How can you stop overthinking under pressure?

A few months ago, I had an unusual opportunity to introduce myself and my business to a room full of people, of whom some 95% were total strangers. I was one of several speakers invited to share quite literally “a few words” (and not more) about my work.

Since I’m never one to “wing it” when performing, I had prepared a few well-chosen words to share. But at the event, we received even less time than I’d expected, so that I was forced to mentally abbreviate my comments.

While I didn’t “choke” or embarrass myself or others by long-windedness, the result was nonetheless less than stellar—especially for someone who has done a significant amount of public speaking, networking and even teaching, in the past.

I gave an “elevator speech” that felt too sheepish to be convincing (or to convince myself) and was uncommonly relieved when my sound bite of time had passed. Simply put, as I was “too in my head.” But what, asks cognitive scientist Sian Beilock (president of Barnard College), in this week’s issue of the Harvard Business Review, does that really mean?

Beilock explains that when we overthink what we are saying, the “prefrontal cortex, found in the part of your brain situated right above your eyes,” the “epicenter of our cognitive functioning and horsepower,” can undermine “our ability to focus on the task at hand.”

When we are performing repetitive and unpressured tasks everyday, our prefrontal cortex runs “on auto-pilot.” But when we are under pressure, such as when called to speak publicly or play in a playoff game, this part of our brain “can go into overdrive. When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try to ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural.”

Simply put, we overthink what we already know how to do.

This dilemma besets most achieving people at one point or other in life. But what can we do to reign in that part of our brain, in such moments? Beilock recommends several tips:

(1) When you’re about to go into a stressful situation where you have practiced your task to perfection, “don’t overthink what’s next.” In other words, don’t take the time to review what you are about to do, in your head. Instead, give your mind a break to work on a crossword puzzle or to imagine how your next vacation will be or to read from a popular magazine. Distract yourself from dwelling too much on the details of what you are about to do. Let your brain sit still, as it were, trusting that you are already prepared.

(2) If you notice yourself starting to overthink, Beilock recommends repeating a one-word mantra, singing a song or focusing on only three key points that you want your audience to learn. In these ways, you’ll “use up that cognitive horsepower that could otherwise be used against you.” She uses the example of sitting down in a chair at a job interview. If you freeze up when you sit down, by not occupying your pre-frontal cortex with unrelated tasks, you’ll overthink and struggle to communicate a coherent message effectively.

(3) Don’t assume that physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate or sweaty palms are negative. They mean that your mind is preparing for what is ahead. Psychologists have found that acknowledging one’s own physical preparedness for a challenge can help you to “put [your] best foot forward when it matters most.”

(4) Don’t allow yourself to monitor every word that comes out of your mouth: distract yourself from overthinking about the minute steps of your work.

(5) Although it may seem obvious, these strategies will only work if you take the time and effort to prepare yourself, beforehand. Beilock says that it’s “crucial to replicate and practice under similar conditions.” So take a simulated test or practice speaking before a group of coworkers or colleagues. If you are a solo professional, like me, without many people handy, record yourself practicing your remarks. Some people rehearse their words in front of a mirror. These strategies will reduce the stress you feel when your “big moment” comes.

Beilock concludes that even if you “wipe out” or “choke,” remind yourself that this too will be a learning experience. She concludes: “Take the opportunity to learn how to better handle the stress next time.”

And now it’s your turn. Have you suffered from “overthinking” under stress? Please share your thoughts with me on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.

This graduation season: Why bother to learn or practice writing? Seth Godin weighs in

Writing is a symptom of thinking
–Seth Godin

Across many parts of the Western world and beyond, graduation season has just passed. Social media was filled with photographs of mortarboard wearing twenty-somethings, smiling under the approving (relieved?) gaze of their parents.

Last week, many years after studying in Southern Ontario, I celebrated completing the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship’s flagship “startSMART” program. The program is designed to help most students launch their businesses. But some, like me, enter with previous experience—in my case, with writing—but who still want to develop proper business plans or to be coached on entrepreneurial strategy.

So Praxis’ graduation ceremony last week provided colleagues and me with some time to savour these kinds of accomplishments–and especially to thank the Praxis team who created and run the program. (You know who you are, Monica and Brent Kreuger; Deanna Litz; Elaine Mantyka; Marie Weinkauf; Silvana Cracogna; regular facilitators Sara Wheelwright; Tanya Wagner; Jolene Watson; and single-day facilitators, too, whose expertise is great.)

How timely, then, that marketing guru Seth Godin (on June 14th) drew a line between this season and the significance of learning what I do and teach—that is, to write.   

As he says: “Consider writing. . . . Not Wall Street. Simply writing. As we race toward a post-literate world, the surprising shortcut is compelling indeed: Learn to write.”

Godin dismisses the realities that “audiobooks outsell print,” that “AI can turn text into speech,” and that people seem only to skim-read, these days. Learning how to write should still be part of every student’s education.

Aren’t there more tech-savvy pursuits, the nay-sayers have asked.

