Performing Under Pressure: Martian Style

a-martian-Hendrie WeisingerWe all have our unique pressure moments – situations in which we have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on our performance but I think we would all agree that being stuck on Mars with a limited supply of food and water and help being 140 million miles away would be a pressure moment for all of us. That’s the moment for astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian. Presumed dead by his crew after a fierce storm, he finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With his life at stake and only meager supplies, he must find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. In other words, he has to perform under pressure.

For me, though, it’s just another film that illustrates the points I knew before I bought my ticket. I saw four science-nonfiction points that justified a Hollywood ending.

First, and contrary to wide audience belief, his survival was no spectacular feat he did not rise to the occasion. Rather, he simply applied his training that included his MIT math skills, Ph.D. botanical knowledge, and all the information he learned in his training.

True to Apollo 13 and airplane pilot Captain Sully landing a plane on the Hudson River, people who perform “spectacular feats” do not rise to the occasion in a pressure moment; they are executing what they have learned. More often then not, this will result in success. It is an important point to recognize because many people in pressure moments think that to succeed they have to do better than their capabilities allow. This mindset causes them to try harder, to “press,” and paradoxically they do worse. Astronaut Watney trusted his experience and by doing so, he remained confident that he could perform his task.

Confident people tend to succeed more often than not.

Second, he kept his focus by remembering his “meaningful” (and thus energizing) mission get back to earth. Keeping his mission in focus directed his attention to the tasks that he needed to perform to accomplish it. Most people in a pressure moment get distracted by “worry cognitions,” thoughts that generate feelings of anxiety and fear.

Whether they occur moments before a presentation, audition or crucial conversation, worry cognitions downgrade your cognitive success skills such as judgment, decision making, and memory you’re so busy worrying about the possibility of a dreaded outcome that you “forget” to pay attention to what is needed to get the job done.

Focusing on his mission allowed astronaut Watney use his cognitive capabilities to remember his math and chemistry so he could make water and grow food requirements if he were to achieve his mission.

Science tells us that if you focus on your mission when you are under pressure, you will increase your chances to succeed.

Third, this updated version of Robinson Crusoe kept his spirits alive by creating hope (an underused management strategy.) He did this by practicing “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He certainly had the will – the motivation that is required to pursue the task, and the fact that his task of surviving was meaningful, kept him motivated. His will allowed him to use his science knowledge to identify pathways – multiple ways and resources that would help him reach his goal. Growing food, making water, increasing the power of his space mobile, all had the common denominator of helping him survive and by recognizing his “micro-successes” he became more hopeful that he could achieve a successful mission. That’s because the more pathways you can create, the more hope you experience and the more optimistic you become. 

Optimism fuels tenacity so it is not surprising that when Watney encountered a setback, he stayed the course. He became tenacious.

Focusing on his mission, trusting his skills and remembering what he had already accomplished kept his confidence and optimism alive – that’s what happens when you are engaged in the tenacity process – meaningful goals, focus, hope, problem solve.

Fourth, he kept himself enthused by capitalizing on the scientific fact that sound stimulates and communicates emotion. It wasn’t his favorite, but periodically listening to the disco music that he had access to kept him positively aroused – in a good mood.

A by-product of his positive affect – his thinking flourished when he needed it the most

(and at the same time, the film’s music kept the audience upbeat and engaged throughout).

A final observation: while much of the tasks Watney had to perform occurred in a hostile atmosphere, it’s ironic that his 16-million-dollar NASA space suit wasn’t really the suit that helped him accomplish his mission. It was the other one, the suit he never takes off, and if you see the film, you will recognize it.

It’s more of a COTE than a suit. Its fabrics: Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity and Enthusiasm.

Wear your COTE every day and you’ll be more likely to achieve your missions!

Check out the recording of Dr. Weisinger leading an episode of ExecuNet Master Class! His thought-provoking and creatively put insights resulted in high ratings from attendees. Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most


Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger

Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D. is a celebrated and influential psychologist, pioneer in the field of pressure management, the originator of criticism training and the author of two New York Times bestselling books. He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 Companies and government agencies and has taught in Executive Education and Executive MBA programs at Wharton, UCLA, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and MIT. His work has been featured several times in The New York Times Sunday Business Section, and numerous popular magazines. His article for The Wall Street Journal, So You’re Afraid To Criticize Your Boss, was selected as one of their 60 best management articles and reprinted in Dow Jones on Management. He has appeared on more than 500 radio and television shows including Oprah, Good Morning America, Charlie Rose, and was the featured expert for 5 consecutive days on The Today Show for their anger management special. His newest book and NY Times Bestseller is Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most You can learn more about Dr. Weisinger and his new empowering E Workshop Experience, Performing Under Pressure at hendrieweisingerphd.com

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