Pema Chödrön (Ordained Nun and Author; When Things Fall Apart)
“Man maintains his balance, poise, and sense of security only as he is moving forward.”
Maxwell Maltz (Surgeon and Author; Psycho-Cybernetics)
“The key to winning is poise under stress.”
Paul Brown (NFL Coach and Co-Founder; Cleveland Browns)
Poise is developed, not endowed.
I’ve never seen anyone get punched in the head as hard as Alfie did in the 4th grade. An older 5th grader charged up to Alfie and teed off on his face like Happy Gilmore driving a golf ball. Playground fights were normal when I was a kid; I’m not sure if they happen anymore. Most of these fights would end with a couple of kids wrestling on the ground, one kid crying, someone telling a teacher, and both kids getting sent to the Principal’s office. Alfie’s response was abnormal. He didn’t cry. He didn’t run and tell the teacher. Alfie rubbed his eye socket, walked up to the 5th grader, pushed him on the ground, and said, “Don’t ever do that again.” Then, he left to go play on the monkey bars.
In high school, I worked at an Albertsons Grocery Store. I started as a bag boy but was promoted to stock boy within a month. It was a pretty big deal. My stock manager, Bill, hated his job. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. At the time, this particular Albertsons generated more revenue than any other Albertsons in the state. Product turnover was insane. As a result, Bill worked an average of 70-80 hours a week. But he was treated like crap by the store director. The director pushed and pulled Bill in different directions just to make Bill miserable. “You work too many overtime hours, Bill. We can’t afford to keep you at this rate,” the director would say one day. Then, the next day, the director would say, “You’re not getting the job done Bill, you need to work more hours.” Bill never complained. He worked hard but he never ran around frantically trying to show people he was working hard. A few months later, a checker told me that Bill had accepted a director position at a competing grocery store. He was leaving in two weeks. There was no drama, no grand battle, no epic telling off of his boss – Bill simply left to go work for his boss’s competitor. Within twelve months, Bill had increased the competing store’s revenue by over 20%.
Terrified To Tiger’s Blood
Power requires poise requires practice. Poise is defined as having composure, or a dignified, self-confident manner about you. Being poised doesn’t mean that you are emotionless and statuesque; it means that you are in exacting control of your emotions and actions. Understand that nothing conveys confidence and power like staying poised in the middle of difficult circumstances. Poise is what will allow you to stand up for yourself professionally, without appearing weak or sloppy. But poise doesn’t just happen; it requires practice.
Poise is the opposite of anxiousness. And anxiousness, for the most part, is developed. Psychiatrist Kenneth Kendler, from the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, published a study that examined 1,200 pairs of male twins. One group consisted of identical twins (each pair sharing identical DNA) and the other group consisted of fraternal twins (each pair having different DNA). Since each set of twins shared the same upbringing, yet only the identical twins shared the same DNA, Kendler was able to control for environmental factors and calculate a pure figure for human genetic susceptibility to anxiety. Kendler’s research showed that our genes account for only about 30% of our anxiousness (or, lack of poise). The other 70% is not genetic, it’s learned. This means that anxiety can be unlearned, or at least controlled.
In the book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, author Taylor Clark discusses studies that examine everyone from competitive swimmers to classical musicians. The studies show that there is absolutely no difference between elites and novices in the intensity of their pre-performance anxiety. In other words, poised masters and top-of-their-field performers are still anxious. For example, Boston Celtics center Bill Russell, who led his team to 11 NBA championships, had legendary pre-game anxiety. Throughout the entirety of his career, Russell grew so nervous that he threw up before every game – every single game. Laurence Olivier, regarded as one of the foremost Shakespeare actors of the 20th century, suffered from such crippling stage fright that his costars had to physically push him onstage. Clark concludes that the only difference between being a shaky novice and a poised master is that the latter has trained himself to work with fear instead of against fear. Poised people welcome fear like an old friend. They let themselves feel the fear and urgency of their situation, then they move forward with their game plan anyway. This results in a poised and confident performance. You can get better at performing in the face of fear; first, by actively seeking out adversity, and second, by practicing poise during adverse events. Regardless of the challenge, your goal should be to radiate confidence and control, not stress and hustle.
