I watch a fair amount of sports on TV, for reasons including ambient sound, commentators’ endless stats commentary, and because the outcome is always uncertain. (Sport competition gets interesting when it doesn’t go according to plan, which is the best narrative.) For these reasons, even with all the commercials in need of skipping through, sports make for perfect TV.
One of the clichés you hear athletes talking about a lot is the importance of managing their emotions. Since there are endless variables they can’t control, athletes are constantly devising ways to modulate their thinking—and non-thinking—in real time so that they can perform optimally under trying and at times immensely stressful conditions. Athletes have their rituals, routines, go-to moves and tactics, and even superstitious tics to help them along (e.g. Rafael Nadal aligning his water bottles as if making adjustments to a personal sundial): these are the elements they can control, even as the outcome of their performance craft will always be uncertain. Roger Federer once said in an interview that when he started playing as a professional, he would get irritated when he missed a shot and show his irritation on his face. At some point, he decided to adopt a new and neutral “game face” which would reveal little of his emotions. The purpose was not simply to deny his competitors an advantage. A neutral game face also helped him manage his emotions better by sending a message to his nervous system that telegraphed all is good—even though he has to save three match points or he’ll lose Wimbledon. When I’m watching tennis, golf, or soccer, I’m pondering the possible outcomes of athletes’ performances and their efforts to control them. The champion is, for the moment, in total control, but that could change in an instant. In fact, entire careers can change in an instant. Who knows, the champion may lose today and then never win again—his champion life could be over after this next shot. That’s one of the invisible burdens great athletes carry around with them, 24/7: When will the winningness end?
Creative work is similar to sports performance, even though the tactics artists, writers, or composers use are less visible. Rituals, routines, and go-to moves are all part of creative work’s daily equation, helping one structure minutes into productive hours. And as with sports, the most important element is managing one’s emotions, but with a difference. In sports, managing one’s emotions ideally means taking them out of the performance equation, so your hand isn’t shaking as you try to hit that forehand. This is impossible to do perfectly, of course, but that’s the goal. That’s what the tennis commentators are talking about when they speak of the underdog who, losing a match, has nothing left to lose and so becomes uninhibited and starts swinging freely and playing lights out well. In creative work, one wants to be playing lights out too, but not by taking emotions out of the equation. Managing your emotions requires paying attention to how you’re feeling about what you’re doing in the moment of doing it. It entails knowing when something is generating excitement or boredom in you and quickly figuring out a way to either build on that or fix it (or throw it out). Having said this, emotions aren’t foolproof measures of your work’s quality and so sometimes you just need to let them wander. Managing your emotions means letting them ascend to great heights for a few moments (picture smoke drifting upwards) and then watching them come back down. Managing your emotions means loving and disliking your work simultaneously, as if you can’t decide whether you’re looking at the two faces or the vase. (It’s both.) Managing your emotions means proceeding despite them—ushering the project along even though you feel neither here nor there about it, at least right now. Who knows, your opinion could change in a few minutes—you might have begun a “winning” streak without even knowing it. Most importantly, managing your emotions means understanding that sometimes they’ll be bystanders as you attend to the gameplay of your craft, ever trying to win your own trust and position yourself to swing freely.