High-pressure challenges are life-changing opportunities

Our resident psychologist ponders how to thrive in this high-pressure life.

Dr Nick Baylis: "Motivating yourself to seek out the transforming potential of hot-iron, high-pressure situations is neither fun nor easy."
Dr Nick Baylis: "Motivating yourself to seek out the transforming potential of hot-iron, high-pressure situations is neither fun nor easy."

The coming year will be peppered with situations that make intense demands upon you. There’ll be a public performance or personal rejection, an urgent problem or crucial exam, an exquisite love or painful loss, a confrontation or golden chance.

The energy of any one of those scenarios could propel your life forward or badly derail you, depending on how you handle it. High pressure can be powerfully transforming.

It’s akin to a law of physics: just as a master blacksmith can shape metal only when it’s glowing hot, malleable and ready to be worked on, likewise we humans need a high-pressure challenge sufficiently to engage our thinking, emotions, body and behaviour so that major change is possible.

This is why hard exercise can sculpt the body; why boldly confronting a deep fear can rapidly defuse it; why sharing a tough adventure can create a loving friendship. It’s as if the high-pressure challenge allows the cold cast-iron of your mind, body and behaviour to become molten hot and highly flexible. That hot-iron situation is now an opportunity and, by applying a skilful response at that highly receptive moment, you can swiftly transform your abilities.

Humans of every creed and culture welcome and reward the individual who demonstrates the kind of true grit to work skilfully while the iron’s hot, whether that person is a midwife or emergency-room medic, a combat veteran or steadfast friend. And it’s not just those who cope well with problems thrust upon them who command our respect. We equally admire those with the confidence to create high pressure so as to transform a situation positively: it’s the daring joker who bursts us into laughter, the tough teacher inspiring us further, the seller who creates a demand.

We also see this quality in the musician who moves us, the writer who intrigues us and the romantic whose passion delights. Such individuals use intensity to change the game, turn the tide, clinch the deal. They ignite,invent and surprise. This entails not just turning up the heat, but knowing how to ride it. And that ‘hot–iron know how’ can be learned. The furthest edge of what you can stand is the learning edge and the more time you can spend there adapting, the better you’ll become at whatever skill of mind and body on which you choose to work. This principle explains why Olympic athletes might spend months in the thin air of high altitude; why concert pianists play with deliberate distractions; why language learners immerse themselves among native speakers. They know that the most difficult training, if designed so it doesn’t overwhelm you, can bring the greatest improvements. When you strive, you thrive.

Compare that approach to the mistake we can sometimes make when hoping to improve a skill: rather than train at the learning edge of what we can’t yet manage, we tend to repeat time and again what we can easily do already. The result of this lukewarm practice is that we get very good at being C-grade. We master the mediocre.

Because of this mistaken strategy, we might reach a modest level at something – our work, hobbies, sports, even our closest relationships – but we don’t improve from that point because we stop challenging ourselves. Yet the human animal has evolved to be wonderfully versatile in mind, body and behaviour and if you don’t use this natural stretchability you won’t feel satisfied.

Motivating yourself to seek out the transforming potential of hot-iron, high-pressure situations is neither fun nor easy. It’s damned hard, but deeply rewarding; and once you decide to embrace such intense opportunities, then every arena of personal and professional life can flourish.

Visit Nick’s website at HotIronKnowHow.com

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