5 Questions about Sustainable High Performance

After spending 20 years in the advertising industry as a multi-award-winning copywriter, commercials director and Creative Director at M&C Saatchi, Wieden + Kennedy, Naked and Clemenger BBDO, Matt Follows retrained as a performance psychologist and clinical hypnotherapist at King’s College London. Fusing his extensive leadership team experience with his psychology training, he now specializes in helping creative leaders, teams and businesses develop the mental and emotional muscle they need to thrive in today’s high-stake, pressure-cooker environment. He answered five questions from Linda Kerstin of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership recently.

Linda Kerstin: “Burn bright without burning yourself out.” Where do you draw the line?

Matt Follows: I wish I could pull out a ruler and show you exactly where to draw the line. But the truth is that the only person who knows where it lies is yourself. We all handle situations and pressure differently, and what pushes one person to burnout won’t make a dent on another. Not because one person is stronger or weaker than the other, but because one person is working in alignment with their core beliefs, values and energy systems, and the other is working against them. All be it unconsciously.

But why leave things to chance?

When you know what motivates you at a core identity level you can turn that information to your advantage. So rather than cheating yourself out of a happier, healthier and more productive life, you’ll have the roadmap to go out and get it. So when I talk about burning bright without burning yourself out, I’m not saying you need to lower the bar, step off the gas, or be less brilliant. I’m saying that you can burn even brighter by working psychologically smarter, not harder.

As anyone who works in the creative industry knows, things move far too fast and unpredictably these days for us to generate high performance like we used to. But we don’t need to either, because modern neuroscience and contemporary psychology has given us the knowledge, tools and techniques we need to burn brighter than ever before, without paying the price that comes from performance driven by fear, guilt and punishment.

Whether we like it or not, we’re not robots. And our attempt to perform like them is having a catastrophic effect on the emotional health of our industry, and more worryingly, our brightest performers. So, just like elite athletes have done for decades, let’s embrace the psychology of sustainable high performance, and learn where to draw the line before burnout draws it for us.

Kerstin: You’ve said that stress is a codeword for fear. Can you expand on that?

Follows: Fear is a four letter word, especially in the upper echelons of business. From an early age we’re taught that it’s a weakness, something to hide from others, and face alone in dark nights of the soul – or the pub. And because it’s painted in such a negative light, the last thing we want to do when we’re feeling it, is announce it to the people who could judge us for it, or use it against us. So we gave it a more socially acceptable codename: “Stress.”

Unlike fear, stress is worn as a badge of honor in the creative industries. We parade it around as proof that we’re working our tails off, making our mark on the world, and are more productive and dedicated to “the job” than the next person. But beneath the bravado is a mind and body that’s riddled with fear: Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of redundancy, fear of being found out, fear of being judged, fear of rejection, fear of change, fear of uncertainty, fear of getting hurt, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing our biggest client, fear of losing our edge, fear of running out of good ideas, fear of losing our mind… In regards to sustainable high performance, it’s important to understand that stress isn’t an emotion, it’s a symptom, and you experience it when the fear response in the emotional command center of your brain is triggered.

This inbuilt survival mechanism is most commonly known as ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and it puts your mind in a state of high alert, and your body in a state of protection – preparing you to lunge forward, leap backward, or play-dead in the face of a real or perceived threat. Or as it sometimes appears in business, lashing out at an innocent loved one, losing faith in a pitch-winning idea, or procrastinating.

The problem with this intense response is that it isn’t designed for the rigors of the modern world. It’s only supposed to be triggered on rare occasions. And when it is triggered, it’s supposed to be switched off 90 seconds after the treat is over. i.e. when the caveman has wrestled the fight out of the saber-toothed tiger. But in today’s pressure-cooker environment, where demanding jobs, pinging Smartphone’s, tightening deadlines and generalized insecurity keeps us in a permanent state of high alert, the trigger gets pulls around 50 times a day! And there are no freebies when it comes to fear.

Whether it gets pulled to protect you from something immediately life threatening (like a speeding car) or something mildly irritating (like a late night email) the brain’s response is exactly the same – the body gets flooded with adrenalin and cortisol, the immune system is suppressed, and the focused, rational, clear thinking part of your brain is hijacked by your emotions.

But because we’ve trained ourselves to cover up our fear, rather than learning from it, it persists. And as it chews away at our sanity we lose sight of how much it’s subconsciously running our lives, dictating our day-to-day decisions, and negatively impacting our energy levels, relationships and performance. Until the day we get so overloaded with fear (oops, I mean “stress”) that our adrenaline battered body calls a ‘timeout’ and we make a spectacular descent into the depths of burnout.

So if you find yourself getting stressed out on a daily basis, see it for what it really is, and ask yourself if you’re willing to live the rest of your life in a permanent state of fear. And if the answer’s “no” then maybe it’s time to ask yourself what you’re going to do to change that. Because as a wise man once said “What you resist persists, but what you accept you have the power to change.”

Kerstin: You refer to the similarities between athletes and creative leaders. From your perspective, what kind of mental or other muscles should we train? And how would that help us to sustain high performance?

Follows: Scientists used to believe that the human brain was a fixed organ, and that once a person reached adulthood their cognitive abilities would remain unchanged. But modern neuroscience has shown that far from being set in stone, the brain is a highly dynamic bio-mechanical organ that has an amazing capacity for positive change, growth and development across its entire lifespan. This neuroplasticity means that we can actively reshape our brain through repeated experiences, behaviours, learning’s, environmental changes and highly-targeted mental exercises.

