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Feeling under pressure? Five strategies to succeed where others have failed

December 3, 2012
Author, Paul Sullivan

As Paul Sullivan, author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Other Don’t would teach, the ability to perform under pressure is a skill that anyone can develop. Clutch is not luck. There are five key traits that make you clutch:

  • Focus: In order to perform under pressure, people who are clutch demonstrate a single minded focus on what needs to be done. Focus allows you to block out everything extraneous, every distraction, and focus on what matters.
  • Discipline: Remaining strong in the face of extreme demands, discipline is the trait that helps you stand your ground and see yourself through a situation when the pressure is intense.
  • Adapting: Successful clutch performers are able to readjust under pressure by focusing on the goal that needs to be accomplished—not a specific way to accomplish that goal.
  • Being present: The only thing you can control is what you are doing. Outside pressure will always be there —but you can’t let thoughts of what is outside of your control take over your thinking. Stay in the moment, and don’t think about anything other than what needs to be done.
  • Fear and Desire: The combination of fear and desire can propel someone to be clutch. Fear is a great motivator when you are under pressure, but it can paralyze you. Fear alone will not allow you to perform under pressure. A healthy dose of desire will pull you along when the push of fear alone might weaken you.

Back in 2011, Linkage sat down to talk with Sullivan for our Thought Leader Series. Read on for his insights into how these five key traits can be applied to create real-life success.

Linkage: Most people can recall a moment in sports where a clutch performance made all the difference, yet trying to recall a clutch moment in the corporate world is a little more challenging. Can you share one of your most memorable stories of a clutch performance in business?”

Paul Sullivan: Sure.  That’s a great question.  One of the fellows I interviewed, Jamie Dimon, was the CEO of JP Morgan Chase.  When I interviewed him shortly after we had kind of gone through the worst of the financial crisis, but during this 12 month span he had acquired Bear Stearns, and Washington Mutual under tremendous duress.  I asked him about the Bear Stearns deal in particular because, remember, he essentially had a weekend to decide whether or not he was going to buy Bear Stearns.  And I said, “You know, what did you do?  What was it like?”  He said, “Well I got a call from Tim,” Tim Geithner then head of the New York Fed, “And he said, ‘We want you to buy this.  We want you to buy Bear Stearns.'”  And Jamie says, “Wait.  I need to look at it.”  And so what does Jamie do?  He goes immediately into the office, and he calls all of his lieutenants in, head of investment banking, the head of the treasury service, head of trading, all his lieutenants.  They come in and he says, “Look.  We’re going to spend the weekend going over all of the books.  We’re going to know everything here.  So call in your subordinates.”  Now suddenly it fans out.  You’ve got hundreds of people in there, and they’re going through everything, and there’s this tremendous pressure to do the deal, but he knows he has to. He’s responsible to his shareholders.  So under normal circumstances if they’re going to acquire a firm they would take months and months to do this, but under the pressure of the U.S  government, the treasury and the New York Fed saying, “Please do this deal” he had to get it done, and so that was his moment where he had to accelerate everything, do what he would normally do, but do it within the span of a weekend.  And even as he says, you know, he took a lot of flak because tax payers took about, you know, 30 billion of the worst assets, but he says, “You know, we took 300 billion.” And that, to me – Jamie was quite a character and it’s a great moment in which he showed how what he would do normally could be accelerated under pressure so he could make this clutch decision and get the deal done in a weekend.

Linkage: The next one comes from Irma from AT&T, and Irma says, “A certain degree of pressure is helpful to me.  Can you share a few thoughts or comments on how to center oneself when the pressure seems great, so much so that it seems to block calm, rational thought?”

Paul Sullivan: That’s great.  I mean I never think pressure’s great.  I like to have no pressure on me, but if we think about pressure, as I said at one point in the talk, as an external force, as something that doesn’t exist, I think it’ll help us a lot.  It’s the sort of counter weight to stress.  Stress is an internal force that we feel for no reason.  You feel stress because you’re agitated.  So in that moment where she says, you know, she wants to be centered, I say you’ve got to get back to focus.  Like, why are you feeling the pressure to begin with?  What is that thing that you need to do that you need to be centered before?  You know?  What is it?  There must be some sort of task you have to do.  And once you get to that point you have to just focus on that one task.  Forget everything else.  Say, “Okay.  I have to do whatever.  Whatever AT&T has asked me to do, I have to do it right now, in this moment, and there’ll be time to, you know, answer the call later.  There’ll be time to think about my dinner plans later.  I just have to –” And that period of focus, it may last 10 minutes.  It may last, you know, an hour.  In the Jamie Dimon example, it lasted an entire weekend.  And that’s so critical.  And people say, “Oh, well I’m always in this state.  I’m always ready.”  And I disagree.  I think to be clutch it has to be for a finite time because it takes so much out of a person just to focus that much, to be that discipline, to be prepared to adapt, to be present.  So I think once it happens, you know, what will help to center her is just to focus on that task to the exclusion of everything else.

Linkage: Great.  Our next question is from Twitter. “Could you say a bit more about how ego gets in the way of adapting?”

Paul Sullivan: There’s another example in that chapter about being up at West Point, and one of the things that the commanders do with the cadets, is they break them.  They have one team that puts everything together, comes up with the plan, tests it, and they have another team that comes in, called the Red Team, that breaks it down.  They show all the faults, and so it gets to the point where they’re not thinking about, “This is me.  This is my ego.  This is something I’m doing.”  It’s more, “This is the team.  This is the goal.”  And so when we become wedded to something and we think, “I came up with this plan.  You know?  I fought for that part of this plan.  We can’t concede on that part.  That part’s the good part of the plan” well it doesn’t matter because under pressure the only thing that matters is that goal, is that thing that you’re trying to do.  People sometimes win sloppy.  It’s not pretty, but they still win and under pressure you’ve got to win sloppy sometimes.  You’ve got to just focus on that goal.  And so the ego says, “But it should work this way.  Why isn’t it working this way?”  Well, it doesn’t matter at that point.  You can do a post mortem after the fact and figure out why your plan failed, but under pressure you just have to adapt and you have to accomplish that goal, and you can’t let your mind think, “Oh boy.  This should have been.”  Because it just isn’t, and so that’s when you just have to grind it out and do it.

Linkage: What did those who used to be chokers, put into their routine to make sure that any of these things that you identified lead to chocking didn’t creep back into their lives?

Paul Sullivan: That’s where it becomes a process.  It’s not something that ever stops.  I mean people would say, “Well, how come Tiger isn’t winning?  I mean he was so great before.  He was so clutch.  What’s happened?  Has he lost it?”  And I said, “Well, if you believe that clutch is purely a mental ability then he shouldn’t have lost it, then he should be just as mentally tough as ever.”  I don’t.  I don’t believe that’s the case.  I believe being clutch is a learned skill, and so at that point, I mean, we figure out, like, Tiger before all the troubles he went through, his divorce, you know, the PR fallout, losing – Him not seeing his two kids every day.  Before that, he was probably practicing 12 to 14 hours a day.  He’d be out there in the green just putting for hours and hours and hours.  He’d be hitting every shot imaginable.  Well, think about it.  I mean he is human.  You know?  You go through this horrible time in your life, you stop doing that.  You stop practicing as much, and all those other things creep in, and you don’t have the ability to do it anymore.  Even this great clutch athlete has to keep working at it.  So to keep those things at bay, to keep, you know, from sliding back into being a choker, it’s tough.  You’ve got to keep working.  You’ve got to keep going forward.  You’ve got to keep practicing.  And you got to keep, you know, focusing on whatever that goal may be.

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