ReThinking with Adam Grant
The science of performing under pressure with Sian Beilock
March 28, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
Think about the times when you've been in a high-stakes, high-pressure situation. You're on stage to give a big talk, where the ball is in your hands with the game on the line. People are watching your every move. You've done what you can to prepare, and then suddenly your mind goes blank. Your hands stop working. You take the wrong step. You’ve just choked.
My guest today is the world's leading expert on the psychology of choking. Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist who studies how we perform under pressure, and her scholarly work applies to her own career, too. Since 2017, Sian has served as the president of Barnard College at Columbia University. And this year, she becomes the president of Dartmouth. She'll be the first woman in the school's history to ever hold that position.
As a leader, Sian excels under pressure, and since universities are spaces to share ideas, try new things, and yes, even choke and learn from it, her insights about leadership are relevant to all of us.
Well, welcome Sian. I'm excited to talk to you on multiple fronts. It's not every day I get to talk to a, a fellow psych geek who's also a university president.
[00:01:25] Sian Beilock:
I'm excited to be here.
[00:01:26] Adam Grant:
I would love to find out how in the world you became a leading expert on performance under pressure and choking. I'm sure you get asked a lot. Did you have a terrible choking experience? Was there a defining moment in your life that led you down this path?
[00:01:40] Sian Beilock:
I definitely do me-search in addition to research, so I wanna understand how I tick. I was an athlete growing up at a pretty high level. I was always interested in doing well on tests and in school.
And there were several times where I just didn't perform up to what I thought my potential was. Um, whether it was in front of a national coach in soccer or taking the SAT, and I wanted to understand why, even though I wanted to perform really well, I just couldn't pull it out.
[00:02:10] Adam Grant:
And, what did you do?
[00:02:11] Sian Beilock:
So I went to undergrad. I was a cognitive science major at UC San Diego, and I was just thrilled with this idea that you could actually choose a discipline where you got to look at human performance, how people perform, but I was also struck by this idea that there were less people studying why people messed up. And so that's really what I set out to do is to understand why people screwed up, especially when ironically, they wanted to perform at their best.
[00:02:41] Adam Grant:
It sounds like your origin story, then, in some ways is the opposite of positive psychology. We have all these people studying peak performance. You're like, “No, I wanna study failure and bombing and crashing and burning.”
[00:02:52] Sian Beilock:
That is exactly right, and we all do it. And I was wondering why people weren't talking about it a lot.
[00:02:58] Adam Grant:
So tell me, what did you learn? You've done a lot of experiments where you actually induce people to choke. Like what, what causes it fundamentally?
[00:03:07] Sian Beilock:
Yeah. I mean, what I learned is I don't think there are people who are born thrivers or chokers. We can all perform poorly under pressure and we can all succeed under pressure.
And so that's really important because it means that when people say, “Oh, I'm just a choker,” I don't actually think that's true. And I think that's motivating ‘cause we can all learn to perform better. And also what I learned is that there really is something called choking where we perform more poorly than expected given our skill level precisely because we feel anxiety or stress associated with performance. And if that's a thing, that’s actually pretty good to know because then we can start developing techniques to guard against it.
[00:03:47] Adam Grant:
Okay. So walk me through the basic psychology first of what contributes to choking. So, I feel anxiety or stress about a performance. What determines then whether that actually elevates my performance or undermines it?
[00:04:02] Sian Beilock:
Haha. So that’s, like, the key question. If we knew the exact answer to that, we wouldn't be excited to watch the Super Bowl or sporting events or people give a talk. I think oftentimes what happens when we feel really nervous or anxious about our performance, and we're not always confident in our ability to succeed, is that we often try and control what we're doing. We try and control the outcome, and this can actually really derail what would otherwise happen more on autopilot, and that's often when choking happens.
[00:04:33] Adam Grant:
I guess one of the first studies I ever read that, that spoke to choking was the classic Bob Zajonc social interference, social facilitation paper. The fundamental explanation is a little bit outdated today, but I think you're, you're speaking to something that I took away from that research, which is it seemed that when people were novices, they would perform worse when other people were watching them, and when they were highly skilled or when they were experts, you'd see the opposite, that having a big crowd actually amplified their performance.
