[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than two million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we go deep on the science of performing under pressure. We look at why some people perform under pressure and others don’t. We discuss the skill of flexibility and fluid intelligence, explore the differences between stress and pressure, look at concrete strategies for managing both in your life and much more with our guest, Dr. Hank Weisinger.
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In our previous episode, we discussed several seemingly good ideas that are actually quite dangerous. We started with a look at how the immune system can teach us about the vital importance of being anti-fragile. We then looked at the lessons from ancient cultural traditions all the way up to modern psychology research to peel back the layers of our current social dialogue and look at many notions that have permeated our current thinking.
What are the best ways to promote growth and development? How can we help people heal who've suffered from trauma? How can we create a framework that allows our society to seek truth and solve our toughest challenges?
We take a hard look at the answers to these questions and much more with our previous guest, Dr. Jonathan Haidt. If you want to learn how to think clearly and understand some of the big issues going on in our world today, listen to that episode.
Now, for our interview with Hank.
[0:03:06.9] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Dr. Hank Weisinger. Hank is a psychologist trained in clinical, counseling, school and organizational psychology. He's the originator of criticism training and the emerging field of pressure management. He's the author of several books, including his most recent New York Times bestseller, How to Perform Under Pressure. His work has been featured in the Today Show, Good Morning America, NPR and much more. Hank, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:36.3] HW: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
[0:03:38.0] MB: Well, it's great to have you on the show. I'm a big fan of your work and I think there's some really, really important concepts that you talk about and share and come out of your work. One of the things that I'd love to start with as a foray into this is I know you previously have done some work and written about anger and how to deal with anger and then you talk about how you pivoted that message to being about something else. I'd love to hear the story of why you shifted the message from how to deal with anger towards what you're focused on today.
[0:04:09.2] HW: Well, through my career, the first subject you mentioned, criticism training, that was the first subject I got into which was giving and taking criticism. This is at a time when everybody in the corporate world was using what I considered the bogus phrase of feedback. As I'm coming to my office, I have some feedback to give you. From criticism, I went into the subject of anger management. Both criticism and anger came out of clinical experiences that I have had with the patients. One of the things with criticism I realized is nobody ever comes home and says, “I had a great day today. I got criticized.” Nobody ever comes home and says to their partner, “I wish we could have some more anger in our household.”
Ironically, both criticism and anger I did not call it emotional intelligence at the time, but both of those became microcosms of emotional intelligence. Then I went into the subject of emotional intelligence. I wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence at Work in 1995. What is very interesting to me is that many people – I just did an interview with a UK magazine on the subject of emotional intelligence. Quite honestly, I get nauseous when I have to talk about it, because it is so old to me. Yet, people are still talking about it like it's the newest thing on the planet.
Then I went into the subject being a big sports fan and a big Yankee fan, when I moved from LA to New York, I was lucky because one of my daughter's friends in LA, her uncle was the manager of Yankee Stadium. I was going to 20 games, 30 games. I drive him from Connecticut, I'd be home by 11:00 and I got very frustrated, because at this time in 1994, the Yankees were terrible. I asked myself the question, “Why do some people perform well under pressure and others don't?”
What I realized is that it wasn't that the Yankee players at that time were choke artists, they were just terrible players. They weren't very good. I started to explore the concept of pressure. It was an extension of previous interest. I mean, if you can't manage anger, it's going to be very hard to perform your best when the money is on the line. When you ask me about shifting, I wrote a book called Anger at Work, and it was the subject of what was going on in corporate America in the 90s. Yet, if I would call a company, “I'd to talk to your managers about anger management,” the typical reaction will be, “No, forget it. Nobody's angry here and don't you ever call us again.”
Amusingly to me and my friends is I would call back the same company, speak to the same person six months later and say, “Oh, I'd to talk to your managers about emotional intelligence.” The reaction would be, “Oh yeah, that's great. That's good.” Emotional intelligence is good, anger bad. What do you think is the first emotion that people would always want to talk about? It was always anger and sometimes anxiety. What that clearly made me realize is that the corporate America has a restriction on subjects that you can speak about.
It's okay to be enthusiastic and it's okay to be passionate, but God forbid, you express anger then you become Big Bill in the company. I very gradually instead of promoting the subject of anger management, which is very big in the clinical and the therapeutic world, but not in the corporate world, so I shifted into the concept of emotional intelligence, because that was sexier, it had more of a positive connotation and it was through emotional intelligence that I could still help people deal with managing anger. That's beyond me now, because now the only thing quite frankly is a topic that I'm really interested in is performing under pressure.
