Sometimes at workshops, people tell me how stress is helpful, how it helps them perform better. Someone even once said “If I wasn’t stressed I might just walk out in front of a car!” Ummmm really? Have you ever made a stupid decision because you just weren’t stressed enough? And I’m not talking about being stoned, just calm. Have you ever messed up because you were too calm and focussed? Me neither.
But I have done many stupid, odd and bizarre (sometimes all three at once) things because I was stressed, caught up in a thought, or trying to get to a better future quickly. These include, (but are not limited to) putting clothes on inside out (or sometimes upside down, backwards or all three at once), stubbing toes, running into doorframes and donating money to a pyramid scheme. I did all these because I wanted to get somewhere fast, and was stressed about taking the shortest route (even if it was through the wall). I have never done anything like this because I was concentrating, focussed and relaxed. Never.
Stress does one thing for me: it lets me know I am daydreaming about some other time. That’s all. If you’re reading this, we’re probably the same species, so your experience might be similar. It’s a good wake up, but otherwise, stress isn’t useful. Ever.
Challenge, on the other hand, can be fun, and you will see people who have mastered their craft (music, sport, bejewelled, whatever) enjoying high levels of challenge as they perform. These people may experience stress before and after a peak performance, but in the middle of it, they can’t be anything but totally present or they’re not quite at their peak. Stressed people perform less well, which you can see in every professional footballer who makes an elementary mistake doing something they have done perfectly a million times before because the pressure arising from focus on an outcome leads them away from paying attention to the process. It’s that attention to detail, to the process that leads to peak performance. Here’s why:
Watch Federer in the US Open this week, and tell me if I’m wrong.