red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



The Inner Game of Work:
Focus, Learning, Pleasure, and Mobility in the Workplace

W. Timothy Gallwey
New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks ©2000

Enjoy your job? Find pleasure sometime other than the weekend? Feel truly engaged and immersed in learning at work? Impossible, you say? Tim Gallwey disagrees. And he shows how to make it happen.

Long before he created The Inner Game of Work, Gallwey "left a relatively secure career in higher education" to figure out what he "wanted to do with his life" — his "quest to work free"— and started teaching tennis as a way to pay the bills. What Gallwey discovered as a tennis coach were key insights about learning and coaching that apply to many fields beyond sports. He has since turned his own learning on the subject into a useful series of books, beginning in the 1970s with The Inner Game of Tennis.

Never planning to be a tennis player myself, I nonetheless heard the buzz about Gallwey's book at a time when sports were colliding with a relentlessly expanding media and the beginnings of the cult of celebrity. In the 1970s, the likes of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Arthur Ashe, and Billy Jean King embodied both tennis and star power. Imagine what a surprise to most readers when they discovered that The Inner Game of Tennis was not filled with technical details about how to fix a backhand swing or put just the right topspin on that cross-court drive. For those of us who would never turn into Martina, Pete, Lindsay, André, or Venus, Gallwey's tennis book had better gifts.

Over the years, Gallwey tackled golf, skiing, and, with co-author Barry Green, even music. Gallwey's famous for saying that he doesn't really need to know anything about the subject matter in order to effectively apply what have become the "inner game" principles. After reading The Inner Game of Work, it's apparent Gallwey not only knows a lot about his own subject matter — the inner game, but he's also able to clearly convey his material and approach in a way that truly does make it accessible, no matter what the subject. Not everyone who could use his ideas, however, is able to easily transfer the metaphors of sport into the everyday world of work. So, with consultant-guru Peter Block making the introductions, enter The Inner Game of Work.

Gallwey's premise — in tennis, golf, skiing, music, or work — is straightforward: whatever humans do has an outer component (physical skills, abilities, techniques) and an inner component (what we think and how we talk to ourselves about what we are or aren't doing as we do it), and we need to be more aware of what's going on inside. The ability of the mind to influence the body in sports has become well accepted; we no longer find it unusual to consider top athletes spending as much time on the "mental game" — visualizing themselves excelling at a performance before they step onto the field — as they do building muscle or stamina in the weight room. Still, most of us consider subjects like sports or music to be special, different somehow from what "real" people do every day to earn a living. But Gallwey views the workplace as just another playing field and another metaphor for the larger life we all face every day.

In his sports-oriented books, Gallwey refers to "the outer game" (our physical attributes of acquired technique, education, skills, positions, etc.) and "the inner game" (our psychological, mental, emotional states and the effects they have on us). In The Inner Game of Work, he uses the nomenclature "Self 1" (the controlling know-it-all, 'invented self') and "Self 2" (the true human being; the 'self we were born with, the created self'). The concepts are two versions of the same thing and derive from what Gallwey noticed as a tennis coach.

"Two observations stand out as I reflect on my early experience with coaching performance in sports. The first is that almost everyone who came to me for a lesson was trying very hard to fix some aspect of their game that they didn't like. They expected me to provide the remedy for their problem. The second is the relative effortlessness with which change for the better took place when they stopped trying to hard and trusted their capacity to learn from their own experience. There was a stark contrast between the forced mode of learning and the natural learning seen in the early development of all young children." Gallwey asks us to reclaim the wonderment of children who look on everything in the world as interesting and worth exploring.

Far from being fanciful in his request, Gallwey makes the strong case for improved performance, enjoyment, and fulfillment if we can just get out of our own way. His principles can be "summarized in three words: awareness, trust, and choice." Small words. Huge concepts. And a truly natural way to learn. As a coach, Gallwey noted, "my first responsibility was to maintain a nonjudgmental focus, provide appropriate opportunity for natural learning, and stay out of the way. Secondarily, my job was to help the student maintain focus while trusting in Self 2's capacity to learn directly from experience.... I realized that the student was responsible for the learning choices and I was responsible for the quality of the external learning environment." The bulk of The Inner Game of Work explores how these discoveries from sports can be applied to any workplace, any worker, any human being.

Creating "focus, learning, pleasure, and mobility in the workplace" (as the book's subtitle states) may mean we have to make some initial effort. It may mean that we, as individuals, need to become more aware of our situations and more responsible for ourselves. We may need to recognize that we can control our attitudes, even if we can't control anything else about our work. It may mean that an organization needs to recognize how its internal culture affects the ability of employees to reach optimal performance. It may mean that serious and multi-level conversations need to take place before the process of examining a corporate culture's readiness for change can even begin. But through his examples from the likes of AT&T, Gallwey demonstrates how it can be done.

Emphasizing focus of attention and continual practice of focus, Gallwey offers a redefinition of work and a compelling discussion of the nature of conformity, learned in his Harvard classes with famed behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner. Gallwey was deeply shaken by the implications of Skinner's work and, in many ways, went in a very different direction. His arguments for becoming aware, learning to trust, and making active choices show how we can break those societally conditioned bonds and live more fulfilling lives.

On the tennis court, Gallwey also encountered a person he calls his "executive friend," or "EF," who presented him with the idea of "mobility" that would become central to his thinking about the inner game of work ("working free"), as opposed to Skinner's behavioral conformity. EF's concept of mobility contains five elements:

    1. Grant yourself mobility, because you have it.
    2. Have the clearest possible picture of where you want to go.
    3. Be willing to make changes within your change.
    4. Keep your purpose clear.
    5. Keep your movement and direction synchronized.

Now, if that's not an admirable list of lifelong learning activities, I don't know what is. Yes, many of these notions are familiar and, obviously, need repetition, but in Gallwey's context, they seem downright do-able.

Gallwey also provides a useful chapter on coaching, with examples from the sports world, as well as the relatively new arena of business or executive coaching. Interestingly, while sports coaches rarely forget that the athletes are responsible for their own individual performances, business coaches (whether inside or outside an organization) often forget that their role is not to fix or solve a problem but to leave ownership of problems where they belong and, instead of fixing, create an environment where problem-owners can learn to deal with challenging situations themselves.

Many of us find it tough to get out of our own way, to become simply aware of what's happening inside/around us, and to adjust our own attitudes accordingly. Many of us find it even more difficult to then trust that learner who has all the necessary tools and energies inside. And many of us don't want the responsibility that true choice offers for creating our lives. We'd rather displace our efforts into trying to "fix" others — and then complain about what's not happening in that context(!) — because it lets us feel like we're accomplishing something and it conveniently deflects us from working on ourselves. But there are myriad rewards for accepting all these opportunities. The paradox is what we find hard to grasp.

Whether in sports, at work, or in life, excellent performance — like living a fulfilling life — requires a letting go, a trust of the self who, from deep inside and most elegantly, somehow knows what to do and how to do it. Try too hard and everything crumbles. Stop trying and the resulting freedom from anxiety produces the desired outcome. Go figure.

Although Gallwey's principles are grounded in timely vernacular (sports and business), their connection to universal ideas is visible in many wisdom traditions. Toltec wisdom, brought to life through the writings of don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements; The Voice of Knowledge), tells us: Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. Always do your best. Ruiz reminds that "you don't have to try to be good; you just need to stop pretending to be what you are not." And, as eloquently translated by Stephen Mitchell from the ancient Chinese, Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching explains:

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use.


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