I’ve been thinking about the concept of pressure after a conversation I had with several recent college graduates who are at the beginning of their careers. What is pressure and how do I handle it when I feel it? When I think about this topic, I immediately think about sports and how the great competitors face incredible pressure at specific moments. Yesterday’s PGA as Jason Day closed in on his first major win with Jordan Spieth on the hunt. Day has had so many near misses, putting those nagging doubts out of his head and playing strong for a record breaking 20 under major was incredible to watch. How does one do that and what can the rest of us learn from it?
I decided to go back to a classic and highly motivational book I have gone to since my days of Cornell wrestling, The Edge, by Howard E. Ferguson, 1982. Here is the legendary coach of one of wrestling’s greatest high schools, St. Edward of Lakewood, Ohio take on pressure:
“Time’s running out. Your team trails by one basket. The noise of the crowd is deafening.
What do you do? Do you hide, or do you break from your opponent and come out to get the ball for the last shot?
If you’ve prepared mentally and physically as we have mapped out, you’ll never need to worry about pressure; in fact, you’ll go out of your way to put yourself in pressure situations. You’ll be the type of athlete who thrives on a close game, a tight match. Pressure is something you put on yourself when you’re not prepared. If you don’t have faith in what you are doing and you fear the unexpected, then its something for which you didn’t properly prepare. All pressure is self-inflicted and, like anything else in life, you can look at it in several ways. You can look forward to it or you can cringe in front of it. … If you welcome pressure, you’ll be amazed at how successful you’ll be. When the situation gets tight, you’ll have the edge because you’ll know: 1. There’s just as much pressure on your opponent, 2. Exactly how to handle it, and 3. Chances are he(she) won’t.
No matter how confident you are though, sometimes you’ll find yourself caught up in a pressure situation and little doubts of your ability will creep into your mind. No need to panic, no need ot think its unnatural. Even the great ones have moments of fear. The secret to their success is that they know exactly how to handle these moments – they know they can’t avoid them, so when the pop up, they don’t lose it – they handle them. They slow it down a little, they go back to their very fundamentals of their particular sport and they concentrate. Slow it down. Get your confidence back. Get your edge back. Then face the pressure head-on.”
In business, just as in sports, you make a choice in a “pressure” situation. You can either embrace it with the confidence of preparation and a belief in your ability and your content or your can let it get to you. I’ve probably given 1,000s of presentations or speeches over the years to important audiences, customers, and business leaders. In every one of these situations, even early on, I felt the pressure in the form of adrenalin. I grew to feed on these situations. I embraced them. Even early on, these were the situations I sought and thrived on. Whether it was getting a meeting with Walmart’s Sam’s Club at 23 years old and traveling to Bentonville, AK to present on my own, taking the lead on presentations to our major suppliers or going out to the investment community and raising $100s of millions while still in my twenties, I put myself in “pressure” situations. While there were always ways in which I could have improved or done better and each of these experiences could have been terribly nerve racking, but instead they where incredible learning experiences in which I thrived.
As a person starting out in the business world, you will have opportunities presented to you to take a lead on a project or to represent your company in a meeting. Take them and embrace them. These are the moments that separate the performers from the rest. These are the moments that enable one to stand out from the crowd. Feeling it is natural, even with proper preparation.
“Pressure is something you really put on yourself. If its not real, why put it on yourself?” -Kyle Dake
Kyle Dake is an American former collegiate wrestler at Cornell University. He won four NCAA Division I national tittles in four different weight classes. With his fourth title in 2013, he joined Cael Sanderson and Pat Smith as the only four-time NCAA champions.
As NBA legend, Larry Bird put it back in his playing days, “In the closing seconds of every game, I want the ball in my hands for that last shot – not in anybody else’s, not in anybody else’s hands in the world.” I look at business situations similarly.
While no one expects a new entrant to the workforce to excel in every situation right from the start, you will have opportunities to put yourself into a “pressure situation”. Seek these out. Always be the one who raises their hand and steps up. Don’t fear failure. Take the chance and be willing to put yourself into these situations. You may not realize it at the time, but your boss and other senior people in your organization will notice. More importantly, you will gain experience and confidence by going through these experiences. The more you do this, the more you will have confidence and never get rattled.
“Courage is grace under pressure.” Ernest Hemingway