Remember that weird state of your mind when you woke up many years ago, totally unprepared for a test? Or while suffering through an impossible and never-ending project that had a huge bearing on your career. And what Federer might have dealt with as he was clutching at straws facing a seventh match point at the Australian Open last month (you might say, his wife Mirka was more at pain, with her hands clasped and eyes closed in a quiet prayer).
Stress is a bad word. It is so vague, it means everything and nothing at the same time. Im no expert in psychology and have no intention to write a “how to beat stress” blog. I thought of narrating a few personal insights and a lot of borrowed learnings that helped me deal with this beast.
When i picked up Mind Master – Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life, i expected World Chess champion Viswanathan Anand’s book to contain sophisticated mental strategies for career growth. The now fifty year old master was once a child prodigy. I am only half way though the fascinating book, but Anand opens up like a friendly mentor. He portrays his vulnerable self when facing a daunting opponent like Gary Kasparov and appears an emotional wreck after a jolting defeat. Beyond his insights on risk taking, persevering towards goals, contextual memory and developing curiosity, i loved the emotional human behind the intellectual genius.
There are solid lessons from the seemingly quirky, nail-biting warrior’s many duels – most, against his own mind.
Dealing with Emotions and being fearless
He talks about how emotions come in the way of clear thinking and decision making. Especially, “After a defeat, it pays to completely change my surroundings, find something new and compelling”. “The mind only recovers emotionally when it can replace an old memory with a new, more pleasant one.”
He then narrates how different Kasparov was in dealing with a similar situation. The all time great champion was struggling one day in 1987 during his match against Karpov. “Instead of striking his head against the washboard over his predicament, Kasparov spent the entire night playing cards”. The next day, he woke up late, had a lazy lunch and told himself he was just going to keep going.
As i read this, i got reminded of a similar story narrated by the Sri Lankan cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga, about his team’s state of mind on the eve of the 1996 world cup finals against the mighty Australians. His team were the underdogs but had played a fearless brand of cricket all through the tournament. Staying in the same hotel in Lahore along with their opponents, he noticed the Australian team having a quiet dinner, while his troops were no were to be seen. When he later found many of them shopping carpets and sarees for their wives, he comforted himself, the cup was theirs: A team so relaxed, cannot lose. And they didn’t.
Around a year before this match, i was faced with an anxiety attack on the eve of my year 12 chemistry exam. I was hoping to refresh my memory of all things chemistry during the two day break after the physics test. I had to get close to 200/200 in each of physics, chemistry and maths, to have any chance to getting into the tier-1 engineering college in South India.
I had toiled the whole year on physics, but i messed up a twelve-marks question. Returning home, i felt defeated even as my dad tried to calm me down. The two days before the chemistry test felt like eternity. After spending forty of the forty eight hours self-loathing, fretting and fuming, the fear of failure made me hopeless. But with just a night to pass before the test, i suddenly felt better since i had lost already. I told myself, “I won’t get into the university i yearned for. Let me just have some fun”. I still remember, i was one of the very few who had a smile in the face before, during and after that three hour test.
Viswanathan Anand too explains how his occasional shift in attitude – embracing fearlessness – landed him spectacular victories. “i have played my most inspired games when my enthusiasm for the sport resurfaced, without the bindings of titles or wins or ratings”…”to play a good game”..”excited about learning something new”.
My battle was no way comparable to his. Still, when the results came two months after my exams, i shocked myself and my chemistry teacher, scoring a perfect 200/200 – a tough feat at that time, especially in my school.
From Checkmating to Note taking
Anand’s suggestion in taking notes as a means to deal with emotions and stress is another revelation. “putting down my observations right after a defeat when the pain was raw and the sting was fresh, I stumbled upon the solutions I had seen but didn’t act upon or the ones I had overlooked.”
I am no big achiever yet, but i can vouch for this. For the last couple of years, i have been diligently writing down notes in a daily (sometimes, hourly) journal. I make a note of what’s in my mind, what i’m thinking, more importantly, the raw emotion at that moment – feeling fearful, inadequate, blessed, clueless, bored etc.
Poring over these notes – a treasure trove – i have become a lot more objective, grounded and relaxed. (many of my blogs were born out of those).
As Anand says about his 40+ years of notes, “without that”…”my experience [is] almost incomplete.”
A zillion things go on in our mind at any moment. Offloading much of that – thoughts, ideas, shopping lists, pending tasks – to another system is a stress buster. For the uninitiated, David Allen’s book/methodology Getting things Done is a great place to start. Along the way, i discovered, Tiago Forte’s Building the Second Brain (BASB) techniques quite useful. If you are looking for a contemporary note taking app/tool, i suggest Roam Research – this has been a game changer for me.
A few physical techniques like simple exercises, breathing techniques etc, can be transformative no doubt (eg. Paul Taylor’s Mind Body Performance Institute), and i’m not even venturing into the possibilities in the spiritual realm.
For me, confronting the raw emotion face to face has been an effective way to conquer it.
One thing i learnt not to do when your loved ones are feeling it, is to suggest, “please don’t be stressed”.
It is as useless as saying, “please don’t have a headache”.