Daniel McGinn is the author of the new book Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed. He is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, and his work has appeared in publications including Newsweek and Wired. He lives in the Boston area.
Q: How did you first come up with the idea for this book?
A: The idea came from three different places. First, I played high school sports—football and basketball. I wasn’t very good at either sport, but I became fascinated by the things the players and coaches would do—the rituals, the music, the efforts to amp up rivalry--to psych us up before games.
Second, after I got into the workforce I would occasionally meet former athletes who were now using some of these same psych-up techniques before they litigated, or negotiated, or gave a big presentation, so I became interested in how these techniques could carry over.
Third, I started working at Harvard Business Review, and I began seeing academic research looking at how techniques like priming or rituals could help people in professional settings (like before job interviews).
So I decided to do a book looking at the science of what actually works to get people get psyched up, and how non-athletes can use this to prepare for make-or-break moments in their careers.
Q: You focus on people in a variety of fields. Can the strategies you discuss in the book be applied across the board, no matter what you're psyching yourself up to do?
A: In the book I argue that many professionals today are working in jobs where specific events—a big presentation, a sales call, a pitch meeting, even an important conversation with a boss—have more bearing on their success.
Certainly there are jobs where every day is the same, and there’s no particular need to bring your A game for some high-stakes event. But I argue more of us are in project-oriented jobs, which frequently have these moments of high stress.
In terms of the strategies, there are a wide variety of techniques in the book. Not all of them will work for everyone.
For instance, some people are really good at using anger or a focus on a rival to psych up; for others (including me), this doesn’t work well. Music will work better for some people than others. The trick is to find the tools or routine that work well for you.
Q: What have you personally learned from working on the book?
A: I’m much more aware of what I do to get ready for important moments at work. I focus on three things: Finding ways to increase my confidence, reduce my anxiety, and manage my energy level.
Not all of these “performance” moments are dramatic or public. For instance, before I sit down to write a challenging article, I will do a few things to increase my confidence, such as looking back at my Greatest Hits—an article I wrote years ago that I consider one of my best.
I even rely on a lucky object—a computer keyboard that was previously used by Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t use it every day, but I used this keyboard while writing the book, and I still pull it out when I’m on deadline with an assignment that’s particularly high-stakes or stressful.
These are small things, and no one watching me can tell I’m doing them. But I think they give me an incremental edge.
Q: Can you say more about the top three things you'd advise someone to do who needed to prepare themselves for a challenge?
A: Find a routine that does three things: boosts your confidence, reduces your anxiety, and helps you find the right energy level.
There are specific techniques you can use to do each of these things. It might involve breathing exercises, or visualization, or it might even mean trying beta blockers, a type of drug that reduces the body’s reaction to adrenaline. Too many people stand around being nervous without a plan for the last few moments before they perform.
If you have a routine and a plan, you’re increasing your odds of doing well.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m busy promoting the book (so many podcasts, which are great), and doing my daily work as an editor at Harvard Business Review.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I conceived of Psyched Up as a book for professional people in traditional careers, but it’s also finding an audience in elite coaching circles. Since it came out, I’ve been contacted by executives or coaches from the NFL, the NBA, and top college basketball programs.
These people are discovering the book on their own, through word of mouth, and several have been enthusiastically tweeting about it. I hadn’t expected this, but it’s been gratifying.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb