image source: (INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)
Gary Kirsten walked into the dressing room to see him padding up.
It was the 2011 World Cup final. Sachin Tendulkar had just been dismissed. Over 1 billion Indians were crestfallen. They prayed for a victory which now seemed unlikely.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni had a poor run in the tournament until then. But here he was, promoting himself in the batting order, ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina. It seemed stupid, almost suicidal… And yet, Dhoni said to Kirsten, “I think I should go next.”
“Yes, you should”, Kirsten said. The team looked at Dhoni, a million questions running through their heads. He walked out to bat at the fall of Virat Kohli’s wicket.
The rest is history. Dhoni deposited the final ball of the match over long on with a towering six. His unbeaten 91 in 79 deliveries helped India win the match, and lift the World Cup after 28 years.
This was not the first time Dhoni had pulled India out of a tight spot. Nor would it be the last. Time and again, he has turned despondent situations around. With bat, gloves and mind.
He is unique. Not because he was born that way, but because he systematically (albeit subconsciously) developed one trait – self belief. Mahendra Singh Dhoni has unwavering self-belief, which powers him to scale dizzying heights, and continue being like wine.
This post is not about Dhoni’s leadership skills or six-hitting power. Those abilities are visible. But it’s the invisible aspects which make Dhoni what he is. This article highlights them.
“Almost every habit that you have — good or bad — is the result of many small decisions over time.” – James Clear
I have observed Dhoni for eight years, five of which were spent closely studying him. I’ve watched his interviews for hours. I’ve analyzed his words, decoded his body language on the field, read articles about him, and pieced together various blocks of a puzzle. He has had the most profound impact on my life.
However, I write this as an interested observer. I cannot claim to know how Dhoni’s mind functions because I have never met him. But I love exercising my brain on what drives him.
So if you want to develop self belief like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, here is what you can do:
1. Handle Tough Situations
Dhoni’s stoic demeanor makes you think he’s made of steel. His unfazed manner makes you wonder whether he put his emotions in a car, which he drove off a cliff. But he is made of flesh, blood and bones, like you and me. What then, makes him different?
A pottery teacher split her class into two halves. The first half was instructed to spend the semester studying, planning, designing and creating the perfect pot. A competition at the end of the semester would be held to see whose pot was the best.
The second half was instructed to make a lot of pots, and would be graded on the number of pots they finished. They also could enter their best pot in the competition.
Who made the best pots? Students from the first half? I thought so too. But all the best pots came from in from the second half. Practice led them to make significantly better pots than their strategizing peers.
Imagine yourself in an unknown situation. Now imagine yourself in the same situation again. Only this time, you know what to do because you have been in it before. Where will you feel more confident?
Stop planning things in your bedroom, or chasing perfection. Expose yourself to more situations and increase your experience. This enhances your self belief. And it builds your ability to think differently.
2. Build Mental Models
“[In the railways] We were taught to bat for 20 minutes without getting out and then to challenge ourselves with game situations to which we had to adapt.” – M.S. Dhoni
Since childhood, Dhoni would read books on war, strategy and combat. This helped him develop a range of mental models, which enable him to keep a flexible mindset.
During a game – whether he stands behind the stumps, staring pensively at the pitch, or bats to take India home – his subconscious mind keeps working. He assimilates information about playing conditions and team members. This is how he develops the ability to look at things from different angles and come up with innovative solutions.
Let your mind gather information freely. Soak in all ideas. You don’t know when seemingly unrelated ideas connect and create remarkable synapses in your head. This creativity further boosts self belief.
3. Consider Various Elements
Did Dhoni, an honorary lieutenant Colonel in the Parachute regiment, promote himself in the World Cup final on a whim? Did he jeopardize his team’s chances of winning, just so he could hog the limelight?
In the post-match interview, Dhoni stated:
“I knew that time there was dew on the field and Gautam was batting really well. I played a lot with Muralitharan so I know his doosra quite well, which he knows also…. What me and Gautam do well is we run well [sic]. We don’t take too many risky singles but at the same time we try to convert those one, one-and-a-half runs into two runs.”
Watch the complete video below
Running well between the wickets was key in taking the match as deep as possible… it kept the pressure low and helped India chase down a record total in a World Cup final.
People who ‘back themselves’ often overestimate their abilities. They repeatedly make poor decisions. And because of their arrogance, we let them make more poor decisions.
But intelligent individuals like Mahendra Singh Dhoni analyze many aspects within a few seconds. They think things through. As a result, their gambles pay rich dividends.
But we call them ‘lucky’. Baaah!
4. Live in the Present
Dhoni doesn’t let past experiences dictate his belief in himself. On many instances, he has made mistakes. But he learns from them. For him, mistakes are not fatal.
Staying rooted in the present lets Dhoni give his best at any time. He can look into the mirror, ask himself whether he gave one hundred percent, and be happy with the answer. He learns from experience and implements his learnings when similar situations arise. This is how he keeps negative emotions at bay.
Rarely in life will you face new problems. Learn from the past instead of being rooted to it. You will avoid the ‘this-is-how-it’s-always-been’ syndrome.
5. Embrace Chaos
Mahendra Singh Dhoni remains calm during chaos, like a rock in a stormy ocean. The same percolates into his team.
When we encounter chaos, we try putting things in order immediately. Dhoni, instead, embraces it. Here, his abilities to assimilate information and look at things from different angles, come in handy. Then his wisdom, amassed over the years, emerges. If often yields favorable results. Remember the final over in the 2016 World T20 match against Bangladesh?
Dhoni does the same thing while batting. He is in no hurry to get going.
“My aim is to leave it till the bowler and me are on level ground, to the point at which he is under as much pressure as me. Then we see who can handle it.”
Now you know why he is a spectacular finisher.
Don’t judge chaos. Keep calm and observe it. Make room for doubt, but don’t let it stick like a leech. Gradually, your mental models will help you discover amazing solutions. Chaos is wonderful. It fortifies you, builds self belief, and makes you a better-rounded human being.
6. Keep Things Simple
Dhoni doesn’t look at things as black or white. He doesn’t try doing everything at once. Every task, whether daunting or menial, is broken into simpler ones. Then, each step is worked on. The chase in the 2011 World Cup final is an example. He and Gambhir ran hard between the wickets, and set targets for each over. This helped them get closer to the finish line. Dhoni then made India cross it with a historic six.
Also, he doesn’t try picking the best players on paper. Instead, he picks committed players, and strives to keep the dressing room atmosphere friendly. He focuses on players’ fitness, which results in better mental health and form.
It’s a myth that complex solutions are effective. Aim to simplify. Ask yourself, “how can I make this simpler?” And don’t shy away from trying. You won’t just solve problems with ease. You will also add to your experience bank (whether things go right or wrong) and become a lifelong learner.
Self belief comes when we witness positive results in what we do. It comes when we experience tough situations and emerge victorious. Results don’t come just with experience. They come when you do things differently. They come when you keep a flexible mind and adapt to dynamic situations.
When you start winning in life, you develop self belief. And others start believing in you too. This is why millions of Indians believe in Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Do you want to emulate Dhoni? You don’t have to be a world-class finisher. You don’t even have to be the best at what you do. Through disciplined work, you will witness gradual self improvement. Over time, the improvement becomes massive! You become happier. Colleagues, family, friends and others rely on you. They trust your decisions, which often end up being right. Then, regardless of your field, people will say, “tu toh apna Dhoni hai (you are our Dhoni).” And instead of jumping with excitement, you will just smile calmly. You will accept things coming your way instead of demanding that life proceeds the way you want it to.
So put on your thinking hat. Analyze yourself and the world. And while you’re at it, go out there and have fun. Dhoni will be proud of you.
I’ll leave you with this poem which shows Rudyard Kipling probably predicted Dhoni’s existence long before he was born: