One of the things I continually bang on about is my firm belief that in our culture talent is a very limiting ‘excuse’ for achievement.
If we see someone excel at something, we tend to attribute it to some innate ability or gift. Therefore there is little point in us trying to achieve something at a similar or higher level if we have never noticed this gift within ourselves. We’re off the hook.
This talent mindset is so embedded in our society that often, regardless of the mounting evidence, I have found people arguing rather passionately against the idea that peak performance is a result of determination, dedication and hours of practice. In the past I have done so myself, because the work I thought I may have to put in terrified me.
For years I sat at home with all the juggling and magic skills I had learned, getting no bookings because I thought myself “an artist, not a businessman”. I am embarrassed to say that these words actually came out of my mouth. It was a long time ago so don’t judge too harshly. Of course “I am an artist, not a businessman” translates as “I want to sit practising magic and I’m too scared and can’t be arsed to do much else”. I had no talent for business, therefore it wasn’t for me.
So we are immediately at a huge disadvantage if we just depend on our talent, at some point in our lives, springing out from us as a lovely surprise. One day we may wake up, our hands for the first time ever hitting a computer for something other than Facebook and email, and we find ourselves writing the modern equivalent to Moby Dick. I’m a child at heart even as I reach 40). I think not. Success for all is the result of trial, error, failure and frustration.
If we are not lucky enough to find our passions at a young age, usually through play and exploration, then by adulthood it is common for many to end up believing that they are incapable of achieving anything other than their day to day skills – like parenthood, driving, walking and working. All of which took a great deal of practice and dedication. Even more of a worry, for society as a whole, is that we can very easily pass this onto our children. If little Johnny is still struggling with something in the first few months, then maybe it’s not for him, even if he loves it.
If I’d had this belief there is no way on earth I would have ever succeeded as a street performer, magician or parent. All of these things I found a massive challenge on the outset and one of them I still do and believe I always will. But challenge is no negative thing – actually I believe that challenge is one of the ingredients of happiness and boredom avoidance, but that’s for a different time. Let’s just say that I, along with many others I know, are living proof that this talent stuff is nonsense. I have no talent whatsoever, in anything.
So what does all this have to do with performing under pressure?
It is these thoughts of insecurity and doubt in our ability that are the root of poor performance under pressure. If we don’t believe ourselves able to achieve the same as those who inspire us, we are going to find it difficult or impossible to excel in our field. Whatever your occupation or life situation, you will be called upon every now and then to do something that sits outside your comfort zone. Something that doesn’t come naturally. Again parenthood, an interview, driving, exams, exercise and a new job spring to mind. These instil fear in most of us when they are new, but we tend to accept them and get on with it because we are surrounded by other people doing these things. We are subconsciously and perpetually inspired. None of these things comes naturally to anyone but we see the struggle and the pay off all around us. We need to try to treat every skill in the same way. So if you want to, for example, learn the guitar, treat it in the same way. Don’t wait for talent, get to work and enjoy it.
The upshot of this thinking in my view (and I have seen/read much to support it), is that we can pretty much achieve anything, within our human and physical abilities, that we choose. The only thing that prevents us is mindset, lack of passion and fear of failure. All of which can be altered within us, again I am living proof of this. The closest thing I have witnessed resembling talent or innate ability is innate desire, resulting in the amounts of practice, time and effort required.
It’s just another skill
Let’s take the example of public speaking, but this applies to anything that puts you out of your comfort zone. If we are called upon to do this many of us will have feelings of fear, insecurity and vulnerability which in turn can leave us with the believe that we are not cut out for such things. We have no evidence to tell us otherwise if we have only done this a few times or if it’s the first time.
So the first thing we need to do is nip this in the bud and replace this with the belief that it’s just something we have to learn. Like driving a car or riding a bike. It’s something we can’t be good at yet because we haven’t practiced.
So the next step is to practice. But to practice with purpose and with no doubt in our ability to succeed. Also to practice effectively (more in another post).
Then we find inspiration. When I died on my arse in Covent Garden the first few hundred times, I watched those who were successful and I learned (and yes, sometimes copied). The same with magic, jugging and even renovating houses (shudder). I saw that normal people were achieving the thing that I wanted to achieve. Intimidation was replaced by inspiration.
Don’t look up
In our culture we do a lot of ‘looking up’ to people. The problem with this is that it immediately puts us at a lower level. I began thinking of it more as looking across at people as equals, even if they had achieved something seemingly super human. With this thinking we can begin to break down what it is we need to do to perform well and not just panic. In a nutshell we need to alter our beliefs, replace fear with possibility and the embrace excitement of a new challenge.
Pretty easy to write I know.
This is starting to sound dangerously like ‘think positive’ and of course this is the desired result. But to tell someone to think positively, apart from being like nails on a chalk board, is like telling a heroin addict to quit. There is a whole process here. As humans we are pre-programmed to take the path of least resistance and to take the easy route. To achieve a more positive outlook in the face of external pressure takes practice and hard work. But with repetition it’s very very possible. Like driving a car or riding a bike.
When we look up at experts, performing under pressure or not, we need to understand that their relaxed demeanour and seemingly incredible coping mechanisms are a result of learning, practise and mindset. Skills we all have the ability to develop. The first step is believing it. I hope this post has helped you to do that. Please let me know.
I hope you enjoyed this post. These things don’t come naturally to me so please share this with whoever you can.
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