By Jessica Stillman | May 10, 2011
Last weekend after giving the okay for special forces soldiers to raid a compound where the world’s most wanted man was believed to be hiding, President Obama straightened his bow tie and went off to roast Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Funny and unruffled, the President gave no indication he was feeling the strain of his momentous decision. He was, in short, a pretty cool customer.
It was an impressive display of calm under pressure and inspires the question — how does he do it? Is the ability to handle stress an innate characteristic like height or eye color, or is it something us mere mortals can learn to do too? According to Justin Menkes, the author of new book Better Under Pressure, the answer is very much the latter. “Attributes have a range of genetic influence and the ability to deal with pressure is on the far side of the continuum in terms of preparation versus genetics. Your ability to deal with stress is overwhelmingly about preparation,” he told Entry-Level Rebel in an interview.
Obama-level coolness is within all of our reach, says Menkes, who reminds young people not to be overawed by cool performances from those in senior positions: “It is indisputable that they can do those highly pressured, extraordinary things that they see the masters do. The masters have been preparing for 40-45 years. Excellent, expert preparation got them there. They weren’t born a star.”
So how do you go about building up nerves of steel? Very much like you would go about building up abs of steel, says Menkes, who recommends a progressive increase in strain for those who want to toughen up. But be warned, like with physical exercise, strengthening your nerve isn’t necessarily comfortable:
There’s no simple A, B, C. You can’t just read books — it’s not like that. It’s not ‘OK, I put a little post-it on my desk for a daily mantra “Remember you’re terrific!”‘ That’s useless. You have to build inside your brain, your consciousness and your stomach a knowing that you can handle it.
You have to put yourself in situations that elevate your sense of stretch, whether it’s a presentation, public speaking or a task that causes you fear like taking lead in a Monday morning meeting. Take initiative on something, but not something that is over your head because what is essential is that your experiences along the way are positive.
If you put yourself in situations that are just so extreme, then the probabilities are you aren’t ready and it can go badly. Then your memory attaches negative experiences to pressure and that doesn’t help. We want you to associate elevated pressure with a confidence that you can handle it, and you do that by elevating the situations of stress where there’s a risk of failure but you’re well enough prepared for it that odds are it’s going to go well. You put yourself in several of those and then you have that internal memory of ‘I can handle pressure.’ And then you keep elevating it.
It may sound like a less than pleasant process, but Menkes insists that becoming a cool customer is key for business leaders of the future. “The biggest distinction in the 21st century is an ongoing elevation of pressure and complexity,” he warns. “That’s not going to go away, so you have to find a way to find it invigorating. The people that will thrive it are those who understand it, accept it and take advantage of it.” Better get practicing then.