“No pressure, no diamonds.” – Thomas Carlyle
Two performers were talking about a musical they were rehearsing for. The girl was anxious and seemed to be in need of support for her idea to put together extra rehearsals on their own. The guy was confident and didn’t think extra practice would benefit them much more so he said he was relaxed and that she should take it easy.
The girl asked him how he could be relaxed when they were premiering in a few days and neither one of them were hitting their marks in certain scenes. He was trying to be supportive by acknowledging her fears but kept trying to convince her that there was nothing they could do about it now.
This went on for some time until she said: “Do you know what the director told me? That i’m a natural. I’ve got to get it right!”.
I wanted to go over there and tell her that she wasn’t. What the director said was complete garbage and that’s the reason she’s so anxious. The director tried to give her a compliment but had inadvertently put her under pressure by putting a label on her that’s impossible to live up to.
The biggest problem however is that she agreed with the assessment. It’s kind of like being labelled a “genius”. That’s putting the bar really high. What happens if we fail to live up to it? Then we’re fakes.
I can remember something similar happening to me. I’ve always been interested in solving problems. At school we were assigned a problem. While it was being explained to us my mind just went to some weird place and I just came up with the answer on the spot: “Why don’t we..?” I asked and everybody looked at me. One guy said those little words that’d haunt me until I was finished with school: “Whoa, you’re like some savant!”.
This was way before I delved into the worlds of psychology, creativity and self improvement. The next time we got a similar task I noticed people expecting me to do it again. Like some circus freak. I felt awful. Like I was letting them down and that I was a disappointment.
The most likely reason for the quick success the first time was that i’d gravitated towards that type of thinking. I probably had some kind of associations to the problem and therefore the answer came easily. I’d done the work necessary to complete the task while other problems needed other types of thinking and frames of reference.
That’s a big problem. Especially for those who put in a lot of effort and practice that isn’t seen by the general public. They might know or intuit but since they haven’t witnessed the entire journey they’re prone to use words like “talent”, “genius” or synonyms to rationalize what they can’t explain in any other way.
In the 1950’s Solomon Asch performed an experiment on conformity. Watch it here.
The results showed that 37% of participants were willing to go along with what the group thinks in order to avoid the embarassment of sticking out.
That’s what happens to us when we’re singled out to be special. If enough people tell us that we have some magical ability we tend to believe them. Instead we should ask ourselves “is it really true or is there an explanation to why that is?”.
There’s another big issue besides putting the person on a pedestal. By saying things like that we reduce the importance of the hard work the people actually have put into honing their craft.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a certain amount of “natural” gifts we are granted. Genes, environment, nurture etc play a big role in our development. But they aren’t everything. We aren’t born with talents for dancing, singing, programming, farming or whatever. Those are skills. We develop them.
We might do well in looking at how the physics of pressure work. We can put on our rubber boots, step in soft ground and sink right in. Then we can watch as an M1 Abrams tank traverses the same terrain without sinking in. Why?
It’s because the pressure is distributed over a larger area. With us it’s focused on the soles of our boots while the tank which weighs 60 tonnes more than us puts less pressure on the ground.
That’s what the genius and talent labels do to us. It focuses pressure on one point rather than distributing it over the collected hours of effort we’ve put into our craft.
Now, some people are born with genes that make them grow taller. If the environment is conducive they’ll flourish but if there is little use for that particular trait they’ll have to adapt or find another environment where that trait is more needed.
Take a basketball player for example. We need to differentiate between compliments based on innate abilities like “You’re tall!” versus false ones like “You’re a natural!”. Nobody comes into this world dribbling a basketball. They’ve worked hard at becoming good at it.
We do however come in dribbling saliva.
The next time you feel like you have to live up to the hype, lean into it knowing that you’ve done the best you can with what you’ve got. If this one doesn’t go your way it doesn’t say anything about who you are as a human being.
Pressure can be good, it can help motivate us we just need to spread it out over a larger area rather than focusing on one aspect of our performance or ourselves.
Learn from the experience and keep growing!