Today, I spoke to Paul Sullivan, who writes the Wealth Matters column for The New York Times, and is the author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t. In this interview, Paul talks about what it means to be a clutch player in business, goes through some clutch scenarios, and more.
As a kid, I desperately wanted to be clutch in any of the dozens of golf tournaments I played in. Golf was the sport I played with my grandfather, and I played it well with him and friends. But in just about any tournament, I would fold under the pressure and shoot a horrendous score. However much this bothered me, it wasn’t until decades later when the economy started to falter that I started to think more deeply about people who aren’t clutch when it really matters. The term “clutch” is usually reserved for athletes, but we have all seen leaders from business and banking to politics and war that needed to be great under pressure and often weren’t. And that had far more serious consequences than playing badly in any game. It was from there that I set off to learn why some very qualified people excelled under pressure while other, seemingly, equally qualified people did not.
Who are some clutch players in the corporate world?
The one who comes right to mind is Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of J.P. Morgan Chase. In some ways, he is the definition of clutch – which I emphasize in the book is the ability to do what you can do under normal conditions but under pressure. This is key because so many people confuse clutch performance with luck. But if you look at how Dimon acquired Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual at the beginning and then in the depth of the financial crisis in 2008, respectively, he was clutch: he focused on assessing the value of each firm; he showed discipline in not paying more than he thought each was worth; he adapted when the deals shifted and he was always thinking in the present: what will this do to J.P. Morgan? It was how he would have made those decisions if the federal government had not been pressing him to do the deals. Dimon stood in stark contrast to Ken Lewis of Bank of America who made such horrible decisions after the ill-conceived acquisition of Merrill Lynch and then refused to take full responsibility for any of them.
The broader point here is there aren’t as many clutch leaders as you – or the leaders themselves – might think. My hope is a few will read Clutch and actually learn to be better under pressure – instead of thinking they’re great and finding out otherwise when it really matters.
What are some clutch scenarios and what is the best way to finish strong?
“A clutch situation is one in which there is not only a clearly defined right and wrong way, but real consequences if you don’t come through.”
In other words, the baseball player who hits a homerun in the ninth inning is not clutch if his team is down by seven runs or in last place. War, of course, is the ultimate clutch scenario, and I discuss what we can learn from the adaptability of special forces soldiers in the book. But a good, everyday example of a clutch scenario is a trial.
When I spoke to David Boies, the attorney, he walked me through how he first prepared for a big trial and then maintained his focus once it was underway. At the time we were talking about A.I.G. vs SICO, a case that involved $4.2 billion but rested on arcane trust documents. He won that, but more recently he won the case for gay marriage in California. One thing Boies said that stuck with me is he how thinks of a trial in tennis terms: he is always just hitting another serve and never trying to hit the one that could win the U.S. Open. That kind of focus keeps him present so he can finish strong. Too many people anticipate their success – or worry about failure – in a pressure scenario and that keeps them from coming through in the clutch.
How do you know if you’re a clutch player? Are some people just born with that ability?
Great question. The person who blithely says I’m clutch most likely is not! I got an email the other day from a reader of my Times column who said that he can’t get enough pressure, that the more pressure on his business the better he does. That may be the case for him, but it’s not the norm. In fact, I found most of the people I interviewed who were truly clutch did not think of themselves in those terms. It actually goes to what I talk about in the chapter on overthinking, which is one of the key causes of choking.
The pitcher David Price, who was the top major league baseball pick in 2008, told me he envisions himself failing before he goes out to pitch. He knows failing is a possibility. And once he has imagined that he focuses on doing what he has always done: throw pitches that get batters out. He has had the discipline to do this at every level and this year he was the starting pitcher in the All Star game, just two years after leaving college. What people don’t know is he almost quit baseball his freshman year at Vanderbilt because he did not think he was good enough under pressure! This is great news for everyone else. It shows people are not born with the ability to be clutch. It is something they can learn, but it takes a lot of hard work. If it was easy, we would all be clutch.
What is the most fascinating piece of research that you uncovered while writing the book?
The best part for me was finding a way to distill the traits of both clutch performers and choke artists into a format that people could not only understand and appreciate but learn from. I worked on telling this through a series of stories that illustrated each trait – the ability to focus, show discipline, adapt, be present and in many cases understand the push and pull of fear and desire under pressure. The same was true for the three qualities of chokers. They commonly fail to accept responsibility for their actions – usually far in advance of the high-pressure moment – are overconfident about their abilities and often overthink key situations.
I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, Dan. So if I had to pick one tidbit, it would be what Ari Kiev told me he learned working with the U.S. Olympic Riflery team. Kiev was a Harvard and Cornell-trained psychiatrist who went on to be a key adviser to SAC Capital, one of the country’s most consistently profitable hedge funds. But he got his start working on the U.S. Sports Medicine Committee in the 1970s. Member of the riflery team wanted to know why they couldn’t shoot as well in competition as they could in practice. To me this is the ultimate test for clutch performance because unlike other sports where you have teammates or an opposing team, nothing ever changes for a rifleman: shooting in a practice range should be exactly the same as shooting at a range in competition but it wasn’t. Some of the best in the world were not clutch. Kiev realized what they needed to do is have the discipline to shoot between breaths. And Kiev took that finding about discipline to the hedge fund world, where he became famous and wealthy.
Paul Sullivan writes the Wealth Matters column for The New York Times. His articles have appeared in Conde Nast Portfolio, The International Herald Tribune, Barron’s, The Boston Globe, and Food & Wine. From 2000 to 2006, he was a reporter, editor and columnist at the Financial Times. His first big story for the FT was a profile of the author Kurt Vonnegut based on a train ride they took from Springfield, Massachusetts to New York City. His last piece for the FT was Vonnegut’s obituary. Paul has been interviewed on radio programs across America and has appeared several times on Fox News. He received degrees in history from Trinity College and the University of Chicago. Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t is his first book.