[0:08:26.9] MB: I think it's really funny and almost speaks to the power of framing and anchoring and priming, that just essentially the same topics presented in a different light drastically transforms the way that people engage with the material.
[0:08:42.1] HW: There is no question about it. This was the issue with criticism. If you call it criticism, it's a negative, but if you use the word feedback, it's perceived as being more neutral. I used to say to people, then why do people get defensive if you call it feedback? The reason was because no matter what you call it, the person internally will hear it as criticism. Therefore, I would recommend to companies, and I spoke to every company you can think of on this subject. You have to give an overt message in your organization that criticism is permissible. What is so ironic now is you look at the President of the United States and you see, I used to say that criticism is the most important skill for an executive. I think Trump is bearing me out to prove that is accurate.
[0:09:32.1] MB: I think it's funny, another thing that you touched on that's really, really important is this idea that and we won't go super deep into because I do want to focus most the interview on dealing with pressure. Emotional intelligence is not a new finding and yet, so many people don't even grasp the basic premises of the fundamental ideas around it and have no idea how to cultivate it for themselves.
[0:09:55.9] HW: What I have found quite honestly is that even people who go around the country giving presentations on emotional intelligence, their knowledge is very superficial. They still don't understand it. For example, listening is not emotional intelligence. It's how to use emotional intelligence to enhance your listening. That's what people do not get. They think that they equate soft skills with emotional intelligence. No. It's about how to use emotional intelligence managing your emotions, being sensitive to the emotions of others, to use those to make those soft skills more effective.
Anybody can give criticism, but there's a difference between a person who applies emotional intelligence in giving criticism, than a person who doesn't. That is very upsetting to me as a psychologist, because my biggest problem with emotional intelligence is that it's turned into a business. People promoting emotional intelligence subjects; how many articles do you see? Well, here are these 10 characteristics of the emotionally intelligent person. Then somebody else writes here, the seven characteristics, here are the 15 characteristics.
I mean, everybody has become an expert on emotional intelligence. Very few people have actually read the original research by John Mayer and Peter Salovey. Most people mistakenly think that Dan Goleman was the creator of emotional intelligence, of which he was far from it.
[0:11:27.0] MB: If you would indulge me in one question that was really, really impactful for me around your work from studying criticism, I thought that the idea that you talked about that advice doesn't really work, and that's raising the question of if we shouldn't, or really can't help people by giving them advice, how should we go about helping them? I'd love to dig into that a little bit.
[0:11:48.8] HW: Well, the thing that criticism for me is a metaphor for creating change. That is why one of the rules became do not criticize a person for something they cannot change. Why our parents criticizing Johnny for getting a C in school when Johnny is a C student? Now he can be the best C student possible, but he's never going to get a A.
This is what I tell Net fans. I said, “Why are you criticizing your team? They're terrible. This is the best they can do. Don't get upset at them.” I did a study at UCLA on sexual criticism. The number one sexual criticism that females reported getting from their partners was that their legs were too short. Now what is a woman supposed to do when she hears that? You can't criticize a person for something they can't change. When you say advice, well sometimes you can give a person advice and they take it. If you're my employee, I can criticize you in a very positive way.
When you're sitting there and you're saying, “Yep, you're right. I agree.” From my framework, if you don't change your behavior, my criticism has not been effective. The goal of criticism is really to create change when you are giving it. Sometimes the way that you create change in another person is not by verbally telling them what to do. Sometimes the best way to create change is to change your own behavior, because remember, criticisms and interaction. That means what I do affects you and what you do affects me. There's a giving and there is a taking of criticism. How you give it if that's how the person takes it.
Now sometimes, I can influence you by not even talking to you. I remember my mother growing up, would hate it when my father would smoke cigars in the bedroom. She could tell him that and complain about it, “Stop nagging me and whatever. Go out of the room and so on.” What she finally did is she changed the environment. She took all the ashtrays out of the bedroom. She didn't have to say anything. She just made it more difficult for him to maintain that behavior.
I had a client once, the way he got his wife to stop smoking in the car, he said, “Every time we go somewhere, if you want to smoke in the car, that's fine,” but he would stop the car and he would get out. Finally, she gave up the smoking. There's all different ways of how you can communicate information. You have to be clever, you have to be creative and most importantly, you have to see criticism as a chance to put up the person, not to put down the person.
