Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D., world-renown Psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller: Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most, has taught at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and conducted corporate lectures and workshops for well over twenty years. He has appeared on The Oprah Show and The Today Show, among others.
Dr. Hendrie Weisinger drove down from his home in Connecticut to meet at the Upper Westside local favorite Cafe Arte at 106 West 73rd Street. (You may remember my mentioning Cafe Arte as our daughter’s favorite restaurant in “So, You Don’t Like Your Kid’s Friend?”) The always hospitable staff was very accommodating and seated us for lunch in a private area out back, in the shade of pink and white blossoms.
We quickly found common ground; Hendrie (Hank) and I are American Football and lifetime New York Yankees fans who grew up within a few miles of each other. The laughter came easily and often. This first interview for Circle and Spear was all any interviewer could hope for and the start of more to come.
Hank immediately jumped into relaying his colorful life story; journeying from an underachieving high school student who later found his passions in psychology, creativity, and writing – eventually becoming an in-demand lecturer and teacher.
It’s easy to like Hank. He’s charismatic, intelligent, humorous, and down-to-earth; the best qualities of a real New Yorker. He brings these same pragmatic sensibilities to his clinical work, his books, and his soon to be available eCourses. (Look out for them at www.drhendrieweisinger.com)
Here’s a story from the end of our two-hour lunch that captures in his words the joviality, wit, and savvy of his personality.
“I had one couple come to me that was having a problem. They were not having sex. The first thing I said was; “Listen, because of your issues with this relationship, I don’t want you to have sex until I say so.” This was to take the pressure off. Now, they could go to bed at the same time and not wait until the other one fell asleep. In about the third session, they tell me that they’re going to Tahoe. I said, “You know what, I’m very concerned about this. I’ll tell you why: it’s that Tahoe is a very romantic place. My concern is that you are going to want to have sex. And I cannot be serious enough when I tell you that this will be a disaster. You must promise me that there is no sex on this Tahoe trip. Otherwise, I cannot sanction this.” So, they promised that they won’t have sex.
They come back a week later, and they’re sitting on my couch – sitting a little sheepishly. I said to them, “You know what, I’m getting a very bad vibe here. When you went to Tahoe, did you have sex?” They said, “Yeah.” I asked,”So, how was it?” They said, “Great!” /How is everything? /”Good”/ Is there anything else?/ “No.” / Great! You are cured. If you have any other friends, feel free to recommend me.”
Question: First of all, congratulations on your accomplishments and for having your latest book make the New York Times Bestseller list. What would you like my readers know about your new book?
Reply: Thank you. I think that it’s going to correct many distortions that people have about pressure. People often feel that when they do something they think that they have to do better than their best; which is impossible, which causes you to choke because you try too hard. If you had a music student and he’s playing his violin, even at his best, he’s good, not great. He’s not going to go out on stage and be Itzhak Perlman, If he tries to be, that’s when he’s going to do worse.
I think what the book does is that it helps people understand their true nature; that maybe they’re not alone. Everybody has trouble in a pressure situation and that the edge is not rising to the occasion, but it’s not to do worse than you are capable of. That’s when you blow an opportunity. If you just do what you are capable of, which might not be good enough, but often it is.
Everybody usually ends up getting a job. I told my son,: just have good interviews and eventually you will get a job.
And I think the second thing is that the book gives them concrete suggestions and activities of how they can handle the pressure in a particular moment.
And, three, it offers people ways of instilling attributes of themselves that they have the potential for; such as confidence. When people say they admire someone who is resilient; that’s the norm. There’s nothing special about being resilient. Life is resilient.
That’s why depression is an illness. It’s like the football field-goal kicker kicks a field goal. That’s not a story. The story is if he misses. He’s not doing what he was trained to.”
The book is not just about performing under pressure but reducing other feelings of pressure. Young people are what I call “Pressure Performers.” They want to do well in every situation because it advances them. There are other people, like my friends who are lawyers. They have no pressure going into a courtroom. The pressure feeling they have is; how much longer do I have to pay for my daughter’s apartment. Everyone is walking around with these pressures. Everybody is feeling burdened. As a psychologist, those feelings are really more important than performing in the moment.
Question: Many Circle and Spear readers are parents. Can you talk about the pressure that many put on their children?
