“All of us have things we get nervous about, and while those things are different from person to person, the great thing is that nearly all nervousness-inducing scenarios have essentially the same DNA, which means that by focusing on that, [we can identify] steps and actions to take to help you be much, much less nervous for that upcoming event you’re dreading.”
You’ve experienced this: you have a big test coming up, a big presentation, a pitch, an interview, a competition, and you are NERVOUS. Every time you think about it you get butterflies in your stomach and that feeling climbs into your sleep where you wake up in a cold sweat because you dreamed you showed up to the wrong class and the test already happened or that you forgot to set an alarm for the morning of your life-changing interview.
These scenarios are unavoidable, and it’s natural to feel nervous, and sure, everyone naturally has different extents to which they do or don’t get nervous. If you ask me, though, if you find me someone who is never nervous as a default life setting, what you’ve really found is a person who has no drive to achieve, to exceed expectations, to improve as a person, to win, or to impress themselves or others. If you know someone who you believe is this way, you need to be able to recognize whether it’s because they don’t care, or if it’s because they care so much that they took the necessary actions to foster the confidence that makes them appear to you like they are unshakable.
So while it’s plenty natural to feel nervous, there’s no denying the feeling kind of sucks. For some of us, that nervousness can even be crippling: there are words like glossophobia to describe people with an enveloping fear of public speaking. There are medical diagnoses for anxiety disorders that, while they may be the result of hormonal imbalances or due to traumatic negative experiences growing up, they are nonetheless to some extent within our control.
All of us have things we get nervous about, and while those things are different from person to person, the great thing is that nearly all nervousness-inducing scenarios have essentially the same DNA, which means that by focusing on that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wound-up and high stress constantly or low-stress and relaxed just about 24/7. There are steps and actions you can take to help you be much, much less nervous for that upcoming event you’re dreading. I’m going to outline a few of those steps for you, and these are steps I’ve taken myself to go from shivering during my first few sales pitches and from feeling lightheaded before my first jiu-jitsu tournament, to conquering them all with an ease and poise that not only allows me to live much much more comfortably, but I believe it has been instrumental in my ability to make a strong impression on others, which can be the difference in getting the job offer vs not, making the sale vs not, winning a competition vs not, and so on.
The first thing you need to do to never have test anxiety again is to set the goal and begin preparing every detail. Start with the big picture first: what’s the goal? Figure out what you need to do at the macro level to achieve that goal. If the event is an exam, and you want to score a 95% or higher, determine what you need to do to get there — and not only that, determine what you need to do to pass your goal, and aim for that. Assess your current level as honestly and accurately as you’re able to, and work from there — that gap is what you want to cover. Whether that’s going in to your professor’s office hours, studying with friends, studying specific facts or formulas you feel unsure about, figure out the two or three big things you need to cover that gap to your goal of scoring a 95%. Then, drill down to the specifics. Get really specific. Are you great at one type of question but not another? Practice those. Drill them like you would a fastball pitch. Are you the type of person who could dominate all of these tests if you just wouldn’t wait until the last minute to start studying? Set an exact time of day every day to study. Maybe you dedicate 8-10pm every single day to specific preparation for the exam; determine what works for you, and sweat all of the details you need to hit 100%. This way, by over-aiming, if things don’t go as well as planned, maybe you still walk away with an 85 or 90%. If things do go well, you’re hitting or exceeding your 95% goal.
The second thing you need to do is to visualize every single outcome, including negative outcomes, but with particular focus on the positive. Picture yourself succeeding in every single possible permutation you can imagine. If you truly, effortfully do this, over time you will most likely begin to fixate on just one or two or three specific paths to success — focus in deeply on those, but never neglect imagining other scenarios. This is something you can absolutely do for an interview or a test, and in fact you should. Try to imagine the questions you might be asked. Use as much of the context as possible to understand the possibilities, as not every factor is in your control. This is something I do often for interviews and have done in martial arts competition. If you’re speaking to the person who would be your direct manager, imagine the types of things they’d want to see in their newest report. These things will be different than what your final interview with a company executive might look like, for example, so they will ask different types of questions and you should be prepared with good ways to answer those truthfully. With martial arts competition or any sporting event this is incredibly valuable. From the moment I signed up for a jiu-jitsu competition I’d get the butterflies going, and every day I’d go to training and at some point when there was a lull in training I’d think of what it’ll feel like to step onto the mat and be facing my opponent, someone who has trained just as hard as I have to try to squeeze my neck or to snap my arm. I’d get the butterflies. But each time, I’d imagine a new scenario. If the opponent is tall, I could do this. If the opponent is stronger than me, I could do this. If the opponent favors this style or that style, I could react this way. It’s important to note that each time I’d imagine the scenario, it would be PROACTIVE, not REACTIVE. It is very difficult to gain momentum in any scenario, whether a presentation, an interview, or a combat sports competition, by solely reacting to the situation. Every time I would imagine this situation of what the other person might be like or what they might do, I’d imagine how I would react immediately for the end goal of implementing MY game, for controlling the flow of actions to favor MY interests and MY strengths. Already with these first two steps, if you just prepare the details and visualize all outcomes good and bad, by the time you show up at your dreaded event, you will automatically feel some peace of mind knowing you’ve basically already been here before, and even if something unexpected happens, you’ve either imagined or prepared for it already, or you’ve done enough of each to be swift in generating a response that will benefit you.
