The Big Test: How to Handle Performance Pressure

“Ugh!” I put my hands on my head and looked away from my computer at the ceiling. “I can’t do this! It’s just not coming out right!”

My wife, Eleanor, looked over sympathetically from the desk next to mine; she knew how hard I had been working. I was preparing for a TEDx talk I was scheduled to give in Flint, Michigan and although I was somewhere around version 25 of my speech, I was still dissatisfied.

I love the idea behind TED: you have 18 minutes to talk about an idea worth sharing. Lots of well-known people have given fascinating talks and I felt honored to be invited to offer mine. I also felt tremendous pressure to make it a great speech.

I had been asked to focus on “learning:” a good thing because I have lots to say, but a bad thing because I have lots to say. If I had eight hours to speak I could have done it off the cuff. But 18 minutes? Which one of my ideas is important enough, interesting enough, and matters to me enough to choose? And once I chose one, how should I present it so it’s engaging, funny, clever, clear and creative? All in 18 minutes?

On top of that, every TED speaker is video taped, with three cameras, and the talks are posted on the web. Which is wonderful if my talk goes well. But if it doesn’t? If it’s a disaster? There will be no escape.

I wanted it to be perfect. So I had cordoned off a significant amount of time over several weeks to write and practice my talk.

I should know better.

When I try to make something perfect, it’s almost a guarantee that I’ll over-think it. Which means I’ll spend too much time spinning with too little progress. Hence version 25.

On some level, over-thinking is part of the process of taking on bigger challenges. I remember my first paper as an undergraduate at Princeton. It was a small, ungraded, one-page reaction paper to a reading assignment in a religion class. I pulled an all-nighter.

But over-thinking is rarely helpful, increases stress, takes a tremendous amount of time, and never produces a better product.

I cleared my schedule for two weeks — not even writing my usual blog posts — so I could focus completely on the speech. A big mistake.

While it takes a lot of time to work on something creative, it can’t be accomplished all at once. Creativity needs to percolate over time. After a few focused hours in a day, my productivity declined rapidly.

So what happened to all those hours I had cordoned off to focus on the speech? I couldn’t possibly spend them all working on the speech. But, it turns out, I could spend a surprising amount of them stressing about the speech.

Why didn’t I spend my time on other important tasks? This doesn’t make rational sense, but I think, somehow, that would have been an acknowledgment that I wasn’t spending my time where I thought I should have been: working on the speech. So, instead of doing valuable work, I took long breaks, distracting myself with the internet and food. Crazy, but there you have it.

Others tried to support me by telling me not to worry. I’m a natural at it and I’ll be great. I give speeches all the time and I should just do what I always do: be myself.

But those thoughts just increased the pressure because they reminded me of the expectation that the speech be really, really great.

So what should we do when we’re under pressure to deliver on a big challenge?

For me, two things were most helpful.

  1. I ran out of time. I had two weeks. Then one week. Then three days. That’s when my productivity kicked up. There’s a saying: if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. Another way to think about it: If you want to get something done, become a busy person. Don’t empty your schedule, fill it. The busier you are, the less time you have to get in your own way. I should have cordoned off a few hours each day and filled everything else with work I considered important.
  2. I changed my expectations. One morning, a few days before the speech, I found a note on my computer, left by Eleanor. She told me the speech might not end up being that great. But in the big picture, it wouldn’t make a huge difference. Surely it would be good. And if not that, then at least OK. Which, ultimately, would be just fine. Once I read that, something shifted in me. I stopped trying so hard. I stopped trying to be funny, smart, clever, or creative. I stopped trying to talk about the three most important things. I stopped trying to make this my best talk ever. Instead, I set a goal I knew I could achieve: talk about one thing — not necessarily the thing, just something that was meaningful to me — and talk about it simply and passionately.

Life is a process and while one stellar moment — be it a success or a failure — can make a difference, it’s far more likely that the steady production of many adequate moments over a significant period of time will make a much bigger difference.

In my next blog post, I’m going to discuss my process for getting to the final version of my speech. The video is not posted on the web yet, but once it is, I’ll include a link so you can decide for yourself what you think.

It may not be great. But, hopefully, you’ll find it good enough.