DUCKWORTH: You don’t want to be asleep, but you also don’t want to be, like, having a heart attack.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
KONNIKOVA: I’m Maria Konnikova.
DUCKWORTH + KONNIKOVA: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Can you learn to perform under pressure?
KONNIKOVA: If I’m just imagining myself standing with a trophy in my hand, that might not be nearly as effective as imagining myself choking.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: Maria, I am so excited to be in conversation with you today about a question that has honestly been haunting me for many years. Are you ready for it?
KONNIKOVA: I am ready. Let’s have it.
DUCKWORTH: We have a listener named Srishti who writes, “I have a question about performing under pressure. One of my kids is a high-level basketball player and the other is a pianist. I notice that they can often nail challenging pieces or shots in the practice setting, but the high-pressure, real-life situations affect them negatively. Is this something they can work on? Can people adapt to pressure? What are some tactics? Warmly, Srishti.” I think you’re the perfect person to talk about this, Maria, because you have experience as a psychologist, also as a person who on occasion subjects themselves to high-pressure situations. So I have some thoughts on this, but I wonder what you think of this question.
KONNIKOVA: Yeah, when you were reading this question, all I can think of was, yes, me too. I have also been wondering what do I do to perform under high pressure situations. And I love by the way that the kids, one is a basketball player and one’s a pianist, right? So these are two very different areas of performance, athletics and this musical kind of artistic type of performance. And yet, they’re both subjected to stressors, to audience pressures, to expectations. And as a psychologist, I’ve definitely approached this from a theoretical point of view, but it never really hit home until I started playing poker professionally.
DUCKWORTH: That’s what I was thinking, you know, just to show my cards. I was like, oh my gosh, what did Maria say about this from her poker play — well, I was going to say from your poker playing days, but you’re still playing poker.
KONNIKOVA: I am still playing poker, so the days are not yet behind me, but it is one of these things where you see that some of the best players, what sets them apart isn’t necessarily their level of technical expertise, proficiency, how much they study, you know, how great they may sound. But the fact that they have strong mental game, that when it comes down to it, you know when the cameras are on you, when everyone can see your cards, when the pressure is on and there are millions of dollars on the line, they can execute. They don’t freeze up, they don’t care what other people are thinking. They just play their game and they play it well. And it seems so easy when you’re watching from the outside, but when you are sitting under those lights, let me tell you, it is anything but easy. And it is actually one of those things that I had originally thought I wouldn’t need to work on because ha ha, you know, I’m a psychologist. I have a Ph.D. in this —.
DUCKWORTH: From Columbia, no less.
KONNIKOVA: Exactly. I studied self-control. But talk about hubris, right? I thought that I’d be actually amazing at mental game because of my background and I wasn’t. And it’s one of the things that I had to work on the hardest because it was just so difficult.
DUCKWORTH: Okay wait, I need to step back and ask you — So you do go to Columbia, you do get your Ph.D. under the master of self-control and delay of gratification and emotion regulation, Walter Mischel, and then fill in the blanks between that and having this like, firsthand experience as a professional poker player.
KONNIKOVA: So I wrote my first book when I was still a grad student. A wonderful thing about Walter Mischel is that he supported the fact that I didn’t want to go into academia, but I wanted to be a writer, not a poker player.
DUCKWORTH: And he knew that, I think, right? Even from go.
KONNIKOVA: He did. Yes. Yes, he knew that from the very, very beginning. I wrote my first book when I was in grad school and started writing full-time after I finished my Ph.D. and ended up at The New Yorker and I had zero interest in anything to do with games, poker, anything like that. The poker was a just total out of left field about face, and that came from a very personal place. And it’s actually very relevant to this question about performing under pressure and performing under less-than-optimal circumstances. Because I experienced a period in my life where just everything went wrong and I got incredibly sick. So I’d experienced this complete lack of control and this feeling of helplessness. I was now the primary breadwinner, so I had to perform and I couldn’t. You know, I didn’t know what I could write. I didn’t know how to be creative when all of this pressure was on my shoulders. And it was a very, very scary feeling. And I turned to poker as a way of dealing with that, as a way of helping me wrap my mind around uncertainty and around how you deal with bad beats of life, with the things that life throws at you when you can’t perform and when you don’t know the way out.