Reply: I found a study that was done by authors from Michigan and McGill that was on academic pressure in China. It is so brutal. 4% of the kids get to go to key point schools; the other schools are sub-standard. Imagine if you don’t make the cut-off score? All the good teachers are in the key point schools. What kind of culture are they creating if the teachers and students in the inferior schools are lumped in together? One kid wrote in his journal that if he gets a 95% his parents berate him. In China, if a kid doesn’t do well, he has to take care of his parents – they’re on their own. It was so hard reading about how worthless some of these kids feel.
Parents often inadvertently put pressure on their kids. I’ll give you a few examples. It’s the night before SAT’s. What do the parents say? They are really important. That puts too much pressure on them.
Another is incentives. “I’ll give you an iPod if you do well.” As soon as the parent leaves the room the kid gets a crib-sheet going. That’s how it works on Wall Street – people will lie and cheat to get their bonuses.
My son once asked me, “If I do well I school, do I get something?” I said, “No. You get something because I love you. Your grades are your business. I already have my degree.”
Another, example. The parents are sitting in the fourth row, and they say;” Make us proud.” That would be analogous to the kid coming home and the kid saying, “Dad, I got to talk to you. I can’t stand being dropped off in school in the Prius anymore. I want you to work harder so you can get an AMG Mercedes like the other dad’s have. Now do it! Make me proud!” Or, “Mom, you have to go to the gym and knock off 20 pounds. This is madness! Make me proud of you!”
Parents should encourage their children to be the best they can. There’s always going to be someone better, but there’s no shame in doing your best.
Question: Here’s a situation: You are coaching your son’s little league baseball team. Your son had struck out with the bases loaded in his previous at-bat, and now he’s getting ready to go to bat again with the bases loaded. He doesn’t want to get up there and be humiliated again. He doesn’t want to bat. What does his coach/father do in this situation?
Reply: It’s funny you said that because I’m writing an article right now for the Little League; a magazine with a lot of distribution channels. I’m calling it, “Stike Three, You’re Not Out.”
Go back to 1958. I was ten years old and in the Kings Point Little League. I am up, and the bases are loaded. I hear a voice in the back of me say;” Come on, Hank. Hit a Grand Slam.” It was my father. He usually was writing on a Saturday. My mom would be the one attending my games. My dad and I played ball all the time, but he didn’t really come to the little league games. So, immediately I start to get nervous.
And then, the umpire, thinking that he was going to help me would say when the pitch was coming in, “Hit it!” Sometimes, it would turn out to be a bad pitch. I’m swinging after the ball is in the guys mitt! So, I struck out. My father immediately says to me, go ask if you can pitch. So then I proceed to start walking guys around the bases. I learned an important thing. There’s always another at-bat.
There’s nothing better for a kid than building his self-esteem with a little league hit. So my son, who is on a little league team comes up. He’s about to get up at a key point in the game, and the coach calls him over.
He puts his arm around him and says something to him. My son goes to bat and gets a hit. When he hit the ball, everyone had to tell him to run. I think he was so surprised he hit the ball. Afterward, I asked my son Danny what the coach said to him. He said, “It’s all up to you!”
I think it’s the worse thing a coach could say. The way to position it is to say; all you can do is your best and to have fun. And, always call it in terms of opportunities. That changes a lot of things. I might say something like; “You’re up now. This is good practice for next week’s game.” I think it’s important for people to know that there’s always another opportunity; there’s always another train coming. So what if you miss it?!
Question: One interesting aspect of your book was the use of counterintuition. Here’s a question from one New Yorker to another. On fostering optimism for COTE (Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity, and Enthusiasm) of Armour, you mention that “it’s important to convince ourselves that the world is fair.” How do we do this? Is this not being a little naive? Except for you, just about every other New Yorker would tell you that the world in NOT fair.
Reply: If you make an effort, then more often than not, things will balance out. So, some people will say that it’s not fair that they got a parking ticket for being ten minutes over. But, they forget all the times that they parked in an illegal place for over a half-hour and got away with it. So, things tend to balance out. Our biases are very selective.
It’s like in football where Brady throws a touchdown pass at the end, and he’s clutch. But, what about the three interceptions he threw before half-time which is WHY he had to come back to win in the last minute?
If you think that the world isn’t fair, then think of what it does for your effort – then why try? You know you are going to die, but you may as well be optimistic and have something to look forward to. My mother’s way of coping, when she was living her last few years in bed in an assisted living home was going on vacations. I said to my sister that even if it is unrealistic, in her mind she has something to look forward to.
Dr. Hendrie Weisinger leaves us looking forward to future articles in various magazines, a new website, and his eCourses. If you wish to understand performance pressure and find new ways to deal with it in your life, then you would do well to pick up his book at your local bookstore.