Seven weeks. That’s how long it’s been since New York Knicks Jeremy Lin burst onto the NBA scene — and already there’s speculation whether he can take his game to the next level as other teams gear up for him, or is he just a “one-year wonder?”
In a matter of weeks, Lin went from sleeping on his brother’s couch to being in the glare of the global spotlight. On top of it all, he’s carrying the hopes and dreams of fellow Asian-Americans who have been starving for someone like him to break the stereotypes of a race that has not been prominent in US team sports in general, much less basketball.
The Pressure Is On
This is a dramatic example, of course, but the pressure of expectations – whether it’s your boss counting on you to close the quota-making deal, investors expecting your start-up to be profitable by third quarter, or your after-work soccer team counting on you to come through in the clutch — affects us all.
And yet, the expectations of others, in and of themselves, are not what create a negative reaction to pressure. Only we can do that — through our own expectations and personal perception of the situation.
How We Create Pressure
Perfectionism is one culprit. In her interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002, Whitney Houston admitted the pressure from her fans to look perfect, be perfect and sound perfect was sometimes overwhelming. Her story might have had a happier ending if she hadn’t succumbed to the belief that she always had to live up to those expectations.
Another contender is achievement addiction, when we believe that our worth as a person depends on how successful we are. When your whole sense of self is on the line, it makes it difficult to perform your best.
Boy, do I have firsthand experience of that. Back in 2008, I entered a piano competition. Waiting backstage to play in the preliminary round, I heard the announcer reading my bio, which she apparently had taken verbatim from my website.
As I heard her saying “…and she won Second Prize in the International Amateur Piano Competition in New York and was voted the Audience Favorite…” I felt this gnawing pit of dread grow in my stomach.
Out on stage, after some nerve-wracking problems with raising the piano bench to the right height (always fun), I turned to the keyboard to play — and couldn’t remember how the short prelude began. So I started a few measures in, then I couldn’t remember the end. Don’t even ask about the fugue. D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.
Okay, enough tripping down memory lane. Let’s take a look at what you can do to be at your best when you’re faced with the pressure of expectations – both external and internal?
1. Acknowledge and accept.
If we’re not aware of the pressure we’re putting on ourselves, we’ll often default to an automatic, absentminded reaction. In my case, I didn’t consciously acknowledge that the pit in my stomach signaled “Oh no, they’re expecting the audience favorite!” and that I was afraid of disappointing them – so I was totally ambushed by my feelings.
Particularly when it’s a situation or event that we’re excited about, we may not be anticipating negative emotion. Counterintuitive as it may seem, acknowledge and embrace the feelings — pushing them away will only increase the intensity.
2. Pinpoint the source.
Here’s where you identify what beliefs, exactly, are creating the pressure: Are you afraid of letting someone down, that moment of seeing their disappointed expression? Making mistakes in front of someone you admire? Trying something new and not succeeding?
Once you’ve isolated where the pressure is bubbling from, then you’ll know if you can take action (to prepare more thoroughly, for example) or not (accept that you can’t control what someone else feels about an outcome).
3. Focus on the right things.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you.
“Jeremy Lin is able to pay attention to the right things at the right time,” says Christopher Janelle, director of the University of Florida’s performance psychology laboratory. “What he’s developed is a strong sense of being able to self-regulate, even though there are higher expectations.”
What that means is, rather than focus on scoring a record number of points, he focuses on what actions he needs to take to score points – driving to the basket and reading defensive coverage, for example. When your mind is so focused on the task at hand there’s no room for self-consciousness, no room left in the field of attention for self-criticism and judgment.
4. Zoom out for the big picture.
What’s your why?
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1993, Whitney Houston said: “When I first started, I was having a lot of fun. But it ain’t fun no more. I enjoy what I do, and it gives me great joy to know other people enjoy what I do. But it’s not fun.”
No wonder the pressure got to her.
Many commentators have noted that Lin is a devout Christian who credits God for his success – so winning is not about him. Same thing if you remember that your start-up creates a product that enhances people’s lives or you’re playing soccer for camaraderie and exercise.
Having a motivation outside your own ego-driven concerns acts as an instant pressure valve.