Training to hit that sweet spot — engaged, focused, excited, a bit nervous—that puts you at the top of your game
You step out into the stadium, stage, auditorium, conference hall — in front of an audience of 1,000, 20,000, or two million. What will you do? How will it go? How will you harness your mind at this moment?
You walk to work, sit at your desk, open your mind. Today you strategize one of the big ideas of your life that transforms your business and takes your thinking in a new direction. How does your mind come up with the answer you’ve been seeking for so long?
The more I conduct (and the more I think about how we think, learn, engage our minds and perform under pressure), the more I understand that there is an extraordinary potential for us:
- To perform better if we understand how to train our minds for performance
- To harness an understanding of our minds from our performance experiences (as we learn to pay attention and be aware of the extraordinary in performance realities)
As a conductor, I have good and bad moments in concert performances. I can let performances happen to me, or I can govern their path. I like to think that I have a lot of power and control over what happens with the music, what happens with the moments. I’m supposed to have power and control. I’m the conductor. I’m the visionary for the interpretation, the instigator of incredible climactic moments, tension or foreboding darkness, the all-aware listener — responding and guiding a musical adventure.
But as a performer, I know that this doesn’t always seem so easy. Sometimes magic happens, and sometimes things don’t line up the way I want. I think too much. I get in the way.
If I truly want to have power inside a performance, where do I get it from?
Well, yes, it starts from hard work — from preparation, years of building knowledge, understanding from learning and experience. But, while that might prepare me to be a conductor, it doesn’t completely prepare me for performance.
Performance is something beyond that. It’s a world that resides between surprise and what’s planned, power yet flexibility, hard with soft, strong and weak — and it’s a mixing of all elements into one concentrated black hole of energy — the minds of the other musicians, the setting in that moment, the audience, the emotional mood, the whim of the night, the history of the world.
This is something that’s critical to a great performance:
One part of our mind has to be strong and defined (powerful, planned, pre-created) and another part of our mind needs to be soft (open, spontaneous, bendable) and able to notice new details, potentials, and shades of possibility in the moment.
If you’re writing an essay, running a race, delivering a speech, or thinking big in a moment — this is performance — these are events. Events are performances.
Success in performance comes down to the control we have over our thoughts, our ability to understand our own brains, and to harness this potential. What’s the point in working so hard to prepare for something and then losing control when we need it most? What’s the point of preparing for a moment, but then not having the skills to harness the moment itself?
That’s what this article is about — how to train our minds to harness the potential of every performing moment.
Learn About Your Mind When You Perform
When we perform, it’s an extraordinary, life-changing, flying, soaring, wild, supercharged, threatening, and disaster-prone event. We jump off a cliff, we take a chance. It’s terrifying.
If we never jumped, we wouldn’t quite learn about the potential of our minds. Performance is a mind-altering, unique, once-in-a-lifetime reality that pushes our minds into a new experience.
I’m a huge fan of neuroscience. I’m completely fascinated by what neuroscientists are understanding about the brain every day. Perhaps someday soon they’ll be able to tell us what happens in the mind when we perform. If we can understand our performing brains, we can learn more about our capacity, build trust into pushing boundaries and create, consistently, our own potential for transcending over-the-top experiences.
Performance focuses everything we are into a more expansive possibility.
Train the Way You Think To Impact Your Performance
We know that performance starts with preparation. If you’re a great performer, you do the work and you work hard at it.
But do you also prepare your mind? Do you practice mind skills (that will help you in performance) with the same focus and vigor as you practice your other skills? Or do you go directly to the task — the content needed for your performance?
The way we use our brains to think deeply, practice focus, and develop greater perception and awareness — this is part of the work. These are skills within our control to develop — every bit as important as the information you’ve learned or memorized, the motions you’ve practiced, the algorithms you’ve analyzed. We need to develop our skills in controlling our minds in order to reach our own optimal performance.
Neuroplasticity tells us that our brains can grow in whatever areas that we are focusing on. We create more neuropathways and synapses when we focus on one area and consistently reinforce, again and again, the brain activity used for that area of focus. By refiring and focusing on a specific area, and thus a specific set of synapses, you develop a more readily available path to growth in that area.
You can harness your performance potential in how you choose to focus your mind, and you can train it to deal with performance and mental focus.
