Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why we FAIL when it MATTERS the MOST?

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We give many exams, interviews, public speeches yet when these matter the most for us, we somehow manage to underperform or even at times perform miserably.  In this blog post I will talk about why people fail and how you can avoid the trap of failure. I am sure you would’ve read articles on “success tips” and seen many motivational talks on succeeding; I can assure you I won’t be repeating the same. There are three aspects that I’ve come across that make us fail - 1) The high stakes game, 2) “Good Wishes” from friends and family, and finally 3) This is my “dream”.

The high stakes game
I will tell you a story about my friend with a “HIGH IQ” who failed miserably in the CAT exam. CAT is an important exam taken by many students every year to get into top Indian B-schools. My friend did all the right things yet could not make it. He was working as a trainer with an IT company for three years and was getting a very good salary. Once he was sure about a management degree, he decided to leave his job and focus on the CAT exam (yes, he performed miserably). Many of his teachers who were coaching him for the exam recommended leaving the job since it would’ve made him “focus” on his target. This strategy of enhancing focus did not help him.
What clearly failed him was the stress due to the high stake nature of the process. Since he had left his job, it was a do or die situation for him. Interestingly he created the situation for himself. This increased the stress level and lead to his failure. You might although feel that a person tends to give his best in a do or die situation but clearly that is not what happened. When the stakes becomes too high we tend to divert our mental resources on the stakes, which makes us do our job at hand with less efficiency.  The riskiness makes us worry about the negative effects of not making it through. His worry reduced his performance in an exam where the margin of error was very low.
Interestingly many of those who make it through don’t make a big deal about it. In my first year at IIM, I found out that most of my batch-mates already had given CAT for 2-3 years and this was their 3rd or 4th attempt. On asking them further they told me that were working with good IT companies and giving CAT every year was almost routine (by the way most engineers in India find their way into IT companies). To put it simply, “It wasn’t a big deal”. Getting into IIMs was NOT high stakes for them.  
So how can we remove this factor? It is simple. Thinking of the exam or the interview or the presentation as a big deal and a high stakes game should NOT be done.

Good Wishes from friends and family
I find this one to be very interesting. Good wishes from friends and family should help you, but it does not and the reason is simple – “They know you are preparing for the exam”. It is not their hidden malign envy but their close eye on your performance. This close watch creates social pressure which is a big reason for stress. When your social circle knows that you are doing a particular task, your nervousness while doing the task increases. When you know the world is watching you, this nervousness builds a pressure that diverts your mind from the exam, interview and task at hand.
To tell you more about this phenomenon, I would like to share the details of an experiment done by Dan Ariely, a famous author, researcher and professor in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He did a study where he asked his students to solve anagrams. In one condition he asked them to do it in a private cabin. In the second condition he asked them to do it in front of their fellow participants on a black board. The students in the condition where they were privately asked to solve an anagram solved with a much greater success rate than students solving it on a black board in front of their peers.  Social pressure increased the stress in the public condition and reduced performance.
As lesser mortals trying to make it big in this highly competitive world, we can avoid chances of failure by reducing social pressure. We need to simply keep mum about the important exam or interview we are preparing for. 

This is my “dream”
When you say to yourself before an exam or an interview that, “this is my dream and I want this”, it is highly likely you will NOT get it. Paulo Coelho might disagree but let’s look at some reality. When you think an exam or an interview will help you reach a world of your dreams, you actually end up dreaming. Your mind shifts focus to the perks of clearing the exam or the interview – The mind gets diverted.
Research has consistently shown that high bonuses lead to poor performance. This is one major psychological factor that can be attributed to the 2008 financial crisis. High bonuses of bankers lead to a very poor performance and lead to a complete collapse. Bankers were more concerned about their bonuses and less bothered about the job at hand.
When we start dreaming about the possibilities that exist after succeeding in our task, we also tend to loose focus on the task. Our mind gets diverted to things that do not help us in doing the task well. Like the “high stakes game” where mind worries about the bad effects of failing at the task, “the dream” diverts the mind to the good things that will come after successfully completing the task. For a task that requires focus and skill, both these makes us underperform.

How can we NOT fail then?
My list of failures is long and distinguished. They keep coming. But there is one thing in all my better performances like a play where I acted well (meaning I did not forget my lines), an exam, or an interview – I practiced and chilled out. It was mentally not high stakes, nor did I publicize about it (or bother about good wishes from my friends and family) nor did I crave for it. These three things essentially mean to me one thing – Chilling out! Being too “serious” about the final task is not good for doing it well. Rather seriousness should only be limited to the practice. While skill can be developed from practice and hardwork, it is equally important to take things easily.