Westboro author explores rituals for success in book ‘Psyched Up’
By Ann Connery Frantz, Correspondent
Posted Jul 16, 2017
“Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed” by Daniel McGinn (Penguin Random House, $26)
Nothing succeeds like …
Chewing a Bic pen, if you’re talk-show host Stephen Colbert.
Giving your opponent your ugliest grimace, if you’re Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
Hitting an exact number of ground balls, starting practice at precise times and scratching the word chai (the Hebrew word for life) into the dirt approaching home plate, if you’re Wade Boggs, former Red Sox great.
Coupled with anxiety, the ritual may become ornate: Panic-prone singer Carly Simon eases it with an onstage couch, for lying down if it all gets to be too much, or being spanked by the band members as a painful distraction. Barbra Streisand skipped live performances for years.
There are many ways to overcome fear, set one’s mind in gear and psych oneself up before performing, whether as a lecturer, athlete, musician or singer. Pavarotti had stage fright. So did Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney. All kinds of wonderful performers fear they’ll mess up and freeze with fear. Consequently, they seek help from many sources —meditation, coaches, therapists. There are multiple ways to prepare oneself.
Stage fright is not the only issue. People who must motivate others need to be ready to do their best.
As a business reporter at Newsweek (after graduating from Boston College), Daniel McGinn, 46, of Westboro, encountered various business strategy books that cited pre-performance rituals. He noted more of that as senior editor at Harvard Business Review. That gave birth to the book. “I decided to deep-dive into what the research shows, go out and talk to high performers to learn their ‘best practices before a performance.’ ”McGinn looked into our common need for a ritual or motivator before attempting to do what’s difficult, even if we’re good at it. His book, “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed,” examines why people stumble and how they find a way out of it before they destroy the pleasure and satisfaction of performing.
He interviewed dozens of experts in the field, from surgeons and military leaders to actors and athletes. He researched studies by those who’ve explored what makes a person compete better, perform at peak, keep going under stress. It turns out that people have different motivators. Sometimes, the boss makes it all work, with a silly ritual to rev up competition or a proffered reward trip to exotic locales. Among athletes, pep talks rally the players but “trash talk” is an equally popular way to unsettle the opponent and bolster self-confidence, in business and in sports.
In short, there are plenty of ways to get over the hurdle and gain an edge, beyond time-honored practices like taking a pill or a drink.
“First, learn what works for you,” he says. “Backstage jitters are an unavoidable part of a musician’s life, (but) you can systematically develop skills to perform well despite them.” That doesn’t mean having everyone in the band spank you or listening to “Boogie Shoes” to perk you up before a job interview. Baseball players are notoriously superstitious and perform complex adjustments to their gear or stance when they play.
TJ Connelly, a DJ, plays exciting rock hits during Red Sox practice (leaving the competitors to organ music for their own practice time) or perks up the crowd with the Dropkick Murphys. McGinn writes about Costas Karageorghis, arguably the world’s leading expert on music and physical performance. He swears by rhythm and musicality as motivators, pointing for instance to the movie “Rocky,” in which the themes create mental images of physical exertion and winning.
Success comes as a result of learning to interpret pressure in the best way. It’s even possible to conquer the fight-or-flight instinct. “Psychology is the software, but biology is the hardware,” he says. “Adrenalin speeds up the system and creates jitters, but it can be directed in a positive manner. People perform best not when they’re totally calm, and not when they’re totally stressed, but somewhere in the middle.”
Some use centering, a technique for locating and strengthening one’s core before a performance, to focus their energy. For those who like methodology, he includes meditative “steps” from author Don Greene.
“I was not a very good athlete in performance, but I got all the things you typically associate with sports — friendships, discipline and so on,” McGinn said. “I became fascinated by the psychology the coaches would use: their focus on the type of music we listened to on the bus on the way to a game, their ritualistic schedules of what we were supposed to be doing before a game, a lot of pep talks. These were the sort of things people would do before a performance.”
In 2011 or 2012, he had written an article at HBR about how when a famous person touches an object, it becomes valuable as a motivator. “That, in turn, becomes a way to reduce anxiety,” he said. He believed in that one so much that he asked noted journalist Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink” and “Outliers,” to use his new laptop before he himself touched it, as a lucky charm. “He used it for three months. Does it make sense that I should write better on a Malcolm Gladwell-owned keyboard? Maybe not, but it works.” However it’s created, he says, confidence building is critical. “Learning new ways to increase confidence evolved as I did the reporting. Not surprisingly, it’s really important. If you talk to athletes and performers, they have ways to boost their confidence beforehand.”
There are many ways to reach the goal. “Especially, I think, most surprising in that regard is in the chapter that looks at rituals and superstitions; you can find things people do before a test or sporting event that make lots of sense, and things that don’t. For example, Jerry Seinfeld’s backstage routine is same every time – reviews joke cards, etc. – but he puts his jacket on five minutes before, and that cues his body up to perform. Colbert has a really elaborate set of rituals. He chews a certain kind of Bic pen, rings a hotel bell, high-fives the crew. These things distract them from anxiety, give them something to focus on during a time when they might be thinking negative thoughts. The mind is a really powerful thing, and for some of these techniques there’s not a rational reason they should work, but they do.”
Competition drives the world in many arenas, and winning is the goal.
“The world’s become a more competitive place over time,” McGinn said. “We have the ability to measure things a lot more than we used to. Social media allows for comparison of things. Companies are more interested in finding ways to analytically hire the best people and, once they’re in a job, evaluate their performance (in several ways). Even childhood is more competitive than it used to be – sports, academics, music. It’s become part of our culture.”
The book is premised on the world being competitive, he says. “We should position ourselves for that.” He points out Po Bronson’s book, “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” for a look at why people compete. “It probably comes down to different people have different appetites for risk, and how much one embraces competition is probably a function partly of how willing you are to risk failure, which is what you’re doing when you’re competing. Risk appetite is sort of inborn.”
While researching the book, he visited the Center for Enhanced Performance at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, witnessing sophisticated, engaged methods used to inspire athletes and cadets toward top performance.
He calls it “one of the best days of reporting I spent on the book. I didn’t know how a sophisticated arsenal of tools like that could come into play. It was interesting to see what kind of tools they can bring to the problem of making a player more psyched up before the game.” Renowned sports psychologist Dr. Nathan Zinsser leads the center.
“Being ‘Psyched Up’ is what the book is about, simply. Its main argument is that even if you’re not Michael Phelps and you’re not Tom Brady, if you’re just a person going in for an interview, you can do something similar to what Phelps or Brady do before a game. Even if you’re not an athlete, you can do the same things.”
McGinn’s first book, “House Lust,” addressed the housing boom in Boston. “Arguably, that was more topical, but this book – I hope and the publisher hopes – people will see a direct return on their investment.”
He’ll eventually settle into another book. “I like using different kinds of muscles and doing book-length things of my own,” he said. “When you find an idea, and a publisher who is interested in the same thing, it’s really a good match.”