The Myth of Producing Better Under Pressure

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They are the heroes, the icons, the legends. They are the leaders in sports, science, and business who “rise to the occasion.” The ones who “do their best work under pressure.” People write books and make movies about these singular luminaries.

The only problem is that it’s not true.

Despite what we’d like to believe (because it makes for a great story), people do not “rise to the occasion.” “Rising to the occasion” implies that some people do their best work under pressure, but empirical studies show that this simply isn’t true.

“But I saw that basketball player make that 3-pointer to win the game with just seconds to spare!” you argue. Don’t get upset—I believe you. That basketball player did make that 3-pointer. A 3-pointer that he’s made thousands of times in practice. He didn’t “rise to the occasion;” he just didn’t blow it.

And that’s the real story. The heroes, the legends, the icons? They don’t rise to the occasion. They just don’t sink.

Pressure players don’t rise to the occasion; they just don’t sink. #ProducingUnderPressure Share on X

Producing under pressure, contrary to the myth, isn’t about doing your best work when the pressure’s on. It’s about doing your normal work—the work you’re perfectly capable of doing when there’s no pressure—when it’s crunch time. The reason these people—the legends—stand out is not because they do any better under pressure, but because they don’t do any worse.

Most people fold under pressure. There are a lot of reasons for this—many having to do with brain science and cortisol and other cool stuff—but mostly it comes down to this:

We treat routine situations differently when we feel there’s more at stake.

We treat routine situations differently when we feel there’s more at stake. #ProducingUnderPressure Share on X

It could be the same situation we’ve faced—successfully—hundreds of times before. Maybe you’re great at parallel parking. You can practically do it in your sleep. But when you’re driving your new in-laws to that first fancy meal at that expensive restaurant, you end up hitting the car behind you and the one in front of you—and you’re still a foot and a half from the curb! Why was this time different? Because you perceived that there was more at stake—you desperately wanted to impress your in-laws. Maybe your partner had even told them what a whiz you are at parallel parking. And so now you screw it up, you blow it, you choke.

So how do you avoid this? There are many techniques, but here are two that can be helpful in the moment:

  1. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be superhuman. You don’t have to “rise to the occasion.” You just have to do as well as you normally do on a typical day.
  2. Just before—and during—the high-pressure moment, recall a time (or times) when you’ve successfully accomplished what’s required. Remind yourself, “I’ve been here before, this is not new. I’ve got this.”

Producing under pressure can be very complex. But it can also be very simple. You’re already good. You’ve already done what needs to be done—probably many times. Now, just do it again. You’ve got this.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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