Dealing With Pressure:
Neuroscience tells us that the pressure we feel as we approach a job interview, a competition, an exam, that all-important date, or (in my case at least) the work that goes into a new book, is entirely self-imposed.
We factor in our own sense of agency and identity
, take into account the expectations those around us have of us, throw in our history to date when under pressure, dice and slice aspects of our ambition coupled to our most pressing present needs, mix everything together and serve it up as a potent cocktail. It creates an instant load where we judge pretty much everything we are, have been and will ever be using a binary success/fail lens.
To illustrate this consider, for a moment, my own day today where I started the weekend working out the priority of all the writing projects, articles, speeches and book outlines I am currently working on so I have a rough guide on how to apportion my time between writing, research, speaking and consulting until the end of the month. Then, on a whim, because I had an email notice earlier in the week, I logged onto academia.edu
and looked at the papers citing my work on search and social media.
There are, currently, 19 in all from all over the world. The split between search and social media is roughly 80/20. Obviously I was pleased. And then it hit me just how much impact I have with what I write. It was sobering and, frankly, quite terrifying.
It’s one thing to think that what you put out is read by those who need it most and they get stuff down that allows them to work better and be more efficient and effective in their work (and maybe in the life too). It’s entirely another to think that those who are engaged in cutting edge research are referencing your work and use it as a guide to what they are pointing towards in terms of future developments.
Suddenly you realize (and I am deflecting here because by “you” I mean “I”) that a mistake would not only be public (this has been a possibility I have long made my peace with) but it would also adversely affect the reputation and career of others. This kind of pressure is intense enough to want to make you freeze. The imagined risks and dangers are so many and so unpredictable that the safest thing by far is to stand still, do nothing at all; rest at whatever point you managed to ascend to and cling to it for as long as possible, producing nothing at all.
That’s how bad it is. Left purely to instincts that’s exactly what would happen. The realization, for me, produced its own epiphany on why some companies ascend the pinnacle of their field and then fizzle out, failing to evolve any further. They must succumb to the pressure of expectation that stems from their own success.
Now I am writing about all this which suggests that I am definitely not in a state of paralysis caused by fear of failure. But I won’t deny that it was sobering to see the effect my work has and I certainly had my moment of doubt immediately afterwards. How did I overcome it?
This is what I did:
- I asked myself what was it that was scaring me?
- I the imagined what would be the worst thing that could happen?
- I answered both of these questions for me as deeply and honestly as I could.
Identifying our fears is the first step towards dealing with them. Articulating our worst nightmare provides both context for our anxiety and perspective which then helps lessen its impact. The more detail we add in there, the more we get to understand ourselves.
For me, the fear is not so much about personal failure as about negatively impacting those who rely on me. I accept fully that at some point I will fail. I will make a mistake and, as time goes on, I may be overtaken in what I do by others who are simply better than me. That is inevitable, though obviously I’d rather it happen as much later as possible.
Making sure those who rely on me to provide correct answers to their problems, are not dragged down should I fall is more problematic. My solution is to not be the only point of reference they encounter through me. I have always made a point of sharing the work, ideas and suggestions of others even when, on the face of it, they appear to be ‘competitors’. I’ve resolved to do more of this, not less. Helping more people discover more voices of authority in search and social media and (of late, neuroscience and leadership) is never a bad thing.
They get to cross-reference what they are researching. They are exposed to more ideas than just mine. Because of this, they might even see flaws in my arguments long before I become aware of them. Plus, this approach takes me out of my own comfort zone. The struggle then makes me determined to continue to deliver real value to my readers, to the best of my ability for as long as possible.
My solution may not work for everyone in every situation. The point is however that by answering those two questions in as much detail as possible you too can devise a plan of action that will stop you from freezing because of the pressure of expectation you have begun to feel.