Do You Have Tiger Blood?
What it takes to keep cool under pressure.
At this point, the evidence appears to be stacking up against cool-headedness as something we can learn. Our anxiety is one-third predetermined? Less than one-fifth of us naturally react well to crisis? But not so fast! Before you start fretting about the size of your NPY endowment, consider this: While we may have a few coolness-thwarting tendencies encoded in our genes, these predispositions still don't even tell half of the story of how we become poised under pressure. Recent research overwhelmingly shows that with effort and smarts, we can more than counteract our natural inclinations and cultivate enduring cool.
Our first route to heightened poise is through training. Although the studies on WWII soldiers and disaster victims might seem grim, a vital caveat is in order: Virtually none of those people had been well-trained for the situations in which they found themselves. (These days, even recreational paintball players receive better live-fire preparation than WWII troops ever got.) Most of them reacted like dazed sheep not because they couldn't show composure, but because they simply didn't know what to do. Training changes this. Psychologist Anders Ericsson has shown that whether we want to keep cool amid machine gun fire or just stay poised in a presentation at work, the most effective single thing we can do is to practice the task under realistic conditions until it becomes second nature. As Ericsson's colleague David Eccles told me, even simple chores like fire drills can radically help to produce a better response when crisis strikes. Solid preparation "washes out" our natural dispositions, planting the seed for adaptive behavior in our brains well ahead of time.
Another, newer method for building coolness hinges on a different kind of training: teaching ourselves resilience-enhancing beliefs about stressors. If that idea sounds like Grade A psychobabble to you, then you obviously haven't been reading Consulting Psychology Journal. (What, you don't subscribe?) Study after study has shown that people who function well under stress share several core beliefs: They tend to see times of change and uncertainty not as dangerous but as exciting opportunities; they focus on what they can do to improve a stressful situation, rather than growing helpless; and they maintain a sense of commitment to the world around them, instead of withdrawing. Some people are simply born with these attitudes, but psychologists have demonstrated that they can be learned as well. One of them, University of California-Irvine's Salvatore Maddi, says kids who complete his "hardiness" course—in which students learn new coping behaviors and beliefs about stress—earn higher GPAs than those who don't. The U.S. Army is such a believer in these classes that it now puts all of its 1.1 million soldiers through its own stress resilience course.
And finally, we arrive at what may be the most crucial ingredient in composure, an idea that is simple to understand but tricky to master. In all of the hours I spent researching Nerve, I almost never came across a case in which a cool-headed hero didn't feel afraid; the vast majority dealt with plenty of fear, just like Russell and Olivier. What truly separated them from the pack was this: While many who fizzle under fire battle against anxiety and vilify their nerves, these poised people understand that fear doesn't have to hold them back—it can even help them. This switch to a friendlier view of fear is more than mere sleight of hand. Studies of everyone from classical musicians to competitive swimmers have found no difference at all between elites and novices in the intensity of their pre-performance anxiety; the poised, top-flight performers, however, were far more likely to describe their fear as an aid to success than the nonelites. No matter what skill we're trying to improve under pressure—working on deadline, public speaking, staying cool on a first date—learning to work with fear instead of against it is a transformative shift.
Of course, following these tips won't make you into a paragon of poise overnight. (As Charlie Sheen has taught us, only people with tiger blood and Adonis DNA are capable of instantly achieving feats like that through the power of their minds.) Make no mistake, though: Regardless of what our genes have to say about it, smart training, building resilient attitudes, and developing a better working relationship with fear can help us achieve true grace under pressure. It takes effort to get there, but hey—after you become the next cool-headed hero in the news, it'll make a great story for your bestselling inspirational memoir.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.