The Triage of Focus, Fear, and Flexibility
Learning to direct focus and fear are two skills that will help you to consistently reach your personal best. We have the potential to be aware, in control, focussed, and flexible in our minds when we perform.
Flexibility and spontaneity are where the real performance is found. All things come together in an electrifying moment — the rhythms, shapes, ideas into a sort of mind-bending, emotional, spine-tingling, life-changing version of what you didn’t quite imagine would happen. You are guiding every moment, but you are reacting as well. A great performance has outcomes that weren’t known ahead. There are always surprises. This applies to the performance of anything — a great sport, an amazing lecture, a surprising monologue.
Our perception gets altered in a real performance. When we get into the zone of what we’re doing, and all else falls away, there’s a sort of subconscious, deeper part of our brain that takes over. The prefrontal cortex seems to relinquish control and has to relinquish control or it doesn’t really work. I imagine that in great performance our brains become balanced, in sync, lighting up together, wholly connected, relaxed into each other. Neuroscientists should hook a great performer up with an EEG and see what happens.
This optimal performance, this focused zone, this flow state, is there for us if we can find a way to tap into it.
Finding a Balance To Achieve Optimal Performance
I was listening to neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman talk to Lex Fridman in a great podcast, and one thing stood out to me. Huberman was talking about how evolutionarily we are designed to respond to threats through a sudden state of autonomic arousal in our nervous system.
Higher awareness and focus can be the difference between survival or death if you’re being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. When we’re in danger, our senses are peaked, our eyes take in more frames per second as our pupils dilate, our autonomic response system goes into high gear. Fight or flight. Evolution. It’s all there, still in us, still at work.
But how does this impact performance?
Huberman says that the ideal state of the mind, for achieving optimal performance, is to match our interoception (inner feeling or state) with our exteroception (what we perceive to be outside of ourselves). We need to find the balancing point between our inner thoughts, feelings, reactions, perceptions — and what’s happening in our external reality, or what we perceive to be our external reality. These two should match. If our inner feeling isn’t matching with the external reality, ie. we are too nervous, or too relaxed for the task in order to produce a peak performance — then we won’t have success.
I can attest that this is true. As a performing artist, I know that there’s a sweet spot — that place where we’re engaged, focussed, excited, a bit nervous, but that matches the situation appropriately. If I’m too nervous — I get too rigid, think too much and second-guess myself. If I’m too relaxed, my awareness drops. I miss those sparkling potential moments, don’t listen as deeply, and miss chances to make the subtle changes that could elevate everything to a higher level.
The best performances have fluidity — not rigidity. When we are overly stimulated, worried, or scared in a moment (fight or flight), we might be super aware and have heightened reactions and perceptions, but we’re also very rigid. If we aren’t fluid, we’re more on the side of being reactive and then paradoxically, lose control. We might feel like we are more in control — indeed, in this rigid state, we can’t let anything go to chance. But the edges of what’s possible eludes us because we’ve cut it out of our perception with our tunnel vision. We don’t see what could have been.
If we’re in a state of relaxed focus and control, we can manipulate, take chances, elevate, see things on the outer periphery and have the flexibility to respond and initiate on equal footing. When we’re matching our external situation with our internal reaction to that particular situation, and if we can learn to manage it so that we control the balance — then we bring ourselves into the sweet spot of peak state.
As a conductor, when I’m in this zone, it means that I’m aware, listening, focussed, but also open to the moment, open to great possibility never before rehearsed. The real stuff is always just on the other side of what we’ve rehearsed. The paths (plans) that I pre-created become transparent and moveable. New possibilities emerge. The same applies to an amazing game, an electrifying speech, an incredible lecture that just seems to emerge out of your passion — starting where you planned, but taking you somewhere else. Lao Tzu said:
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Writers are performers. Our best writing performances often have motion. I get the sense sometimes that my ideas build up within my mind, bumping and circling around — waiting — and then at some point, there’s a tipping point, sometimes unleashed by something I’ve read, or an experience I’ve just had, that in the best moments cause everything to come out in a flourish.
This is a powerful combination of internal and external perception. The experience enlightens the thoughts, the thoughts enlighten the experience. Most powerful are those moments where flow abolishes rigidity — where words and ideas conspire with themselves and pour, more or less, into one direction.
