Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pressure Makes Diamonds

How do you respond to pressure? It can be difficult to perform at your highest level when there is a lot at stake, but when you do, the rewards can be great. When he reads this, I suspect the title of this post will bring a smile to my fathers face because he used to tell me this all the time as a kid whenever I had a big test or a particularly important game:

“Pressure makes diamonds”

He’d say it half kiddingly, and he hardly invented the phrase, but the point is that if you perform well under pressure the rewards are great.

In my line of work that usually means meeting a deadline, troubleshooting some big problem that’s broken, or presenting a new and perhaps controversial idea to the people in charge. I came across an instance of the last one recently that most Americans who have been paying attention to politics in the last four years are no doubt aware of.

I make no secret that I have a man-crush on Barack Obama, as my review of his 1995 biography reveals. I just finished his second book, The Audacity of Hope, which is essentially his manifesto for what he’d do as President of the United States if he were elected. It covers everything from partisanship to race relations to foreign policy and was a national best seller upon its publication in 2006.

Even if you don’t agree with his politics, there is an important lesson to be learned from the epilogue of the book about being asked to perform on a big stage and the benefits it can reap. As he describes, he was an unknown Illinois state legislator who was running for a Senate seat on the national level for the first time back in 2004. During the primary in Illinois that year he met John Kerry and spoke at a fund raiser for Kerry in the state. For reasons Obama was uncertain of, when Kerry won his party's nomination Obama was selected as the keynote speaker at the convention.

In the epilogue, Obama describes the process he went through in writing his speech for this first chance at national exposure, which would center on a phrase his pastor had used in a sermon, “The audacity of hope”. His speech would become known by this phrase and the book is named after it as well. Once he arrived at the convention, he went from being this guy who's name nobody could pronounce to suddenly being on Meet the Press with Tim Russert for the first time and doing interviews with all the broadcast and cable networks leading up to addressing the entire convention audience.

He describes what those final moments were like, beginning on page 359 of the paperback version of the book:

“. . .finally it was just (my wife) Michelle and me sitting backstage and watching the broadcast, that I started to feel just a tad bit nervous. I mentioned to Michelle that my stomach was feeling a little grumbly. She hugged me tight, looked into my eyes, and said, ‘Just don’t screw it up, buddy!’

We both laughed. Just then, one of the production managers came into the hold room and told me it was time to take my position offstage. Standing behind the black curtain, listening to Dick Durbin introduce me, I thought about my mother and father and grandfather and what it might have been like for them to be in the audience. I thought about my grandmother in Hawaii, watching the convention on TV because her back was too deteriorated for her to travel. I thought about all the volunteers and supporters back in Illinois who had worked so hard on my behalf.

Lord, let me tell their stories right, I said to myself. Then I walked onto the stage.”

Imagine the pressure: An unknown guy given a shot at a huge stage. Mess it up and nobody will ever know who he is. I’ll never know what that kind of pressure is like and most of us won’t. But, like my Pop says, pressure makes diamonds:


(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNCLomrqIN8 for my email subscribers)

As you likely know already, this performance catapulted Obama onto the national political landscape and as I type he is vying for the 2008 Democratic Presidential Nomination. None of it happens, though, without the opportunity to give that speech and without him delivering the goods when he got the chance.

Not all chances like this work out for everybody, to be sure. I’ve certainly had plenty of slip-ups myself, like the time I cost the company several million dollars with a premature recommendation on some vendor software that didn't work as advertised. That took awhile to recover from, careerwise, but that’s the chance you take and you learn from those mistakes so you don't repeat them when the next window comes along.

But, if you deliver on most of them, good things happen. Look for these opportunities. Seek them out. You never know where performing well with them might lead you. For one guy, it gave a skinny kid with a funny name a shot at being the most powerful person in the world.

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