So just like athletes build physical muscle to become faster, stronger and more resilient, we can do the same with our mental muscle. We can systematically increase our capacity for pressure, and develop the cognitive resilience to keep our creative A-game online. And that’s of massive significance for high-achieving creative leaders who want to develop the ‘sustainable high performance mindset’ that they need to excel in today’s industry without it breaking them, their teams or their marriage.

When it comes to creating this mindset, the part of the brain we’re most concerned with building (at least in the beginning) is the prefrontal cortex, which sits behind your forehead – and it can be likened to your brain’s CEO. Not only is the CEO responsible for creative thinking, thought analysis, strategy creation, sound decision making, focusing thoughts, ignoring distractions, concentrating on goals and self-control, it also has numerous connections to parts of the brain which control the neurotransmitters responsible for regulating moods.

The left-hand side of the prefrontal cortex for example, helps to inhibit and control negative emotions generated by the brains limbic system. Unlike the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system is unconscious, and it’s responsible for the motivation and emotional behaviors that are essential for life. Deep inside this neural network is another part of the brain that we want to influence through brain training, and that’s called the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure that is the brain’s early warning alarm. In situations where we consciously or unconsciously feel under threat, the amygdala overpowers the CEO and instigates a body-wide red alert which leads to black and white thinking, knee-jerk reactions, tunnel vision, procrastination, overwhelm and other less than useful leadership qualities.

So when you want to sustain high performance, you need to build the strength of the CEO, and reduce the strength of the amygdala, so that you can navigate high-pressure situations with a calm, clear, focused mind. Rather than a mind that’s emotionally charged and racing ten-to-the-dozen. Because when your brain and nervous system are in self-defense mode, it doesn’t just cloud your thinking, it rapidly depletes your energy reserves and prevents you from making strong, innovative decisions on a sustained basis.

Kerstin: 95% of our decisions are unconscious, which makes it even harder to break through some destructive patterns we might hold onto. Could you name a strategy or exercise to start with?

Follows: Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, once said that, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will control your life and you will call it fate.” Which means that if you want more say in the decisions that steer your life, you need to become mindful of the things that are fueling them.

But I’m not saying you need to sit quietly in a room following your breath and the rise and fall of your abdomen. By becoming more mindful I’m saying that you need to become consciously aware of the beliefs, values, habits, rituals, memories, fears, anxieties and preconceptions that push you towards pleasure and away from pain, 95% of the day.

Because like most things in life, you can only challenge and change the things that don’t work for you when you’re aware of what they are. And if you don’t consciously take the time to do that, your unconscious will continue to make habitual decisions without your knowledge of permission (especially when you’re ‘stressed’) and you’ll continue to wonder why destructive patterns never change.

There are lots of ways to become conscious of your unconscious drivers (meditation, NLP and hypnosis are the most obvious) but a more cognitive place to start is to buy yourself a notepad (or steal one from the stationary cupboard) and write down your actions, feelings, beliefs and thoughts every four hours for 21 days.

When you take these notes it’s important that you don’t judge what you’re feeling and thinking at any given time. This benign attention is the first step in training your brain to be less emotionally reactive when put under pressure.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Open the notepad and separate the page into 5 columns.
  2. Title these columns TIME, ACTIONS, FEELINGS, BELIEFS, THOUGHTS
  3. Every four hours write down what you’re doing, what you’re feeling, what your beliefs are about what you’re doing, what your feelings are, and what you’re thinking at that particular time.

After 21 days look back at your notes and write down any patterns that you notice.

Are there reoccurring self-limiting beliefs that you need to change? Are there repeating self-defeating thoughts that you need to challenge? And are there times of the day when certain negative emotions are most prominent?

Kerstin: Our core beliefs shape how we experience reality. When did you realize that some of these beliefs might have a bad influence on your work and how did you change it?

Follows: One of the most destructive core beliefs I had to free myself from was “Only the best is good enough.” It was the benchmark for everything I did, and it took the joy out of everything I did as well. I couldn’t play the guitar for fun, I had to do it until my fingers bled. I couldn’t work like a normal person, I had to work 23/7. And I couldn’t go to the gym and make slow and steady progress, I had to become Mr Universe. Pronto!

Anything less than the best was failure. And despite the fact that my belief put me in intensive care with pneumonia, I still couldn’t shake it. And that’s the crazy thing about core beliefs, even when we know they’re ruining our life and badly impacting our health and happiness, we’re STILL willing to stand by them till death do us part. Luckily for me I didn’t have to wait that long.

My doctor at the time told me about a training I should sign up for. It was called Neurolinguistic Programming, and I had no idea what he was talking about, or why  the hell someone would call something Neurolinguistic Programming. But I went along anyway and it radically reshaped the course of my career from that moment on. For the first time in 30 years I understood what made me tick, and I could clearly see what was holding me back and making me miserable – despite the fact that I had a great job and hilarious friends.

Over the course of the next few weeks I came uncomfortably up-close and personal with my childhood, and I understood (at least on a cognitive level) how my obsession with trying to be nothing but the best was hindering my work, not helping it. But the biggest breakthrough came when I was shown how to access my unconscious mind through a regression process called Timeline Therapy™. Timeline Therapy™ enabled me to go back to the time when I formed the believe that “nothing but the best is good enough”

And as I relived that moment through the benefit of hindsight and adult eyes, I saw what my mum was actually trying to tell me on that day in 1979. Not that nothing but the best is good enough. But that ‘doing my best, was success in itself.’ I had totally misunderstood her words. And knowing that, changed everything.

– Article first appeared on FORBES.COM