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Consultants: How to Overcome Your Personal Demons and Choose Success

Years ago I watched the movie A Beautiful Mind, the biopic of Nobel Prize winner John Nash. That movie profoundly changed how I walk in the world and how I approach consulting business development. It allowed me to overcome personal demons and thrive as a consultant. Perhaps it can do that for you too. Let me explain:

Consulting is a hands-free profession. We offer advice, we develop plans, we weigh options and recommend alternatives to our clients; we help prospects envision a better world we are uniquely qualified to make accessible, and we make up words with impunity. All activities we perform with our grey matter. No hands required.

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That also means our limitations are almost entirely psychological. We are constrained by our intellectual rigidity and risk aversion. Fear of rejection and failure can prevent us from reaching out to more prospects, adapting our offering, and marketing ourselves unabashedly.

I know this from personal experience. I have wrestled with self-talk that threatened my outlook and my business. Then I saw A Beautiful Mind and had an epiphany that allowed me to adopt a mindset that supports extraordinary success.

The movie picks up when Nash, a mathematical genius who won the Nobel Prize in economics moves from Carnegie Mellon University** to Princeton to focus on mathematics.

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For roughly 90 minutes of the movie we live with Nash, experiencing his rise to success, the joy of meeting and marrying his wife, and also his descent into ruin and despair at the hands of a government agent and scoundrel best friend.

Then, [spoiler alert] with the same shock Nash must have felt, we discover that many central characters in his life are not real, including the government agent and his best friend. They are products of Nash’s undiagnosed schizophrenia.

With the help of medications, Nash recognizes his hallucinations for what they are and prevents them from further directing his actions. He stops interacting with them and resumes a productive, happy life.

In the final scene we see an aged Nash, still a professor, walking the university grounds. He looks to his left, where the imaginary characters stand – completely unchanged by the decades that have passed – then turns back to his path and continues on his way.

And right there, in that final scene, is the breakthrough. You see, Nash’s delusions never fully go away. Scores of years after he has “conquered” his schizophrenia, the figures who plagued Nash are still there, off to the side. But he makes a choice. He chose not to interact with them.

We can make the same choice. Even though most of us don’t suffer from mental illness like Nash did, we all harbor delusions. Virtually everyone has their own, personal set of demons. The key is recognizing them as phantasms, understanding that they never fully go away and, most importantly, choosing not to interact with them.

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Like Nash, we can label our delusions and set them aside like a box of candied fruit (yuck!). When your mind tells you that you’re not of value and no-one will ever buy consulting services from you, you can recognize it for what it is: self-deception. It sounds real and it sure feels real, but it’s not.

And when you know it’s just your personal delusions rearing their ugly heads you can choose to ignore them and, like Nash, continue on your path to greatness.

That movie moment helped me approach consulting (and life) with a healthier, more confident mindset. What’s helped you? Please share. Perhaps your story will help another consultant too.


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21 Comments
  1. Dave Mandelblatt
    March 9, 2016 at 7:49 am Reply

    Great article Dave! Nice wisdom to help me conquer my own demons as I start my Wealth Advisory business!

    • David A. Fields
      March 9, 2016 at 10:29 am Reply

      Congratulations on the new practice, David, and thank you for the positive feedback. Wealth advisory is dealing with people at a very personal level and you’ll be encountering a lot of fear and trepidation. All the more reason to be able to walk in with confidence down to your core.

  2. Robert Keteyian
    March 9, 2016 at 8:37 am Reply

    Very helpful, David! Although this is not a comment about consulting, I’m moved to share it. I am a counselor and consultant. In my counseling practice, I’ve had many conversations with clients about this movie and what it demonstrates. Your succinct description is an excellent summary and gets to the nub of things psychological. And as you say, this understanding is not just for those with mental illness. We all have our version of playing it out. For me, learning to shake hands with my demons allows me much greater freedom to simply be myself and stop trying to prove that I’m smart.

    • David A. Fields
      March 9, 2016 at 10:31 am Reply

      Bob, your insight as a counselor (and consultant, of course) are welcome and useful. Thank you for sharing them. I love the phrase “shake hands with my demons.” Especially when it is a goodbye.

  3. Edward Fenwick
    March 9, 2016 at 9:15 am Reply

    Brilliant piece David.I have been doing this consulting stuff for 30 years and still have to tell those self doubts – “I’ll meet them later, have to sell a project right now”. They have never let me down. They are always right there for me after I make a confident presentation. No need to bring them to the meeting.

    • David A. Fields
      March 9, 2016 at 10:35 am Reply

      It’s striking that even after a successful meeting and a “win” those self-doubts can still ring loudly in our ears. Proof, I suppose, that they are truly internally generated and that no amount of external validation and support can banish them. It’s up to us to close the door on them while we go about our business. Thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your experience, Ed.

  4. Evan Specter
    March 9, 2016 at 12:47 pm Reply

    Thank you David.

    There’s a book by Rick Carson, called “Taming Your Gremlin”, where he outlines further mental exercises and metaphors for recognizing and disempowering the voices of self-discouragement. A key idea in the book is to give the voice a visible form (a squirrel or a glowing tuba, whatever). Demystifies it. Takes the starting point of “Don’t believe everything you think” and brings rigor to it.

    • David A. Fields
      March 10, 2016 at 11:38 am Reply

      I had totally forgotten about that book, but it’s a good one. Thank you for reminding me and prompting me to take it off the shelf and give it a skim. Giving the voice a visible form could be very effective for some people… as long as you don’t give it the form of chocolate, of course. Thank you for posting, Evan.

  5. Jennifer Smokevitch
    March 9, 2016 at 7:38 pm Reply

    HI David, thank you, and I think the real break through for me is the realisation that the demons actually never go away, but instead you choice another path. It would be so nice, so easy, if they would just “go away!” But it’s more realistic to see that they don’t, we no longer play ball (with them). I will share this with a friend who is going through a tough patch – thank you again!

    • David A. Fields
      March 10, 2016 at 11:40 am Reply

      Jennifer, thanks for sharing your experience. Your breakthrough was the same as mine: realizing they don’t go away. Best of luck with your friend!

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