Game (of life)

This piece tackles a lot of the anxiety that stems from high pressure scenarios that seem to dominate our lives. I can speak for at least my life.

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

I am consistently aware of my own disappointing streak of not dealing with these high pressure scenarios effectively and adequately.

…but yet, the vision and expectation I have for myself to perform remains.

This seems to plague my thoughts during those quiet night-time moments when you are truly alone with yourself. My failure to control a crossed ball out of the sky in a football match comes back to me now. My anxiety and awkward nature when speaking to girls, or awkward scenarios when I crack a joke nobody laughs at.

These failures weigh heavy, but curiously don’t discourage waking (and sleeping) dreams of myself performing optimally — dribbling through a defence and a sublime top corner, a smooth move on a cute girl, being the centre of a group. But there seems to be a vast disconnect, which I visually imagine as these three sets of blocks:

Black blocks: low pressure situation. Red blocks: missing connections. Blue blocks: high pressure situation.
  • Black blocks: you can do this activity or action in a low pressure situation
  • Red block: missing connections, such as a lack of knowledge or experience
  • Blue blocks: you can do activity or action in a high pressure situation

Slot them all together and you have your whole ‘stack’ as a person. The idea then, is to bring the percentage of black blocks in your stack down while raising the percentage of blue blocks — effectively meaning you can do more activities or take action in a high pressure situation.

Let’s examine what makes a situation “high pressure” for a moment. There is usually some sort of loss associated with poor performance, such as embarrassment of being rejected, high stakes for your future finances as in a salary negotiation, or time pressure in a match.

In these situations, you experience the fear of failure, the unease of uncertainty of how to act, and are just plain uncomfortable. Your body translates the feeling of fear into physically dilating your pupils, raising your heart rate, sending your entire nervous system into a frenzy — essentially activating the ancient fight or flight response which has been hardwired for human survival since the times of cavemen. However, in our society in this day and age, most situations do not revolve around ‘eat or be eaten’ anymore.

However, there is another element to this: the freeze response. This engages when we feel there is no hope of survival against whichever foe attacks us. This is also what happens when you get into those high pressure situations that you have no experience of.

This topic comes up in both Zen philosophy and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow — they both talk of 2 different types of mind.

  • Kahneman’s research describes the mind as a mixture of System A (fast, intuitive, emotional) and System B (slower, more deliberate and logical).
  • The Zen movement describes this similarly as a Thinking Mind and an Observing Mind.
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

During these tense events, System A thinking takes over and the known response patterns are activated. Crucially, these patterns may not be optimal or yield the result you desire if they have not been developed. This is why athletes train for repetition — muscle memory is relied upon over conscious thought during a game. The Observing Mind takes a backseat to observe the the Thinking Mind to handle business.

It could handle business pretty poorly, though.

Ultimately, they both mention the idea of the bystander effect. In a lot of the high pressure scenarios we encounter, we become vessels. In that moment, when the ball hangs in the air, when your boss asks you “how much do you think you’re worth?” in a salary negotiation, when the girl says “hey” back.

You momentarily detach from reality. You see yourself reacting to the scenario and aren’t fully in control of telling yourself what to do.

You when your boss says “Come into my office.” «Photo by Joey Pilgrim on Unsplash»

In stark contrast then, the low pressure situation will usually still involve some kind of stressor: perhaps a conversation with strangers, some of whom you are not entirely comfortable with. Or in a training session where there are defenders closing you down. But due to the lack of stakes and often great repetition of these events, we tend to handle them much better. This is where you score the fantasy goal, when you know if you mess up and trip over your feet, there is nobody waiting to watch and laugh.

The red blocks are a source of great leverage. These are gaps in your knowledge that are missing, or signal a lack of experience. If you find yourself not performing to expectation, likely there is a piece of the puzzle missing. Maybe you don’t have a good grasp on ball control (like I don’t). Or you don’t know how to negotiate strategically. Or you are clueless when it comes to what to say to a girl.

So you read books to gain knowledge and shore up the gaps. You put yourself in uncomfortable situations to address your lack of experience. By pushing yourself to address the red blocks, you are reducing the friction that comes with dealing with high pressure scenarios by slowly desensitising yourself to the perils of them.

The takeaway is, then: practise putting yourself in those high pressure situations again and again. The repetition will both train you past the freeze response by failure. Learn through failure, and mistakes of others.

The black blocks will slowly shrink and turn into blue blocks. And you will accomplish more during those high stakes, high pressure scenarios.

Have you ever achieved amazing results in high pressure situations? Leave a comment and share your thoughts in the section below.

Thanks for reading! This was my first Medium article.

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