And I remember Zajonc arguing that, that basically the effect of a crowd was that it raised your anxiety level or your stress level, and that was actually bad for novices because it interfered with their cognitive processing. But it was good for experts because under stress, we revert to our well-learned routines. And so if I'm an expert, my autopilot is highly skilled. How does that track with what we know now?
[00:05:24] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, I mean, I think the idea is that our autopilot can be highly skilled, but we often can get, what, in the way of our autopilot. So if you're a novice, I'm not sure it's actually choking. You don’t have that great a performance to begin with, but when you get pretty good at something, often time it is, times it is better to let it go on autopilot. And the idea is that when there's too much stress and anxiety, we tend to disrupt that autopilot. We get in our own way.
[00:05:51] Adam Grant:
So, I reached out to an Olympic coach who thinks a lot about this, who wanted to know: is choking predictable? Are there warning signs? Are there things I should watch out for in my athletes, in his case, or in myself, in my case?
[00:06:06] Sian Beilock:
It's a really interesting question. And I will say that oftentimes worry and anxiety can trickle over and have an impact on what we're doing in our day-to-day in our expert performance.
So, we often think we go on the green or the track or the slope, everything else goes away. And my argument is that, actually, stresses can seep in and have an impact. And so, if there's other things going on in other parts of people's lives, I think it's a pretty good sign that we have to pay extra attention to what's happening in that important moment.
[00:06:39] Adam Grant:
A lot of times we train or, or prepare as hard as possible, not just to get good, but in the hopes that we'll feel good about our performance by the time we get on stage or we arrive in competition. It doesn't always work. Are there non-obvious or counterintuitive strategies that you've come across in your research for managing anxiety in the moment?
[00:06:59] Sian Beilock:
Yeah. Well, I will say even before you get to the moment, like, how we train and prepare really matters. So if you're training to give a performance on stage or a pitch to a client or even an athletic event, you've gotta train under the conditions you're gonna perform under.
And I talk about it as closing this gap between training and competition because it is a different skill you’re learning to some extent, to do it when other people are watching you. That's why taking practice tests can be so important. It's why giving that speech at the wedding in front of other people where you learn to feel some of the anxiety before you're actually there can be such an important part of getting ready for the stressful situation.
And it turns out that if you practice under those conditions, you tend to feel less anxious when you're actually there. But, if you do go into the situation or you don't feel great, which happens all the time, I do have some tips and some tips that we've studied and others have studied to help you in the moment.
The first is to actually be pretty explicit with how you're talking to yourself. Like, we have lots of conversations with ourselves, and I'd argue it's one of the most important conversations that we ever have. It's the longest conversation and a really important relationship, and we tend to be pretty mean to ourselves.
So actually coaching ourselves and talking to ourselves like we'd talk to a friend, getting ourselves pumped up, even reminding ourselves of a time in the past where maybe we were worried and succeeded and why we should succeed now, that little pep talk can be really important.
[00:08:27] Adam Grant:
What about when we're dealing with other people who are anxious? So if I'm a manager, if I'm a coach, a mentor, a friend, or a colleague? What are the best ways to calm someone down?
[00:08:37] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, I mean, another one, for example, another technique that we've studied and others have studied is really to remind people that that anxiety they're feeling is not necessarily a bad thing.
So you have sweaty palms and a beating heart. Like, what if you reappraise that? You think about it not as a sign you're about to fall in your face, but a sign that your body's ready to go. You're shunting blood to your brain so you can think and perform at your best. Just that act of reappraising can take some of the stress off and actually lead to better performance.
[00:09:06] Adam Grant:
I guess in some ways it speaks to a light bulb moment that I had a few years ago around the idea that anxiety doesn't mean I'm unprepared. It actually is a sign that I care. Because by definition, anxiety is an emotion involving uncertainty, right? I'm worried about some future event; I don't know how it's gonna go. And yes, it might go terribly, but it could also go really well. And either way, if the event didn't matter to me, I wouldn't feel it.
[00:09:30] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, I mean, if you had no anxiety, you'd be dead, first of all. Right? Like, this is part of being aroused and being alive. I think we have to get better and more accustomed to just being uncomfortable.