Godin doesn’t deny the usefulness of computer programming or civil engineering or mathematics for our time. But he says that “most people were persuaded from an early age that [these are not] the work for them.” By contrast, virtually everyone needs to know how to write.

Writing traverses disciplinary boundaries and prepares us to work within many subject areas. Here I paraphrase him: Actors who can write can cast themselves; marketers who can write can tell their stories; job seekers of all kinds can secure better employment if they can pen a compelling resume . . . .

Writing, Godin reminds us, “is organized thinking on behalf of persuasion.” Who doesn’t need to organize their thoughts or to persuade the folk who will read their writing?

“Writing may be the skill with the highest return on investment of all. Because writing is a symptom of thinking.”

“I think, therefore I write” (again a paraphrase of Godin) may extend Montaigne’s assertion that “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). Writing of many forms (from direct mail to academic Sanskrit dissertations) comprises the very identity of any thinking person—which is, of course, any person, at all. (Try for a moment not to think about anything and you’ll see Godin’s point.)

No one should graduate (this year or in the 16th century) without knowing how to do it.

And now it’s your turn: Did you learn how to write before you graduated from your studies? How has writing expressed your thinking and identity?

Please write in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to extend this conversation.

Can success in business be achieved _through_ disability? Canadian Rich Donovan is showing us how

Since I was raised in a family with a parent who had a lifelong (mental health) disability that was transmitted through several generations, including mine, I have volunteered as a speaker and advocate in the past for people with disabilities (PWD).

In my two previously published ebooks (“Getting Past It” and “Keep Going”), I lauded the efforts of clients and contacts to find space in our workplaces and communities and to demonstrate their resilience. PWD of all kinds no longer exist in the corporate or business world solely as “token hires”: we are holding our own.

Enter former successful NYSE trader (recruited by Merrill Lynch well before the stockmarket crash in 2008) and an Ivy League MBA graduate, Canadian Rich Donovan. Donovan has focused his career on the disability market. He is a financial risk analyst with difference: He has a vision of converting the “cause” of today’s world of disability into a corporate and financial market.

And another factor of his difference? He happens to have Cerebral Palsy.

He hasn’t let it slow him down.

In his 2018 book, Unleash Different: Achieving  Business Success Through Disability (Toronto: ECW Press), Donovan contends that the charitable sector of fundraising for people with many kinds of disabilities (and usually adopting a particular hero as spokesperson or leader) is an age-old model that provides no economic identity and future for PWD.

He says that this sector has sold governments and corporations a “community mentality that damages the disability market, people with disabilities and shareholder value.” Although this has “not” been “intentional,” it certainly is “limited and problematic.”

Charitable organizations for PWD remain based in a regulatory mindset around disability, of compliance that is rooted in affirmative action and hiring quotas, and that brackets off the economic/investment market. Valuing the truths and justice that have begun to arise from the “Me Too” movement for women’s rights and how they intersect and dovetail with the rights of PWD, Donovan never disputes the important gains in the past of affirmative action (e.g. hiring quotas).

But he does dispute that the model has an identifiable future, alone, for PWD. While acknowledging the truths of the charitable sector, he insists we must move beyond that model. Hiring practices, while important, don’t drive shareholder value. Shareholders will invest in disability-based or friendly companies, when they see them as competitive and profitable.

As Donovan writes in his book, the social goals of investing in disability are clear, but the investment goals have not been. A few short years ago, he performed months of independent, risk-based, mathematical analysis and found a 2.82% steady increase in ROI over the first five years for the disability market. Donovan made the iconic step of taking his company, “Return on Disability” (RODI) to trade on the floor the NYSE on September 11, 2014. (See https://www.rod-group.com/ ).

In everyday terms, Donovan argues that many companies think they’re doing well by investing $3M+ on developing a disability policy that collects dust on a shelf, while it does nothing to increase the company’s profit or revenue. This he terms the “charity fallacy.”

As he writes on his website, through a “proprietary and proven process” of translating “disability success factors into specific actions that create sustainable value,” Donovan gives “corporate and government clients insights and tools to frame disability as a global emerging market.”

Investors increasingly recognize that 1.3 Billion people in the world identify with disability— the largest emerging market in the world, and one larger than either China or India.

He notes that when you “include friends and family, the disability market touches 53% of all consumers.”

Simply said, “Unless the consumer and investor believe something and act on it, the conversation will never lead to action” and action is the vehicle of change: The RODI works to “leverage” company practices “from the investors down, while at the same time getting companies to listen to and meet consumer demand by improving the ways they address disability.”

From there, consumers can be engaged to pressure companies toward greater inclusivity, whereby sales increase on soda pop cans that are easier-to-open and when grocery store signs use icons that are easier to comprehend.

While Canada lags behind the US in taking this market-driven approach to disability, companies here are realizing that a traditional, compliance focus on the disability market has cost the major five Canadian banks more than $250M, since 1989. Put simply, by 2017, three out of five of Canadian banks have achieved no appreciable financial gain for PWD. But, as online data shows, TD, RBC and Scotiabank have begun to make strides (see https://senseability.ca/).