DUCKWORTH: So you were fearful and then you just like ran headlong into — I mean, it just seems like a, a funny or an unusual way to deal with what sounds to me like a stressful, possibly anxiety-riddled, possibly confidence-undermining time. You’re like, and then I turn to poker.
KONNIKOVA: I think that’s exactly right. And I was scared, because I had no idea what I was getting into. But the reason I turned to it was as kind of a metaphor. As a way of figuring out, okay, well how do I determine the difference between skill and chance and maximize skill? And learn to deal with chance and it wasn’t my idea. So I was actually reading the Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. And I learned that von Neuman was a poker player and that game theory came out of —.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, Von Neumann was a game theorist? No?
KONNIKOVA: He was the father of game theory. Yes. Mathematician, polymath, Princeton, father of game theory, father of the computer, father of the hydrogen bomb. So dude created a lot of stuff.
DUCKWORTH: Ringing bells now. Yes —.
KONNIKOVA: A genius of the 20th century. But yeah, he was a huge poker player and he thought that poker was the perfect way of looking at decision making in life as something that was inherently much more like a game of poker than say, a game of chess. Because poker is a game of imperfect, incomplete information. It’s a game of uncertainty. And that’s what life is. So that’s actually how I got into poker because as a psychologist, as someone who’s learned to study things through kind of a very specific lens, it made sense to me to use something very specific like poker to address these huge existential questions. And so to me, poker kind of became a laboratory of the mind and a way of working through these things in real time. And you know, by the way, just on a practical level, that was my next book. But I had no idea whether I’d be able to pull the book off or whether I’d be able to — to go back to our question — perform under pressure. Because it’s very, very different to know things theoretically and then to be able to implement them practically in the moment when it actually counts. And that to me is what’s fascinating about not just professional poker, but about all of these things about sports, piano, everything where you actually have to perform. Because in academia, other than my dissertation defense, I didn’t really need to perform under pressure.
DUCKWORTH: You don’t really need to perform much as an academic. Occasionally, they let you out of your cave or whatever, and then you have to like, say things, but then you just go right back in and you’re at your laptop and there’s not a lot of performing under pressure, I think for most academics.
KONNIKOVA: One of the things that strikes me when you start looking into this performance under pressure and what it means and whether you can do it, is that most of the metaphors, most of the vocabulary that we have around it, it’s around athletics and sports. Because if you think about the careers where performing under pressure is just absolutely a huge part of the career, it’s intrinsic. It’s just absolutely essential. Athletics really does come into it right away. So we have words like the yips that come from golf actually.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, from golf.
KONNIKOVA: Yeah, so the yips originally are from golf, but they also call it the staggers, the waggles and whiskey fingers. By the way, my vocabulary has just expanded so much, so I’m going to just share this with you because it’s awesome. In the game called snooker — by the way, I didn’t know what snooker was, but it’s basically like billiards.
DUCKWORTH: Pool? I was going to say — yeah.
KONNIKOVA: Yep, exactly.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t even know if — is billiards the same as pool?
KONNIKOVA: Yes. I just use the Englishism for it. Yes, pool. So they call it cue-itis, which I think is hilarious. In archery it’s target panic. In baseball they call it the Creature, the Monster, or Steve Blass Disease. Can you imagine being an athlete who his name is used as a disease?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I was going to say, is that a proper noun? Is there some person who choked all the time? That’s terrible.
KONNIKOVA: So Steve Blass was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And he couldn’t throw the ball into the strike zone. And after that happened, he just became unable to do it. And so it became known as Steve Blass Disease. So this is something that’s definitely very pronounced everywhere, the twisties in gymnastics. I think we all probably heard that.