Being uncomfortable can actually be great for a lot of things. It's how you learn. If we're okay with being uncomfortable, we're more likely to listen to viewpoints that are different than our own, like, being uncomfortable I think is a sign that you're gonna grow and that there's something there and something that you care about and sort of reminding yourself of that is not a bad thing.
[00:10:01] Adam Grant:
Not at all. One of the salient examples for me that, that came to mind preparing for this conversation, but also I thought of your research in this moment, was Simone Biles at the, the Olympics in 2021. That looked, to a lot of people, like a case of choking. She had to pull out of most of her events despite being, you know, the undisputed best gymnast in the world, what was your reaction? What did you see, if you remember?
[00:10:27] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, I think it's precisely the best case of not choking. Like, she made such a good decision for herself, for her team, and she was, like, cognizant enough to understand that she wasn't going to be able to perform at her best.
And so in many ways, I think it’s, like, the exact opposite of choking. But I think it also shows that when you are not prepared to be on autopilot, when you're not prepared to do what you want, it can really disrupt your performance.
[00:10:55] Adam Grant:
I remember watching it, and when she got lost in midair, I immediately said, “Oh, she has the twisties,” which I had once as a diver. I remember I was supposed to do a, a front one and a half with, with one twist, but I had been doing it a lot with two twists, and I got lost in midair and did one and a half twists and landed, I think, half on my back, half on my ear.
It hurt, but much more than that, it was terrifying because I had no idea where I was in mid-air, and it took me about a month and a half to relearn the mechanics of sort of knowing, I guess, regaining my air awareness and then stopping the twist at one as opposed to doing two.
And I had a coach who, who actually said this is sort of like relearning to walk after you've had a stroke. And much more recently I got curious about what's behind this so I read everything I could find on the psychology of getting the twisties or in baseball or golf, what is it called? The yips?
[00:11:48] Sian Beilock:
[00:11:49] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Which is such a strange term for it, but it seems like there's a common mechanism there, which is you tend to get it when anxiety disrupts your autopilot. So is this the same phenomenon? Are they different?
[00:12:02] Sian Beilock:
No, I mean I think that there's a common mechanism, and I've written about that and, and argued for that, and the idea is that once your autopilot is disrupted, it's not like it's, it automatically comes back.
Sometimes you have to work to get it back, which is what you were talking about in terms of it taking you a bit of time to get there. And in the moment, it's really nerve-wracking because one of the ways you try and get back to a place where you don't have to have control is to have so much control. And that may not help.
[00:12:29] Adam Grant:
So why is it so hard to just reactivate autopilot? When I've been doing the same dive for two years and all of a sudden I lose it once, why do I have to go back to the drawing board?
[00:12:39] Sian Beilock:
I think you're almost creating a new autopilot. Like, once you get in there, there's a glitch in the system. You have to recreate essentially that, that new system, in a way. Now it's not as hard as if you hadn’t dove before, but it doesn't actually just come back for free. Every time you have a memory, it changes a little bit.
[00:12:58] Adam Grant:
Right, it’s a little bit like trust where it's very hard to earn, but it's easy to lose. You know, you spend years building up this great muscle memory and then one wrong turn all of a sudden can shatter it.
[00:13:10] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, although I would argue, like, you can come back much easier. There's some savings and relearning as we talk about in psychology. Like, it's not as hard as, as from the very beginning, so you don't have to start as a total novice diver. But yeah, it's true. That's why it's elite. That's why we watch the Olympics and all these games. It's not everyone who can do this consistently at a high level.
[00:13:29] Adam Grant:
That's extremely disappointing to most of us, but we'll get over it. So, tell me how you apply all this in your own life. What are the situations where you face performance pressure and what do you do about it?
[00:13:42] Sian Beilock:
I'm uncomfortable like constantly, and I've decided I'm just gonna call it out and be okay with it. I use a lot of these techniques, like I remind myself and I constantly talk to myself that being uncomfortable, feeling anxious, not knowing if I can achieve something is not a sign I'm gonna fail. And that's really helpful to decouple those feelings from performance.