When Hustle Is Disgusting
During high school and college wrestling practices, there were always a few people on the team who wanted to be extra sure that you saw them working hard. They were going to work hard and you were going to know it. They would squint there eyes, put there hands on top of their heads, and wheeze with purpose after every match or sprint. Some of them would even splash extra water onto their heads and T-shirts so it looked like they were sweating more. I see these same guys at the gym now, yelling, groaning, and whimpering after every single rep on the bench press. Yes, I see you lifting 150 pounds. Thank you for shouting. You’re huge.
During the summers between my college years, when I used to wait tables at Dockside Restaurant in the Coeur d’Alene Resort, I would constantly ask my boss to let me have section 5. Section 5 was the best section. It was at the very front of the restaurant with an incredible view of lake Coeur d’Alene. Section 5 included five, 4-top tables and one large 8-top table that was always full at night. Finally, on a Saturday night, in the middle of the busy season, my boss let me have section 5. I was pumped. It was not uncommon for waiters and waitresses to make $200-$300 in this section on a weekend night. I was going to be rich. Starting at 6PM, the section was packed. I had everything covered. I was flying around the restaurant doing everything as quickly as possible. I made sure my boss saw me walking extra fast and working extra hard. By 8PM, he pulled me to the side and told me that another server was going to help me with section 5 for the rest of the night. I was pissed. I didn’t need help. Couldn’t he see how hard I was working?
Never let them see you sweat. Most people, when faced with a stressful situation, either withdraw and get depressed, or go berserker and zip around like an angry housefly. The problem is that houseflies, no matter how fast they move, are pretty helpless. Zipping around, fake hustling, and frantically taking action come across as powerless and out of control. There’s a difference between looking like you’re working hard and actually working hard. In fact, when you’re really working hard, your every breath and action will be exceedingly deliberate. You won’t have the energy to whimper or show off. Unless you’re working out or in the middle of an athletic event, you shouldn’t be huffing and puffing. Even then, you shouldn’t look stressed out for long. Poise should always be a priority. Poise indicates self-control, self-confidence, and self-mastery. Understand that pretending to be stressed is the same as practicing stress. The more you act anxious and out of control, the more anxious and out of control you will become. The only way to prepare for life’s real challenges is to practice being poised in every situation. By doing this, you can set your default state to confident and in control, versus confused and frantic.
Keys To Poise
Adversity is the gateway to poise. Learning how to be confident in difficult circumstances requires experiencing difficult circumstances. A study out of the University of California, Irvine monitored the mental health and happiness of 2,000 people for several years. At various time points, these people were asked to list any difficult events, such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or a natural disaster, that had happened to them before the survey started. They were also asked to report any difficult events that happened to them during the survey period. In the end, the study found that people who had previously endured hardships were better able to endure future hardships with confidence and control. This means that the best way to improve your poise is to actively seek out challenges before life deals you a major challenge. Put yourself in stressful situations – whether it be signing up to run a marathon, taking a job interview when you don’t need a job, scheduling a meeting with a tough client, volunteering for a public speaking opportunity, or having that difficult conversation you really don’t want to have – and practice handling them with poise.
Poise is a personality trait. Studies in the Consulting Journal of Psychology show that poised people have three main qualities. First, poised people refuse to be afraid during times of change and uncertainty. Instead, they choose to be excited by the new opportunities in front of them. If your boss is treating you like crap, don’t waste your energy by being afraid of losing your job and don’t waste your time chasing your tail and trying to look busy. Instead, do your best, update your resume, and start looking at all the other exciting job opportunities available to you. Second, poised people focus on their circle of influence, not their circle of concern. Rather than feeling helpless, these people focus on what they can control and take action to improve their stressful situation in any way they can. If a poised person is diagnosed with a serious illness, she will stay positive and productive by seeking out whatever information she can find on her disease and by working to improve her overall health. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the doctor alone to fix her, she will eat better, be more active, and keep her attitude in check. Third, poised people stay committed to the world around them. Instead of withdrawing or running away, these people double down on their friendships, activities, and their overall place in the world. Nothing can derail a poised person from his own life – not even a punch to the head.