The third thing you can do to obliterate your test anxiety is to get there early. Whether you’re the person who’s 5 minutes early to everything or you can’t show up to something on time to save your life, odds are you don’t ever feel simply 100% fantastic and calm about waltzing into things late. Know which one you are, and plan accordingly. I personally know that I am pretty darn slow in the morning, so if I have something the following day before about 9:30 am, I know that I need to set my alarms about 20 minutes earlier to give myself the chance to be a total lazy bum and still manage to get out of bed on time. As I type this it’s almost midnight, and I have my alarms set an hour earlier than usual because tomorrow morning I have to be in San Francisco to present to a room of 12 people who used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with my company and in the past year has hardly spent a dime. I know that I’m slow at 7:30 am, and I know that I can’t predict traffic into San Francisco especially knowing that it’s likely to rain and here in California that means be ready to add half an hour to your commute. But… I’ve prepared the details. I know more or less who will be attending and what teams they represent. I know more or less which teams used to be successful clients and which never have. I know more or less what information will be interesting and relevant to the audience and what information won’t I practiced a powerpoint slideshow I made specifically for this meeting. I have food delivery already set to arrive before the meeting. And I’ve visualized the possibility that it takes 12 people a long time to settle into a conference room, and the possibility that as a result we start 10 minutes later than expected, and right as I’m about to open my mouth someone says, “Hey, Riki, we have a hard stop at 10:30, just so you know.” But because I have already prepared the details, because I have visualized how I will respond to these scenarios to appear to everyone in the room as if I meant for any interruption or obstacle to occur, and because I have three alarms set an hour earlier than usual, I am able to sit at my desk now preparing this episode at 11:45 pm, because I feel comfortable that my ducks are in a row.
Now, the last thing you need to do will only work if you’ve done the other three, but if you’ve done the other three steps, this final step will be so easy and so profoundly liberating that, if you’re someone who’s normally nervous for just about any high-pressure situation, you might wonder how it was you ever used to get nervous at all. So say you’ve set your high goal and you’ve prepared well for it, and you’ve set your alarms and shown up 10 minutes early, and now you’re waiting for the exam to be handed out or you’re sitting in the lobby for your interview or you’re standing off to the site of the mat waiting to be called up. The final thing you need to do is to understand that the part that was in your control is now over. Stressing out about a test right before or as it’s happening does you no good whatsoever – if you’ve prepared well, visualized possibilities, and arrived early, odds are you are actually going to do well, and perhaps even better than you’d anticipated. But, if you’ve done those things, and the test is still much harder than anybody in the class expected, or there are questions you didn’t prepare for, or the person you’re competing against is simply more skilled than you are, you need to be okay with that. Stressing out about the situation as it’s occurring, over factors you couldn’t control in preparation, does nothing to improve the situation or your reaction to it. The unfortunate reality is that it really isn’t possible to prepare for every single situation in a manner so perfect that you are never surprised by any outcome. Even at the most elite levels of interviewing, presenting, test-taking, or athletic competition, there are unpredictable surprises that, if they occur, even the elites have no choice but to adapt or accept the situation, and the same goes for you. There is incredible power and peace of mind that comes with understanding, “I’ve done just about everything I could do in the time I had to do it, and I’m okay with whatever the outcome ends up being.” Not only will this improve your quality of life, but in that high-pressure moment, you’re actually still likely to perform better than you would if you were psyching yourself out and flooding your body with cortisol or dumping all of your adrenaline right off the block. So, if you do take these four actions, not only will it set you up for success, but you’ll also be much more able to handle both positive outcomes and negative consequences and take either as a learning opportunity. With that, you can continuously adapt your future strategy for preparing for high-pressure situations and in short time transform yourself from nervous wreck to beacon of confidence.