Most managers, most people in relationships, they are not giving criticism, they are being critical. Critical means floor finding, telling a person what they are doing wrong. That doesn't help. That's why it's hard to do criticism. I can tell you, I could say, “Now, here's what's wrong with your show. I can tell you 30 things wrong, or why this was a bad interview.” That's easy to do, but it's much harder for me to say, “Matt, here's how you could do it better.” It's hard to tell a person how to improve. It's easy to tell them what they are doing wrong.
That's why another cardinal rule of giving criticism is always be improvement-oriented. One of the ways that you can be improvement-oriented on a concrete level is moving it into the future. Next time you give a presentation, remember to have time to leave time for questions. As soon as I say next time, your anxiety is reduced, because you're not going to get fired. You're going to get another opportunity.
[0:15:33.9] MB: What a great series of examples, and I think that really highlights such a fundamentally important part of giving criticism that so many people miss, which is it's not just pointing out all the things that are wrong, it's proactively helping and guiding the conversation, or the actions, etc., towards finding some solution.
[0:15:54.4] HW: The irony is when I wrote a business book on – my first business book on this subject, which is called The Critical Edge. My editor was wonderful. When I got a manuscript back, first she wrote me a five-page letter, single-spaced saying, “This is going to be as wonderful and as useful as all your other books.” Every time I looked at it and I manuscript and she had those yellow post tags, three of them on every page, but her comments would be along these lines. You need a zippier line here, use this, and she would give me one, or come up with your own.
It was a wonderful process. Ironically, when I was talking about how to give criticism through writing, I used the letter that she sent to me as an example in the book, as a way of giving her kudos. The point is when people think of criticism, we always think of it as verbally telling the person. I'm saying that the whole process of giving criticism, you have to be strategic criticizer, just like companies have strategies and strategic planning, you have to have a strategy when you criticize somebody.
It starts out by simply saying, “How can I communicate this information so the person is going to be receptive to it?” If a person is not receptive to it, you can talk all day. You have to make the person receptive. Sometimes that means that the best time to criticize the person is when you're watching a TV show and you just slip it in, because you're using an example from the TV show to illustrate what you're talking about. That's why you always have to be ready. You always have to be ready to make a difference where you can see that you can influence people.
When I was working in doing my internship in LA at the Brentwood VA Hospital, I worked on a schedule. I get there in the morning, staff meeting, go to the canteen, get some coffee, make some phone calls to my friends all over the country. I had a government watch line. Then at 10:00 I see a patient and then I become the therapist. That's for an hour. In other words, I let the time of the day dictate the role I was in.
My supervisor said, “Always think of yourself as a therapist, because if you always think of yourself as a therapist, you will see opportunities pop up that you can make a difference in the normal course of the day.” I started thinking like that. Now when I'm going to the water fountain, I see a patient there, I'm thinking, “I'm going to be next to that guy in 10 seconds. What can I say or do that will actually have a therapeutic impact?” I started becoming more effective. I was giving therapy to everybody, including my friends.
[0:18:36.6] MB: I think this notion that communicating information in a way that people will be receptive to it and the premise behind that that you should fundamentally take responsibility yourself for what's going on in your life and what's going on in the world and those around you, I think is really important. I mean, you talked about that in another context, which is the idea of blame, right? Instead of blaming other people and giving that attribution to the external world, you should view your own problems as your own ineffectiveness in some form or fashion.
[0:19:09.9] HW: Absolutely. I would teach people, because look Matt, if you start to criticize somebody and then they start to get upset, what do you usually say to them?
[0:19:20.3] MB: Calm down, or stop being upset. Getting defensive.
[0:19:22.7] HW: Yeah. Right. That’s right. I like to teach people that when the person gets defensive, instead of saying you're getting defensive, to step back and realize that you're being ineffective. You're being ineffective when a person gets defensive. If you were effective, they wouldn’t get defensive. Very importantly, a good point to develop criticism skills is how quickly can you recognize the defensiveness of another person and to use it as a cue that you're being ineffective.
If I'm criticizing my son or daughter when they were in school about their homework and I see that they start to get defensive, the faster I realize that, the faster I can try something else. The faster a teacher recognizes their teaching style isn't working, the faster they can change. The faster a doctor recognizes that this protocol for chemotherapy isn't working, the faster he or she can change. The faster a coach can realize that his defense isn’t working, I mean, how stupid would it be at halftime to say, “All right, we're down 30 points. Same game plan.”