And then I spend a lot of time now trying to practice self-compassion and trying to feel okay when I'm not in the stressful situation ‘cause I think it's okay to feel uncomfortable some of the time. We don't wanna feel uncomfortable all of the time, but I think I'm getting more used to the idea that I'm uncomfortable a lot and that, that’s okay.
[00:14:23] Adam Grant:
Okay, so reconcile these two things for me. On the one hand, you're saying we don't wanna be uncomfortable all the time, and yet on the other hand, you're uncomfortable pretty much all the time.
[00:14:32] Sian Beilock:
I think we do have to work to make sure that when we're not in the stressful situation, when we're in our everyday lives, we have times where we can turn off and unplug, and that's what I'm talking about. But this goal of trying to feel safe all the time, or not feel like you're pushing your limits, I've decided very explicitly that that's not my goal.
[00:14:55] Adam Grant:
It's lightning round time. Are you ready?
[00:14:58] Sian Beilock:
[00:14:59] Adam Grant:
Worst advice you ever got?
[00:15:01] Sian Beilock:
“That's just not for you”, like being told that, you know, it's just not something I'm gonna be good at or that I, that I can tackle.
[00:15:09] Adam Grant:
What was the thing, or have you gotten it a lot?
[00:15:12] Sian Beilock:
I've gotten it in athletics when I was playing, growing up. I'm just not that athletic. That was one. And I think people suggesting that I wasn't gonna be great in a class or at something I wanted to try.
[00:15:27] Adam Grant:
[00:15:27] Sian Beilock:
Sort of a general discounting that you can't do something.
[00:15:30] Adam Grant:
It almost sounds like you feel what my colleague Samir Nurmohamed would call the underdog motivation, which is “I'm gonna prove you wrong.”
[00:15:39] Sian Beilock:
Yes, I think that's right. People bring a lot of preconceived notions into what people can and can't do, and you have to work hard as an individual to not always take those as a, an indictment of what you're capable of.
[00:15:51] Adam Grant:
Speaking of which, you've done a lot of research on math anxiety in particular. What is the best sentence to say to yourself before a math test or to say to your kid before a math test?
[00:16:02] Sian Beilock:
There's no such thing as a math person. This is about how you practiced and how you're, you're ready for the situation, and you did well on the practice test and you're gonna succeed now.
[00:16:11] Adam Grant:
What is something you've rethought in the past year or two?
[00:16:15] Sian Beilock:
I think I thought as I got to higher and higher levels, I'd just become more comfortable and feel better about everything, confident and ready to go in everything I tackle, and I've, I find that that's oftentimes the opposite. Like, I'm nervous and that’s okay.
[00:16:31] Adam Grant:
Who’s a leader you admire?
[00:16:31] Sian Beilock:
Gina Raimondo and what she's doing to further—
[00:16:36] Adam Grant:
In Rhode Island?
[00:16:36] Sian Beilock:
Yep. And, and as Secretary of Commerce and to further our ability to be successful as a nation in STEM and CHIPS is, is really impressive.
[00:16:45] Adam Grant:
What is the most surprising thing about being a university president?
[00:16:48] Sian Beilock:
The most surprising thing is how many exciting people and, and interesting people you get to meet. I don't think I understood how many great people I'd get to interact with and, and hang out with as part of this job. And it is like, one of the best parts.
[00:17:01] Adam Grant:
I cannot imagine why anyone would wanna run a university. I can't. Like, you take all the good things about a faculty job and subtract them and then add in all these things that are really undesirable. So from my perspective, like, you lose the intellectual curiosity of doing your own research and the, the freedom and intrinsic motivation that comes with that.
You lose the ability to teach incredibly interesting, inspiring students. And instead, you have to be an administrator, a fundraiser, and you have to manage a bunch of tenured faculty that you have no real influence over. Why? Why would anyone do this?
[00:17:36] Sian Beilock:
Oh, I think you have it really wrong. One of the most exciting things about being a scientist was running a lab and thinking with other people and coming up with better ideas than I could on my own.
So really pushing this, like, one plus one equals three, and I think that’s what university leadership is all about, like you get to help great minds do better things than they could do on their own and better things than you could do on your own. And that for me is, like, what I love.
[00:18:09] Adam Grant:
I don't get it. I mean. You can, you can do everything you just described in a lab.
