When it comes to providing warm, happy feelings, this video is better than a plateful of turkey, stuffing, and sweet-potato pie (well, almost). Kelvin’s story is vivid proof of T.S. Eliot’s words: “The great ages did not produce more talent than ours. But less talent was wasted.”
One of the most fascinating areas of science is the study of pressure performance. It’s fascinating partly because we’ve all been on both sides. We’ve all succeeded, and we’ve all choked. (Well, except for Derek Jeter.)
The question is, why? Our instincts say the answer lies in our character — with our innate cool, our grace under fire. But is that true?
A Harvard professor named Alison Wood Brooks recently gave us new insight into this mystery. She didn’t study the Super Bowl or the stock market — instead she performed an experiment using perhaps the most terrifying pressure known to humanity:
It went like this: Brooks brought a group of volunteers together, then surprised them by informing them that they would be soloing the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A short time before they performed, subjects were told to repeat one of three phrases out loud.
1) I am calm
2) I am anxious
3) I am excited
Then Brooks used voice-recognition sofware to measure the quality of their vocal performance — pitch, volume, and rhythm. The results:
- “I am calm” performers scored 53%
- “I am anxious” performers scored 69%
- “I am excited” performers scored 81%
Here’s why: the mantras functioned as psychological framing devices. The “I am calm” group performed poorly because the words denied the reality of the situation. Their words claimed they weren’t nervous, even while every cell of their body was vibrating with nerves. The disparity created tension, so their performance suffered.
The “I am anxious” group told the truth, but it wasn’t a useful truth. The negativity hurt their performance — though it’s important to point out that they didn’t do as poorly as the “I am calm” people.
People who said “I am excited” performed better because the frame was both useful and accurate enough. They acknowledged the heightened emotion of the situation and funneled it in a positive direction. It wasn’t the truth, exactly, but it was aligned with the truth, and thus proved useful in dampening nerves and enabling better performance.
“When your heart is already racing, you can use that high arousal in a positive way by being energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate,” Brooks says. “People’s intuition is to try and calm down. You are better off running with your high arousal and channeling it in a positive direction.” (You can find out more about her study here.)
For us, I think the lessons are useful.
- 1) Mantras are useful
- 2) Don’t BS yourself. Embrace the excitement.
- 3) When in doubt, be positive (duh, but still)
Anybody got any other pressure-coping methods they’d like to share? Please feel free.
Some of you might remember Karen X. Cheng, the Bay-Area resident whose “Dance in a Year” videos went viral a few months back. (Backstory: Cheng, an amateur dancer, posted daily videos of her 365-day transformation from rank beginner to dance goddess.)
Here’s some news: Cheng seems to have started another viral phenomenon through a new social-media website. It’s called GiveIt100, and it’s based on a simple idea: you practice something for 100 days and share video each day.
I highly recommend checking out the site’s project page — just roll over a video and it starts playing. You can see people learning Russian, doing pullups, unicycling, drawing, painting, programming, juggling, playing guitar, you name it. You can see the clumsy early attempts smoothing out into fluency and speed. You see the disbelieving smiles.
Of these inspiring stories, perhaps the most inspiring is Cynthia, who suffers from MS and who is using GiveIt100 to share her daily progress toward learning to walk again. (Tip: keep Kleenex handy.)
I could see this site being useful for students, teachers, coaches, and athletes of all ages; either posting their own sessions or learning through the experiences of others. I could imagine it being used as a source of coaches and mentors. Or as simply a source of daily motivation (after all, who needs a pep talk about daily discipline when you can see and feel the proof?).
I have a hunch GiveIt100 may be a glimpse of the future of talent development, because it uses the power of social media to support good habits, provide useful models, and help people coach themselves and each other. And also because this approach is aligned with the fact that when it comes to developing talent, it’s not so much about who you are — it’s about what you do.
Have any of you guys tried it yet, or know anybody who has? What do you think?
One of the nice/strange things about my job is that it strongly resembles being a parachute jumper. You drop out of the sky into interesting places, where you meet people, explore, and look for patterns.
In the past two weeks, I’ve had in-depth conversations about performance with two professional sports teams, two schools (one inner city, one private), one special-forces unit, and one huge multinational business.
Here’s the weird part: in a profound way, they’ve all been the same conversation.
They’re all obsessed with that elusive, magical quality we call character. Grit. Resilience. Reliability. Ownership. Because, as the work of Paul Tough, Angela Duckworth, and others have shown, character supports performance the same way a concrete foundation supports a house.
So it’s with a sense of karmic happiness that I bumped into this remarkable story about a high-school football team in Ohio that was struggling with precisely the same issues, and which found a straightforward solution that’s worth sharing.
Actually “struggling” is putting it kindly. Until a few years ago, Bedford High’s team was terrible. The team was in shambles. No discipline. No identity. How bad was it? The coach, Sean Williams, says that when a Bedford player scored, his teammates on the sidelines would yell and complain because they should have been the ones who scored.
Then, two years ago, Coach Williams made an innovative move that surprised everyone.
He brought in a character coach.
Like many useful innovations, this one feels completely revolutionary and forehead-slappingly obvious at the same time. The thinking goes something like: we have a strength coach and an offensive-line coach – so why in the world shouldn’t we have a coach to focus on the most important element of all?
So Bedford did. Two times a week, led by a 31-year-old entrepreneur/coach named Keith Tousley, the team started gathering in sessions that were part motivational seminar, part group therapy. From the article:
On Monday, to accompany his talk, Tousley gave players a worksheet titled “How we WILL BEAT Kent Roosevelt.” Every player sat quietly and filled in blanks as he spoke. The worksheet had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Among the sentences players completed were:
“Find ____ in what you are doing.”
“Stay _____ .”
“Compete for something ____ than yourself.”
One of the benefits of this approach stems from the fact that character is contagious. A Bedford player named Tyvis Powell was one of the first to get on board with the new program, and now, according to Williams, “all these guys are mini-Tyvises.“ Another benefit is that improvements in character tend to cascade into every other area of the team and individual success — classroom, family, and beyond.
So, did the experiment work? Let’s just say this year’s team is 9-1, and playing tonight in the state playoffs.
The real question is, is this a model that could be adopted in schools, businesses, teams? What are the challenges/opportunities involved with establishing “character” as a distinct quality to be improved? What do you think?
UPDATE: Bedford won 21-14, advancing to the state semifinal.
The determination is awesome.
But what really matters is stopping, thinking, and changing strategy.