Entrepreneurs are by the very definition of the word people who are taking a leap into the unknown and making something new out of fresh ideas. So how does the idea of ‘stress’ sit in this realm of value creation and differ to the norm of everyday, employed working life? Does the increase in pressure serve the entrepreneur, or make it harder to succeed?
One of the first things that people might say is “Well, it depends on the person”. I’d go a step further here and say that it actually depends on how the person thinks about the situation. We’re all given the same tools with which to function (a working body and a brain), it’s how we use them that is the key. We can choose to make the pressure pull us up, or push us over the edge, but it’s down to us. Let me explain further.
Take any half decent golfer. Now most people would agree that golf is a sport played mainly in the head (as well as on a golf course). What differentiates the good from the great is having the mental ability as well as the golfing skills. We’ve seen in the past how even the greatest players can fold under pressure. But of course, the pressure is the same as it always was, it’s now just how the person is seeing it that makes the difference.
Tiger Woods, when he was younger, would spend hours practicing on the ranges and putting greens, honing his skills to ‘play golf’. He also spent hours going through the mental game with his coach. When it came to the big shots, he simply treated them like any other. There’s no difference in playing a four foot putt on the 2nd green to make par and a four foot putt on the 18th to win the tournament. Same putt, different attachment of outcome placed on it – which is all done by us, in the mind – through thought.
We create the pressure ourselves. It is an internal source, rather than an external one. Even though it looks like it’s an ‘outside in’ influence, it only works one way, ‘inside out’. Now what’s really interesting here, is that once this is fully realised, a lot of the advice given (especially from the coaches in sport) is actually misplaced. Focusing on an outcome, focusing on breathing, setting targets… Rather than focusing on any type of ‘doing’, we should be aiming at ‘not doing’ instead.
In her research on why people, and especially athletes, choke under pressure, Sian Beilock, an associate professor in psychology, has shown how the brain works to sabotage performance. The ‘bumps in mental processing’ as she puts it, are preventable results of information log-jams in the brain.
By studying how the brain works when we are performing at our best and when we’re not, Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments. “Choking is sub-optimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” said Beilock.
It is in such cases that the polished programs executed by the brains of extremely accomplished athletes go awry. Thinking too much about what you are doing, or worrying about failing in general, can lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’ which occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success.
Any attempt to increase control can disrupt what was once a fluid, flawless performance. “My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shots – to stop thinking” Beilock said. Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over. Although this is a ‘doing’, you can see how much it is looking in the other direction to some of the advice given to athletes in the past.
But it’s not just ‘over-thinking’ that can cause poor performance. The brain also can work to sabotage in other ways. For instance, pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as ‘working memory’, which is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad, a temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand. Whether that task is doing a math problem, presenting to the board or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client, depletion in mental capacity for this task is going to result in poorer performance.
And in business…?
There is no doubt then, that stress (in the form of stressful thoughts) can undermine performance in the world of business as well as sport, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations, or even meeting a potential client in the elevator are occasions when ‘choking’ can squander opportunities. Entrepreneurs would be best advised then to avoid stressful thinking altogether. OK, so how is that possible then?
Well, the way to deal with stressful thoughts and the subsequent drop in performance, is to be able to understand the workings of the human operating system and how the brain processes thought and creates reality. In so doing, it is like having a better knowledge of a task and being able to produce better performance through understanding. Being a more experienced surfer for instance, allows a person to tackle higher, more challenging waves.
The same applies to the mind. As we see how the system works to create our reality from moment to moment and how we sabotage our own performance with our own thinking, we are able to spot the early signs of performance drop. We are able to essentially ‘do nothing’ and come back to the present and be more effective. The myth that stress produces better performance, is just that, a myth. Being relaxed and present will always lead to better performance, on the golf course or in the boardroom.
Damian Mark Smyth is a Stress Management Expert and Author of the books ‘Do Nothing!’ and ‘How to be Stress Free in 24 Hours’. For more information about the human operating system and how to manage stress effectively through understanding, please visit: www.stressmanagementcoaching.co.uk/services
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