The cause is hidden; the effect is visible to all. – Ovid
What is it that makes some people or teams deliver a result when it’s most needed while others falter and fail?
What is it about people that makes the difference between performing at your best and falling apart?
These are the questions Dr Alan Watkins talks about in a TEDx talk and it makes for an interesting listen.
He is a neuroscientist and argues that we now know a lot more about what is going on beneath the surface of our conscious minds.
Take sports, for example.
The Ashes are topical right now and the performance of the Australian batsman and former captain Steve Smith let to him being called the immovable Smith, with this write up by the BBC –
“From 17-2 in the first innings and 27-2 in the second, his fidgeting, flamboyant leaves and nudges off the pads for scores of 144 and 142 sucked the life from England – all this while dealing with constant taunting from the Edgbaston crowd in his first Test after being banned for the ball-tampering saga.”
The same game saw others collapse instead.
Watkins argues that what we see on the surface is performance – the results – and behaviour – what we see people do.
Many people think that by changing the way they act they will change their results.
The thing is that focusing on just what you can see is not a great plan.
Take sales, for example.
You could put in more effort, make more calls every day, keep driving yourself.
Sooner or later, however, the effort of putting in the effort will wear you out and almost every sales person starts to lose that drive they brought when they first started the job.
Watkins argues that you need to start with the lower levels of the human body and right at the bottom is physiology.
Physiology is simply the signals coming from sensors all over your body, from your heart rate to the electrical signals resulting from touching something.
Emotion, he says, is simply a collection of signals, a little like waves washing up against a beach.
The best example of this is your heart rate.
As you go through the day your heart rate changes, going up and down, responding to subtle stresses in your environment without you being aware of it.
It’s only when you become aware that you realise you have a feeling.
Feeling is all about awareness, while emotion is the swirling mess of electrical and chemical signals floating around inside you.
And then on top of all that you have your conscious mind – the space where you think and where you think everything happens.
The reality is that your thinking mind is a very small layer over everything else that’s there.
If you want to perform, Watkins says, the secret is understanding what’s going on below the surface – and then working out how to get some control over things.
What you’ve got to do is go from having lots of variance – lots of changes in your physiology – to coherence – keeping them within a manageable range.
The point really is that it’s not enough to want to do better, resolve to try harder or push yourself to work longer.
If you want to perform when it counts most you’ve got to get control over the most basic aspects of your physiology.
That means doing things like coming up with routines, forming habits, and practising self awareness – listening to what your body is trying to tell you about your state of stress or relaxation.
If you want your performance to be stable under pressure you’ve got to start by making sure the foundations are sound first.