Book review: What separates clutch performers from chokers?

There's nothing mystical about what it takes to deliver under pressure.

Tiger Woods was once considered the ultimate clutch performer. In the face of media scrutiny and bearing the burden of incredible expectations, he went from child golf prodigy to superstar — only Jack Nicklaus won more professional major golf championships in his career — and even won the U.S. Open in 2008 on a broken leg. At his peak, Woods attributed his achievements to experience, saying, “I’ve put myself there more times than anybody else.” But practice wasn’t enough to save his game after sex scandals pulled the linchpin from his quiet focus; his personal life fell apart, and his play has become inconsistent. And though in time Woods may win more golf tournaments, the world now knows Woods was the consummate choker in his personal life.

Exactly what skills help winners like Woods master their professions, and why they sometimes crash and burn, is the subject of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t (Portfolio) by journalist Paul Sullivan. As he defines it, being “clutch” is having “the fortitude to continue battling … even though the whole world is wondering whether you’re going to choke.” But choking — failing to deliver results when it counts most — isn’t solely a product of pressure, just as being clutch is never about luck. And there is no quick, new-age answer to instantly transform someone who chokes under the weight of expectations into a star performer. That’s because while focus and adaptability are two key components to being clutch, what every scenario Sullivan highlights has in common is attentive, interminable preparation. Nothing can replace the time spent honing a craft — it’s what positions a person for success in the critical moments.

But while developing the skills required to be clutch takes serious mental and physical discipline, the antidote to choking is seemingly simple: take responsibility for your actions and the events that transpire from them. If you’re connected to the choices you make, it will help correct your decision-making process before small problems grow unwieldy. Sullivan advises that over-thinking actions and being overconfident are also contributors to catastrophic failure, but the foundation of a choke is most often in the refusal to fully accept the weight of a bad call. This is true, too, in the boardroom, about which Sullivan writes, “The unwillingness to take blame for bad decisions and tolerate criticism for tough ones is a telltale sign of a bad leader under any condition.”

Still, it’s not enough to just accept accountability for a failure. The kind of thinking that makes a leader clutch happens when the final decision is invested with the idea that “this is the right thing to do, and if I fail, I know I tried.” In this way, says Sullivan, responsibility isn’t just about the aftermath of the actions, it becomes the underlying significance behind the actions themselves. This seems a simple pitfall to avoid, but the refusal of high-achieving performers to accept their own behaviour is pervasive across industries. Think of the tennis player who hits the ball out of bounds and immediately investigates the strings on his racquet, the dancer who falls in rehearsal and stops to retie her shoes, and the guitarist who fumbles his solo and pauses to fiddle with the tuning pegs. And so it is among top executives — many of whom are riding the highs of successful careers and who have become “dangerously insulated” against failure.

That’s the tricky part about being clutch — it never stops being hard work. Sullivan cites as a prime example Ken Lewis, the former Bank of America CEO. Once head of the largest bank in the U.S., Lewis was the picture of success before the recession hit. But when his acquisition of Merrill Lynch for US$50 billion during the financial crisis in 2008 proved a burden, Lewis choked by refusing to acknowledge his own poor performance. He instead claimed altruism (he said the acquisition was in the best interest of shareholders and the country’s economy), and forgetfulness (he couldn’t remember if he’d requested a letter from the Fed saying the government forced his hand). In Lewis, Sullivan highlights the principles that must be aligned to achieve clutch: focus, adaptability, discipline, being mentally present, and a combination of fear of failure and desire to succeed.

All these come together in the ultimate clutch performances, which Sullivan says are achieved by soldiers who lead on the battlefield where stakes are highest. But the author is also intrigued by high-achieving women who succeed in male-dominated industries. He calls them “double clutch.” The woman who excels in science, business or a male-dominated sport, he says, not only succeeds under pressure, but also must “navigate through an inherent bias that says women have not succeeded historically in these fields.”