You have to be able to recognize when you are ineffective. The faster you recognize you're ineffective, that's how you empower yourself to try something different. Rather than blaming the other person.
[0:20:47.5] MB: I think this segues into performance psychology and performing under pressure. I mean, when you look at and study people who are peak performers in literally any field, whether it's sports, martial arts, chess, music, anything, you see these commonalities again and again and again, and I think one of the biggest is taking responsibility and realizing that feedback is from the environment, not necessarily feedback as criticism, but feedback from the environment if things aren't working, you needed to take that burden on yourself, instead of getting tied up in your ego and trying to protect whatever mental image you've crafted of how things should be, as opposed to how things really are.
[0:21:28.6] HW: Yes. That is why mental flexibility is one of the great cognitive attributes of effective people, because it allows them to change and adapt in the moment. Well, there's many types of intelligence for two terms. One term is it's called crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence. If I said to you, tell me everything about American history. That would be your crystallized intelligence.
Fluid intelligence is the idea that you can adopt to a new situation. In other words, golfers who practice golf and they're hitting shots off in the middle of the fairway, that's basically a waste of time. It's much better for the golfer to practice shots that they're never going to have to deal with. That's what you develop your fluid intelligence is how you perform in novel types of situations. Some athletes can do that, others lose their composure and then it's downhill from all that.
You raised an interesting point that I want to clarify when you said well, if you study elite performance and so on. Because I listened to some of the sports psychologists that you have interviewed and I've been on many sports psychology pods. There was a big difference between a sports psychologist in a clinical, or a counseling psychologists. Sports psychologists basically study elite performance, and that's the flow on the research. That's like somebody who says, “Okay, we have 300 college seniors who want to go to the NFL. We're going to put them through our program.”
Then the person says, “One of the things we found is that these people are highly competitive. They're very focused.” In other words, here are the eight attributes. Now my question is, what about all the attributes that they forgot about? Why are there only eight? See, that's a bogus type of research. It’s just like survey research. It would be like, I don't know it was before your time, but it's still a popular book. Steve Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Effective People. When I spent time with him I said, “How come there's not eight habits?”
I happen to know that giving and taking criticism is a key habit of effective people. It's not on your list. I can name 10 others that are not on your list. In other words, it's not experimental research. When I wrote a book on performing under pressure, I did not study people who performed well under pressure. I studied the concept of, or the construct of pressure and that took me in a very different pathway than what most sports psychologists would say.
When I was a graduate student, there wasn't even a program in sports psychology. Most of the top sports psychologists happen to be in the anyway. How a sports psychologist, how they study elite performance is very different than when I did. By studying the construct of pressure, it gave me a lot of revelations. I will tell you that one of them is nobody does better under pressure.
Tom Brady does not do better under pressure. The quarterback for the Seattle Super Hawks does not do better under pressure. The C student is never rising to the occasion in getting 1600 on their SATs, but many times the A student will choke. What I found as a sports fan is that the edge is not rising to the occasion. Did you ever see the movie The Natural?
[0:25:20.3] MB: I haven't.
[0:25:21.3] HW: It's with Robert Redford. It's about a baseball player named Roy Hobbs and of course, the dramatic point is at the end of the movie when he's up, game deciding situation, three and two, everybody's going nuts, every baseball fan has seen this scenario thousands of times. Of course, what does the Robert Redford character do? He hits the game-winning homerun and everybody's saying, “Boy, did he come through.”
Now in the book by the same title written by Bernard Malamud, he struck out. That is reality. What you hear sports psychologists all the time saying, giving the message that elite athletes, they're great when the money is on the line. They’re great all the time. Tom Brady is the best quarterback all the time. The fact that he is the best, that means that he is more likely to throw important touchdown passes, than a quarterback who's not the best. He doesn't play better in the Super Bowl. He plays great in every game. That's what sports psychologists don't get.
They think the key is rising to the occasion. No, it's not doing worse. It's not doing worse. If the A student aces their SATs, that's not a big deal. That's what they've been doing for four years. When a field goal kicker kicks a 40-yard field goal, that's not a headline, that's what you're supposed to do. They miss a 40-yard field goal, that's a headline, that becomes a choke.
I think that's a big difference. For the listener, what I want them to realize how that applies to them is that your pressure moment, you don't have to do better than you've ever done before. You don't have to rise. You just don't have to do worse. Usually, your best is good enough. Now you can still do your best and not win. An athlete can have a stellar performance, but they don't win, but that is very different than choking.
