Business Books

How good are you when the heat is on? Why you crack or conquer when the going gets tough

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Nathan Fox

You're on the diving board at the Olympics, about to do a backward 2½ somersault with 2½ twists. You're the lead in a Broadway play, the curtain is about to rise, and the whole show rests on your shoulders. Or you're heading into the boardroom, about to make a career-defining presentation to the CEO. Is there anything you should have done beforehand to improve your chances of success?

Strange to report, but there are two identical-looking, albeit oppositely titled, new books about that subject. Both have one-word titles, red-and-white jackets and even cover blurbs from the ubiquitous Daniel H. Pink. Fortunately for the reviewer, the authors' styles are very different.

Clutch, by New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan, is a well-written examination of what makes a person perform despite stress. It's not luck, he emphasizes; it's "the ability to do what you can do normally under immense pressure." He points to five key traits of clutch performers: focus, discipline, adaptability, being truly present and having the fear and desire to win. Sullivan illustrates these talents by way of portraits of accomplished, self-assured performers such as trial lawyer David Boies, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon and Sergeant Willie Copeland, a hero in Iraq.

Sullivan, who is partial to sports, cites Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees as a classic choker, the type who rehearses his victory speech before the game is played. "In the clutch, A-Rod overthought his every move," writes the author. "In fact, he thought of most of his moves in their historic place in baseball." Maybe, but A-Rod did win a World Series last year. Sullivan also grapples with the behavior of Tiger Woods: "Just because Woods let the biggest personal story of his career get away from him does not mean he won't continue to win."

In Choke, University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock explores the losers. Choking is not bad luck, she writes, but an uncharacteristically adverse response to a highly stressful situation.

In a somewhat meandering fashion, she explores the current science about performance under pressure. With MRIs, scientists can explore the inner workings of thinking, reasoning and problem solving. "By identifying the brain regions or brain networks most affected by high-pressure situations, you can gain insight into how choking under pressure occurs and what you can do to prevent it," she writes.

If you aspire to be cool under maximum pressure (and who doesn't?), Beilock offers smart tips such as practicing under pressure and "pausing the choke" by walking away from the problem for a few minutes in order to think clearly (not that easy for an athlete, of course). "Even though you might feel as if you don't have the luxury of catching your breath, going down the wrong solution path or operating with all 'glucose cylinders on empty' is a worse option," she writes.

Both authors admit to their own bouts of choking when they were younger. Golf was the family sport, so Sullivan's screwups happened at tournaments. "Once I was eight up with 10 holes left to play," he recalls wincingly. "I lost all 10 and was eliminated." Beilock likewise once bombed as an athlete: "I had one of the worst soccer games of my life playing in front of college recruiters."

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