For white-collar women, this is a common issue. In 2007, reported that just 2.5% of the highest-paid executives in the U.S. were women, as were only 9% of members of the National Academy of Science. Slate attributed this to women’s tendency to choke, but research from Booth School economist Marianne Bertrand suggested that women’s choices to have children account for these career setbacks, not their ability to be clutch. Jack Welch agreed, saying, “There’s no work-life balance. There are work-life choices.” Though Welch wished there were more promotion-worthy women, the consequence of taking time off to nurture a growing family was that they often weren’t “there in the clutch” to make tough decisions. If capable, they weren’t physically present.

Although Sullivan began researching Clutch for selfish reasons — to find the cure to his golf-tournament choking — his swing still isn’t perfect when it matters most. He doesn’t overestimate his abilities or let past failures affect upcoming swings. Still, there are days when frustration bubbles up through his layer of focus, and in those moments, he reminds himself that “being clutch is not a mystical state; it takes work.”

Executive summaries

The Subtle Body : The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Stefanie Syman

Yoga’s popularity in the West has made some people calm, some people fit, and made many more buy expensive stretch pants at the mall. Syman tries to focus on the first two, but admits that the approximately 16 million Americans who practise yoga have turned it into a booming industry. Now, yoga gurus like Bikram Choudhury are able to make millions by promoting their interpretation of the ancient meditative craft.

This western fascination with yoga is chronicled from its first status-driven connoisseurs in the early 1900s to its modern-day popularity, marked by an obsession with adapting yoga to suit a specific need. Yoga has become “a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, and a route to God,” among other things. This pliability has both renewed people’s interest in yoga, while simultaneously diluting it into easily marketed pseudo-disciplines like “marshmallow yoga,” which is “good for puffy ladies.”

Syman calls it a sign of maturity that “we can tolerate the paradox: yoga is both an indulgence and a penance. It will tone your thighs and it might crack open your reality.” But suspended in the balance between fitness and spirituality, she manages to tell the story of yoga as a commodity — one that can be, for better or worse, whatever consumers need. – Jacqueline Nelson

The Shadow Market: How a Group of Wealthy Nations and Powerful Investors Secretly Dominate the World (Scribner)
Eric J. Weiner

“Everything that the Gulf States and other rich countries are buying today has the smell of blood and flesh and distress in it,” a Dubai-based real estate investment consultant tells journalist Weiner. His clients are still benefiting in spades from financial crisis fallout, and they aren’t alone. The western economies, you may have heard, are pooched — at least in the sense that they’re unlikely to maintain the position of global hegemony they’ve enjoyed for decades. Over their decline looms the shadow market, “the invisible and ever-shifting global nexus where money mixes with geopolitical power.” Weiner uses the phrase to refer to the unaffiliated group of wealthy investors and countries — the BRIC states and those flush with petro dollars — who he believes effectively run the international economy through hedge funds, private equity funds and sovereign wealth funds. Their positions have only grown stronger in the past two years, and they’re still staggeringly liquid. Weiner’s account of their emergence suggests that effective regulation of this market isn’t likely, and that the West’s only choice is whether to accede to the new world order or to lose a game of political and economic hardball. The shadow market is neither a good nor bad thing, he says — it just is. The smart money will still find opportunity. – Jordan Timm

Secrets of the Moneylab: How Behavioural Economics Can Improve Your Business (Penguin)
Kay-Yut Chen and Marina Krakovsky

After finishing a Caltech economics PhD in 1994, Chen walked into a better-equipped laboratory than any his university could provide when Hewlett-Packard allowed him to establish an in-house behavioural economics research program at HP Labs, the first of its kind among American corporations. Since then, he has run countless experiments testing “people’s sense of fairness and reciprocity, attitudes towards risk and trust, the human tendency to game the system, novel methods of prediction” — all in the hopes of achieving a better understanding of the drivers of human behaviour that don’t show up on a spreadsheet.

This collaboration with Krakovsky, a journalist who’s written for Scientific American and The New York Times Magazine, combines Chen’s research with other work from the behavioural economics canon. The tale of a ballet troupe on strike, for example, segues into a discussion of the Ultimatum Game, exploring the mechanics of bargaining, and the Dictator Game, testing how money affects altruism. They’re used to illustrate points about fairness in pricing and salary negotiation, and while they’ll be familiar concepts if you’ve read any behavioural economics, they’re well-explained in this accessible introduction to the field. – J.T.