Paul Sullivan’s Clutch (Portfolio/Penguin) was published last year. Sullivan, a business columnist for The New York Times, looks at why some people thrive under pressure while others choke. He illustrates his points with well-drawn portraits of people who are “clutch.” Some of these clutch performers, such as Jamie Dimon and trial lawyer David Boies, are well known public figures; others, such as Sgt. Willie Copeland, are not. But all have demonstrated that they can perform exceptionally well in the most trying circumstances.
What traits do the clutch performers share? Sullivan identifies five: focus, discipline, adaptability, being fully in the present, and being driven by fear and desire.
Let’s look at some case studies. First, David Boies on “entering the bubble.” Boise prepares, prepares, and prepares even more for a trial. Once the trial begins he focuses. “In the courtroom, he said he not only has no idea how the trial is going on a broader level but he does not care. … If Boies stopped to congratulate himself on a particularly deft cross-examination or tried to tally up where he stood, he would lose his focus. … He is concerned more with tangible measures. Is the argument he is making working? Is it true and will it hold up under scrutiny from the opposing lawyer? … His focus does not make him myopic. It allows him to follow the tack that he or his opponent is taking at that moment and recalibrate his argument. That is what he can control.” (pp. 41-42)
Second, the importance of discipline and resilience in trading as related by William Mumma, global head of derivatives at Bankers Trust in the mid-1990s. “There were two reasons people got A’s at Harvard or became Navy Seals, and only one of those reasons made them good traders. Some prepared and studied harder, which would not necessarily help them. They did not expect to lose ever—in life, in school, in work. This was not possible in trading. But others [who got A’s after faltering along the way]… were innately better at pushing themselves to succeed. They didn’t fear failure; they hated it,” which, as Mumma was quick to point out, is different from disliking losing. “All traders lose at some point, but it doesn’t mean they failed. It means they lost on a particular day. The better traders figured out how to avoid losing strategies, those that not only lead to losses in a single day, but failure down the road.” (pp. 66-67)
Finally, the power of fear as a motivator. In 2007 researchers studied 281 students at the University of Bath, two-thirds of whom went to the gym regularly. They wanted to figure out what motivated some students to work out and others not to. The study was something of a thought experiment. The researchers “asked half of them to imagine themselves as overweight and unattractive. The researchers then further divided the sample by asking half of the group to imagine themselves failing at their workout regime—and thus becoming even less attractive—while telling the other group to see themselves succeeding wildly and in doing so becoming much more attractive. Over the course of the study, the researchers found that the group that was motivated by the fear of looking awful stuck to their workout better than the group that was doing it with the hope of looking better. The gap between the two groups was significant, with 85 percent who wanted to avoid becoming unattractive continuing their workouts when told they were failing compared to 65 percent who were told they were succeeding. Even if both groups started out going to the gym regularly, the ones that were doing it to look better than they already did dropped off, while those who felt, in essence, that they had to dig themselves out of a hole were the ones who continued.” (pp. 117-18)