“Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over!”
Johnnie Most, Game 7, 1965 Eastern Conference Finals, Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
They call it The Clutch. The moment of truth. Do or die. Now or never. It’s turned mortal flesh and blood into legend. And, for some, reduced it to the ash heap of history, forever ensconced in shame and disgrace. It sits at the crossroads of greatness and loathing and many have passed this way. The great ones, we remember. Jordan. Ortiz. Gretzky. The others pray for redemption in our memories. Buckner. Lebron. The 1942 Red Wings.
And though you and I might never know what it is to launch a Hail Mary into the history books or pull a Dave Roberts and change the course of Red Sox history or fire a jumper at the buzzer to lead Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Finals à la Christian Laettner, every day we face our own buzzers in this pressure cooker of a business.
We’ve all been there. The freelancer who gets called in at the eleventh hour to save a pitch. The CD with a client poised to jump ship if the work doesn’t get better. The rookie art director in a shootout with another rookie art director for the only job open with the coolest agency on the planet.
I used to think The Clutch was a place reserved for a precious few. It was genetic. It was automatic. You rose to the moment or you didn’t. You were special. You weren’t human. You were Larry Bird in sneakers and jeans. I could not have been more wrong.
While it’s true that coming through in The Clutch is indeed a rare gift, it’s not because it’s entwined in your genetic code. On the contrary, even those of us who fold like a cheap suit under pressure can train ourselves to be as calm, cool and collected as Captain Sullenberger putting a jetliner down on the Hudson River like it was a stone skipping on a pond.
Phil Jackson, arguably one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, thinks he knows the answer. “You have to be able to act with a clear mind and be totally focused on what everyone on the floor is doing. The secret to that is not thinking.”
When the heat is on, there can be nothing else in your consciousness. Focus is everything. Just you and the problem. You and the problem. You and the problem. Doesn’t matter that your car payment is late. Doesn’t matter that your girlfriend was seen in a bar last night with your best friend. Doesn’t matter that your mother is coming up from Florida to visit for a week. You. And. The. Problem. There is nothing else in the universe. Just the brief. Just the client. You don’t see anything else. You don’t hear anything else.
The funny thing about pressure cooker situations is that the only thing that separates them from normal everyday situations is a ticking clock, the threat of losing a client, losing your job, monumentally embarrassing yourself—the threat of something. Which means we elevate their importance to the sacred. The task isn’t any different. Just the consequences. Dwell on those consequences instead of the simple and joyous act of creating something wonderful and the tension level, I promise you, is enough to reduce your brain to pudding.
Tennis player, Bobby Riggs was 55 in 1973. He was at the end of his career, knew it, but took every chance he could to proclaim that women could never be the players men were. Men were stronger. Men were faster. Men were superior in every way. But of course, they would be. They were men and women were, well, just women. This was the way Bobby saw the world. To prove he was right, he challenged then 29-year-old Billy Jean King to a match. Billy Jean accepted.
There are pressure cooker moments. And then there are the double whammy pressure cooker moments: 1973 was the height of the women’s rights movement. Then, as now, women athletes were paid a lot less than men. And here was Bobby Riggs threatening to rub every woman’s nose in it. If Billie Jean lost, she’d be losing a tennis match. Worse, she’d be losing a chance to make a huge step forward, if only symbolic, for all women. Talk about consequences. But instead of seeing the match as The Battle Of The Sexes as the rest of the world did, Billie Jean saw it as just another game of tennis.
And so can you. ca