As kids, we do it all the time: we pretend we’re the quarterback with one second left in a tied Super Bowl, or we’re about to walk onstage with the Rolling Stones, or (if you grow up in Alaska like I did), we’re mushing our dogteam toward an Iditarod victory. We invent fabulously detailed, pressurized make-believe situations, then see if we can deliver.
I see a lot of top performers doing precisely the same thing. They create systems where they create a convincingly fake world where they can crank up the pressure over and over. A few examples:
- From comedy: Mel Brooks’s famous “2,000-Year-Old Man” routine (which became one of the greatest comedy albums of all time) began in the fifties as a dare. Brooks would go to dinner parties with his friend Carl Reiner, and Reiner would introduce Brooks (who nobody recognized at the time) as a world-famous alligator-wrestling champion, or a self-trained Swedish heart surgeon — and Brooks would be forced to play along, improvising a comic character out of thin air.
- From music: Skye Carman, who teaches at Meadowmount Music School, recommends that students prepare for performances by replicating every condition of the performance — the dress clothes, the chair, the introduction.
- From sports: The three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots practice game situations more than any other team in the league, adding the ticking clock, crowd noise and, if necessary, a watered-down field to replicate game conditions.
The usual explanation for the effectiveness of these strategies goes like this: fake pressure works because we get familiar with real pressure, and thus at some level inured to it.
This is basically true. But the deeper question to ask is this: what is this familiarity made of? Why does fakery — this transparent, imaginative baloney that we objectively know is utterly untrue — work so well?
And the answer, I think, has to do with two facts: 1) we’re suggestible beings; 2) emotion — like every other skill — is a neural circuit, a connection of wires that can be forged, honed, and deeply practiced.
We don’t instinctively think of emotions as practice-able skill, but there’s lots of interesting evidence that they are, most notably the work of Dr. Albert Ellis and cognitive-behavioral psychology, where emotions are treated as if they were muscles. The fakery works because it is the equivalent of a workout in which we can fire our emotional circuits over and over, and thus learn to control them better.
Thinking about this reminds me of the Shyness Clinic I visited for the book, a place where therapists were exceptionally imaginative about creating pressurized practice situations for their clients. One of their drills: to have the client walk into a grocery store alone, pick up a watermelon, and purposely drop it on the floor. It makes a big cracking, squishy noise, like a giant egg. People stare… clerks scurry… it’s completely mortifying.
It also works like a charm.