Anytime an athlete plays their best and loses, they never feel bad. They always say, “Look, I played great and he played better and I want to congratulate him and so on.” They only feel bad when they played below their capability. That's what really bothers them, because then their talent didn't get the job done. They let pressure take them out of the game. It's not only in terms of affecting your skills, pressure is a villain in your life. There's nothing good about it. It downgrades your cognitive skills, your judgment, your decision-making.
I know you have the sports psychologist who works with Pete Carroll, so I'll say this for him. Pete Carroll's call against the Patriots is one of the greatest chokes in decision-making in sports of all time. No matter how they try to spin it, it was a major, major, major choke. You never would have seen Belichick passing on that. That's a big difference.
I studied the concept of pressure and when I realized pressure is a villain, it downgrades your cognitive skills, your judgment, decision-making, attention, your memory, it also downgrades your psychomotor skills. Think of it, what happens to kids in a college if they can't handle the pressure? What happens to them?
[0:28:47.5] MB: They fail out.
[0:28:48.4] HW: That's right. What happens to a team that can't handle the pressure NBA playoffs?
[0:28:52.9] MB: They lose.
[0:28:55.3] HW: Exactly. That is the function of pressure, to weed you out. It is nature's selection mechanism. I mean, who do you think invented the phrase, do or die? Do you think that was in ESPN sports in that analyst who said, “Oh, money's on the line. It's the do or die situation.” Because for your ancestors, every pressure moment was a do-or-die situation. If they didn't perform, they are extinct. Those people who can perform under pressure get to advance. If you can't perform under pressure, it's going to make it very hard for you to advance down your chosen life path.
What I learned, because you mentioned the word evidence-based, so I started thinking – first of all, let me define what pressure is. You experience pressure when you're in a situation where the outcome is uncertain and it's dependent on your performance. That's when you experience pressure. One of the things I found in doing research, even among researchers is they confuse the word stress and pressure. Stress and pressure are two different psychological constructs. Most people treat them the same. As a result, it creates havoc in your life, because you treat every stressful moment as though it's a do or die. As a result, you're on high alert 24/7. That is a terrible way to live.
You experience stress when you're overwhelmed, when you don't have the resources to cope with the demands of your environment. Let's say it's 2:00 your time now. Let's say you have to finish this interview, then you have to go to the cleaners, then you have to go shopping, you have to pick up a friend at the airport, now you're getting a lot of demands. You're going to feel stressed, but you can delegate, you can prioritize. You could say, “You know what? I'll go out for dinner, I don't need to go shopping. I have clothes in my closet, I don't need to go to the cleaners.”
You have multiple ways of how you can reduce stress, and that's another difference that when you experience stress, your goal is to reduce it. When you experience pressure, there was only one solution that you can do, and that is you have to perform effectively. That's a big difference. If you think you have to perform effectively 24/7, that becomes a terrible way to live. What I found is that there are strategies, evidence-based, or out of experimental psychology studies that show us how we can reduce the feelings of pressure in the moment.
You're giving a presentation tomorrow, you're starting to feel nervous a minute before. What can you do? You're taking a test, you're having an audition, a crucial conversation, those are all in the moments where we use what I like to call pressure solutions. The other difficulty that many people have, a nice experience is when I lived in LA is reducing the daily feelings of pressure. One of the clinical terms that I coined is what I call pressure anxiety; different than performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety is when you get anxious when you have to perform a particular task. Pressure anxiety is the perpetual feeling that you have to be producing, and see, that's the pressure part, the demand, you have to produce, you have to be successful. The anxiety part is how much longer can I do this?
I was doing gigs when I was in my 40s for every company you can think of. I was on a plane three times, four times a week and so on. Every night I used to think how much longer can I do this? How much longer? How many more times is Merrill Lynch going to call me? How many more times is IBM going to call me and whatever? It continually made me anxious. I found people listening were 25, 30, they're what I call pressure performers. That means every time they have an opportunity, be it a presentation, a sales call, they want to perform, because it will advance them. They’re the pressure performers. My kids are would be pressure performers.
I have friends my age, many of them are very successful lawyers, they have no anxiety when they go and give an opening argument, or a closing deliberation. That's not the pressure they feel. They have mastered that. Their pressure is how much longer do I have to pay for my daughter's apartment? How many more years of medical school do I have to pay for my son? These are what I call pressure reducers. What I have learned over the years is that there are strategies for reducing the daily feelings of pressure, as well as strategies that can help you perform your best in the moment.
