Steve Faulkner - Distinctive Magic
17 Jul

How to perform under pressure. Part 2

 climber

 

 

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.

Don’t wait 

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.

 

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8 Jul

How to perform under pressure-Part 1.

Steve Faulkner Cheltenham Racecourse

 

People often ask me the question, how do I deal with pressure? I do magic for a living, so how do I deal with the fact that it may go wrong? That I may build up to the crescendo of a trick and end up looking like an idiot? These are valid questions – and annoying ones when asked seconds before trying out a new trick, or indeed even doing an old one.

 

It’s not all about the magic

 Of course I’m only using a magic trick to make this point but we all have to deal with pressure every day. We all undertake tasks which could have severe consequences if we get them wrong. We all have to perform to a certain standard or we may lose our jobs, not get paid, put the safety of our family or friends in jeopardy (especially if you drive or have kids) or, heaven forbid, look like a dick. If you think about it, we have to be pretty ‘on it’ to get through the day and most of us don’t really worry too much about it. But when given a new task that really matters, many of us choke or crumble. So back to the magic trick which, for a magician, has the ultimate in consequences if failure occurs, looking a bit silly.

 

I’ve had problems with fear of failure in the past and it has hindered my career and prevented my growth as a performer and human (yes the two are very slightly different). This irrational worry has caused me to ignore huge opportunities because ‘I wasn’t quite ready’ and, though it’s a lot better these days, it still rears its ugly head and messes with me every now and then.

 

My aim in these posts is to help others who may have had the same fears in work or life, these little nuggets have helped me massively and I hope you get something from them. Please let me know your thoughts.

 

Practice like it matters, perform like it doesn’t

 Recently I did an after dinner show at a lovely wedding for a small number of people. I was to do 20 minutes before speeches. It felt a little like I was part of the speeches, on one of the most important days of somebody’s life. To make it worse, lots worse, there were only about twenty people – one of which whom, the father of the groom, was an existing corporate client.

 

For the first time in a while I had a bit of fear. Not the butterflies that are needed and will never go away, but fear. A dirty little voice in my head said something like “If you f*&k this up, the whole day is ruined. They will remember you forever, ruining a perfect wedding, in a castle”. I then switched off the voice and all was good (sorry about that, it would have been a better story with a disastrous ending but I have plenty of them for another time). I knew that if I focused on the importance of the show, I could choke.

 

Doublethink

 It took a while to be able to do this and it’s easier said than done. It’s an aquired skill and can be learned by anyone with persistence. The main thing we have to do is perform like it doesn’t matter. And the more it actually does matter, the more we have to convince ourselves it doesn’t.

 

This seems to go against everything we know about what we do and it is indeed a paradox. Surely if we don’t care, we will perform badly? You would think, but after interviewing Olympic sports competitors, coaches and psychologists in his fantastic book, Bounce, Matthew Syed discovered this was a common thought process. Termed Doublethink, this quote from Sports Psychologist Mark Bawden sums it up

 

“In order to make the sacrifices necessary to reach world class levels of performance, an athlete has to believe that performing well means everything. They have to cleave to the belief that winning Olympic gold is of life changing significance. But it’s just that belief that is most likely to trigger a choking response. So the key psychological skill is to ditch that belief in the minutes before competition and to replace it with the belief that the race does not really matter. It is a form of psychological manipulation and it takes a lot of work”

 

Be in the moment

When I read this it was a real light bulb moment. I started thinking about many of my worst performances. They always occurred when my thoughts were focused on performing well and not screwing up. Right back to my Covent Garden days, I would sometimes be so worried about how the other performers would perceive me, that when I went out, nothing would flow and my audiences would dwindle. Even later when I was consistently pulling in large audiences, I would struggle greatly when people whom I knew, or even worse, a potential booker, came to watch the show. Conversely I would always do great shows when I was late and I just had to run on to the pitch or when I was hung-over and had no energy to worry.

 

A classic example are my two close-up magic competition performances. In 2009, in the magic circle close-up magician of the year competition, I did OK with second place. But in comparing that performance to others performances within my comfort zone, it is like watching two different people. My rhythm is completely out and I don’t look relaxed. My speech is even more rapid than usual and there is no sense of ‘flow’. In the middle of the performance I dropped the cups on the floor! (You’ll notice the edit). This had never happened in the 10 years I had been doing the routine. In every moment of that performance my mind is saying “don’t screw it up”. It is only the years of doing the same routine that got me though.

