Handling Pressure

The author regales the audience with forbidden knowledge about the fairness of the world and techniques on how to handle pressure, nerves, and worries. And also haikus.

1. Intro

I had an brilliant and enthusiastic intern once ask me before a presentation, “TJ - I’m so nervous. How do you handle it?”

“I’m not sure I should tell you.”

“I feel like I’m going to die! You have to help me!”

“OK, but you’re not going to like it.”


“OK, OK…the reason why I handle the pressure so well is that I don’t really care.”

You know, one month into their career and I tell them that I don’t really give a damn. Yup, I’m a great role model.


“You work so hard though? But you don’t care?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right.”

<more crickets>

Nope, she didn’t get it.

“Yes, but that’s just me doing the best I can. It’s a character flaw. I assure you, if I could stop, I would. It’s not like people can tell the difference between good and great. But no, I don’t care because I can’t. It’s like exams. If you care, you’re going to be nervous. If you’re nervous, you’re going to do worse. Exams don’t test knowledge, they test if you can handle the pressure. You prepped for the talk, you practiced, but you just can’t care about the result.”

This is the real world. You have to do your best, but you can’t be attached to the result. There are so many things outside of your control, and you’re a small speck of the universe that only has control of your own attitude and actions. Being worked up over results is, well, rather silly. It’s measuring the wrong thing. I didn’t always believe this, but life taught me the hard way.

1.1. Flashback

A long, long time ago, I was crippled by pressure. I would get embarrased easily. The first free throw would fall short. Speaking in crowds, let alone public speaking, sucked. On academic competitions, I would choke up even though I knew the material since everyone expected me to win. There was a lot of pressure, and I would fail, time and time again.

Finally, I just said, screw it. If it happens, it happens. And I ended up placing in every event I entered that year.

And so I had found the secret to handling pressure:

Just don’t give a damn.

It’s not that I don’t get a case of the nerves still sometimes, but I can handle it.

2. Techniques

Here are some techniques I’ve used over the past 20 years:

2.1. The 10 year test

Am I going to going to remember this in 1 week? 1 month? 1 year? 10 years?

If I’m not going to remember the event in a year, it’s probably not too much to be worried about.

2.2. What’s the worst that could happen?

So you do bad on the talk and you’re sad. And then you do some depressive eating and get food poisoning. And then you get rushed to the hospital, but you’re not on any medical plan. And then you go bankrupt from paying the hospital bills.

Your only choice now is to become a monk and leave the situation.

Ironically, becoming a destitute monk living in some ashram, cave, or temple has also been one of my primary plans at times, so this one is kind of my go-to for calming my nerves. Your mileage may vary on this technique.

2.3. Don’t be attached.

The vedic philosophy opines, “not to be attached to the fruit of action”. Some people work hard and they get nothing. Some people do nothing and get handed everything. I’m a simple person - I just do the best I can. As you age, you understand better that the action and the result of the action are highly de-coupled in the real world. Many people are skilled and work hard, but some have better luck than others. They picked the right topic, got the right job, met the right person, or had someone read their resume when they weren’t in a bad mood 1 I throw away half the resumes I get. I don’t want to hire people who are unlucky. .

You can only manufacture so much of your own luck through work, the rest is up to the universe. I think 2020 should have taught this to everyone by now.

2.4. Be in the moment.

Most worry is caused by being attached to a non-existent imaginary future. In algorithmic terms, first we compare our current state (A) to an imaginary future state (B), and then we proceed to worry about every step on the path from A->B. Sounds like a fun way to spend time imagining things, right? Michael Jordan once said, “Why should I worry about a shot that I haven’t even taken yet?” I must say, not only does the man have 6 championship rings, he has a great point.

2.5. Breathing.

Thoughts and the mind are directly connected. When someone cries, their breath becomes shallow and raggedy. When someone is nervous, their breath is slightly quicker. When someone is calm, their breathing is long and deep.2 Watching people breath is at least as instructive as learning body language. If you can’t control your thoughts directly, well, you can certainly control your breath. Breath in for 5 seconds, hold for 20 seconds, and breath out for 10 seconds. Or if you can perform a longer cycle do so, but keep the same 1:4:2 ratio. As you proceed, your breath will get longer anyway. Repeat 10 times and I guarantee you’ll be calm. Note that this technique is called pranayama and should not be abused. When doing long holds, do not do more than 10 cycles at one time as it also generates a lot of heat in the body.

2.6. Meditation.

This could be considered as part of 4 or 5, but depending on the meditation technique used, it could actually operate on subtle parts of the consciousness and remove different types of attachments. Generally, people get extremely confused about meditation, motivation, and attachment, so I’m just listing this for completeness. Meditation techniques deserve their own set of posts if I ever get around to it.

3. Conclusion

She relaxed and rocked the presentation. Easy, right?3 No, it’s not easy, it takes a hell of a lot of practice. But it’s worth doing.

Can you win your mind?
Errant mind under control
Then you rule the world.

Date: 2020-11-17