Be so good that they cannot ignore you
Steve Martin, the famous hollywood comedian, said these words about ambition in performing arts. Performing arts is a heavily performance-driven occupation that thrives on reinvention, quick transitions, low recovery time and consistent development – much like sports. These occupations are often met with highs and lows, where stage fright, performance anxiety, fear of failure, etc, are all real issues impacting optimal performance. Psychology of performance addresses these mental barriers and detriments that come in the way of performance. Steve Martin’s ‘motivational’ quote has a dark side. It is the side that ignores the mental wellbeing while natives push themselves beyond their securities to become someone others cannot ignore. While sports and performing arts require physical and mental strength it thrives heavily on validation of public applause and attention.
Performance anxiety is the secular version of our old religious guilt
Performance anxiety has been severely normalised in today’s world. The general sentiment is that it happens and it has to be overcome. Anxiety is our brain’s natural response to a constant apprehension of a perceived threat to our well-being. To push beyond this anxiety, performers tempt themselves with the reward – validation of the crowd! The anxiety gradually loops in with the high of validation and, unbeknownst to the performer, there is no getting rid of the anxiety anymore because it gets associated with receiving (and enjoying) the validation – like cocaine addiction – often leading to depression if the loop is broken.
The recursive loop of action and reward is basis of most cognitive and behavioural development theories. This transactional form of performance management is so common that it is even applicable across species. The classic example is that of experiment of the ‘dog and the bell’. Through this experiment psychologist Pavlov established that learning is possible through association. The dog associates food with sound of the ringing bell and later that sound would make the dog salivate. Such association is called conditioning which is the basis of typical organisational psychology at our workplaces, aimed at improving productivity. The immediate reward may seem invisible but the conditioning is reinforced by commonly rewarded behaviour that function as the environmental stimuli. Such stimuli lead us to unconsciously behave in ways that is mimicry of the ‘widely rewarded’ work behaviours.
Today, when we are mostly home-bound, we are not just working from home, our offices along with our co-workers have entered our homes. Our minds have become an unsightly clutter of office tasks and home duties, in a time continuum. The earlier perception of ourself at work has had a major makeover. You are cooking dinner during a marathon teleconference, or you are feeding your kids while checking emails. If you were to pour out your head in your living room, it would be quite a circus! The crowd-pleasing and juggling has a negative effect on the way you perceive your performance. Imagine you are driving on a freeway during the peak traffic hours. You are well within the speed limit with a keen eye on the traffic ahead. Just then, a screeching car cuts in from your blind spot and grabs a space in the traffic ahead of you. Nobody gets hurt but for a moment there you had completely forgotten about the traffic ahead. That car (and probably your swearing) gabbed your attention 100%. This is called an ‘Attention Blink’. In these blinks, for that brief moment, you go blind to everything else except that one object that has caught your attention. Such sudden transitions are heavy on adrenaline and are charged with energy. These transitions are unavoidable when you are working from home and they lead to negative perception about your performance.
Attention is what steers your perception and alters your reality
Achievement-motivated individuals have a strong desire to accomplish something important, and gain gratification from difficult tasks. Consequently, they are willing to expend intense efforts over long time spans towards their goals. Today, when businesses are undergoing volatile times, it is upon the teams to stretch themselves to help bring stability, leveraging multiple internal and external intelligences to find optimal solutions – while working remotely, at homes. Perception of this high-pressure, high-reward situation, coupled with attention blinks due to juggling roles, and finally ending with no concrete validation is overall toxic for mental well-being. So, how can one avoid this stress?
The French mime artist Merceau famously said, “It is good to shutup sometimes”
Perceiving self as a constant performer coupled with fear of damaging the image that you have been managing can be detrimental to your mental well-being. It is like living your life surrounded with your own paparazzi – constantly managing a public image. In these unprecedented times of ambiguity, and extremely high environmental stimuli , sudden and frequent transitions between home and work should be observed as part of the process, not embarrassment. When you catch yourself pushing too hard to manage that image – turn off the camera!