DUCKWORTH: Let me ask you, Maria, if you were preparing yourself for something, again, where choking isn’t fatal, but it could be catastrophic financially and reputationally, like, did you do what I would do? Because I will tell you that my primary coping defense is Google Scholar. What did you do as a psychologist if anything, to prepare for this poker thing you were about to do?
KONNIKOVA: I love that you use Google Scholar. I love Google Scholar. But what I personally did then was actually start to try to implement some of the research that I had read about already. Like for instance, visualization and things like implementation intentions when you’re looking at goal setting. Those kinds of exercises were really helpful to me as I got going to try to say, “Okay, I’ve never done this before. If I start panicking, then I am going to close my eyes and take a deep breath and pretend that I’m not at the poker table and try to think what would my mentor do in this situation,” for example. So I would start doing things like that to try to get myself psyched and prepared. And by the way, it did not work right away. I definitely froze up and made many, many, many mistakes and still do.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so these implementation intentions, these if-then plans that are a gift to the world from the psychologists, Peter Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen at N.Y.U., these if-then plans, like if I’m starting to panic, then, fill in the blank and then you decide in advance what you want to do if you’re panicking or it can be actually if I’m at the start of a game, then I will take three deep breaths. I mean, it doesn’t always have to be a kind of like emergency plan that you activate once the catastrophe has already started. It can be any kind of plan. But the key is that the plan has to be made in advance. And the visualization piece, like playing a mental movie in your head over and over again to the point where it’s like automatic, that’s actually a really important part. And so do I have you right that like you basically sat around well before these, I don’t even what we call them, I guess you call them games.
KONNIKOVA: Yeah. Tournaments. So I play tournament poker, so yes.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Did you like write down on a piece of paper or did you visualize the if-then, and then like play the movie, etc.?
KONNIKOVA: So yes, I did write it all out. At first I didn’t because I thought, that’s stupid. I don’t actually need to do it and then I realized, no, actually it’s not stupid. And writing it out forces you to think it through in a way that you don’t, if you just kind of say it in your head because it forces you to actually think of the nitty gritty and think of how you really will be implementing something. So I had an Excel spreadsheet where I did different ifs. So the ifs to me were triggers, they were emotional triggers. They were things that I thought could go wrong because they’d gone wrong in the past or because I just while brainstorming thought, okay, this is something that could go wrong. And then I would have another kind of line in the Excel spreadsheet when I would say, okay, this is what I’m going to do should this actually happen, this is going to be my reaction. And yes, I absolutely played that movie in my head because there’s some fascinating research about different types of visualization and how not all visualizations are created equal, right? If I’m just imagining myself standing with a trophy in my hand, that might not be nearly as effective as imagining myself choking and figuring out, what am I going to do if that happens?
DUCKWORTH: I think what Gabriele and Peter would say from their research on goal setting and planning is that very often people like to visualize the positive outcome. But the visualization of that, when you just fantasize about the best possible outcome, the problem is that you don’t actually feel any sense of urgency to do anything because you’ve already indulged in this future that you in some ways experience, just because you’ve been able to imagine it. So I think what they would say is to go to the obstacles, right? So fine to visualize the positive future that you’re hoping for. But then you need to contrast that with the obstacles that stand in the way.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Angela recalls a time when she choked.
DUCKWORTH: I was like, Oh my God, I have to think about something other than choking. But now all I can think about is that I’m choking.
* * *
Now, back to Angela and Maria’s conversation about performing under pressure.
DUCKWORTH: I wonder, actually, because I don’t play poker, what would be some of the things that you were trying to anticipate and then visualize the way you would want to respond?