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[0:36:04.9] MB: You race so many good points and I want to get into a number of different points that you talked about. One of the most important things I think is that, I think you're right that there's so many ways that you can put the world in a neat little box of six or seven strategies that work, or solve a specific problem. Oftentimes, reality is extremely complex and messy and it's not as easy as just wrapping a bow on it and solving it. What you've been talking about really makes me think of, I think it's a military saying or phrase, which is you don't rise to the occasion, you fail to the level of your training.
[0:36:36.8] HW: I would agree with that. This is like, look at Navy SEALs, or look at a sniper who can make a shot in a storm that's 2,000 yards away. There's nothing special about that. That's what he's been trained to do. What that phrase really means is that you just have to do what you've been trained to do. This is the same thing with athletes. Go in and kick a 50-yard field goal. It’s like a golfer that starts thinking about a swing. Why is he doing that? That's what actually makes you do worse, because you become overly self-conscious. He just has to do what he's been trained for.
If he doesn't – if there's a gap in their performance, sometimes I just do, just like a student, “Oh, my teacher never taught me how to do this type of equation,” that becomes more reflection on the training. I used to get the message will be given to me, all you need to do is to do what you've been trained for. You're nervous about seeing this patient, you've been trained how to do it. Just trust yourself. That's the one phrase. I take that on a different meaning than a sports psychologist. Trust your skills and so on. I would phrase that get out of your way. You don't need to think. Everything is automatic. There's different types of memory that we have; working memory, I don't want to go too far off on a tangent and procedural memory. Now you drive, I assume correct?
[0:38:10.9] MB: Yes.
[0:38:11.6] HW: Okay. When you get in your car near more in the morning, are you consciously thinking, remember when the first time when you were learning how to drive? You get in your car, put your seatbelt on, look in the mirror, look over your right shoulder, look over your left shoulder. You've had a methodology and you would do each step. When you get in your car this morning, you didn't think about any of those. That's because you have done it so many times, it becomes automatic.
When I put a little scratch on my car when I pay attention to how I'm pulling out of the driveway, because it interrupts the fluidy of the of the process that you have already learned. Many times you learn, it's like when you play a piano, first you have to learn how to play it. After you've played it so many times, you're not even thinking about it, that's because it's in your procedural memory. If you're taking a math test and you need information, that's where you use a different type of memory called working memory, which is like an iPad.
Think of yourself as having a mental iPad. Now there are some iPads that have more storage space, just like some students have more storage space than other students. If you're in taking a math test, the only thing you want on that mental iPad is information about math. If you're in the middle of the test and you start thinking, “What are your parents going to do if you don't get an A, or you won't get into college?” Those thoughts now are taking up space in your working memory. All of a sudden when you need to know that formula, it's no longer there. Instead what is there are those worried thoughts.
This is what pressure does to us; it distracts us, it disrupts our body, it creates distressful feelings such as anxiety and fear. The biggest difference between people who do well in a pressure moment, and when I say well, I mean, close to their capabilities, versus people who fold is how they perceive the situation. Do you perceive it as threatening, or do you perceive it as an opportunity?
The first book I wrote, I was lucky. It was a New York Times bestseller right out of the chute. I was 30 years old, and I was going on all the radio and TV shows. Now I will tell you, they sent me to TV school, because I was so anxious. They actually taught me. By the time I was ready to go on The Today Show, I was thinking, “This is great fun. All my friends are going to see me. This is a great opportunity to sell hundreds of thousands of books.” I didn't feel any pressure. I don't feel any pressure when I'm doing a interview with you, because in my mind, this is an opportunity. It's going to help me promote myself, it's going to get the word out, I get to help thousands and thousands of people. Why would I feel any pressure? That is very, very important. Anytime my kids were taking a test I'd say, “It's your opportunity show the teacher what you know, or see it as a challenge.”
[0:41:23.0] MB: I'd love to dig into the how-to and the concrete strategies that you talked about. Tell me a little bit about some of these evidence-based strategies for reducing the feeling of pressure during the moment and preventing it from derailing our performance.
