Richard Branson: Pressure Is a Privilege
The other day someone asked me how I deal with pressure. Without thinking over my response, I said that pressure is a privilege - which really is a great way to think positively and proactively about any challenge.
I later looked up "pressure is a privilege" to find out which bright spark had coined that phrase. It turned out, very aptly, to be the title of a book by the legendary tennis player Billie Jean King. With 39 Grand Slam titles to her name, including 12 singles wins, King certainly knows a thing or two about handling pressure!
I recently hosted this year's Necker Cup tennis competition on Necker Island, during which amateurs play against the world's leading tennis stars and legends, including Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova and Marion Bartoli. For those of us who love playing tennis but never made the grade as professionals, the Necker Cup is a unique opportunity to test one's mettle against the sport's very best (plus all the proceeds go to supporting good causes like Virgin Unite).
Even amid the fun, friendly atmosphere of the Necker Cup, you can still feel the pressure to perform well. After all, who wouldn't be at least a little apprehensive when preparing to serve to Novak Djokovic or partner with Rafael Nadal?
Learning to harness pressure's positive aspects is a valuable skill in tennis and in everyday life. When we are faced with exciting scenarios and situations, dealing with the stress that they bring can lead us to be more alert, alive and attentive. It can help to improve our performance. And remember: When the stakes are higher, the rewards are greater - and the journey is more enjoyable.
I learned to perform under pressure while dealing with something that has caused me much stress and anxiety over the years: speaking engagements. These days, I give speeches and attend events all over the world, yet I started out as a very nervous public speaker. I struggled with it from the first time a teacher told me to stand up in front of my classmates at Stowe School and recite a poem. Being dyslexic, I really had a tough time whenever we had to do this. What's more, our headmaster used to ring a gong whenever we paused too long or made a mistake, and then we were forced to march off the stage to a chorus of boos and jeers. I found myself being gonged offstage with depressing regularity.
Rather than give up on public speaking, I eventually learned to convert the intense pressure I put on myself to do well into positive energy. Since I'm not gifted at reading off formal speeches, I treat the occasion as an informal conversation, which I am good at. Today, I can happily share my thoughts with audiences by handling speeches and public appearances as one big discussion, whether I am in a room with two people or 20,000.
Of course, I still feel nervous when I'm onstage, and I still stutter over a word or two, and I even forget my lines sometimes, but as long as I remember that it's a conversation rather than a performance and I try to have fun, things usually work out OK. These days, I love putting pressure on myself to keep the crowd engaged, as it helps to keep my standards high.
That said, there is such a thing as too much pressure. You need to balance high-pressure periods with plenty of time for rest, reflection and recuperation, or else you won't be able to switch off and get perspective. This is partly why work-life balance and spending time away from the office is so important.
In the business world, pressure can come from many different directions at once. Maybe you suddenly need to deliver a high-stakes presentation, a supplier hasn't delivered on his end of a deal, or an employee is failing to live up to expectations - whatever the situation, you might find yourself suddenly shrinking under stress, rather than thriving under pressure. But if you take a moment to be mindful and recognize that pressure can, indeed, be a privilege, you may be able to manage the outcomes in a smarter manner.
The only way to get better at tennis is by practicing, over and over again. The more times you serve, the more technically proficient you will become. More importantly, you'll become more confident. The same can be said for thriving under pressure as an entrepreneur. Practice makes perfect - or as Billie Jean King once said, "Champions keep playing until they get it right."