Reading The Motivated Brain by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt—referenced in my previous post—I was reminded of the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal.
I’m sure you think about this all the time, but I had to re-familiarize myself with it. According to YD, increased arousal—stress, pressure—usually helps improve performance, up to a point.
Stress, pressure, or tension from pushing ourselves mentally, physically, or emotionally gets the juices flowing to help us produce the desired result. But too much stress can be overwhelm us and diminish productivity.
In the music world I see performers play better when there’s something at stake. I can personally attest to the fact that playing in front of thousands at the Hollywood Bowl gets you going in a way that rehearsing in your garage doesn’t. (That might qualify as a “duh.”)
The energy rush—specifically the flood of endorphins—from facing a huge audience enables you to do certain things (play with more energy, hit higher notes with your voice, etc.) that you might not be able to do otherwise. If the stakes are really high—e.g., performing on national TV for millions of viewers for the first time, or auditioning live for a major record company—even experienced performers can be so nervous that it inhibits their performance, though some of them get over it quickly.
In business I see executives testing their managers by regularly placing them in stressful situations—e.g., requiring them to produce an aggressive result in a tight time frame or sell a controversial idea in a meeting with skeptical senior management. All good development opportunities. But when it’s all-stress-all-the-time, productivity goes down the tubes, along with health. See my earlier post on the Amazon culture, as described by the NY Times, as well as research here on the ill effects of chronic stress.
Finding that right amount of stress—the Goldilocks Principle of “not too little,” “not too much”—is of course the challenge.