"If you work two thousand hours a year but your overall success rests mostly on your performance during a couple of dozen crucial hours—at pitch meetings, sales calls, a key conversation with your boss, and so on—the tools in this book should help you do better."
Ever since Malcolm Gladwell unearthed the 10,000 hour practice = mastery rule we’ve become obsessed with logging practice hours. Author and Harvard Business Review senior editor Daniel McGinn’s curiosity is about the difference a few minutes, not thousands of hours, can make. Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed explores how successful athletes, musicians, and business people methodically leverage the moments before the “big moment.” He examines research on what to say, what to do, and how to lead your team to the best outcome possible.
Since we are in an ever-more competitive world, figuring out how to perform just a little better is important—it could be the edge we need to win the pitch or the job. And as I read through his suggestions and thought about utilizing them at work, I realized that leaders who adopt these things would be more supportive, more positive, and yes—more fun. That’s an edge worth having, too.
The Big Idea
Enough Already, Let’s Get Psyched!
"'These tools apply to any type of high performance, whether you’re in an emergency room, a law firm, a courtroom, a boardroom… We’re biological creatures, and we have that fight-or-flight response, even in a corporate setting. These tools can absolutely help.’"
You want the best performance for yourself and for your team. So you employ every strategy, tactic and trick. And when one of those high-stakes moments are on the horizon, you prepare—the best presentation, the best visuals, the best delivery. And you practice, practice, practice. Whether it’s the rote delivery or anticipating every question, you are all about the preparation. You run yourself or your team through their paces. And then, you go. But are you leveraging the moments before the big event? Rather than torture the team with endless rehearsal up to the last minute, consider using the latest research to flip their anxiety to excitement. Or take a break and create a new ritual, a battle cry, or a silly handshake, to ensure success.
Get Smart to Get Psyched
"In helping humans perform, psychology is the software, but biology is the hardware."
The first thing to do is leverage biology. The rush of fear and anxiety we feel before a big presentation or interview is caused by adrenaline being dumped into our system. Originally quite helpful when confronted by a charging rhino, in modern days we are stuck with the racing heart, sweaty palms, and frozen brain of the “fight or flight” response. How we speak to ourselves in the moment can make the difference. Using a computer-scored singing game, the group of singers who used pre-performance self-talk to say “I’m so excited” outscored the “I’m so anxious” group with a 50% higher score. So when you feel that adrenaline rush, appreciate it as an “exciting” boost, talk to yourself to remind you of your excitement, and ride the wave!
Another helpful insight is to consider how much and what kind of thought to put in during a performance. As described in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, “System 2” thinking demands attention and your brain’s processing power. “System 1” operates on automatic. So McGinn advocates that you decide for each big moment whether you want your thinking brain turned “on” or “off.” In an interview or while in Q&A after a presentation, you’d want “System 2”—complete alertness to all factors. You would be alert to the response from the room, your choice of answers to a question, and monitoring where you are headed. But for speeches, McGinn recounts the strategy of Jonathan Jenkins, a sought-after speaker and start-up CEO who is known for his calm demeanor. While most of each speech will be customized and, because he’s extremely busy, just lightly rehearsed, Jenkins uses a standard biographical opening to connect with the audience and settle in. Having flown on automatic “System 1” thinking, by the time he arrives at his customized remarks Jenkins has established rapport with the audience. He can then use “System 2” thinking to concentrate as he delivers the more unique parts of the remarks.
Pump it Up to Get Psyched!
"To really make the most of the final moments before you perform, reducing anxiety isn’t enough. You also want to build positive emotions, such as confidence, self-efficacy, and power."
As a leader you can help your teams achieve better results by introducing them to pre-performance routines. Research shows that getting together to perform seemingly-silly ritual actions such as hand claps, foot stomps and huddle-style “Let’s go!” before embarking on a task can improve a team’s performance. Before an all-important last day of a month, sales managers can rev up their sales people by leading this behavior.
It’s also been shown that “pre-performance” rituals such as elaborately opening a wine bottle in that familiar series of motions increase the diners’ involvement in the experience, which increases their enjoyment. Is there a ritual you can invent to accompany your customers’ experience? Think of Walmart greeters, or the actions a good salesperson takes when they prepare your dressing room with the clothes you’ve selected. These enhance the experience, build loyalty, and boost sales.
Another easily actionable tip involves what psychologists call “priming.” Try one of these: have your team, colleagues or worker-bees journal about their past successes before attempting today’s challenge. Frame reminders of past work on the walls. Take and share a photo of the team flush from a past success before they climb the next (metaphoric) mountain. In experiment after experiment psychologists documented enhanced performance when workers were exposed to reminders of positive performance like these.
Or if you are more of the speech type, consider using the five-part format of General Stanley McChrystal:
- Tell your “troops” what they are being asked to do.
- Remind them why it’s important.
- Tell them why you know they can do it.
- Have them pause and think about what they have accomplished together.
- Exhort them to go and do it.
Just don’t tell them to “calm down.” That’s not realistic and that emotion is too different from their agitation (see insight #1 above!). And while it seems helpful to describe what might go wrong and why the world will keep spinning if it does, now is not the time to introduce negative thoughts to their consciousness.
Psyched Up is filled with anecdotes and research results with one central point: there are things you and your team can do in the final moments before your most important performances that can make you more successful.
What will you do differently next time you have a big opportunity? How will you leverage those final minutes?