I think we need to talk about nerves again.
I’ve been watching Masterchef: The Professionals, and whenever they get to the skills test, overseen by noted chef Monica Galetti, one competitive, hard-working, experienced chef after another turns to jelly. Before they go in front of Monica, they talk confidently about how they’ve been trained in the French classics, or teach the basics to newcomers. Then suddenly these chefs, all of whom know much better, burn the caramel, leave grit in the morels and split the beurre blanc sauce.
Something one of them said recently was very instructive: he wasn’t used to cooking without his team.
This explains a lot. Alone in the spotlight for the first time, very few of us feel better rather than worse.
I have a coaching client whose job is changing. When the firm was small, he and the founders would present to clients and at conferences as a team. The founders would present first, and he’d step up when he was asked to, to fill in the details. Now that the firm has expanded and continues to expand, he’s often required to go it alone. There are times when this makes him so anxious that he has to leave the room, or even the podium. He knows absolutely everything there is to know about the firm, and he can’t say one word.
When we have to perform without our team, we need a special strategy, and the strategy must be designed to keep our internal team together; that is, the necessary parts of our brain. Seasoned chefs burn caramel under pressure because their ability to recognize familiar patterns and analyze any new information is out of their reach. All they can do when they are that nervous is behave instinctively, shooting from the amygdala, in a situation where basic instincts are of no use whatsoever.
In my book, Present for Success, the entire first chapter is about nerves. But here, in a nutshell, is what I would say to the professionals on Masterchef before the skills test:
“Your body is flooding with adrenaline because you’ve decided that your life is in danger, and you’re preparing to fight or flee. Get up out of that chair. Do jumping jacks, deep knee bends, push-ups, a dozen flights of stairs. Roll up that Gourmet magazine and go whack the hell out of the sink in the men’s room. You can’t flee, so fight. Use the adrenalin, to make your mind think you’ve already been through the fire. Then walk into the room feeling spent and relaxed.
“Tell yourself whatever you need to, to get your brain to stop sending the adrenaline into your muscles. If you’re comfortable teaching, cast Monica in the role of student. Talk to her in your mind, while you’re cooking, as if you are instructing her, and you’ll keep your prefrontal cortex in the game. When adrenaline’s up, serotonin is down, and we begin to psych ourselves out. One mistake and we feel like complete failures. So keep up the positive talk. If you don’t want to hear instructive patter in your head, then hear calming patter. Tell yourself you love the ingredients you’re looking at. Silently to Monica but loudly to yourself, relate the last time you made a perfect hollandaise or prepped a duck leg for a confit, and your hands will follow.
“Smile, and exhale slowly. You’ll confuse your amygdala into thinking you’re just fine.”
If I’ve offered my coaching client one strategy, I’ve offered him a dozen. What he’s working on now is choosing the right one for each challenge, just as a chef would choose an ingredient or a utensil. Understand what your listener finds interesting on the menu, get yourself a strategy, and your presentation will be a satisfying meal rather than a dog’s dinner.