How to Care More Without Putting Too Much Pressure On Yourself

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)

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

NOTE: Just FYI, the annual 2-for-1 event begins this Friday (Dec. 10)! So if you’re thinking about signing up for the course, I’d actually suggest holding off for a few more days! What?! Why?

‘Cause if you sign up anytime Friday through Sunday (Dec. 10-12), I’ll include a second bonus account at no additional cost that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, teacher, or practice buddy of your choice. 😁

Click below to learn more about the course and the holiday 2-for-1 offer.


9 Responses

  1. Again Dr. Kageyama, words of wisdom from your PC to your reader’s. It all boils down to enjoying what we do, first. I keep trying to tell myself that. It seems like it is taking me an eternity to reach the desired level of “working musician” but the journey has been amazing. I’ve flubbed my last 2 auditions but the visions I had of winning were wonderful. Those visions have not changed. As a matter of fact, the auditions have opened the door to learning new music. I’ve begun performing with new people and have reached a higher playing ability. I still intend to perform the repertiore that I had planned to perform had I won this year’s audition. It’s as if these auditions have allowed me to park closer to the mall. Now all I have to do is get inside the mall.

    1. Ah, nicely put Mary. Did you ever read the book Mastery, by George Leonard? I found it a really helpful and inspiring take on our never-ending quest to get inside the mall (because of course, there’s a much cooler and better mall waiting for us on the other side of the one directly in front of us).

  2. Thanks for the encouraging blog about what to focus on! Your thoughts on what to aim for, are so helpful!!

  3. Dr. Noa, I have not read that book. I will make “Mastery”,my book that I choose for my summer reading. I always choose a book to read over the summer and this may be the most perfect choice.

  4. It still rings true, the indirect path is the best path. Sometimes I believe it’s the only path especially when you come into your own as a musician. Good article.

  5. This blog might be the most inspiring thing I have ever read – everything rings true and underscores my best moments as a musician. I’ve got yet to find a post that I didn’t re-read at least thrice. Really, thank you.

  6. I stumbled on this from a search about self pressuring – I am not a musician but this is excellent advice for anybody. I feel hopeful that I can make good changes for myself with this – thank you for sharing your insight!

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