Category Archives: Stress

How to Boost Your Performance through Rituals with James Lipton

How do you prepare yourself for a new activity? I didn’t put too much thought into this until I was at a conference a few years ago. I can’t remember the topic but I distinctly recall standing at a urinal when a guy walked into the bathroom and shouted at the mirror, “You are Lizard King! You can do anything!” He then left as quickly as he had appeared.

Ten minutes later I was shocked as the “Lizard King” was introduced as the keynote speaker. After the presentation, I asked him about his display. He wasn’t embarrassed, although he claimed that he didn’t see anyone in the bathroom. The keynote stated that it’s simply his pre-speech ritual. “It must psych you up?” I asked. “It use to,” he responded, “now it’s just something I do to center myself before I stand in front of a crowd.”

Similarly, in a recent interview, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton discussed his pre-show rituals. It begins with the hours of meticulous research Lipton conducts on the person being interviewed. This can take months and Lipton prefers to do it by himself. He then transcribes his notes onto his trademark blue index cards and marks them up with post-it tabs and highlighters before they are neatly stacked in a 10-inch pile on his desk while taping the show.

My nightmare, somebody steals my cards.—James Lipton

Rituals like Lipton and the Lizard King are more than simply superstition or habit; they have been shown to have a positive affect on performance. In a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Alison Woods Brooks found that many top-level performers use rituals to help them prepare. These rituals significantly reduce anxiety and produce a higher quality work product. By mitigating the distracting, disruptive indicators associated with anxiety through pre-performance routines, Brooks concluded, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.”

The lesson here is that we need a consistent ritual that precedes our stress-inducing events. You can go big (like screaming into a public bathroom mirror) or more subtle. Drink a glass of room temperature water. Read a poem or inspirational quote. Click your heals three times. Whatever you can do to center yourself and jumpstart that inner “on” switch. I’m sure Lipton would even be okay if you used index cards, although maybe you can find a color other than blue.

Weekender: Keegan-Michael Key on Perceiving Challenges

Keegan-Michael KeyWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a peel of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just the peel? Because it’s the weekend!

Have you ever seen a leader throw a temper tantrum over the minorest of minor issues? When this happens, it is clear that the individual has experienced a temporary lapse of what really matters. While this is bound to happen to anyone, the leader cannot afford to damage their reputation or appear petty. Keegan-Michael Key offers a perspective that may help.

Comedian and actor Keegan-Michael Key is best known for his television work on Key & Peele and MADtv and his recent movie Keanu. In a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones, Key discussed how maturity and experience have changed the ways he views life’s daily challenges.

At the end of the day, in our industry, it’s always just a series of challenges. So the difference is, do you look at the challenges as opportunities or do you look at the challenges as problems. And that is something that as I’ve gotten older, I’ll get into a weird mode where I’ll say, ‘alright, the stakes are really high this time.’ No, no, no, no. Why? Why weren’t they higher here? The issue or the challenge is just a challenge. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a $50 million comedy or you’re doing a play at a 60 seat black box. How do we decipher and give clarity to every moment?

What an interesting view on maintaining perspective. If we can view setbacks as nothing more than challenges, it takes some pressure off knowing that the stakes remain manageable. Then, in the moments when we feel like we’ve stumbled, our frustration might not feel so frustrating or maybe it won’t last as long.

Glitches are bound to happen, but your mindset can affect the impact they have on your confidence, attitude, and behavior. With a dose of perspective, your newfound Zen-ness can provide some inner peace and set the tone for your entire team.

Jessica Jones on Overcoming a Toxic Boss

jessica jones posterI recently binged watched the Netflix series Jessica Jones. Let me begin by saying “Wow!” I can’t remember the last time I was so addicted to a show. If you haven’t seen it, the simple premise is that Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a former minor superhero suffering from PTSD.

We follow Jessica as she deals with the source of her PTSD, a sadistic adversary named Kilgrave (David Tenant). Kilgrave has the power to control minds. If he tells someone to do something, they will do it without hesitation regardless of how vile the suggestion may be—sticking their hand in a blender, tossing hot coffee in their face, punching a stranger, etc. With his power, Kilgrave held Jessica captive for a year against her will. Pretty sick stuff.

jessica jonesTo a much lesser extent, how many of us have been “mind controlled” by a less-than-favorable boss? Like Kilgrave, they tell us how to feel, what to think, and how to behave. However, since they don’t have Kilgrave’s superpower, these “leaders” control through such tactics as manipulation, fear, and isolation (emotional and physical) until you are ultimately browbeaten into submission.

To deal with her trauma, Jessica resorts to drinking heavily, working obsessively, and bouts of insomnia. I’d like to suggest a few more constructive ways to help you work through your situation.


If you can swallow your pride, present ideas in a way that allows the boss to feel the idea was theirs and/or take partial credit.This will allow the boss to feel important and your ideas will be able to flourish. Be sure to give the boss credit and compliment frequently. It may not feel dignified but self-preservation is not always pretty.

Be selective

Choose your battles wisely. Think before you act. Make rational, purposeful choices as to which battles are worth fighting and which you need to let go.