KONNIKOVA: A lot of them have to do with things that we’ve both studied extensively in lab settings, but affect you very differently in the moment. Like for instance, if all of a sudden you lose a lot of money, if you lose a lot of chips, because in tournament poker, those chips actually have no cash value. Exactly, exactly. But imagine you had a thousand of them and then half of that is gone. How do you react? How do you play? A lot of people are going to start not taking risks optimally after something like that happens. So they can choke in one of two ways. They can either start just being way too risk seeking like, let me just keep wagering everything because I want to make it back. And so that’s not optimal. And some people become way too risk averse. So they all of a sudden start guarding those 500 chips and saying, okay, I just don’t want to lose them. They don’t take the risks they should, and it’s this lens of risk evaluation that gets completely skewed because of this emotional, visceral reaction to losing. No matter how good of a player you are, you’re going to lose at some point and you’re going to have fewer chips than you had before. These types of situations are going to arise. So know yourself, first of all, how do you choke? Do you become too risk-seeking, too risk-averse? What’s your freeze up reaction? What suboptimal decisions do you make? And then knowing that, how are you going to avoid it? I actually do both. Sometimes I’d become risk averse, sometimes risk seeking. But I would say, I will pretend that I didn’t have the chips I had before. I’m just going to reset and pretend that I’m starting with 500. And so every decision becomes a fresh decision. I mean, that’s easier said than done, but that’s why it’s so important to practice it and to think it through in advance so that you don’t freeze up in the moment.
DUCKWORTH: Did you only say if I lose, then I’m going to think of the next hand as if it were the first hand and there was no history? Or do you just do that for every hand? Like is it the rational thing to just think, I was born in this moment, these are the cards that I have in my hand?
KONNIKOVA: Angela, judging by that question, you need to start playing poker because that is exactly right. You need to have that attitude for every single hand. You are born anew every single time when it comes to making decisions, but you get tired, and I think this is true with a lot of performance under pressure. The longer you’re forced to perform under pressure, the more depleted you are emotionally, physically, cognitively, you’re just drained. And so it becomes more and more difficult to consciously think through all of these things every single time.
DUCKWORTH: I am not an athlete. I am not a basketball player. I don’t even play chess. I don’t think I’ve even finished one chess game. So a little bit of humility here on my part in terms of what I do and don’t know. But I’ve been fascinated by the work of a psychologist who I don’t know, Gabriele Wulf, and she’s at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and she’s actually not in the psychology department. She’s a professor of kinesiology and nutrition sciences. But you likely have heard of this work, this idea that one of the things that may help when we are performing, certainly when you’re doing a physical task, is that you can either pay attention to say, for example, the basketball and the rim and the stuff that’s outside of you. Or you can try to get your foul shot in by paying attention to your elbow and your forearm and how much you’re really crouching. So in other words, there’s an external attentional focus or there’s an internal attentional focus. And if you take the example of basketball, or you could say golf, right? Are you paying attention to the ball and the green and the wind and the hole? Or are you paying attention to your arm and your back and your posture and the weight in your feet? And there was a meta-analysis a couple years ago in the journal that publishes all the good meta-analyses in psychology, Psychological Bulletin. And the meta-analysis really affirms that one of these intentional foci is just way better than the other. And I’m guessing you know which one it is because I’m guessing you know Gabriele’s work?
KONNIKOVA: I’m all ears. I actually did not know her name, I know the research.
