There’s a quote attributed to an anonymous Navy seal – a special forces unit in the U.S. Navy:
Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.
As much as we might want to think that this only applies to life and death situations, I don’t think it does. In my experience as a software developer, a food-service worker, a construction worker, and even as a musician, I have continuously found this to be true.
There’s two major parts to this quote. The first of which says we don’t rise to the occasion. That part is a bit depressing on it’s own. But when we see the second part of this quote – that we train hard – we see some opportunity and some light at the end of the tunnel.
When The Going Gets Tough…
In the first part of this saying, we fallback to the training, the habits and the “get it done” mode of work – no matter what that work is – when we face difficulties. It’s human nature to revert to a level of comfort and familiarity when faced with difficulties and challenges – especially when faced with life and death situations, but also when faced with deadlines at work and pressure to get things done.
Stress causes us to revert to previous ways that we are more familiar with, rather than the newer and better ways that we have been learning. There is less risk in the old ways. There is less discomfort and unease, which we need when we have other pressures put on us already.
This is not a bad thing. It is completely natural, and it is ok. Don’t look at your unwillingness to try that new framework or code technique as a sign of weakness or being lazy or anything else. See it for what it is: a need to get back to something more comfortable so that we can deal with the pressure that we are already facing.
But it can be a bit depressing to think that the work we want to do, knowing that there is a better way, is not the work that we will do when we are under pressure. Fortunately, the solution to this is also found within the same quote.
We Can Do Better Under Pressure, If …
The secret to doing better when we are under pressure is to train when we are not under pressure.
When we have the luxury of stepping back for a moment and trying something new, we should. When we have more time than we need to implement that feature, we can take the time to practice something better. When we are specifically looking at time for training and practice, we can improve our abilities by making these new and better techniques more comfortable.
Training, while we are not under pressure, is the key to doing better when we are under pressure. The training that we do creates new habits, new levels of comfort, and new abilities.
Without training, we won’t be able to build new skills. But at the same time, we can’t expect to do any serious training while we are looking at deadlines and other pressures.
What Kind Of Training? When?
The most important question here, is when. Getting training too early – long before you would ever use the tools or techniques learned – means you will likely lose those skills before you need them. Getting training too late is just as bad. You don’t want to spend time mastering a technology for a project that is already complete. Rather, you want to find training for your current tools / technologies / frameworks / techniques first. If you’re already in deep end, getting that training now can be a huge benefit. Next, look for training that will benefit an upcoming project you will work on.
The type of training largely depends on your learning style. Books, screencasts, classroom style, one-on-one q&a – these are all valid types of initial training. But initial training only goes so far. You need continuous practice-oriented training in order to cement the skills that you are attempting to acquire.
How Much Training?
Once the initial training happens, you need to continue to exercise your new skills. You need to continue the training. Build sample projects. Find places where that new tool or technique can be put in to an existing project without causing delays or other difficulties. Spend a few hours a week continuing to do research and your own self-paced or mentored training.
Looking back at the quote above, there is a question you can ask that will help you determine whether or not you have had enough training: are you falling back to this tool / technique, when the pressure is on, as a place of comfort and familiarity?
Remember, you sink to the level of your training when you’re under pressure. If you find yourself sinking below the tools / techniques that you are attempting to acquire, when under pressure, then your training has been inadequate. But if you find yourself using these new tools and techniques with comfort and ease, while under pressure, then your training is solid. That doesn’t mean you’re done learning, but it does at least mean that you have acquired enough of a skill set to become comfortable with the tools and techniques that you set out to learn.
There will always be something new to learn, something to master, something to improve. You will always need to practice, to train, to ensure that the skills you need are so ingrained in your habits, that you can do the work without thinking about it. This is ultimately the type of training that you need – the type that is ground in to you so hard, and so well, that you can do it half asleep, while under life and death pressure, with others counting on you.
So get out there, get the training that you need and practice those new skills and tools until you can’t help but see the solution to the current problem, in the context of that training.