True, life is often not like that. More often than not we are chipping away painfully, mercilessly, frustratingly at ideas or skills. But every chip, every fight, every failure is our brain exploring relationships, making discoveries, looking at things from a different angle. It seems our mind enjoys working at making connections, finding paths — the struggle must be a part of the process.
All of the big ideas in the world have come through thousands of hours of struggle, thoughts, wrong paths, and failures. Big thinkers like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Walt Disney — every one has experienced optimal performance and awesome failure. After all, Elon Musk just blew up a rocket and he still saw it as a major success.
Laying the Framework for Potential
We’re on the way towards the most important discussion about how to control and manage our minds. First, we’ll lay some groundwork for the preparation for optimal performance. Three things that we can think about as we prepare:
1. Focus + urgency = optimal potential
In another Andrew Huberman podcast with Rich Roll called Change Your Brain, he talks about creating our greatest performance potential by putting two things together at the same time:
- Extreme focus on one task, activity, or goal
This harnesses the brain’s evolutionary awareness potential — it’s engaged, ready for action. Urgency comes in to help us focus as our evolutionary survival instinct kicks in. When we have a deadline, when the performance is looming, when we don’t quite have enough time (so that we have to compact our thinking and work with urgency), then we elevate our mind to focus in a deeper way.
The first key to preparing for a performance is to be aware of our own brains, and to manipulate our circumstances to experiment and study our minds — to find how you get ourselves best into this state of high arousal, high intensity, super focus. Use urgency as a tool and explore your own potential with it.
2. Practice balancing the internal with the external
As you explore urgency and become aware of how to manipulate it to work uniquely for you, then focus your attention on this idea of managing the balance between your internal and external state. The goal is to be able to consistently find your focus when you perform.
Think of urgency as a powerful spice in your performance recipe. Explore how much, or how little, works best for you. Do the same with fear, with meditation, with visualization. Adjust, and remember that every performance is a new recipe. Your internal and external state constantly fluctuates at the whim of the importance that you perceive the event to have and the way you feel that day. If you’re aware, you can learn to use your own strategies to get the recipe balanced every time.
An empowering concept is to understand that our reality is mind-bending what we perceive it to be. It’s our own brain that interprets a colour, creates the image of a face, or imagines an external reaction in a situation or another person. It’s not necessarily what’s actually there. What’s actually there is different for the person standing beside us! We see what we choose to see, we miss other stuff that is right there in front of us. Mind-blowing.
If this is true, then imagine the potential for the relationship that you have between your own interoception (what you perceive inside your body) and the external situation (our exteroception).
If we learn to manage the balance of our inner and external state and recognize the role of perception in the reality itself, it empowers us to understand that we have more control over the entire reality of the experience.
Our goal is to balance what we think the experience is with what we are feeling inside. Practice noticing, practice manipulating it through tools that we will discuss. I’ve had concerts where this balance is completely off — concerts where there are massive audiences or video concerts with cameras all around and I’m too nervous. I have to find the mind control that makes these external factors irrelevant and to find the way, each time, to balance how I am feeling internally so that my body and mind doesn’t get too aroused.
Similarly, sometimes, especially if we perform a lot, we have to work to find that special euphoria again and again. The incredible cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, is the master of this. He has probably performed Dvorak’s cello concerto hundreds or thousands of times, and yet he has mastered his ability to connect to the performance with commitment and passion for each concert. If we deliver the same speech, again and again, we can work to bring our internal focus back up to match each external situation with wide-eyed freshness and spontaneity.
3. Manage fear
I can’t always predict when fear will hit me but it’s a big part of my performing life. We can prepare for fear through focus — and we can create space for fear by having depth in our knowledge, understanding, and skills. We prepare beyond what we need, we give ourselves a greater depth of space so that if our fear constricts that space we still have enough room.
Fear is rigidity. When we become fearful, we close in. When you prepare then for a performance, you need to have a great deal of space in your mind going in. This means that in whatever you are doing, whether it’s performing, or sharing your knowledge with someone — your depth gives you your space. When we expand we make more connections. When we constrict we shut down some of those neuropathways and the potential for natural, spontaneous possibilities to emerge.
Think of fear as a part of you — a small friend inside your head that always goes along for the ride and never wants to miss anything. It’s going to be there— through every experience, good and bad —probably it won’t miss any of your performances. Use your developed skill in managing the internal and external balance to help develop a relationship with fear. Practice awareness on how to best manage it and follow rituals that given you confidence. Harness it to elevate your arousal. Don’t try to abolish it, but rather find its balance.
