I went to my first basketball game the other day. It was a Golden State Warriors game, and there is talk that they could be one of the best teams of all time. They remain undefeated 18 games into the season, which is an NBA record.
I don’t like basketball, but I like witnessing and studying greatness.
I did some cursory digging and found out what they attribute the dominance to. They said it came down to staying relaxed and having fun. They said they like each other off-court, and that it shows.
So I started listening to when the coach was talking to the team, and he would say things like,
He was not talking about fundamentals or mistakes. He was talking about feel. Experience. Vibe.
This transitions powerfully to my experience at trying to get good at things. Let’s take table tennis.
I’ve always wondered why it is that when I return from a long break I play so well, and then after a few sessions I start to suck again.
My initial theory was that I started initially upon returning with doing the right types of things. The proper strokes. The right techniques. Because I was emulating what I had seen on TV. And then after playing for a while I went back to bad habits.
Seems like that could be part of it. But there’s something else that I’ve realized is far more of a factor: when I start messing up I get really angry.
I’m no longer having fun. I’m super upset that I’m missing things. I’m thinking about everything, and just getting increasingly frustrated.
The love is gone.
So yesterday I tried something different. I caught myself, as I was forming this theory, and said,
I immediately did far better, and in fact jumped by probably 300 rating points for that game.
The power link
There’s more than just the anger that’s at play here. It’s the fact that tension seems to remove power and creativity. I’ve been working on my backhand topspin, for example, and it literally depends on being extremely loose with the stroke. You have to whip your backhand with full force, and if you have any tension in your arm, or any hesitation in you at all, you’ll miss or you’ll give a shot with only 40% of the power.
Any tension at all.
In order to play table tennis the best possible, in other words, you have to be ultra-relaxed and having fun. The fun part makes you creative, and the relaxation gives you the power.
And the moment you get angry, the moment you get worried, the moment you are too judgmental of your game, you instantly plummet.
And here’s the crazy part. You don’t lose 10% or 15% off your game. You go from being good to being shit. It’s a 50% drop in quality.
Taking it to infosec
I then started thinking about doing well at work and doing well in my field. There are times when I feel stale and wrong-footed. I feel unable to create anything interesting. It can last for days sometimes (I know the cause, by the way, and that’ll be another post).
Other times I cannot stop my flow of ideas. I am not even thinking about what I’m creating, or how others will receive it. I just produce because I’m on a high of creativity and the ideas are enjoyable.
And people respond really well. They tweet and retweet. They send me nice emails. They tell me they want to know how I do it. Etc.
So what’s the difference?
The difference is that when I’m in a funk, I’m thinking ABOUT performance. I’m bothered that I’m not writing anything. I’m bothered that I’m not programming. I’m bothered that I’m not doing this or that.
So what do I do?
I check stats. I see who’s saying what about me. I check Twitter for retweets. I check my blog traffic. Have people not been liking my stuff lately?
It’s psych ward stuff.
Then, once I remember the diet and exercise thing, and I get back on my healthy routine, and I start reading again, I start getting flooded by ideas. Ideas I MUST write down.
I’m compelled to. By the way, I’ve been in this mode for the last few days, and have produced like 10 essays in that amount of time.
Unsupervised Learning — Security, Tech, and AI in 10 minutes…
Get a weekly breakdown of what's happening in security and tech—and why it matters.
So what happens then? Tweets and retweets. Positive comments. People loving the output. And have I been thinking about reception? Nope. I’ve been thinking about creation.
It’s the same as basketball. The same as table tennis. Maybe the same as any complex performance of this type. I’d love to hear counter-examples where anxiety actually helps.
That’s the key. Don’t try. Do. Focus on the fun of the event, not on how you’re doing.
Keeping in line with my previous post, here’s an algorithm:
Make sure your diet is in order. Reduce intake. Cut sugar drinks, diet soda, and mass amounts of sugar and carbs. Even if you have some bad food, make sure you’re eating good food as well (and not the things above).
Exercise every day. Even a little bit helps. I do pushups every morning, and do a few minutes on my rower. And then 2-3 days a week I play table tennis, which is some intense cardio. Plus I get some long walks in (2-3 miles) a couple times a week.
Consume great content. Read lots of books. Keep the input coming in. Focus your learning on Algorithmic Learning, where you’re aiming to improve your way of doing things.
Repeat. Don’t force anything. Just let it happen.
You won’t have to do anything else at this point. It’ll be unable to stop the ideas. Now start capturing them. Turn them in to essays. Write some code. Share it with the world.
That’s the path.
Fear in the workplace
The other thing that tripped me out about this revelation is thinking about how the corporate world works.
It basically does the opposite in so many companies.
Workers are constantly in fear of something. Are they doing a good enough job? Will they get a raise? Does the boss like this other person more? Are there going to be redundancies?
And the managers feed into it so they can milk more from employees who are worried about being fired, or not getting raises, etc.
The irony is that they make far worse employees when they do this. If you add fear, you remove genius. Anyone capable of being an A-player is turned into a C-player as soon as they dread going to work. I’ve been there. Once. I control-z’d that shit quick and it instantly fixed itself.
So what’s the lesson?
Simple. For employees, if you’re not having fun and kicking ass because it’s not encouraged, go find another job where that kind of thing is encouraged. If the environment is toxic, find another place to work.
If you’re a manager, make sure you’re encouraging an environment of fun and relaxation. Make sure people know that they’re A-players or they wouldn’t be there, and that we’re here to have fun doing what we love better than anyone else. We’re not keeping score; we’re just happy to see the stuff that comes out of our phenomenal team.
Summarizing the examples
There are so many things this applies to. Here are some more examples:
Public Speaking: If you’re thinking about what you’re doing, and worried about how it’ll be received, there is no way you can perform optimally. The best approach is to remember what you love about the content, and to allow your enthusiasm to carry you. The training and practice you’ve done should keep you in bounds, but don’t think about it while executing.
Talking to People: Men stress about talking to women. Employees stress about talking to higher-ups. Regular people stress about talking to important people. The solution is the same: focus on the interest of the topic, and not on the outcome you’re seeking. Let the content and your passion for it become the interaction.
Psychopaths: Nobody wants to become a psychopath, but they are great at accomplishing many things because they don’t care about failure. This is a tangential but fascinating point; if you focus on what you’re doing and not on what people will think of it, it’s a superpower.
Creating vs. Worrying: Many writers, performers, and other artists are paralyzed by worry over what people will think about their work. Will it be good enough? How are all my peers making such good stuff? I wonder if they’re more popular than I am! This is the opposite of what you should be thinking. Focus internally. Focus on the work. Focus on what you love about it. Have fun. Positive reception will come from it (or not). But either way you’ll be producing your best content in this state.
Sport: You cannot perform with stress in your body. You need to be loose. You need to be reminded of what you love about the sport. You should be having fun. Fun is not the goal; it’s an indicator that you’re approaching it in the right way. You cannot be fluid if you are actively thinking about your execution. Be. Enjoy. Open yourself wide and embrace the craft. Only then will you execute at your maximum.
If you want power, creativity, and genius in yourself or your team, you need to promote a culture of relaxation and fun. It’s the lubrication for excellence, and without it you’ll see top performers turn to hollow shells.
Stop thinking about your output. Think about what you love about the job. Fix your diet. Get some exercise. Read. Read. Read.
The ideas will hit you like a consciousness feed from an alien world.