[0:41:38.2] HW: Sure. It's important, where the strategies come from? Well, they come from experimental studies. Experimental study, I know you know what that means, to some listeners, rather than a correlational study. A correlational study is if I set 500 athletes and then I interviewed them all and now I make a list of here are the 10 attributes and so on. Of course, that's my opinion. There was no legitimacy to that as a real, as a valid type of scientific investigation, because I have my own biases when I go into those situations to begin with.
Experimental studies is when they take a variable like pressure and they manipulate it. They might create a situation that you feel high pressure in, or low pressure in and they manipulate different things. Because remember what pressure is, performing in a situation that is important to you and the outcome is dependent on your performance. The incentive is important.
Studies have been done for example, where they increase the value of the incentive as a way of increasing the pressure that you experience, or they focus on the consequences, the negative consequences. Sometimes we experience pressure because we don't like the negative consequences. It's not the incentive that's so important, but we don't want to get kicked out, to put it like that.
Reading all these studies, I found that there were certain principles that will help a person reduce it. One of them and one of my favorite that I've inadvertently used is what I call, always think multiple opportunities. See, one of the things that pressure does is distorts your thinking, and creates what I call pressure distortions, magnification. It’s the most important test I'm never going to take. The more important you make something, the more pressure you experience and ironically, the worse you will do.
Parents could tell their kids, this is really an important test, inadvertently they're making the kid do worse, because they're increasing the amount of pressure. Derek Jeter says that he treats a world series game the exact same way as he treats a game in April. Joe Flacco said the same thing. How do you prepare for the Super Bowl? “Just like any other game.” Why would these people do anything different? One of the pressure solutions, I'm giving two very quickly is to shrink the importance of the situation.
When you have an interview for a new job and a friend says, it's not a big deal. That's actually good advice. See, it's counterintuitive. It's hard for a parent to say, “Don't worry about your SATs. It's just another test. It's no big deal.” That's exactly what they should be saying. One is minimize the importance, or shrink the importance. Now the reason for that is because we tend to over exaggerate the importance. Some people will say, “Well then you're lying to yourself, because it is important.” I agree, it is important, but it's not the most important thing in your life.
How many parents have heard their kids come home and they say, “Oh, I didn't get into Harvard. My life is ruined.” The parent says, “Oh, you're being ridiculous and so on.” Yet, that same parent will come home from work that night, “Oh, I blew the presentation. My life is over and so on.” We get this catastrophic thinking, we over exaggerated. To counteract a tendency to over exaggerate the importance, I say that we have to minimize, we have to under exaggerate by telling us things like, “It's not a big deal.”
I've actually have discovered the mindset of people who do well in pressure moments and those are two of the thinking patterns that they have. One is it's an opportunity, they're befriending the moment, it's going to be fun, it's going to be a challenge. Two is they realize they're going to get another chance. Anytime, when I first started teaching at UCLA, I always said to myself, even if I'm terrible, I'm going to get home and there's going to be 20 phone calls asking me to speak. There's always another opportunity. There's always another bus. There's always another person to go out with.
I was giving a talk in Canada one time to a financial company on leadership through 500 financial advisors in the room. One young guy, he must have been about 25, 26, gets up and he says, “How do you handle the pressure of calling a girl for the first time?” He said, “For me, that's a lot of pressure. How do you handle it?” Before I could respond, another guy two years older jumped up and said, “Just remember, there's a 100 other girls waiting for the same phone call.” Everybody laughed, but everybody knew it was true.
[0:46:22.6] MB: For listeners who want to concretely implement some of these ideas and solutions into their lives, what would be one piece of homework, or an action item that you would give them to start implementing some of the stuff right away?
[0:46:36.1] HW: Well, one of the things that I would say, let's say that a person who's listening has a big presentation tomorrow. Now I don't care how hokey this sounds. There's tons of research to make it “evidence-based.” Studies have shown that if you write down your anxieties and feelings, not think about them, but literally write them down, you will do better in your pressure moment. The reason is because those anxiety thoughts you've gotten them out of your system. They are less likely to surface in the moment of ruth.
It’s like talking to your friends all day about a personal problem, and then he speak to another friend at 10:0 at night and they say, “Well, what's going on with such-and-such?” You say, “You know what? I'm sick of talking about it.” You've literally gotten it out of your system. That's a concrete activity that people could do. Write down their anxieties and their fears the night before.
If I am a coach of a team, I have every player doing that and plus, just to make sure that they do do it, I will collect them.Aa second thing that a person can do, see one of the reasons that happens in pressure situations is we get over-attached to the outcome and we start to define our self-esteem based on the job. If you have a bad interview and it's not because you had a bad guest, but because of something you did whatever, then you get down on yourself and you start to worry and you say, “I'm no good. I'm never going to make it this and so on.”
