I’ve found an absolutely amazing book that I’ve been rolling around and splashing in for the last few weeks. It’s a book that presents a very compelling argument that goal setting, relaxation, visualization, stress management, and flow are all total bullshit that will hurt you. 🙂
It’s called Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance.It’s basically a book that takes a look at the superstars of the world in sports, business, and politics and finds out how they think. It’s written by a psychologist that studies these people for a living and draws conclusions from that. It craps all over conventional wisdom and presents a lot of damned convincing reasons for it.
It’s one my top three best books ever. It totally grooved along with things I’d already thought but hadn’t put into words, and taught me a lot more besides. Ever since reading it, my attitude toward work and life has completely taken a 180 for the better. I’ve been happier and more productive ever since, and I’m still not even completely finished with it. 🙂
Basically, if you want to kick ass and be truly great, follow this book’s advice to the letter. I’ve NEVER found a book with so much incredibly potent and useful information.
Here’s an excerpt from it that totally blew me away. It explains how some of the traditional “tells” of stress and anxiety that people think are bad are actually your body stepping up to help you focus on kicking ass, on a physiological level!
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Being a clutch player means thriving under pressure–welcoming it, enjoying it, making it work to your advantage. I can teach you how to do this, but first you will have to retrain some instincts, and that will require understanding two things:
1) Everything that your body does to you when the pressure is on is good for performance.
2) Pressure is different from anxiety; nervousness is different from worry.
Butterflies Are Normal
What is really happening to the body? Like almost every animal, humans have bimodal sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that have evolved over thousands of years. One stimulates the heart, lungs, eyes, and muscles; the other suppresses them. One prompts basic bodily functions such as digestion and processing water and waste; the other shuts these systems off. They work in tandem. The sympathetic system is crucial for finding food, being on the lookout for dangerous predators, and defending against enemies, while the parasympathetic system keeps the body fueled, warm, working efficiently, and prepared for reproduction. When one turns up, the other turns down, and vice versa.
Under pressure, the brain switches the body to red alert. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, and energy is redistributed from parasympathetic tasks to maximize sympathetic tasks:
– The mouth goes dry. This is sometimes called “cotton mouth” because the body is channeling effort into tasks more important than producing saliva. We don’t need extra spit to sink a free throw at the buzzer.
– Butterflies in your stomach. The sensation of “butterflies” occurs from excess stomach acid because the digestive system is shutting down. During a major presentation to the board, who’s eating lunch?
– Stomach cramps. This is because the stomach lining is shrinking. THe body has stopped producing bile and is trying to get rid of any remaining food.
– Sweat flows. This is a safety mechanism to prevent the body from overheating. Even an audition for the New York Philharmonic is not worth boiling vital organs.
– Hands, feet, or knees begin shaking. That’s the body sending faster motor signals from the cortex through the motor neurons out to the extremeties, which will be running, throwing, illustrating, acting, keyboarding.
– Faster heartbeat. The heart beats faster to get more blood through the arteries, carrying nutrients and oxygen to the working muscles and brain cells so they can perform at a higher level.
– The eyes dilate. And doing so makes vision more acute.
– The mind races. this enables you to process a greater amount of information in a shorter amount of time.
All of these adaptations are the body’s way of making us perform more efficiently when we’re under the gun. When humans face stress, we are hardwired to respond favorably. Our bodies know just waht to do. Quicker hands and feet, more oxygen and fuel to our muscles, greater visual acuity, increased mental capacity–sounds like a pretty good formula for coming out on top, doesn’t it? So whether you are running the hundred-yard dash in the Olympics, trying to get one hudndred stitches into a patient’s heart within a minute, getting your fingers to play the allegro in a Mozart violin concerto, or pulling off the biggest sale of your career, why would you want to be more relaxed?
Relaxation teaches your muscles to lose tone, your brain to be passive. You cannot win gold medals without muscle tone, nor can you perform at your utmost with other parts of your sympathetic nervous system switched to “slow.” Most people experience fight-or-flight symptoms and BAM!–their performance is overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety. But arousal and anxiety are not the same thing. You simply have been conditioned or taught to treat them as equals. They’re not.