[00:18:15] Sian Beilock:
[00:18:16] Adam Grant:
And you get to choose all your collaborators. You get to choose what ideas you work on. You have all these constraints in your life now, don't you?
[00:18:23] Sian Beilock:
Oh. But there's, there's a scale, right? And an impact you can have beyond your lab, and you get to work across fields that are not just within your discipline. And I fundamentally believe that American higher education especially is such a special thing and we have to work to keep it special and academics need to lead it.
[00:18:42] Adam Grant:
So interesting. Why do you think that academics should lead universities?
[00:18:48] Sian Beilock:
I think that shared governance and this idea that we are giving faculty and academics a place to do their research, to teach their expertise… I'm a big believer in expertise, and I think you get that from coming up through the system.
[00:19:04] Adam Grant:
I read some evidence on this not too long ago, which showed that universities are more successful in terms of research impact when they're led by former academics. I guess there's some possible selection bias in that research, because I would imagine that, you know, universities that are already doing high-quality research are more likely to elevate former academics into president roles. But interestingly, the same pattern holds for hospitals run by doctors and for NBA basketball teams that are coached by former All-Stars.
And so there does seem to be some expertise in the core work that lies behind the mission of an organization that allows someone to be a better leader. What do you make of that?
[00:19:44] Sian Beilock:
I will say that I don't always think the best players make the best coaches. We've seen evidence of that, but the idea that you have experienced and gone through an organization, what's great and what's not great about it, and you can bring that expertise to what you do. I'd also want to know about these doctors and university professors and athletes is who they put around them, and my guess is that they're putting around them people who also know different facets of the organization, which since we don't have the data at hand, I'm gonna argue maybe is the case. And I think that's important for being successful.
[00:20:17] Adam Grant:
One of the things that piqued my interest though, about this research by, it was Amanda Goodall and colleagues that originally showed this, is I think that sometimes we discount content expertise when we think about leadership, and I, I've been guilty of this in the past, I've said, you know, at the end of the day, like, I don't care if you know everything about the work your organization does. I want to know whether you're good at the general skills of leadership, if you're a good decision maker, if you can resolve conflicts, if you can anticipate the future and build a compelling vision. And what this research forced me to do was to realize, yeah, that's all useful, but it's kind of hard to do that if you don’t know anything about people you're leading and what they do day to day.
[00:20:56] Sian Beilock:
Yeah. And if you are leading the widget factory and you don't know anything about widgets, that can be problematic. But you also, if you've had some experience, you know what experts to call on, right, to supplement your own expertise. And I think that is really important ‘cause university leadership is not just about me leading, it's about me getting the right people around me to help inform my decisions. And I have to think that some of that comes from being an academic and understanding the academic enterprise and knowing who to put around me.
[00:21:26] Adam Grant:
That's such a fascinating mechanism for explaining the effects of expertise on effective leadership. I would love to actually see some data on this, the idea that as a researcher, you're better qualified to judge the qualifications of people that you put in positions around you.
[00:21:41] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, and I think better, maybe qualified to understand my own blind spots and where I need to plug people in.
[00:21:50] Adam Grant:
So this raises the question, then, of how much of this is distinctive, then, to your distinctive expertise. In a very self-serving way, I have often wondered why every university president is not someone who studies leadership or psychology or cognitive science. Because you know, by definition, those skills are more relevant to leadership than, I don't know, a physicist, right? Like why? Why do we not consider the content of your expertise as relevant to the job? Not just that you happen to have been an academic.
[00:22:20] Sian Beilock:
I mean, you might know this, but I think a lot of psychologists do become university leaders. I can think of several off the top of my head, but I do think that there's something to the skillset.
There's also lots of scientists in these roles. Even though if you're a chemist, for example, your, you usually have the experience of running a lab, understanding those dynamics, understanding how to work within and across an organization and funding. But I think being an organizational psychologist or a cognitive scientist is great fodder for, for being a, a university leader. And it's a little self-serving.
[00:22:51] Adam Grant:
Just a little bit, but I, I, I mean, I have to think that there's something learned from the study of a field, right, that would then qualify you to contribute to that or to contribute in that role, I should say.
