Today’s post kicks off a series I’m calling “Performance Under Pressure.” I was recently hired to give a day-long workshop under that title and, as I developed my plans for the event, I started thinking that I would share some of my concepts with you all here on my blog! I hope they help!
Recent neuroscience continues to confound and contradict many “common sense” (for me, “common sense” translates merely to concepts we haven’t adequately questioned or dissected) notions. In school, we stress to children, “try your best,” “work hard,” and simply “strive.” In the workplace, we encourage each other to go “above and beyond” or “strive for excellence,” etc.
Such messages may have the spirit of encouragement and positivity, but what we’re inadvertently doing both to our children and to each other is adding pressure. And pressure is never helpful. Let me repeat, we are NOT at our best under pressure. Pressure, anxiety, stress, etc. (all these bad things) work to inhibit our cognitive function, not to motivate it. When we are under pressure and we feel the sympathetic nervous system kick in (increased heart rate, heavier and faster breathing, shaky hands, sweaty palms–all the signs of nervousness), our brain takes energy away from our creative, productive, and performative faculties. We are not at our best. We choke! And many of us choke when it matters most.
So, instead, what should we say to each other when performance matters? What should we say to ourselves when we know we have to perform in an important moment?
“Do the bare minimum.”
I can hear you already: “Really, Jesse? That’s your advice?”
Yep! This may not be what your boss wants you to hear from me. And no parent has probably ever given this advice to a youngster. But hear me out for a moment.
If we set the bar absurdly low for ourselves, we bypass the pressure circuits that work to inhibit us and keep us from being our most creative, most productive selves.
Here’s the mantra that I will keep coming back to throughout all of these posts–and it’s the one concept that I want you to walk away with:
We are at our best when we are feeling good. Furthermore, we are at our best when we are feeling free, and when we find ourselves in flow. Those are three F-words I want you to remember! Feeling good, Freedom, and Flow.
You can better access these if you tell yourself you ONLY need to do the bare minimum, moment to moment. No one expects anything more from you. And you don’t need to expect any more from yourself.
Let’s take an example that would be relevant to my workshop attendees, who happen to be workers in social healthcare. You’re working with an individual who is in crisis, who has fallen apart right in front of you. And it’s your job to help them. They feel as though their world has ended and, between sobs, they struggle to explain their problems.
This is someone who wants to be heard. So, what’s the bare minimum you can do?
Once the person has gotten out what they want to say and they turn to you with expectant eyes, wondering what you could possible say that could help, again give them the bare minimum:
“I know. I understand. That’s really hard.”
If you were to panic, get yourself flustered, and rush to overdeliver, you are not going to be your best and you’re not going to give this individual what they need.
Then, on a moment to moment basis, do the simplest, easiest thing you can do. Moment by moment. “Let’s have a seat.” “Let me give you a tissue.” “Let me put you in touch with the person who can best handle this unique situation.”
In asking only the bare minimum of yourself, you will, perhaps unknowingly and unexpectedly, deliver something miraculous.
The key is to not strive to be extraordinary. We don’t need a superhero in a cape in situations such as these. We need you at your most real, your most authentic, your most free. It doesn’t need to feel like a burden for you to change someone else’s world.
How do you access that version of yourself? Do the smallest, easiest thing you can, moment to moment. Know that you don’t need to plan ahead. You don’t need to analyze or over-analyze the situation. Just respond, minimally, moment-to-moment in an effortless flow. Don’t rush. Don’t try. Don’t strive.
Our most natural, most intuitive selves emerge in the moment when we need them. But not under pressure. It may seem contradictory, but if you tell yourself, “I don’t need to be extraordinary, I only need to do the simplest thing in each moment,” then you will be astonished at the remarkable things you achieve.
You’ve already heard Jesse’s positive “F”words, now try to remember Jesse’s “M” statements:
From the mundane comes the monumental.
From the mindless comes the miraculous.
From the minimal comes the magical.