How to embrace performance anxiety

Why being calm and composed is not always a desirable state of mind

You know that nervous feeling? Those butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation or an important conversation?

I'm talking about performance anxiety.

Do you dread it? Does it make you feel like you're not ready? Like you're about to fail and embarrass yourself?

What if I told you that performance anxiety could be your friend? That if you get rid of it, you'll likely perform worse.

I pitched my startup to investors on four different occasions at the beginning of 2020. Two of those times, the crowd wasn't moved—I bombed. While the other two were my best public speaking performances to date.

The first one was a pitch competition, and I won it. The second took place in a noisy, crowded bar. Filled with literal drunken sailors looking to invest (it was before the pandemic). And I received a standing ovation there! (Okay, everybody was already standing before I even started—small detail.)

I felt calm and composed, even comfortable, during presentations that fell flat. And nervous as hell before those two that scored me high praise. Not the other way around.

Years earlier, I learned a breathing trick when I first got into rock climbing.

(1) Take a deep breath through the nose. (2) Then another short one on top of the first. (3) Then exhale slowly through the mouth. It's called a physiological sigh. It slows down your heart rate and your breathing. And de-escalates the stress response.

Over the years, I practiced this trick so many times that I can now calm my nerves in seconds 99% of the time.

It came in handy on many occasions when I managed production incidents at a public company. An average outage could mean a few million people were unable to share information with a business, their doctor, or their kid’s teacher.

The company could lose a significant amount of money. And more importantly, its reputation.

Having a calm and composed demeanor under those circumstances was a great asset! Yet, even then, some people interpreted my calm as not caring enough about the impact of the incidents. And you know what? Every so often, I did feel like I didn’t care enough.

When those two tanked presentations happened in 2020, it was a huge a-ha moment. It got me thinking, "What if being calm is not always the desired state of mind?"

You see, we can’t selectively turn off our emotions. Our capacity to feel excitement and joy is directly linked to our ability to feel dread and stress!

Our emotional capacity is a single bucket. It doesn’t have a compartment for excitement and a separate one for anxiety.

By shutting down my jitters, I was also reducing my ability to feel excitement!

When I gave the two winning presentations, I felt the jitters all right. But those jitters were exhilarating. Those jitters, the nervous energy pumping through me, were passion fuel. And the people in the audience could feel that passion.

Calm is comfortable. But passion is magnetic. People can feel your excitement, and it draws them in.

Remaining calm creates an emotional wall between you and whatever you're doing. It often leads to complacency.

Note that I'm very explicitly not saying that anxiety is a desirable state. Only that calm is not always a helpful partner either.

Your most impactful moments happen when you move beyond your comfort zone. Nervousness during those moments is natural. And it's a sign you care deeply and are emotionally invested.

Lean into this feeling rather than trying to shut it down. Reframe nerves as excitement and passion wanting to express themselves.

This energy will fuel your best work.