[00:23:04] Sian Beilock:
Or maybe if the chemists are just bringing cognitive scientists to be their provosts or sit next to them.
[00:23:11] Adam Grant:
It's entirely possible. That's an open research question too. There was a study done years ago that basically took a couple hundred companies that appointed business school professors as executives, and I know a lot of people just thought that was a horrible idea, but when you match those companies with industry peers, turns out that the companies that had ex-professors as executives generated more revenue per employee, and that was especially true if they had those former professors in roles where they could leverage their academic expertise.
Again, there's some possible selection bias in the data, but it seemed like it's at least plausible that taking someone to, you know, to take their knowledge and apply it as opposed to just studying it could pay dividends.
[00:23:57] Sian Beilock:
Yep. And again, ‘cause I don't have the data, I'm gonna argue that all of those executives put really great people around them, the right people.
[00:24:05] Adam Grant:
How do you think about the right people when you are now building a second team—
[00:24:09] Sian Beilock:
[00:24:10] Adam Grant:
Right, to run a second university. What are you looking for?
[00:24:13] Sian Beilock:
First of all, I'm looking for people that fill my blind spots. So I know I'm coming into a new culture and organization, so I want people who are seeped in that culture and organization so that I can understand what's there before.
But I'm also looking for people who are excited about change and excited about pushing an institution to a new level. Like, I don't like it when people say, “Oh, we just don't do that here. That's not possible.” I want people who are visionaries who find data to back up an assertion and, and like to push. And I'm also looking for people who work super hard.
[00:24:50] Adam Grant:
And how are you gauging those qualities in people?
[00:24:53] Sian Beilock:
That's hard, right? I mean, this is a whole field of trying to understand this. Mostly what I'm doing right now is listening and learning, and I'm a big fan of converging evidence. So getting more data points and, and understanding from particular people how they see the world.
If I ask “why not?” on a particular topic, can they bring me data? Can they think in a different way? Can it they adequately explain to me what the constraints are? Anything that helps my knowledge and makes it easier for me to see across an entire organization, I think that’s really value-add.
[00:25:28] Adam Grant:
One of the things I have noticed as, uh, an increasingly frequent podcast host is that I dominate the question-asking. So I decided I would start letting guests turn the tables and ask me a question. So, given that you're about to take over the leadership of Dartmouth, what is a burning question on your mind that an organizational psychologist might have a perspective on?
[00:25:51] Sian Beilock:
What’s the biggest mistake I could make coming in?
[00:25:54] Adam Grant:
I feel like I'd wanna know more about Dartmouth to answer that question. I guess I'll say from watching leaders transition into other universities and other kinds of organizations, the, the biggest mistake that I've seen consistently is them coming in, assuming that they already have all the knowledge they need to build a vision and a strategy, and not taking enough time to understand the culture, the unique challenges, and opportunities in their organization. It seems pretty basic.
I'm amazed at the number of leaders, though, who you know, either seem to feel a sense of urgency to hit the ground running or come in with a lot of confidence from a prior role. They're like, “Okay, here's the plan.” And sometimes it's the wrong plan, but other times it just becomes a case of an organ transplant rejection where they haven't built the relationships, they haven't earned the trust, they haven't gained the buy-in for other people to want to go along with what was a reasonable plan, and then they end up sort of having to play catch up for the next few years. I cannot imagine you making that mistake, though.
[00:26:55] Sian Beilock:
Well, I mean, I do understand there's a lot of pressure as a new leader to define yourself and your vision, but I'm a big fan of what I think is, like, are principles of design thinking. I'm still learning exactly what that is, but like, the idea of iteration and sort of putting your mental model out there and letting people push back on it and then iterating from there.
And maybe that's part of what I mean about being uncomfortable. Like, you gotta kind of put it out there and have people tell you this is not right and that's not right. And then you get, I'm getting better at sort of being out there in that way.
[00:27:27] Adam Grant:
I've seen a lot of leaders try to solve this problem by announcing a listening tour, and I like the concept in principle, but it always feels like there's something missing from it.
And I guess I don't want my leader just to sit around listening. What is the purpose of that listening? I wonder if it would be better framed as a learning tour.