America’s greatest successes in this arena have been Pepsi and Disney, who focus to great extents on serving PWD by making their products or services disability friendly and simultaneously raising the value of their stocks.

Donovan is not a lone wolf. He is quick to say that he cannot alone do the work of making disability a profitable sector, even with his wife,  marketer Jenn Donovan, and other specialists on board: The sector is “too big,” he says.

One of Donovan’s colleagues, former Ontario franchise owner of Tim Horton’s, Mark Wafer, who was featured alongside Donovan in the CBC’s Ioanna Roumeliotis’ stories on disability inclusion (2014, 2016), has founded Canada’s “only national, bilingual business network dedicated to helping private and public sector organizations become more accessible to and inclusive of PWD.” You can view the site and companies engaging in those efforts at https://senseability.ca/

Donovan is sought after by businesses and governments for advice when acting on the disability market. What he is doing for PWD, he stresses, may seem mercenary and earn the ire of the charitable sector. But RODI’s principles can be applied to any segment of difference (gender, race, class, age, regionalism, differing abilities, etc.). And while Donovan’s focus started primarily on the US and Canada, his insights and acumen apply across the globe.

In October 2016, he was named one of the “Top 50 Most Influential People with Disabilities in the world” by UK-based Powerful Media and Shaw Trust.

He continues to assert that we need “less emotional assertion” around PWD and “more evidence-based discussion.”

While Donovan’s influence is appreciable over large corporations, entrepreneurs with disabilities and local Canadian markets—including small business—can join in the work of making PWD an economically viable market with broad capacity for social growth and change.

And now it’s your turn. Do you see the value and progress in making businesses both inclusive to PWD and fiscally profitable? Please weigh in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to extend this discussion.

“As far as you can possibly go, +1”: On reading and imagination with Terry O’Reilly

During the past busy year, filled with training, teaching and writing, I haven’t often managed to tune in to hear Canadian ad-man, Terry O’Reilly, on his great show, “Under the Influence.” Thankfully, through the great podcasts that he produces for the award-winning (CBC) radio show, one can always catch up later. 

It’s been my intention to do so for some weeks. And then last Sunday, my friend Martha Fergusson observed that Terry’s “Bookmarks 2019” episode was especially “wonderful.” It is his annual show that collects the “outtakes” and extras that didn’t fit into earlier episodes of the season—not because they were weak or had errors, but because they came from books and sources that simply didn’t fit the topics of earlier shows.

And was Martha right!

When I listened to the episode today, I realized why O’Reilly is my kind of marketer. He celebrates reading by saying that “books are barbells for the mind. The best kind of books on marketing are the ones that aren’t books about marketing. Marketing is the study of what makes us tick.” . . . . Such books are about “authors sharing insights about the human condition.”

Marketing, entrepreneurship, writing and the Arts can’t get any better than that.

“Bookmarks 2019” spans a gamut of O’Reilly (and his team’s) reading, all of which vivifies the human condition.  He lists a catalog on unconventional book clubs from around the world that get people reading and meeting; he describes the surprisingly tense core casting of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird that made its success; we hear from a biography of Beatles’ producer George Martin that only a chance moment of conversation caused him to produce “The Fab Four,” against the odds; and we watch a clip of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” directed by the gutsy Joan Darling on the taboo topic of morbidity (“Chuckles [the Clown] Bites the Dust”)—now immortalized as a classic of television.

Citing Dave Trott’s book, Predatory Thinking, O’Reilly observes that in marketing and other creative activity, we tend to make decisions based on our limited experience and knowledge which shut down imagination. He notes that “in business it’s often seen as a sign of strength to have an immediate opinion on everything. But the problem with that is that it shuts down exploration. We all have blindspots” that limit our capacity to see creatively. “Quick opinions too easily slam the door on potential.”

He says: “It can be much more powerful sometimes to say ‘I don’t know.’ ” As the old adage has it, “We don’t know what we don’t know” (an expression recapitulated in the theme song of the community, “Happy Place,” of another classic sit-com,“Corner Gas,” as “I don’t know the same things you don’t know”).

O’Reilly insists that “ ‘I don’t know’ opens a door.” That door can trigger imagination.

“Imagination is always as far as you can possibly go, +1.” And “that +1 can change the world.”

He concludes that “when judging creativity, you have to keep your antennae fully tuned for the smallest indication of massive potential.”

There is risk involved in engaging imagination, but “risks become calculated risks when experienced hands are on the steering wheel.” And by reading and reading even more, the application of what we read spawns precisely that experience.

So whether you read on the beach or in your office this summer, consider that in the crucibles of our creative work, we need to imagine options “as far as we can possibly go, +1.”

 

Check out Terry’s “Bookmarks 2019” episode, for yourself:

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/undertheinfluence/this-tv-episode-is-considered-the-greatest-of-all-time-1.5155531

 

And now it’s your turn: What does it mean for you to do work that goes “as far as you can possibly go, + 1?”   Please write in below, or on my “contact” page.  I’d be delighted to hear from you.