DUCKWORTH: So in this case, attention wise, looking outside of the self is I don’t want to say it’s always better, but it’s reliably better. In other words, you can make a good bet on it, as it were. And the question I’ve always had is do we know why? Like what is the mechanism? What is the magic of external attentional focus? And I think here the research is not definitive but Gabriele’s own thinking about this is revealing. So she gave an interview for Golf Science Lab. And when she was asked this question about where should we pay attention and why, what Gabriele says is, and I quote her, “When you focus on body movements, you consciously try to control your movements. And the result is that you constrain your motor system, meaning there will be unnecessary co-contractions between agonists and antagonists.” These are opposing muscles, that’s my parenthetical agonist and antagonist, meaning opposing muscles. “And even superfluous contractions,” she goes on to say, “in other muscles as well. That disrupts the fluidity of the movement and people use more energy than necessary and accuracy of their movements is degraded and so forth. Now, when you use external focus, you use more automatic control processes, which are unconscious, much faster, and as a result, movements are more efficient, more fluid, smoother, and more accurate.” So this theory, I think, is that there’s something about the self-conscious or the self-directed attention, which then we’re like, oh, I guess my arm should go up. Okay, all right. Now maybe it’s too high. Where really, especially for these physical sports that she studies, like golf, what you want is for your muscles to do what they need to do, but is, I guess, a little bit like breathing? You know, like if you start paying attention to your breath, like all of a sudden it seems very, very difficult to breathe smoothly.
KONNIKOVA: That rings so true to me. I think that one of the gifts that focusing on external things can give you is to take you out of your own head. Because a lot of these times when you do freeze up, it’s because you start overanalyzing the things that should come naturally. I’ll give you an example from my non-poker days. So when I was little, I played the piano.
DUCKWORTH: Are you going to be one of those people who’s like, yeah, I played the piano and then you know, like you went to Julliard on Saturdays
KONNIKOVA: No, no, no, no. I’m not one of those people. No, no. I just played.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Because I’m not one of those people. I just wanted to know if you were one of those people.
KONNIKOVA: No, no, I just, I just played the piano. But I did have recitals and I did play in front of large audiences and you know, the older I got, the larger they were. And at the beginning I remember it was just always pretty fun, because my parents are there and my sister’s there. And no one expects anything of a 6-year-old sitting in front of a piano, who’s not at Julliard, who’s not supposed to be a piano prodigy. So, zero expectations. I mess up, it’s all good, I keep going. Then I started to get better and better and better and —.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, this is sounding like it’s going to end up at Julliard.
KONNIKOVA: No. No, no, no. We’re never, we’re never — no, no, no. We’re never ending up there. However, I did get to the point where I was playing pretty sophisticated pieces, and I was no longer 5-years-old. And so the expectations of the people around you and of your teachers and of yourself, the expectations get higher. I remember very well I was playing Chopin at this recital. And I’d practiced this piece I don’t know how many times, but hundreds of times. You prepare a lot for these moments to the point where it’s very automatic and you don’t have music with you.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, this is all like memorized.
KONNIKOVA: Yes. It’s all memorized.
KONNIKOVA: Exactly. So what happens when all of a sudden you start focusing on your fingers and there’s just kind of this break in your brain and you don’t actually know what comes next. So all of a sudden I looked down and I didn’t know what came next. It had always been automatic. I’d never had a problem at this part of the piece before. Because one of the things you actually do when you’re playing the piano is you learn to start the piece from different moments just in case something like this happens.
DUCKWORTH: Hm. Just in case you mess up.
DUCKWORTH: Hmm. Okay.
KONNIKOVA: So that’s part of your practice. And so what do I do when all of a sudden I don’t know what comes next? Well, I replayed the previous part and I get to the same part and I freeze again. And finally the breakthrough came when I realized that, you know what, no one in the audience except for a few people actually know what this piece is. And so I just went straight to the end because I remembered the end.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, this is during the actual competition?
KONNIKOVA: Yes, this was during the actual competition.
DUCKWORTH: Wow. Okay.
KONNIKOVA: So, I ended up just skipping the entire middle section of the piece because I had a brain freeze and I could not for the life of me remember, no matter what I did, what came next. After a few attempts, I just went straight to the end of the piece and obviously I did not do well. But the funny thing was my family had no idea I messed up. They just thought, you know, pretty music, you repeat a few sections a few times.
DUCKWORTH: Audience was thrilled.
KONNIKOVA: And you’re out of there. My teacher was horrified obviously, but it was this realization that wow, when something that was unconscious becomes conscious, when you start trying to pay attention to those things, that’s when you can lose it. And that was so fascinating to me, just experiencing that firsthand, that I’ve never forgotten it. I mean, this was decades ago and I stopped playing the piano shortly after.