[00:27:46] Sian Beilock:
[00:27:46] Adam Grant:
That you have specific goals for knowledge and perspectives that you want to pick up, and it's not like you're just coming in to soak up whatever information happens to be put on the table. No, no, no. This is, this is what I want to understand, and so let me structure the conversation so that I can grow.
[00:28:02] Sian Beilock:
Yeah, I mean, I'm on that learning tour right now. I do ask specific questions. I wanna know about faculty or alum or students’ interests. Like faculty, I wanna know about their research. I think that’s so exciting for me to understand. Then I want to know what works well. Like, what's Dartmouth's special sauce? And then what should we change? Where's there room to grow? And that’s, like, part of the converging evidence. Like, it is amazing when you hear, like, similar themes, more people than you would think are in moving in similar directions there. And that gets me so excited when I see those streams.
[00:28:39] Adam Grant:
I think we see a lot of the, the character strengths we're looking for in leadership and accomplishment outside the classroom. Do you ever worry though that we're putting too much pressure on students to achieve and also that we don't value followership as a skill?
[00:28:54] Sian Beilock:
I worry that we're putting pressure on students every day in all sorts of ways. Um, and certainly, you know, students thinking about doing things just for a college application, you want them to be thinking about what they do because they're interested in it and it's what is going to give them experiences that lead to their future career paths or interests.
But I don't think putting value on leading in one area means you're not following in another, right? I don't think it's one or the other. Like, I am a leader, but I also follow in so many ways in different aspects of my life. Like, I would say that with my friend group, like I'm not always the one leading or making plans.
I'm good at following in certain ways, and so I, I guess my point would be is I would rather not have as much of a dichotomy. You're either a leader or a follower. We're looking for students and we're asking students to develop skills that allow them to be flexible depending on the situation.
[00:29:48] Adam Grant:
I like that perspective a lot. It allows us all to move in and out of these different roles as opposed to pigeonholing us in one. I don't wanna be in charge all the time, but I don't want to never be in charge either.
[00:29:58] Sian Beilock:
I'm a big follower with my 12-year-old daughter, as much as I try and lead. But I think it goes to this other idea about having multiple selves and multiple perspectives, and we know from psychological research that this can be good for well-being, right?
When I have a crappy day as my president self, I can go home and hug my kids. Like, I think through the pandemic, we saw that everyone had multiple selves. And one thing that I've been urging business leaders and others is to not lose sight of that. That our employees, that the people around us are more than just worker selves. And if we can support all those selves, we're gonna get better performance.
[00:30:35] Adam Grant:
I think that's incredibly important. And it speaks to something that you wrote about recently, which is you were chosen as the first woman to lead Dartmouth in over 250 years, which is, in and of itself, remarkable and disconcerting that it took this long. But you said, quote, “I still doubt myself. Here's why that's a good thing.” Tell me more.
[00:31:00] Sian Beilock:
Yeah. Maybe it comes back to my ideas about being uncomfortable, but I think having doubts is what allows you to take feedback. It's what gives you the humility to ask for other people's opinion, to understand that coming in, my experiences as Barnard's president or when I was at the University of Chicago don't immediately set me up to know everything about how to work in, in the Dartmouth community.
And if I didn't have those doubts, I think it would be much harder for me to take feedback and to learn. And so again, it comes back to this idea of normalizing being uncomfortable, that it's okay, that this is actually a really good thing for, for how we, um, think and look around in our world.
I think imposter syndrome is, uh, fine to have. Like, that’s not a bad thing. It's actually a positive thing in many ways, and it allows us to think about what we still need to learn and achieve and, and how we're gonna tackle the situation and that other people around us are necessary for our success.
[00:31:56] Adam Grant:
I think one of the wrinkles that comes up in the research on imposter syndrome, which I feel like has become a big theme on this show, even though I didn't intend it, right? Everybody feels a version of it. Everybody grapples with it. If you look at Basima Tewfik’s research, it does seem to have some benefits for performance.
You know you don't know everything, so you learn more like you described in that you feel you have something to prove, and so you often work longer, but it's not fun.
[00:32:21] Sian Beilock:
[00:32:21] Adam Grant:
For most people, it's like, like okay, your organization will benefit from your imposter thoughts and maybe in certain ways your relationships and your growth will too, but it, at a cost to your wellbeing potentially. How do you manage that part of it?
[00:32:35] Sian Beilock:
What I talked about in the beginning is, like, I spent a lot of time being uncomfortable, but then I also am trying to practice self-compassion and ways to step back and turn it off ‘cause it's not fun to feel crappy all the time. Right? And so, like I have tricks and tools like, like I like to watch TV or movies where everyone is very happy at the end, where there's total closure, where there's nothing that causes me anxiety. Like, I'll go run in nature, I'll step outside, I'll do something to try and turn off.
I'm a big fan of giving myself 10 minutes to ruminate, setting a timer, and then deciding I'm done for a while. Like, I have to use tricks and tools, and I think they're helpful to make sure that you don't sit in this constant state of uncomfortableness.
[00:33:19] Adam Grant:
Wait, you're a power user of worry time?
[00:33:22] Sian Beilock:
I am a power user of worry time.
[00:33:24] Adam Grant:
It’s one of my favorite concepts just to say “Let’s put, let's put the ruminating I'm about to do in a 10-minute box. And then if it crops up in the rest of the day, it's like, nope, not worry time right now.”
[00:33:33] Sian Beilock:
Yes, I'm a big fan of it.
[00:33:35] Adam Grant:
The other thing that you just surfaced for me is I wonder if there's a way to reframe self-doubt. It's a little bit like what I learned from Danny Kahneman around the joy of being wrong and him developing this almost classical conditioning response to, like, finding out he was wrong and realizing, well, the last 19 times I was wrong I learned something, and so now this is actually a source of joy. I wonder if doubt can work the same way.
That if you have enough experiences of doubting yourself or your capabilities in a given situation, and then that actually leads to some kind of growth, it doesn't feel bad anymore because you've changed the pairing between doubt and either some blow to your self-esteem or a level of depression or anxiety.
[00:34:17] Sian Beilock:
Or even performance, right? Like if you have doubt, then you don't perform poorly, then it's like a sign you're about to perform good, right? I mean, I like that. Some concept of that comes through when you sort of remind yourself of, as like a cognitive tool, like, okay, “I didn't think I could do this before and I was really successful.” Right? Sort of that change of mindset can be really helpful in calling it out.
[00:34:38] Adam Grant:
One of the things I know you've told your students for years is to play their whole movie. I think this is such a brilliant piece of advice. Can you unpack it? Explain it?
[00:34:49] Sian Beilock:
Yeah. This idea that we tend, we as humans to focus on what just happened, like this is called a recency effect. We're really good at focusing on the last thing, and you're only as good as your last game, but reminding yourself of all of the times before, whether you learned something or you were successful, and you have to really iterate that with yourself, but you also have to narrate that for other people. People are waiting for you to tell them your story and you get to construct that.
Like, using facts obviously. But I think we often tend to be myopic in our view and our story of ourselves and, and I push people to think back, right, just because you didn't do well on this test, or you played poorly in this game, narrate the other 10 tests or the other times that you did poorly on a test and then you came back to get an A in a class.
That is the what you need to be focused on, ‘cause that then lets you focus on whatever mechanism you need to change.
[00:35:48] Adam Grant:
This has been fascinating and delightful.
[00:35:51] Sian Beilock:
[00:35:52] Adam Grant:
As usual, thank you.
[00:35:53] Sian Beilock:
Thanks for having me. Always fun to talk to you, Adam.
[00:36:01] Adam Grant:
It's such a powerful reminder to play your entire movie, not just that one clip of the stumble you just had over and over and over again. This is relevant to every part of our lives: to school, to work, to home. We are remarkably good at zooming in on the one thing that went wrong and beating ourselves up for it, which just leaves us bruised.
If we can zoom out and consider the many things that we did right, it's a lot easier to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Original Music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
[00:37:04] Sian Beilock:
Sorry, I had to find the link.
[00:37:07] Adam Grant:
[00:37:08] Sian Beilock:
I couldn't find the link. I'm on my assistant's computer, but I did it.
[00:37:11] Adam Grant:
[00:37:11] Sian Beilock:
I almo-I choked. I almost choked.