannot simply turn on and off on demand. Since I cannot turn off the input, what I can, and must do then, is to better audit my triggers, what are the areas in my life that triggers me.

You may or may not be a HSP, living in the hyper-connected digital age is taking a toll on us as we’re bombarded by information, stimulants around us. While our brains become saturated from all the information at work, we have craved for more and more stimulation in our free time! We are hit with a double whammy! The global pandemic over the last 2 years have curtailed our wanderlust, fuelling a stronger-than-ever desire to travel. We eat increasingly sugary and greasy foods that only cause us to crave more. Social media feeds our insatiable dopamine rush that comes from likes, comments and shares. In such a world, we’re over-stimulated and we don’t have time to process our thoughts. It is no wonder that we become trigger-happy.

To help you better manage your triggers, it is important to take a good honest audit of the negative emotion triggers in your life. To do this, I keep a triggers log and I often do this during my reflection time. Whenever I found myself feeling a negative emotion, I would reflect and trace it back to the trigger, and then I ask myself questions like these:

  • How did I feel? What was the emotion? (According to researchers, naming the emotions we feel reduce the anxiety and hold it has on us)
  • What happened that triggered the initial emotions? (Who said/didn’t say, do/didn’t do what?)
  • What were the values I had that were violated and trampled on?
  • What needs did I have that were not met?
  • How did I respond?
  • How can I respond better next time?

It may sound like a lot to think about for something that’s happened. After all, we’re so busy with life to think about these. However, never underestimate how this exercise has helped me better regulate my emotions and manage my responses. With more practice, I was able to be more mindful, as though I could mind control myself to live life in slow motion, so that I could have more time to process my responses. As I look back at the entries to my emotional triggers log, I could identify the common emotions I feel, and more importantly see a pattern of common triggers. In this way, I can better prepare for, and even pre-empt myself from entering into situations in which I would be triggered.

Method 3: Always Keep in Mind your Greater Purpose

As a facilitator, I am no stranger to heated moments. There was once in a workshop I was facilitating where the CEO of a small and medium enterprise got into a heated shouting match with the COO (who was also his brother). It all happened because I was getting participants to offer words of encouragement to a female participant (who’s the wife of the COO – and that makes her the sister-in-law of the CEO).

When it came to the CEO’s turn, he started to coach the lady participant, which drew a sharp rebuke from the COO. “Hey! This is not the time to coach!” And what ensued was not unlike what Will Smith was doing standing up for Jada, except that luckily they did not yet get physical. While the brotherly run-in was transpiring, the lady participant stormed out of the room in tears.

When I stepped in to mediate the situation, I became the source of the CEO’s ire. He stood up, pointed his finger at me as though he was pointing a loaded gun and said “Coen, you’ve no right to speak because you’ve crossed the line! How dare you call me a man of pride in the previous exercise?” Very quickly, the situation escalated, and I needed to diffuse it or the workshop would be a major disaster.

At that point in time, I took a couple of deep slow breaths, composed myself, imagined a “bubble of safety” surrounding my body. I was then able to ask myself these questions: What’s my higher purpose here? Who am I serving? I was reminded that my purpose at that moment was to maintain psychological safety for everyone, and to help my participants grow and learn. That included the psychological safety of the CEO, who was very publicly facing an embarrassing situation. My own ego and face became secondary to my purpose.

Quickly composing myself, I looked the CEO in the eye, and apologized. I apologized for having offended him with my words, and clarified that I had really meant it as a compliment when I said that he was a man of pride. To me, I meant that he had high standards, and that was evident in the results and actions of his team. He visibly relaxed, and I asked him if he would be willing to continue to support the event for the benefit of his team. We called for a short break, and thankfully, the event proceeded successfully after everyone has calmed down.

Yes, keeping the greater perspective of purpose is harder when you are in the heat of a challenging situation. You may be wondering how I was able to process all of these thoughts in such a short time. I think I was able to do that because of my daily practice of reflection, and my regular emotional triggers audit. Because these thoughts have been rehearsed and reinforced so many times in my mind, it didn’t take long for me to access them straightaway.

Keeping the Greater Purpose in Perspective is Key. If Will Smith had that in mind, he might have been able to calm himself, placate Jada, and then in his thank you speech, deliver his riposte that he would have preferred if Chris Rock hadn’t made fun of his wife, sharing her predicament with Alopecia and then restating his love and support for her.

What does it all mean for us leaders?

Will Smith’s downfall is a blemish on his reputation and have tarnished what’s been an illustrious career. However, it may soon be relegated to the back of people’s minds in a world beset by greater issues such as war, climate control, sustainability, racism and bias.

However, leaders in businesses and politics can take heed of these important lessons. Reputations can be ruined, careers can crumble and business brands can be brought down by a moment of folly.

We all need to be vigilant. However, we cannot count on willpower alone (can’t help myself with this Ironic Pun!) Only with mindfulness, constant reflections and keeping the greater purpose in mind, will leaders be able to protect themselves against the upper limit bug and keep themselves on the road of glorious service and abundant impact.

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