No Pressure

During the 2016 Summer Olympics, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in the drama and artistry of the men’s synchronized diving event. While not a sport I’d ever watched before, there was something about watching these athletes perform their carefully choreographed and endlessly practiced dives that captured my imagination.

While the Chinese men ultimately won the gold medal, it was the interviews with the American and British divers (silver and gold medalists, respectively) that really caught my attention. When asked about handling the pressure of performing very technical and physically demanding dives with millions of people watching, the American divers shared their coping strategies – doing their best to block out the noise, using breathing techniques, etc. The British divers, by way of contrast, seemed a bit puzzled by the question.

“We’ve done these dives hundreds of times in our own pool,” one of them said. “There’s not really any extra pressure doing them in this pool.”

Another added words to the effect of “Why would we feel pressure? We’re just doing what we do every day.”

The implications of these statements staggered me, as they carried a level of insight into how the mind works I’m not used to seeing out in the world:

There is no pressure pre-existent in the world or inherently present in any given situation. The only pressure we can ever feel is 100% generated via Thought in our own mind.

What the British divers apparently realized that the Americans did not was that pressure is not a “thing” that needs to be reckoned with but rather a thought that will come and go of its own accord. The less attention we pay it, the less significant it seems and the quicker it passes through our mind and the feeling of it passes through our body. The more attention we give it (be it in taking on additional preparation in order to mitigate it or in utilizing techniques to lessen it), the more of a thing to be reckoned with it seems.

But if that’s true, why would anyone ever attempt to increase the amount of pressure that they feel? Why try to make your goals more important than they are, or to convince yourself that your deadlines are actual lines in the dirt that you’ll get shot for crossing rather than arbitrary targets set in an attempt to corral your focus and energy for the creation of a particular outcome?

The reason, as best I can tell, is that we mistake the clarity, presence, and focused intention (i.e. “flow”) that often come while working towards a clear target or deadline with the pressure our thinking generates as we do so. Or to put it another way that seems to have become popular amongst sports announcers on ESPN, we mistake correlation for causation.

Just because two things often occur in close proximity to one another does not imply that one causes the other. While this is obvious in statements like “firetrucks don’t cause fires” or “umbrellas don’t cause rain”, it’s subtler when considering whether or not “a big audience causes fear of public speaking” or “a good performance causes self-esteem”.

For example, my wife and I once engaged in a bit of semi-political agitation to have a cross walk put in between our neighborhood in London and the park across the way. Each day we saw dozens of children run across the busy road, and we thought there would be less chance of an accident if the flashing yellow lights of a zebra crossing were there to catch the attention of distracted drivers.

A man from the local council came to persuade us to drop our cause, as we had by then gathered over a thousand signatures in support of the crosswalk and jumped through the hoops we were given to jump through. His argument was initially persuasive, backed by graphs and statistics that showed how many more people were killed or critically injured crossing the road in a zebra crossing than without one. Until it dawned on me to ask him if that might be correlated to how many more people actually crossed the road in zebra crossings than elsewhere. He immediately put his papers away, and there is now a crosswalk on that corner of our old street. (You can read the longer story here.)

Because so many of us equate feelings of pressure and stress with moments of high performance, it can seem like feeling at least some pressure would be an essential part of our preparation. But the recent record-breaking comeback by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI provides us with an interesting counter-example. (Please forgive any bias towards the New England Patriots you may notice in my writing from this moment forward. It is real. I love them. :-)

At halftime, the Patriots were trailing 21 – 3. No team had ever come back from that kind of deficit in the biggest game of the season with over a billion people watching. So how did they do it?

Did their coach, Bill Belichick, give them a tongue-lashing, highlighting all their mistakes so they could avoid them in the second half?

Did their quarterback, Tom Brady, give them a motivational speech about how they’d come back against bigger odds in the past, or about how this might be his last shot at a title so they needed to go out there and “win one for the Gipper”?

Well, according to the other players reports from the locker room, neither of those things happened. Instead, Brady and Belichick calmly reminded them to go back out for the second half, trust each other, and do their jobs. Seeing the quiet confidence of their leaders, who seemingly neither felt nor attempted to introduce any extra “pressure” into the situation, did more for the team than any motivational speech could have done. By the time the dust settled and the game was over, the Patriots had won in overtime, 34 – 28.

So what has this got to do with you?

Well, chances are in your life there are things you and the people who work with and for you would like to achieve. And chances are that if you’re anything like the majority of my clients and students, you put pressure on yourself and others as part of your strategy for achieving them.

You tell yourself that reaching a target will prove your worthiness, or that not achieving it will mean you really are a failure. You try to make yourself directly accountable for results which are outside of your control, or feed yourself the notion that without pressure as the impetus for action, you wouldn’t do anything.

But what if pressure really isn’t essential for high performance? Taking it even further, what if it’s actually counter-productive, as it takes our attention out of the moment and onto ourselves?

Here’s an experiment for you to play with this week:

1. Choose a project you are already working on or a performance situation (making a sales call, writing a blog, giving a presentation, playing a game) you will find yourself in this week.

2. Just to see what it’s like, do it without putting any pressure on yourself to succeed or even perform at your best. It’s fine to want to do well, just not to threaten yourself with dire implications or feelings of regret and self-loathing if you don’t.

If you do feel pressure, don’t do anything to try to lessen it or talk yourself out of it. Recognize that it’s just a feeling made out of the transient energy of Thought, and as such it will come and go of its own accord if you let it.

Have fun, learn heaps, happy exploring, and may all your success be fun… no pressure! :-)

With all my love,