– The physical symptoms of fight-or-flight are what the human body has learned over thousands of years to operate more efficiently and at the highest level.
– Anxiety is a cognitive INTERPRETATION of that physical response.
Most people have come to believe that anxiety and stress go hand in hand. That assumption, however, is dead wrong. Stress need not produce anxiety. Once Bill Russell, a famous athlete, figured out the connection between his body’s physiological preparation and his performance, he actually was relieved to be throwing up before the big game because he recognized it as evidence that he was ready to play his best. Butterflies, cotton mouth, and a pounding heart make the finest performers smile–the smile of a person with an ace up their sleeve. Fight-or-flight symptoms comprise the extra juice they’ll need to go up against the best, so they welcome it. Many CEOs have confided to me that what they love most about their jobs are the aspects that make them the most nervous. They definitely would agree with Tiger Woods, who has often said, “The day I’m not nervous stepping onto the first tee–that’s the day I quit.”
All the great athletes, musicians, actors, doctors and business executives I’ve talked to seem to think the same way. So why does everyone else identify the body’s sympathetic response to high-stakes situations with fear of failure? The confusion tends to stem from childhood, almost as an accident. Here’s what happens: It is the first time you have to deliver in public. You are eight years old, playing in your first Little League game, giving your first recital, appearing in your first play, or delivering that debut book report from memory right before hte class. Your body goes nuts, registering all the classic fight-or-flight symptoms. On some level (and it’s usually not a higher cerebral level because, hey, you’re eight and you don’t process things that way yet) you are wondering, “What is happening ot me?”
Then you proceed to perform poorly.
You strike out three times and let the ball roll right between your legs, you blow your lines, you forget the next note, you blank on what the book was about. The next time you are called upon to perform in public, your body still reacts to the pressure, but you think, “The last time I felt this way, I was so awful that the other kids laughed at me.” Before you know it, you have attributed poor performacne to the body’s natural response under pressure. You essentially instructed yourself that the root of your problem was your body’s effort to help you perform to your utmost.
Trouble was, you didn’t really have any “utmost.” You performed badly because you simply were not yet very skilled. You were only eight years old! Your teacher probably didn’t teach you how to prepare your speech; you hadn’t practiced enough with your instrument. Some of the greatest athletes in history were lousy at age eight–or much older. (Remember: Michael Jordan got cut from his high school team sophomore year.)
Thus begins a vicious cycle between physical reactions to pressure and high anxiety. For the rest of your school days and then on the job, whenever you are asked to perform in public and the symptoms of arousal appear, you fill your head with negative thoughts. That is why amateur golfers with decades of experience still dread standing on the first ete, or why fifty-year-old executives live in terror of every presentation or big meeting with the board. Performing poorly becomes identified with the body’s natural invigoration mechanisms. The anxiety gets worse until you finally tell yourse,f, “I have to learn how to relax.”
The mistaken identity between stress and anxiety is so ingrained that when I ask new clients to tell me about their experiences performing under pressure, they often respond with a soliloquy on fear. I want to hear about breakthrough moments, the good stuff, but they tell me about choking, doubt, and ducking every opportunity that might activate such awful feelings. No wonder in our culture few words carry a more negative connotation than “pressure” and “stress.” Stress gets blamed for everything that doesn’t have an otherwise clear diagnosis. Going gray or losing your hair? Must be stress. Unidentified pains or headaches? You guessed it. But stress is not the cause; it’s how you interpret stress that causes psychosomatic illness.
In performance arenas, psychologists call this “self-intimidation.” You feed your mind with thoughts and instructions that your body is doing something wrong. You tell yourself that you’re not going to perform well because of your own natural instincts. You use emotionally exaggerated language such as “my heart is jumping clear out of my chest; my stomach’s so twisted upside down, the knots will never come out.” Often you say, “If only I could just relax, I’d do so much better.” You undermine your confidence by creating an irrational fear of yourself. Athletes like Dennis Rodman and John Rocker make a multimillion dollar living out of intimidating opponents. Most people are already intimidating themselves–for free.
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The whole book is that awesome. Buy it. 🙂