DUCKWORTH: And do you think that that was a version of internal attention then getting you into trouble?
KONNIKOVA: I think it absolutely was. And oftentimes the stories we hear of people freezing up are the ones that happen to Olympic athletes, or major league baseball, or performances, which aren’t me, but at Julliard. Those types of situations where the expectations are just running so incredibly high. And I think that makes it more likely that you’re going to be inside your head as opposed to paying attention to things that are external that might actually help you keep going.
DUCKWORTH: So Maria, you know when I got this email from Srishti and I said to you like, oh my gosh, I’ve been haunted by this question of performing under pressure and how do you do it and can you learn? I’ve been haunted for years. I’m not exaggerating because for me, when I was in college and I was taking my Bio 25, meaning neurobiology, exam —.
KONNIKOVA: I love that you remember the number of the class.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. A course number that will live in infamy, like in my own head, because I choked. I choked for the first time that I can remember in my life on the hourly, which was the exam that you had first in the semester. Then there was a midterm, and I choked on that too. And then there was only one other exam, which was the final. And when I say that, I choked, I mean, when you’re talking about this, like you’re in your head and your attention is not going to where it should be, like I should have been solving these calcium potassium problems that were on the Bio 25 test. But really basically in my head I was like, oh my God, I’m choking. Which of course leads you to think, oh my God, I’m choking! Like, oh my God, I’m choking! So like, then I had the meta-meta-cognition. I was like, oh my God, if I keep thinking that I’m choking, I’m definitely going to fail this exam because I have to think about something other than choking. But now all I can think about is that I’m choking. And it had never happened to me before. It had never happened to me in any other class in college. I was a freshman, I was a first-year student, so I hadn’t had a lot of experience, but I had some. It had never happened to me in high school. It had never happened to me in any arena of life. And I was haunted. I honestly can’t fully account for how it didn’t happen on the final.
KONNIKOVA: For that final, did you do anything differently? Did you do anything to kind of put yourself in a different mind frame? Did you do any visualization? All of these different things that we’ve talked about, do you remember consciously doing any of that or was it just luck?
DUCKWORTH: You know, because it was such a painful part of my life and there was so much journal writing around that time, you know, me pouring my heart out into my diary at night, I can say with some confidence that I didn’t do a lot of this like sophisticated visualization. I probably should have. I think the one thing that I did that we talked about just very briefly, you said you wrote down things. I mean, there’s a research study that affirms that writing down exactly what you think is going on what you would like to do, it’s not quite the visualization of like, if I’m panicking, then I will dot, dot, dot. But there’s a research study by Sian Beilock who’s a scientist as well-known as any scientist who’s studied choking, and wrote a book called “Choke” on the science of high-pressure performance. In the intervention that she did with a group of colleagues, this was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago. It was called “Reducing Socioeconomic Disparities in the STEM Pipeline through Student Emotion Regulation.” So this was a random assignment study, and part of the intervention was expressive writing, kind of what I was doing, even though nobody told me to do it, like in my journal. Right? Like writing about what was going on with me in that class, in those test situations. And in the study, Sian is the senior author, but the first author is Christopher Rozek. The intervention has multiple components, but the expressive writing component, writing down like your thoughts and your concerns for several minutes, it’s been suggested by these authors that, quote, “expressive writing may help individuals develop insights that can aid emotion regulation and perceive control of stressful situations, thereby ‘offloading’ worries and freeing cognitive resources that can be used to optimize performance.” So, doing that in advance — I guess I did a little of that. I’m thinking about like the Yerkes Dodson curve, this curve that is like an inverse U where arousal is on the horizontal axis and performance is on the vertical axis and the Yerkes Dodson law, like, the optimal level of arousal, which has been around forever in psychology and I think has held up over the years, I think it was first posited at the turn of the 20th century —.
