Have you ever driven to the mall on a cold wintry weekend morning with two screaming toddlers in the backseat, and circled around the parking lot fervently hoping for a parking spot near the front?

And have you ever noticed that as soon as you give up and resign yourself to a crappy spot near the end of the row, get out of the car, and strap the kids into the stroller, the perfect spot opens up right by the entrance?

This sort of thing happens all the time – and not just in parking lots. It actually hints at a curious principle that can help us handle high-pressure performances and auditions more effectively.

The path less taken

Economist John Kay has made the observation that complex goals like happiness and wealth are often achieved not by the most direct and linear route – but via more indirect and circuitous paths.

He provides examples of companies like Boeing and Merck that enjoyed the greatest success when they cared more about loving what they did and serving humanity than when their primary objective was on maximizing profits and shareholder value.

He also notes how the wealthiest people in the world are often not the most concerned with being wealthy.

“I have concentrated all along on building the finest retailing company that we possibly could. Period. Creating a huge personal fortune was never particularly a goal of mine.” ~Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart):

Kay calls this phenomenon “obliquity.” So how can this help you perform better in high-pressure auditions and competitions?

Obliquity in performances

Generally, the more we care about the outcome of an upcoming performance or audition, the more pressure we feel.

Convinced you have to play well or risk losing the esteem of your colleagues?

Feeling like you absolutely must win your upcoming audition because it’s your dream job and it would allow you to finally live in the same city as your significant other who is already a member of the orchestra?

That’s a lot of pressure.

While that sort of pressure can help with motivation, there’s a dark side too. As the date draws closer, the pressure builds and builds until we start looking for a release valve.

Some try to convince themselves that they don’t really care what their colleagues think, or that they don’t want to live in Seattle anyway, but that strategy doesn’t work very well for most.

The answer is not to care less, but to care more. Just about different things.

Care obliquely

Do you care more about what a particularly judgmental colleague thinks of your playing – or about becoming the kind of unique, creative, and thoughtful musician you would love to be someday?

Obliquity suggests that you may paradoxically gain greater respect from your colleague if you are more focused on playing to satisfy yourself.

Do you care more about impressing the audition committee – or about staying focused, performing courageously, and playing the excerpts the way you believe they ought to be played so that you can walk out of the audition feeling great about what you’ve done?

Here too, it’s the candidates who are focused more on ensuring that they are happy with their audition who often win the job.

Take action

When you’re old and creaky and looking back on your life, you will care more about whether you became the kind of person or artist you had it in you to become, and whether you brought joy to others around you, than what so-and-so thought of your shaky sound and string of embarrassingly sub-par performances during the first week of May 2012.

And rest assured that so-and-so won’t be thinking of your intonation problems when they’re looking back on their life either.

See what happens when you focus more on making yourself happy with your performances, and being less concerned with trying to gauge what others may or may not think. Start small if need be, and in low-pressure situations to begin with, but then expand the experiment as you gain confidence and trust in yourself.

The one-sentence summary

“I am not saying that personal development is more important than winning; on the contrary, I am saying that enjoying the journey of self-discovery, by removing some of the pressure and angst associated with winning at all costs, is one way of helping you to win more often.”  ~Ed Smith (cricketer and author)