1. They Actually Don’t Keep Calm and Carry On
When people are already experiencing pre-performance jitters, found Alison Wood Brooks, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, it’s much easier to shift into a state of excitement than calm. Brooks did a study with participants in several high-stress scenarios: karaoke singing, public speaking and math performance. Those who told themselves “I’m excited” before their anxiety-provoking tasks consistently outshone, and felt better about their performances, than those who told themselves, “I’m calm.” Think about it: It’s easier to trick ourselves into thinking we’re psyched about something that scares us because the physiological symptoms are so similar: sweaty palms, thumping heart, the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Brooks said that when her subjects were told to get excited, they actually felt more excited, more confident and were able to more naturally shift their focus on the positive opportunities in the upcoming task (unleashing their inner Celine Dion) versus the potential threats (completely bombing in front of all of their friends). “Instead of putting up signs that say, Keep Calm and Carry On,” said Brooks, “people should use signs that say, Get Excited and Succeed.”
2. They Understand the Power of a Pair of Dirty Socks
Well, sort of. Serena Williams has said she’ll wear the same exact pair of socks when competing in tournaments. Beyoncé has an hours-long pre-stage ritual that involves prayer, stretching and listening to her favorite music. And motivational speaker Tony Robbins says 10 minutes of high-energy movement and repetition of incantations helps him take the stage with the confidence he’s known for.
Some of the greatest artists, athletes, novelists and thinkers of our time have relied upon their own quirky pre-performance rituals to help them get in the zone — and produce their best work. A study from Germany’s University of Cologne confirmed that these symbolic behaviors and good-luck tokens work because they help strengthen confidence in our ability in moments when we’re feeling our most uncertain. In her own research, Brooks found there’s something tangible behind these wacky routines: “Even when the ritual is composed of a random set of steps that someone else tells you to do — ‘draw a picture of how you feel, pour salt on your drawing, crumple it up, throw it in the trash’ — rituals reduce the heart rate and improve subsequent performance.”