To Perform Under Pressure, Shift Your Perspective

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Imagine standing in front of thousands of fans, with over a million more watching on TV back home, about to compete for a spot on the United States Olympic team. The next two minutes determine whether not only whether or not you get to achieve your childhood dream of competing in the Olympics, but also whether or not you have a job. Finish outside of the top three, by even a fraction of a second, and your prospects for sponsorship and funding start to look a bit grim. That’s the reality facing many of the athletes attempting to achieve Olympic glory. They may be one of the best dozen or two in the world in their sport, but fall short and it doesn’t matter.

Phoebe Wright, a former world-class 800 meter runner, knows this feeling well.

In 2012, she finished in fifth place, less than three tenths of a second from making the team. Four years later, she came back and made the final again, falling short with a sixth place finish. When I asked Wright how she dealt with the pressure of knowing that if you don’t reach your goal, it could mean finding a new job, she has a simple strategy: keep perspective. When she walks onto the track to compete on the biggest stage, she tells herself, “It’s not life or death; it’s track and field.”  She continues this self-dialogue by reminding herself that, “The only people who really care how I do are friends, family, a few hundred track nerds, and of course, myself.”

Wright isn’t the only world-class performer who utilizes perspective to reframe their situation. Matt Billingslea, a world class-drummer who has been playing for Taylor Swift since 2013, utilizes the same strategy. Billingslea told me that when he begins to feel what he describes as anxiety’s “tightening effect” as he takes the stage to perform in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans, he quietly reminds himself, “This isn’t heart surgery. No one’s life is at stake.  All I’m doing is playing the drums.”

The irony, of course, is that both Billingslea and Wright’s livelihood’s do depend on how they perform. But by reminding themselves that no actual lives depend on it, they are able to dull the nerves and perform better. By minimizing the perceived pressure, they become more likely to live up to it.  

Perspective isn’t about downplaying the significance of the event, it’s about reframing it to its proper level. Whenever we face a stressful situation, we tend to overestimate its importance. The vast majority will not lose our job if we make a minor mistake or fail to deliver on a singular promise. Even if for some reason we do face such a situation, like Wright did, the worst-case scenario is hardly as bad as we think. After failing to make the Olympic team for a second time, Wright shifted her focus and put all of the passion and energy she used to devote to track into another endeavor: pharmacy school.

Adjusting your perspective is a way to keep your expectations and the tendency to have a threat response in check. Ask yourself a series of questions including:

  1. What’s the worst-case scenario?
  2. Will your parents and friends still love and support you if you fail?
  3. How many people truly care about how you perform in this activity?
  4. Who’s opinions and insights really matter?

In Do Hard Things, I discussed another strategy that can be utilized to gain perspective: self-distancing. In this strategy, we think in third-person, examining our situation or issue as if it was a friend going through it. By creating another layer between ourselves and our situation, we can put distance between the personal nature of the situation and our emotional response. We’re more likely to see a situation clearly and with greater objectivity when it’s someone else dealing with it, versus ourselves. It’s why when faced with a tough decision, most of us rely on friends opinions to ground our decisions. While that’s still a great option, we can get a part of this effect by thinking in third person.

Other ways to create perspective include reflecting upon our limited time and place on this planet. Research shows that astronauts experience something called the “overview effect” when they see the Earth from space. As Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins said, “The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”

Collins isn’t alone in his experience. Astronauts report that they experience the sensation of awe, and see the earth not as a series of divided countries with different people, but as a whole. We don’t have to go into space to experience this effect. Research shows that going fro a hike in the woods, or even looking at pictures of beautiful places can have not only anxiety reducing effects, but also perspective changing ones.

Changing perspective isn’t about downplaying your situation. It’s about bringing your views in line with reality. Decreasing the mismatch between our exaggerated personal view of the world, and realigning it with the reality of living on a giant rock floating in the vast expanses of one of many galaxies. It’s not to say that what you are doing isn’t important or has no value. It’s just a gentle reminder of that age old wisdom not to sweat the small stuff. And that what makes something small depends upon the lens through which we view it.

— Steve

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