June 9, 2010

"And you have to not care whether you live or die"

About 15 years ago, I saw the movie First Knight, a film about the King Arthur myth. Several scenes in the movie impressed me and this scene in particular. In the scene, Lancelot has just spectacularly won a sword fight and his opponent, a tall man called Mark, is amazed. The following conversation follows:



Mark:
How did you do that? ... How did he do that? Was that a trick?
Lancelot:
No, no trick, it's the way I fight
Mark:
Could I do it? ... Tell me, I could learn.
Lancelot:
You have to study your opponent, how he moves, so you know he’s gonna do it before he does it.
Mark:
I can do that
Lancelot:
You have to know that one moment in every fight in which you win or lose and  you have to know how to wait for it
Mark:
I can do that
Lancelot:
And you have to not care whether you live or die
Mark:
…. (stares and keeps quiet)

I have frequently thought about this scene. I found it hard to explain why but I had the feeling the 'you have to not care whether you live or die' was in some paradoxical way true and relevant for many situations in work and in life in general. I had noticed on several occasions that when I had to perform and had thought on forehand that I honestly did not care whether I would succeed or not the result was surprisingly good.

Now I came across Dan Ariely's book The upside of irrationality and I was pleasantly surprised that, in this book, he describes precisely this movie scene. He offers a nice explanation: It seems that Lancelot fights better than anyone else because he has found a way to bring the stress of the situation to zero. If he doesn't care whether he lives or dies, nothing rides on his performance. He doesn't worry about living past the end of the fight, so nothing clouds his mind and affects his abilities - he is pure concentration and skill.

12 comments:

  1. Awareness of his environment. Presence in the Present Moment without thoughts of tomorrow or yesterday. This has been discussed a lot in Zen.

    Here is a scene from Peaceful Warrior that describes this present moment very nicely:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lWuUzpLLUs

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  2. Hmmm.... I just finished Dan Ariely's new book too. And I liked the point he made. However, I just can't shake the thought that people can perform well under stress. I know I've done it in the past. I think that under stress you can perform well if you are using well practiced skills. Also, I wonder if physical skills will always decline under stress. Dan Ariely was mostly talking about cognitive skills. This is an interesting point and I'd like to see some of the research on stress and how people with different mindsets (growth or fixed) respond to stress to see which kinds of performance are enhanced and reduced by stress.

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  3. Thanks Peter and Rodney. Interesting point, Rodney. If, for a moment, you forget about Ariely's explanation and look at the scene, what do you think about it? Maybe there are additional explanations, maybe even better ones

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  4. Coert,

    I went back and read his book and I think he's right. Stress seemed to reduce performance in most situations. The only way I know of to get a similar focus to Lancelot's that I know of is to practice mindfulness meditation. It makes people more resistant to stress among it's many other benefits.

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  5. Coert,

    The study reported on this blog suggests a simple way to improve performance in stressful situations. Thought you might like to know about it.

    http://www.bakadesuyo.com/how-to-quickly-and-easily-improve-performance-0

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  6. Whenever I have wanted something really badly I always ended up not achieving it. Whenever I wasn't really too bothered about achieving a set objective remarkably it seemed as if the whole universe conspired to help me achieve the very thing I wasn't really too bothered about achieving. Why is this so? Can someone explain this for me?

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  7. Anonymous, a Chinese wise man once said:
    "When the archer shoots for no particular prize, he has all his skills; when he shoots to win a brass buckle, he is already nervous; when he shoots for a gold prize, he goes blind, sees two targets, and is out of his mind. His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him. He cares! He thinks more of winning than of shooting, and the need to win drains him of power."

    Do you find this familiar?

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  8. Hi anonymous and Peter, thanks! Interesting example, Peter. It also reminds me of the discounting principle (see http://bit.ly/nMER4)

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  9. That sounds very familiar Peter! Thank you very much! That quote is really quite wonderful.

    Is there any scientific explanation you have come across which explains this mystery?

    Hi Coert! Your blog is really quite something! Keep up the good work! I hope to become a regular contributor.

    P.S - Would you advise people who are going for something they want not to desire it too much because that actually may hinder their success?

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  10. Hi Afraz, Thanks for your comment!
    Regarding your question: I'm not big on providing advice ... I guess it depends on what it is you want. If it is largely within your control, I guess it is likely to work to desire it a lot. However, if it is largely out of your control, it seems unwise to desire it too much. For instance, if you want to write a book, I guess it will work to have a strong desire to see it finished. But if you want your book to win a prize, it may actually work counterproductive to let yourself be guided by this desire.
    What do you think?

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  11. Hi Afaz, the only scientific research I can think of is the research on Mindfulness based stress reduction. i.e. Jon Kabat-Zinn's research

    From what I know, lower levels of stress might be more conductive to flow and the productivity in flow is way better than productivity under stress. So, basically, if you have a very important task that requires you to be at the limits of your abilities, with stress you might get in the Anxiety domain while centering on the present might move you to Arousal and then Flow. Bare in mind that this is only a personal opinion, I have not expertise in this field.

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