 

Similarly in 2012 I competed in Blackpool and this was even worse. I didn’t even feel like me up there. I was talking to the audience and my volunteer in a way that I would never usually do. And again I was thinking too much of the consequence of either success or failure. It was a passable performance but I was not for one minute in the state of flow that performers and presenters will recognise when they are having a good show. I was all over the place.

 

So we need to get into the habit of doublethink. Of knowing the importance of our performance in both work and life, and at the right time, just letting it go. Again from the same book Bounce we have a great quote from multiple World Snooker Champion Steve Davis-

 

“I’ve learned the art of playing as if it means nothing, when it means everything”

 

The key to this is to first make sure that we have the capabilities to perform well and that we have practised properly and effectively. This is what I will cover in the next post.

 

If you are not a performer, this may not seem relevant, but more and more often I have found myself going through this process outside of my performances. In business meetings, interviews, presentations and anything that requires preparation and a relaxed manner to communicate effectively. Performance isn’t just about being on stage entertaining people or competing in events, it’s about how well we perform outside of our comfort zone and if you don’t find yourself outside of your comfort zone very often, give it a try you may find yourself achieving something that you always wanted to do.

 

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Have a lovely day and thanks so much for reading.

Steve

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Steve

22 Apr

Inspiration and practice make perfect

Just about to jump

One of my favourite parts of the week is when I take my 8 year old daughter Gracie diving at Ponds Forge in Sheffield. She has a 40 minute lesson and for those who are not local, the diving facilities are amazing. Boards of various heights up to 10 meters and an amazing diving pool, complete with a large video screen with a 10 second delay so you can see your last dive from a side angle. Joyous.

 

Anyway there are two reasons I love to watch Gracie dive.

 

One reason is that I love to watch Gracie do anything. It seems like yesterday that she was a baby. So to watch her nervously step out on the three meter board and jump off it is a joy. Every week she improves and becomes a little more confident, and I love to see improvement in anybody. It fascinates me how our minds and bodies adapt to the challenges we throw at them. The process of practice and improvement is a pleasure to see. Everything that I see my kids get a buzz from gives me a lovely feeling of wellbeing.

Anyway, the second reason I love to watch is that at any one time, there will usually be three or four people diving off the various boards. It’s a hive of activity and the rhythm of the plunging bodies twisting and somersaulting through the air into the water is both meditative and satisfying. It’s also very important to my daughter’s progress and improvement.

 

I was watching this and thinking about my life (as you do when approaching 40), of the little things I have spent time trying to learn and improve.  Many of which have shaped my career and my happiness. Also, I was thinking about new challenges I have excitedly taken up, only to quit after a few weeks. My wife will attest to my weekly ideas and obsessions. Without her to steer me, I would be a jack of, literally, all trades.

 

If we think about the main ingredients for improvement in any skill, we think about the practice. Practice does indeed make perfect, or the closest we are able to get to it depending how much it means to us and how much time and work we are willing to put in. But there is an ingredient we often forget about which will mean the difference between success and failure. Without it there is no long-term success and only short-term improvement. Unfortunately, many of us don’t even think about the importance of it when we embark on a new learning experience and therefore burn out, get bored and move on, wasting all those hours we have previously spent practising.

 

The secret ingredient is Belief. We must have no doubt that we can achieve those things that seem so overwhelmingly difficult when we start. Playing bar chords on a guitar, juggling 5 balls, olleing on a skateboard (a very difficult jump using momentum, coordination, leg power and pure knack), fanning a deck of cards and of course diving off the 10 meter board. Oh, and driving a car.

 

When we look at driving it seems like an easy thing to do. Why? Because we are surrounded by people doing it. We are given evidence that it is possible and therefore we have Belief. We are programmed to believe that we can do it because we all know so many people who can drive. Regardless of talent, upbringing or culture. But it’s not easy. Remember your first few lessons? I have no doubt that if we were learning to drive a car and had never seen a car or seen anybody driving a car, it would take a lot longer to master and most of us would probably quit. But we don’t – this is the power of belief.

 

So back to the Diving. My Gracie is surrounded by people pulling the most amazing moves off of the 10 meter, the 7.5 meter and the springboards. It’s incredible to watch but now she takes it for granted. To her it is a given that she can achieve the same. These people are not super-human and have no amazing innate talent. They have just taken the same journey as her. It’s just a matter of time, practice, passion and of course belief.

 

I can honestly say that anything I have ever done, learned or achieved is a result of being inspired by others. In seeing that anything I want to achieve is possible, from learning to walk to performing a challenging magic trick, belief has helped me succeed and deal with reoccurring failure. If you are learning anything or embarking on a new chapter in your life, please find others who have succeeded in the same field. See the possibilities and I promise it will make a huge difference.

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Steve

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