Source: Gage Skidmore, CC 2.0

This is the sixth in a series on under-discussed keys to career success and personal satisfaction. The first installment was on titration: In each situation, consciously deciding how intense, effortful, intellectual, etc. to be. The second installment was on gaining resilience. The third was on the art of making others feel good about themselves. The fourth was on efficiency. The fifth was on being practical.

Here, I turn to composure, the ability to remain calm yet focused under pressure. Even Barack Obama’s detractors had to admit that he was, even under pressure, calm and focused. For people who don’t have such a disposition, perhaps one or more of these will be helpful:

  • Realize that your reputation is disproportionately affected by how you handle yourself under pressure. Sometimes, just that awareness is enough to keep you on your best behavior.
  • Look back at the times you displayed anger. If you’re like most people, you’ll conclude your anger hurt you. That may motivate you to redouble your efforts to remain calm.
  • Being calm under pressure isn’t enough. Remaining focused or even increasing focus is what’s required. Many people, afraid they’ll blow up, space out. Of course, that’s not helpful. You need a two-step: When you feel pressure, remind yourself that you win if you remain calm and focused, bringing to bear your best listening, statements, and, if appropriate, ideas.  
  • Retain perspective. It may help to realize that soon after a person explodes, s/he usually realizes the issue wasn’t that important. Of course, even if it is a big deal, for example, averting nuclear war, calm focus rather than fury is more likely to help, let alone fury that reduces clear-headed thinking.

The previous are psychological tools for staying calm yet focused, Here are two physiology-based ones.

  • Exercise. It helps to exercise right before a situation that you anticipate could be stressful. That physiologically tires you so, when feeling the pressure, you’re likely to go from zero to 60.
  • Breathe. A deep breath is core not only to yoga and meditation but is more widely acknowledged as physiologically relaxing: It slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. When you first feel the pressure, take that deep breath. If you wait until after the pressure has built, it may be beyond what can be mitigated by a deep breath or three.

The takeaway

A moment of truth professionally and personally is how we handle moments of pressure. Perhaps one or more of this article’s ideas will help you triumph.


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