KONNIKOVA: I’d love to hear kind of a definition of what arousal actually means. What are we talking about?
DUCKWORTH: When we think of how arousal and performance are related, I think of it as kind of like, how keyed up you are, how energetic you are. So at one end that’s like zero arousal or close to zero arousal. And at the other end, you know, you’re just like having a panic attack, right? Like the adrenaline is coursing, the cortisol is coursing, your heart is racing, you’re breathing quickly. So I think that’s the kind of physiological continuum from very low energy to very high energy. You don’t want to be asleep, but you also want to be like having a heart attack. The reason why that research comes to mind now is that when you’re at extremely high levels of fluency, when you are extremely skilled, you can perform better at the higher levels of arousal. So, I was, you know, I was, I was awake when I went into that final exam. I was like, okay, this is it. This is game day. My heart was racing, the adrenaline was coursing through my veins, I’m sure, but because I was so much better prepared, I could handle it better. Right? And coming back to Srishti’s question, this question about her kids. One’s a basketball player, the other, a pianist, under the high pressure, real life situations that they’re confronting, what can they do? If I think back in my experience, I would say, when you prepare to the point where like, wow, I know this forwards, I know this backwards. Kind of like what you were saying, Maria. I can start this piece here. I can start it here. I can start it here. Like it’s in my head. I think that helps. It’s no guarantee that you’re not going to choke, but I think that helped me in my final exam. I, by the way, passed the class and I ended up majoring — in neurobiology. I do think that the kind of visualization that you did, it sounds like that would be helpful. I mean, let me turn it over to you because I think if I only had one piece of advice for Srishti and her kids, I would say, preparation is a terrific again, not antidote, but it’s a helpful aid against choking because you can handle much higher levels of arousal. So I guess practice, practice, practice would be one answer to like, what can you do to perform better under pressure.
KONNIKOVA: Yeah, I would say not just practice, but also trying to envision everything that can go wrong. You need to prepare yourself for non-optimal performance and be okay with that. You know, give yourself permission to make mistakes. That’s actually something that has helped me immensely at the poker tables. And probably would’ve helped my perfectionist kid self at piano, but it was just completely inconceivable to me that you could be okay after making a mistake. Just giving yourself permission to not be perfect and to say, okay, you know what? I might make a mistake. I might make the wrong decision. If I do that, then this is how I’m going to recover. I’m going to be resilient. I’m going to move on and I’m going to keep playing because that’s not the end of the game because I need to look at the long term.
DUCKWORTH: Maria, I wonder about other people’s stories, other people’s Bio 25 exams or, you know, poker tournament stories. I wonder if listeners might record, if you have such a story, a time that you struggled under pressure, maybe that you choked, maybe that you succeeded in not choking, especially I think stories where you were able to learn something and change what you did in the future. Tell us your name. Tell us where you’re from. Record in a quiet place. Put your mouth up to the phone and email us your voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com and maybe we will play your story on a future episode of the show. Maria, thank you for sharing the poker stories. I, for one, am glad that you did not become a boring professor and instead became the exciting writer-slash-psychologist that you are.
KONNIKOVA: Well, I appreciate that Angela. And I am so glad that you ended up passing your exam so that you could become a brilliant psychologist and not a boring academic, even though you are in academia, so that we could have these types of conversations. And I’m looking forward to our first poker matchup because I think you are going to be amazing.
DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. Okay. I look forward to that, but as long as there’s no stakes.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by Julie Kanfer and me, Katherine Moncure. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation. In the first half of the episode, Angela asks Maria if pool is the same as billiards, and Maria says yes. While billiards can be used as an umbrella term for cue sports, it can also refer to a specific game Snooker, billiards, and pool are all slightly different, with distinct numbers of balls, table lengths, and pockets. Some sources suggest the name for pool may have originated from the French word for hen and a game played in the Middle Ages. In this game, players would throw objects at a chicken, and whoever hit the chicken first would win. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on scarcity and abundance:
Isabel BAGUIO: This is Isabel and I’m from the Philippines. Your episode on scarcity reminded me of an essay written in the 1960s by one of our national artists for literature, Nick Joaquin. The title of the essay is “The Heritage of Smallness.” It discusses how our tingi culture, tingi meaning buying and trading in small amounts, limits the Filipinos from thinking and envisioning in a bigger scale. For example, in our local convenience store you can buy maybe one cigarette and then one egg instead of a dozen. We also have sachets of shampoo, like little travel sized pouches, but not meant for travel. Meant for, use just for today, and then you’ll buy another one for tomorrow maybe. You earn for today and you buy what you need for today. A scarcity mindset. A heritage of smallness.
Sean KERNICK: This is Sean Kernick. I’m a mural artist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. The scarcity of mindset in my world, I’ve labeled as “hungry money.” And what that means for me is that when I’m looking for work as a professional artist to survive, when my resources get so low that I’m operating in my hungry money zone, it means that I am going to be taking on work that’s going to not be great. The money’s not going to be great and the demand on my time is going to be more, and I’m willing to do it because the fear of completely depleting my resources so high. It’s always a compounding negative effect every time I do it. And so now I have like, little kind of warning bells that go off when I’m approaching hungry money that I know that, “Wait, wait, wait. Even though you want to, don’t take that job.” And so now, I anticipate scarcity mindset. Big fan of the show. Thank you guys so much.
That was, respectively, Isabel Baguio and Sean Kernick. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about a time when you struggled under pressure. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Maria and Angela discuss how to change other people’s behavior.
DUCKWORTH: “Hey, over here there are fish if you want. And I’m going to put them at eye level and I’m going to make it really easy for you to have the fish. And I’m going to tell you, fish is so great.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
* * *
No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research help from Joseph Fridman and Dan Moritz-Rabson. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our new theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
KONNIKOVA: No, no, no, no, no. I have a wall of rejections.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, that makes me feel better.
- Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and president-elect of Dartmouth College.
- Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at New York University.
- Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Columbia University.
- Oskar Morgenstern, 20th-century economist.
- John Von Neumann, 20th-century mathematician and founder of game theory.
- Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University.
- Christopher Rozek, professor of education at Washington University in St. Louis.
- Gabriele Wulf, professor of kinesiology and nutrition sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
- “Superiority of External Attentional Focus for Motor Performance and Learning: Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses,” by Lee-Kuen Chua, Judith Jimenez-Diaz, Rebecca Lewthwaite, Taewon Kim, and Gabriele Wulf (Psychological Bulletin, 2021).
- “Simone Biles Said She Got the ‘Twisties.’ Gymnasts Immediately Understood,” by Emily Giambalvo (The Washington Post, 2021).
- The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, by Maria Konnikova (2020).
- “Reducing Socioeconomic Disparities in the STEM Pipeline Through Student Emotion Regulation,” by Christopher Rozek, Gerardo Ramirez, Rachel D. Fine, and Sian Beilock (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019).
- “The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance,” by Kendra Cherry (Verywell Mind, 2019).
- “What Every Golfer Ought to Know About FOCUS with Dr. Gabriele Wulf,” by Golf Science Lab (2015).
- “The Yips,” by David Owen (The New Yorker, 2014).
- “The Limits of Self-Control: Self-Control, Illusory Control, and Risky Financial Decision Making,” by Maria Konnikova (Columbia University Doctoral Thesis in Psychology, 2013).
- “If-Then Plans Benefit Delay of Gratification Performance in Children With and Without ADHD,” by Caterina Gawrilow, Peter M. Gollwitzer, and Gabriele Oettingen (Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2011).
- Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, by Sian Beilock (2010).
- “Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans,” by Peter M. Gollwitzer (American Psychologist, 1999).
- Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944).