The pressure cooker effect: How we achieve amazing things under pressure
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” – JFK, 1962.
Like many Australians, I've stayed up late watching the Olympic Games. For me, the most memorable moment so far came when Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon for Great Britain with a stunning run in the 800 metres race. She has been Britain's poster child for these Olympic Games and, like Cathy Freeman in 2000, she was under huge pressure to win gold.
Right from the start she edged out front and the home crowd roared with excitement. But by the second lap it was clear she'd overstretched too early and had been passed by two other athletes.
With Jessica in third place, the crowd fell silent. She entered the last hundred metres exhausted yet went for it.
With what looked like an empty tank, she flew past the other athletes to claim gold, and collapsed over the finish line in tears. The crowd went crazy.
This instance of endurance under pressure got me thinking about what circumstances often exist for great achievement. What are my biggest achievements? What did the lead-up to those wins feel like?
Watching the Games, and imagining how it must feel to be an athlete with the hopes of a nation on your shoulders, reminded me that I too perform at my best under pressure. More pressure yields a better outcome.
I'm sure that's why, every four years at the Olympics, world records continue to be broken. There's virtually no limit to what can be achieved under pressure.
My first encounter with real pressure came in 1998 when I decided to organise a concert to raise awareness of New Zealand's youth suicide epidemic. I was 20 years old and thought this would be a challenging, fun project for the university holiday.
I'd never organised anything beyond a high school ball and had no idea how to raise sponsorship money, enlist bands or put together a major event. So the first thing I did was to go out and tell everyone that this was happening. That raised the stakes; failure would be public.
I picked a date and a venue and started work. A friend who worked in student radio gave me Neil Finn's home phone number. I called him up and asked him to play. Back then, I knew very little about music, and had no idea how huge a coup I'd scored when he said yes!
I approached another 14 acts and all the local youth support organisations to participate, then called the radio and press and announced the event. I was interviewed on the major news stations and there was a huge national buzz.
I had no idea how to pay for anything, as I'd announced that entry would cost 50c. I reckoned that would be a fun amount to charge. Now I had eight weeks to raise $100,000. Pressured? This was my first experience of real stress!
I worked from 6am till midnight every day on the phones, making presentations, and writing grant and commercial proposals. I obtained a meeting with the mayor of Wellington May and he liked the concert idea and offered to donate $2,000. I told him, ‘Thanks, but $10,000 would be much more help’. And he said, 'Yes!'
The Levi’s Life Festival went ahead on Good Friday in 1998, attracting 15,000 young people; it still rates as one of the largest music events in the town's history. The whole thing was broadcast live on free-to-air TV and drew public and political attention to New Zealand's youth suicide rate.
I'm happy to say this rate has steadily declined since new government initiatives were introduced later that year. The person most surprised by the success of the event was me.
I couldn't believe that I had put the whole thing together, and it worked. I'd never have believed I had it in me, and if I hadn't put myself under enormous pressure I may have never discovered what I was capable of pulling off.
A few years later, I had a similar experience when signing Evermore. As I wrote in my last blog, when we started out we had nothing but a dream, and threw everything into it. Music management is a special kind of business, because a project failure is never an option. You can’t take on five bands and hope one of them works out like you can with start-up ideas.
Every band is a group of people's careers – their hopes and their futures. As their manager, you are responsible, so you better not fail! I thrive in this environment because I hate failing and I love pressure.
As a band manager, I personally signed ten artists and eight of these reached gold sales or better and continue to make a viable career in music. It's a pretty good strike rate considering that only a tiny fraction of artists reach this level of success. I do attribute a lot of it to the pressure I apply to both the artists and myself.
Now, I'm in the biggest pressure cooker of them all: a start-up. Within four months of starting Posse I did three crazy things. Now I recognise my subconscious was at work, torturing me to ensure the best chance of success.
What were they? I spent my house deposit on the domain name, accepted investment from friends and told everyone I knew that I was starting the business. I couldn't back out now without incurring massive damage to my reputation. I'd placed myself under as much pressure as possible!
Now we have a full-time team of 11, $3 million of investment behind us, and a whole industry watching to see if we make it. If we don't, there's no plan B. I have no idea what I'll do if this doesn't work. That leaves me with more sleepless nights than I should have.
The effects of stress aren't pleasant; I'll write about that in a later post. But I've experienced it before and learnt that when I'm under the most pressure, extraordinary things can happen: Which is how I know we'll make it.
The Olympians provide an inspiring example of achievement under pressure. When JFK declared in 1962 that America would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he had no idea how this would be achieved. By publicly declaring the challenge, he put an entire country under pressure to make it happen – and they did.
So, if you're thinking about taking on a new challenge, my advice is to get our there and put yourself under as much pressure as possible!
I'm constantly surprised at how I manage to bounce back when times get tough and how, despite the sense of not knowing how I can cross the next mountain, I always do.
These moments of self-doubt and stress are charged with pure magic. At least you know you're alive!