What studies have shown is that if you affirm your self-worth again before a pressure moment, I would tell everybody, before you go into a pressure situation, think of three good things about yourself that have nothing to do with your work, you end up doing better. Because you start to realize that even if you screw up, you're still a worthy person.
I used to tell my kids no matter what you get on the test, you're still great kids. I still love you. My son once asked me, I said, “Will you get me something good if I do well on the test?” I said, “Of course not.” I said, “I get you something that you like, because I love you. It has nothing to do with what you do on the test.” That to him was at that age, was a revelation. People had to affirm their self-worth.
I remember years ago, a California Angel pitcher, I think his name might have been Donny Moore, gave up a home run and as a result, the Angels didn't get in the playoffs. The press got down on him for five days in a row and the guy committed suicide. Now I will not say, like Malcolm Gladwell will jump to the conclusion was that one incident that we could generalize that he committed suicide. I can tell you that he felt he had no worth, and that he has been affirming his self-worth. What if I gave up a home run? I'm still a good person. I'm still a good father. I'm still a good husband. That makes a big difference.
Sharing your pressure feelings, very important for young men to do. Most of them like to keep feelings and – they don't like to admit it, because they think it makes them less manly. That's because they've been watching too many movies and listening to too many sports announcers about stepping up. Sharing pressure feelings is a very smart strategy, whether it's with your partner, or whether it's having a team meeting for five minutes. “Hey, who's feeling a lot of pressure or whatever? Let's get it out in the open.” That becomes a very important strategy.
Anticipating. Anticipating what could go wrong in the pressure moment. When I first started teaching at UCLA I said, “Well, what do I do if somebody gets up and says this guy stinks and walks out of the room?” Or worse yet, if everybody says he stinks and walks out of the room and one person stays. I would visualize myself dealing with the worst possible thing and still doing it with some type of style and dignity.
It's always good, Tom Brady will anticipate every defense that could be thrown at him on that. Then when it comes, he’s ready for it. That's the difference between people who lose their composure and people who don't. Anticipating is another one of those mental strategies that a person can use. Meditation, studies have shown that if you meditate, magic number is 12 hours. It doesn't have to be in a row, you start to create changes in your brain. As a result, it becomes easier to relax on cue.
If you're into practicing meditation, that's another “pressure managing strategy” that you can use. These are all accessible. Well, what I want people to realize is that managing pressure doesn't require you to do anything new. It just requires you to do something different. You're using your natural tools. Your natural tools are your thoughts. Everybody has thoughts, but how a person who performs well under pressure thinks is different than a person who chokes.
We all have physiological arousal, that for people who do poorly under pressure, that arousal gets out of control. That's when they feel butterflies, or they feel that their body tensing up. That's why learning how to relax is very, very important. It impacts our behavior. How many movies have you seen where the person gets so nervous, they can't – the bad guys chasing them. They can't even put the keys in and start their car, or open their door. That's your human performance system.
Visualize a triangle; thoughts, arousal and behavior, like a triangle. All those three factors interact with each other. What pressure does is it sabotages. It attacks each one of those components. Those strategies that I mentioned are ways to fight back, so that you're in control of your thoughts. You're in charge of your behavior and you are in control of your physiology.
[0:52:55.5] MB: For listeners who want to dig in, learn more and find you and your work online, what's the best place for them to find you?
[0:53:01.6] HW: I would invite everybody to go to my website, which is hankweisingerphd.com and they'll see a whole bunch of articles and videos for free, that I think that they will find very useful. There's a lot of good articles on the blog, there are also radio interviews to listen to. I intend to put the link of this podcast up there as well. Also Matt, I want them to look under courses and they will see my online performing under pressure class. It's not ready yet, but I will give you a coupon code that you can pass on to your listeners that will give them a 30% discount on the class, which they have access to for life, and I am always updating it. Quite frankly, I think they'll find it – everybody will find it very, very, very useful.
[0:54:02.6] MB: Well, we'll make sure to include that code in the show notes for listeners who want to find it, again successpodcast.com, you can find all the show notes on there. Hank, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all this knowledge and wisdom, obviously a tremendous amount of research and clinical experience and it really shines through in all of the examples and stories that you provided.
[0:54:21.4] HW: Well, thanks for having me and I hope to come back again in the future.
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