I spoke to Daniel McGinn, author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed, about what science tells us about mental preparation, how to raise your confidence at work, how to become a better public speaker, his pre-performance rituals and best career advice.
McGinn works as a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, where he edits the IdeaWatch and How I Did It sections, manages the magazine’s annual Best Performing CEOs in the World ranking, and edits feature articles on topics including negotiation, sales, and entrepreneurship. Prior to joining HBR in 2010, McGinn spent 17 years as a reporter, bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor at Newsweek, based on New York, Detroit, and Boston. At Newsweek, he wrote cover stories on topics including marriage and children’s television, but he specialized in covering management, writing profiles of leading companies and CEOs. He is also the author of House Lust: America’s Obsession with our Homes, and the editor of How I Did It: Lessons from the Front Lines of Business.
Dan Schawbel: What does science tell us about mental preparation and its impact on our careers and personal lives?
Daniel McGinn: There is a lot of research, most of it in sports psychology or social psychology, suggesting that people who engage in certain behaviors before stressful activities or high-stakes performances will do better. For instance, there are more than a dozen studies showing that athletes who engage in a pre-performance routine—a set of thoughts and actions—before competing tend to score higher. There are studies showing people who listen to a motivational song before an event perform better. Most serious athletes have some sort of routine to get psyched up. (I love watching the Olympics to observe these rituals.) In my book, I’m making the case that people in non-athletic fields—professionals who sell, pitch ideas, litigate, negotiate, give speeches, appear on TV, etc—can use these types of techniques to be better at their jobs, too. There are a lot of examples in my book, from surgeons to comedians to race car drivers, who use these kinds of techniques every day.
Schawbel: A lot of people struggle with confidence issues at work, especially when asking for a raise. What do you recommend to them?
McGinn: Whether or not you can convince your boss to give you a raise is going to depend mostly on the substance of the argument. Can you make a clear and compelling articulation of the value you’re creating for the company that isn’t already reflected in your salary? And even if you make a compelling case, the company has to be able to afford to pay you more. But all that said, you’re right that your mindset can make a difference. You want to go into a meeting like this feeling confident and powerful. There are several techniques you can try, but here’s one. Adam Galinsky, a Columbia professor, has done research in which people are asked to spend a few minutes writing about a time they felt powerful, or about their goals and aspirations, before engaging in group activities or doing a mock interview. This research shows people who wrote about being powerful or goal-oriented subsequently behaved that way. It’s a simple way to prime yourself to be assertive.
Schawbel: What advice would you give to someone who is afraid of public speaking but has to do it for their job?
McGinn: In my book there’s a whole chapter about techniques to reduce this kind of anxiety. Here are three things that can help. There’s a technique called “centering” that musicians at Juilliard learn to use before auditions. It’s complicated to explain in print, but this YouTube video gives a simple explanation. There’s another technique called “reappraisal” which involves trying to subtly shift your emotions, so that instead of feeling “nervous,” you focus on being “excited,” a more positive but similar feeling. Finally, doctors can prescribe beta blockers for people who get nervous before public speaking. Beta blockers inhibit the body’s response to adrenalin, and I’ve interviewed people who say this drug alleviates the physical sensations of stage fright—the dry mouth, sweating, shallow breathing, etc. For some people, this can make a big difference.
Schawbel: What is your pre-performance ritual and how did you form it?
McGinn: It depends on the activity I’m going to perform. Since I’m a writer and editor, the activity I do most frequently—the one that’s most important to my success–is writing. Some days, when the work is easy or not high-stakes, I don’t do anything special—I just sit down and start. But when I’m working on something that’s especially challenging or something with make-or-break consequences, I do engage in rituals to boost my confidence. I spend a few minutes reading a favorite article or two that I wrote earlier in my career, or a good review of one of my books, to reinforce the idea that I’m good at this work. I write in an office where I’ve hung copies of old stories and awards on my wall, for the same reason. (There’s research that this kind of “visual priming” can help people perform.) I used to listen to classical music while I work, but after doing research for the book, I learned that as an introvert, I work better in silence. I used to wear a set of electronic noise-cancelling headphones, but they broke, and I replaced them with a $15 industrial/construction pair. They’re not as comfortable (they kind of squeeze my head) but I’ve found that when I put them on before I write, the physical sensation of the squeezing cues my body that it’s time to buckle down and work. These rituals may sound simple, but that’s kind of the point—small things you habituate as a way to signal yourself that “it’s time to bring my A-game” can make a difference. These are idiosyncratic to my work as a writer, but every person should identify the “use case” that really drives their career, and develop their own pre-performance routine.
Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?
McGinn: I’m not sure I have the expertise or wisdom to be dispensing career advice to others, but I can offer a couple of things that have helped me. First, even though we’re way past the age of the Organization Man, I’ve tended to stick with employers a long time: I’ve worked at Harvard Business Review for seven years, and before that I was at Newsweek for 17. Most people change jobs much more frequently, and there are benefits to that–but there are also costs, sometimes people discount those costs. Second, I’ve been really fortunate to work for employers and bosses that let me take on outside work—such as writing books on the side. Having a gig or a side hustle on top of a traditional job is a great way to diversify professional interests, expand a network, and gain new skills and knowledge. Finally, you can’t underestimate the role that luck plays in the twists and turns of our careers. Planning, talent, and hard work are all important, of course, but many of the successful people I’ve met recognize that random events have played a role in where they ended up. There are some things that are just out of your control.