5 Specific Ways To Focus and Control Your Mind
We’ve come to the most important part of the message of this article: how to control our mind and be able to use it to guide us into masterful performances.
1. Get inside your art
What is your passion? What is the reason you perform?
Never lose sight of these two questions. Whatever it is that you love to do, it is what we must get inside when we perform. If you’re a professional, you can easily forget this because you’re overextended, fatigued, and bombarded.
We must renew, again and again, the meaning and purpose behind what we are passionate about. When we perform, we focus on this. It becomes our meditation, it becomes our focus, our meaning — and takes our vices of distraction, ego, and rigidity with it.
Personally, when I can mentally disappear into the music, then I know I will have a great performance. We can meditate on this concept every day, and especially on game or performance days. By remaining committed to the essence of what we do, and perceiving it as a force that we are a conduit of, rather than the creator of, we can help ourselves relinquish the control that confines performance to the mundane, and elevates it to the beyond.
Create a ritual that empowers you to connect with your art or talent and puts you mentally into the space of opening yourself to its path. Meditate or envision the game, the speech, the moment — visualization is a useful tool. We have to recognize that our mind engages in virtually the same way whether we are thinking about the action or doing the action. Neuroscience can back this up. We can practice the experience of the performance in our heads at home to great impact.
Always leave space for calm, empty, sensory openness as you lead up to a performance. Get your focus out of yourself, and into your task. This focus can put us in the place of optimal performance.
Meditation is a valuable entry point into connecting to our thoughts and having control over our minds. I used to think that meditation was more about relaxation. Being a driven, energetic, active person, I couldn’t imagine relinquishing precious minutes or hours to sitting around. But now I truly believe that this is sloppy thinking.
Action does not replace quality thinking. We don’t get better by being busier. We get better by focusing our minds and thinking with specificity and depth.
I’m captivated by what is being discovered and understood about the brain and the capacity of our mind— how we can grow through neuroplasticity, seek optimal performance, learn more efficiently and explore the potential. I recognize the mental impact and potential of meditation. It’s a mindful, empowering skill that can enable higher mental capabilities and focus. It should be a part of every high achiever’s daily schedule.
With greater awareness and mind control, we can take everything that we are in time, effort, work — and reduce it, concentrate it, focus it into a greater potential. It’s a way to transform and transcend, to grow in our potential every day. We can train ourselves to achieve more in less time.
When we meditate, we essentially learn to develop focus and awareness. We learn to notice our brain, and what it’s doing. It’s unbelievably liberating, even at the most simple level, to start taking notice. Once we start to take notice, we start to understand how our mind works.
If you have issues with anxiety and fear around performance, or if you are like me, and often you just can’t get that balance between the internal and the external in the zone every time, these meditation skills are invaluable. They also give you tools for sleep which is invaluable when you are anxious, traveling, or jet-lagged.
It’s amazing to me, considering all of the many years I’ve been conducting, that I left performance relatively up to chance for so many years and didn’t explore this potential. I think of all of those great performances and not-so-great performances that I’ve left to the whim of my mind’s perception, rather than having the understanding and power to control my mental state more deeply.
Meditation will be the tool that will get you to understand how to have better control over your thoughts. It will empower you by revealing your mind to you, and give you the skills to manage how you think. Awareness will make you more effective in everything you do.
3. Think deeply
The importance of timelessness and space cannot be overstated in our quest for inspired performance in our lives. We need open time to explore and expand on our big ideas, creativity, and unique thoughts and experiences.
Read and think deeply. Make open time in your life to have depth in your thinking and learning. Read Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” to understand the importance of sinking, every day, into some deeper thinking time.
This empowers you when it comes time to perform because you’ll have the confidence and understanding that comes with deep thinking, with the depth of who you are. You’ll have the wealth of potential sitting right there in your own mind, ready to work within those performing moments. Great performance requires spontaneity. You’ll see your brain spark in the moment with the deep thinking that you have enriched it with — new connections and relationships lighting up in concentrated energy of the performance.
4. Establish a cycle to train your mind
Build a cycle into your life that harnesses your best self and empowers you. To make big changes requires commitment every day. If you want to make a lasting change in your life, it’s about how you practice, repeatedly, daily, and weekly.