Form a coalition

If it’s you versus someone in a higher position of power, you are going to need support. Finding others who are willing to go out on a limb may be tough, but power in numbers is effective. Get the team together to provide constructive, non-threatening feedback to the boss. Maintain frequent contact with these other courageous individuals and ensure that you are not being played against one another.


When you are dealing with an unethical, vindictive boss, CYA (Cover Your A–) is a necessity. Maintain written records of every meeting, conversation, and incident. Avoid commentary, just write the facts. You may also want to send frequent emails to your boss summarizing assignments and seeking clarification on tasks. Not only will this clear up miscommunication, but it will provide a paper trail if needed.

Move up the chain

In the same way you need a supportive team, you also need support from those at the upper echelon of the organizational hierarchy. Make sure other department leaders are aware of your situation, speak with your boss’ boss, and keep HR in the loop.

Make a run for it

No one should have to work in a place that is so toxic, so once you’ve done everything you can to try to improve your current situation, it’s time to consider an exit strategy. Save yourself and find a healthier work environment.

It took Jessica Jones a year to break free form Kilgrave’s mental grip…and she had superpowers. Don’t wait around with the hopes that your situation will get better. Unless you do something, it won’t. Avoid succumbing to the mental warfare. Remind yourself of your value and don’t let others treat you as less.

Weekender: Shirley Manson on the Need for Agitation

Shirley MansonWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, some debris of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just some debris (versus an entire compost)? Because it’s the weekend!

When I first entered the work world, I remember feeling a constant wave of anxiety. Questions like, “Am I making the right decisions?” and “What more can I do?” kept repeating in my head. I’d been told that a career is not a sprint but a marathon, but there was no way for me to absorb this advice with all the pressure I was putting on myself. Turns out, I wasn’t alone in these sentiments.

In a recent interview, singer and actress Shirley Manson was discussing when she and her band Garbage first achieved fame in the early 1990s.

When I was young, I literally felt scared 24/7. 24/7 I felt anxious and angry and frustrated and all the things that come with being young…It’s a great engine. That’s why young people achieve stuff…I think being chill is so overrated. A sense of agitation is good.

It is comforting to know that an internationally-renowned rock star had a similar experience as many of us. Even more comforting is that this fear can be harnessed to propel us towards success. Manson frames this as a by-product of youth, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is hard to keep the engine stoked, which I am managing to do. I still manage to be enthusiastic and I’m not cynical and I’m not tired or bored. But that is a challenge. How do you keep yourself as stoked as you were when you were young?

Like Manson, many of us aren’t quite in the dawn of our careers. This does not mean were are anywhere near the twilight. For anyone in the in-between, there is a persistent challenge to remain engaged. This cannot come from a supervisor or any other external stimulus. We have to dig deep and find the inspiration within ourselves.

Look for new challenges, new end goals, and new ways to develop and learn. If you aren’t feeling agitated, make yourself agitated. Think of everything you want to accomplish in your career and how little of it you’ve gotten done up to this point. Push yourself just far enough that it is motivating without becoming debilitating. It’s a long way from “being chill,” but it’s better then being stagnant.

Weekender: Jeff Tweedy on Self-Inflicted Pressure

Jeff TweedyWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a beat of thought to start your weekend on the right track. Why just a beat (versus the whole song)? Because it’s the weekend!

When leaders find success, they commonly (and unconsciously) put pressure on themself to replicate their triumphant victory. After all, no one wants to be a one-hit wonder, especially an ambitious, goal-oriented trailblazer such as yourself. To relieve some of this anxiety while simultaneously retaining your drive, Jeff Tweedy recently gave some helpful insight in a Rolling Stone magazine interview.

For those of you who are either 1) unaware or 2) lack musical taste, Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of Wilco who, in my completely objective view, is one of the best bands ever. One thing I like is they do not try to duplicate a sound, even when it results in a Top 40 song. Every album is distinct. Now you might think that constantly re-creating a musical persona puts a lot of pressure on a band; but as Jeff said in the interview:

I’ve had enough real pressure and issues in my life to look at artistic pressure as child’s play, you know? Part of enjoying it for me is discovering something I can do that I didn’t know I could do or getting better at playing a show in front of 20,000 people. You know, it’s just full of challenges, but I wouldn’t really call those pressures.

What a way to reframe and refocus pressure. First, Jeff puts it all in perspective. He takes a holistic worldview so he can relieve himself of the unproductive stress associated with misaligned priorities. Easier said than done? Only if you are already so frazzled that you can’t get out of the weeds.

The second thing Jeff does to minimize/avoid pressure is view each challenge as an opportunity to learn new things. He’s not trying to repeat the steps that led to past success because he’s not trying to repeat what he’s already accomplished. The new endeavor stands on it’s own. It benefits from what Jeff has already learned and will be successful because he continues to develop his skills.

wilco star warsLife’s hard enough without adding undue pressure. Maintain a healthy perspective. Don’t get locked into how you’ve done it in the past. Keep growing and stretching. And, if you haven’t, buy a Wilco album. You can thank me later.