Every single day should have at least three parts:
- Contemplative, spacious, thinking, learning creative space
- Work, driving, accomplishing action space
- Time for self (including family, emotional, human, personal time)
Find your own where and when to harness your deep thinking self (the time where you best connect to your subconscious brain and creative powers). For me, it’s the morning and I get my best connection to it when I tap into my quiet, post-sleep mind (with added coffee). It’s so important to not allow yourself to be distracted during this precious time. No phones, no texts, no emails. Be committed to this. Distraction ruins your flow. Schedule distraction time — make some rules and don’t check emails until your scheduled time.
Find a time in your day to take action while learning, and see how it works for you. I walk when I need to memorize. I try not to waste time being half-committed. I notice that things seem to flash and engage more when I’m moving. Cal Newport talks about productive meditation in his book “Deep Work” and connects to this idea in his own way:
“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders.”
Structuring how we best think is part of the success of any cycle we create. I like Newport’s thoughts on combining motion with productive meditation. But harnessing creativity is also where we find our uniqueness, our goods, and I think it’s incredibly important to create timeless, agenda-less space in our daily cycles as well. Going for walks, sitting on a park bench, or going to a cabin in the woods for a week and musing with freedom and openness is incredibly important to the potentials that are hovering deeper in our minds. Not all walks should have an agenda.
I marvel at the impact of timelessness. I’m passionate about tapping into the realm of the subconscious and find it fascinating to reach that special place where a certain degree of mental relaxation opens the door to bigger thoughts and new ideas — these moments where things flash when we don’t push with our minds.
A good cycle will empower your overall goals. If you’re a writer, you’ll recognize this. My own writing is constantly ignited by what I read. I’m amazed at how my brain takes what I know, and mixes that with the ideas and experiences of someone else. Through some sort of wizardry of connectedness, abstraction, and pattern making, our mind can create the most extraordinary new relationships. It wouldn’t work without the cycle.
Your cycle ensures that you are always engaged in each part of your life. Your self time re-energizes your thinking time, your action time brings about the change that your thinking mind has envisioned. They work together, reinvigorating each other, replenishing focus and energy.
5. Spend time being stimulated by others
As a conductor, I’m constantly interacting with other people, flying into new cities, experiencing new situations, hearing fresh perspectives. Left to my own devices, though, my natural choice might be to remain to myself — in quiet, lazy comfort. But when I get dragged out of myself, I find that every time that I interact with new situations and people, I’m impacted with fresh energy and stimulated into new ideas and interests.
I just returned from conducting the Quebec Symphony. After a period of not conducting due to COVID-19, my mind is buzzing with excitement for the experience of being on stage, working with new people, sharing stories, attempting to speak (poor) French. I can spend hours with the music in my head, but it doesn’t even come close to the feeling of sharing it with other musicians. I learn from them, they learn from me, we all create something.
Interaction with people and situations is what keeps us spinning forward. We’re always ready to make new connections, but we are limited within ourselves. We remain stuck within the confines of our own perceptions and perspective and can be jolted awake when we see reality from someone else’s.
Nature, too, has the extraordinary power to change our perspective. Every time I go for a walk in the forest or spend time immersed in the sensory world of nature, it seems to sort out something that was eluding me. It’s almost as if being immersed in the feeling, smells, sounds, and sights of nature allow the senses to dominate and turns off that part of our brain that controls and narrows our perspective and awareness. Our thinking mind recedes control and opens up to that same interconnected, open, relaxed mind that we sometimes experience in performance.
We all have the capacity to perform, engage our minds, and think in ways that we don’t completely understand, but, are awe-inspiring. The way to our best performance is through the way that we engage our minds. The way that we live life is changed by how we perceive it. If we learn to enrich our awareness in how we perceive and engage, then we will change our reality.
Performance is an altered reality where we seek to harness our best potential, and it’s a means for us to understand our minds as we push them to new limits. Marcel Proust said:
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
There is no doubt that real optimal performance is a journey that is beyond description in many ways. A great performance is a place that you’ve never gone before — a true performance is one of a kind.
Every time we write, speak, think, teach, create big ideas, lead, create and perform in any way, we have the potential to go on a real adventure. When we teach our minds to recognize and focus, be strong yet flexible to the moment, we open up our potential for great performance — a true journey, in and of itself.