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Under pressure

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Ahmed Arafa

Ahmed Arafa

Working at a newspaper is tough stuff. I’ve likened it somewhat to the songs on Nirvana’s Nevermind album. The day starts off quietly and melodiously as I saunter into the office, everything strumming along nicely at first, lulling you into a false sense of security: “Today should be an easy day,” I think to myself. “Hell, I might even walk home from the Metro station this time.”

Nope.

‘Cause suddenly, and before I’ve even realised what’s going on, a whole chorus of eardrum-splitting articles comes in (and always at the same time); everyone is suddenly on the ‘phone simultaneously; journo’s are trying to get my attention left-right-and-centre; the internet, which has been running smoothly all day, suddenly decides to go gaga; and it all starts to sound like the Hilton Ramses is being demolished on top of my head using high-grade explosives.

So, “how do you deal with pressure?”, that beloved question of job interviewers the world over, will be the topic of discussion for today.

As someone whose natural speed setting is a few notches below most people’s, and having worked tough jobs where targets, deadlines and word counts are very much the order of the day, I have had a lot of time to think about this question.

If on either end of the speed settings scale you have hares and tortoises, then I’m pretty much a one-legged catatonic tortoise on extra-strength hypnotics. I have, for example, only ever finished one exam in my whole life. The words “I’ve run out of time; you should have given me more you Nazis” have adorned the bottom of many an exam paper I had to sit during my surreptitiously rebellious teenage years.

Incidentally, that one exam I managed to finish came as a result of my trying coffee that morning for the very first time (back then, my mother didn’t let either myself or my sister have any, for some reason). I was 16, and not knowing anything about how to make a cup of the black stuff, I scooped equal measures of freeze-dried coffee and sugar into a large mug (five teaspoons of each, to be exact), tossed the disgusting bitter drink down the old gullet, and set off for my economics exam.

I was so wired on the caffeine and the sugar that I practically blitzkrieged it with more than 15 minutes to spare. I sat there proudly with a big smile on my face, my arms folded, my legs shaking and my left eye no doubt twitching. Eat my dust.

Anyway, pressure. You know, tick-tock, tick-tock; budum-budum, budum-budum (that’s meant to be my heartbeat, there). Right now I am writing this at what is, for me, breakneck speed. It’s now 11.30am and I’ve been typing this in a taxi for a 1pm deadline.  

Now I’m fascinated by performers (musicians, sportspeople, and, especially, actors and comedians). Consider a stand-up comedian, for example. You walk on stage, and there, in front of you, is a whole sea of people sitting with their arms folded (their legs shaking, left eyes no doubt twitching) staring straight at you: “Go on; make me laugh, punk” their expressions seem to be saying (is your heart beating faster right now? Mine is).

Anyone reading this who has performed in some capacity probably knows what I’m talking about here. Performance anxiety is a real killer. I get it every week writing these damned things.

There’s this study I came across a while ago (can’t find it; I’m on deadline) that surveyed members of different professions. One thing I remember aside from the profession deemed to be most at risk of committing suicide (poets, if you must know), was that the professions with the most superstitious practitioners, were actors and sportspeople.

No surprise considering the nature of both professions and the performance anxiety mentioned above.

But superstition is not really my style (“Superstition brings bad luck” as the saying goes).

There’s an even more interesting example from sport which I like, and which, unfortunately, may well be only apocryphal (I’ve never found a link to this story, and can’t for the life of me remember where I heard it, and, yes, you’ve guessed it, I’m on deadline).

It’s the final of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Germany vs. Brazil. At the time, the two most successful international teams in the sport’s history. These two cultures couldn’t be any more different in both footballing and non-footballing terms. The Germans are resilient, determined, disciplined, efficient; the Brazilians, entertaining, playful, and possess a rather admirable predilection for shaking their bottoms (this applies to football, too; I direct your attention to the countless videos of Ronaldinho goal celebrations on YouTube).

Anyway, if you’ll excuse the stereotype overload in this story, please permit me to carry on.

Thank you.

(By the way, “the best recurring villains are polite, civil and appear completely sane”; don’t know who said it, and, yes, you’ve guessed it, I’m on deadline).

So, the German and Brazilian teams are standing in the tunnel, waiting to come out onto the pitch for what is likely the most important game of their lives, watched by billions globally, an event sure to etch your name indelibly within the history books for better or for worse (remember Zizou in 2006?).

Brazilian captain Cafu turns round and faces his team. Ready to give the most important team speech of his career. He reminds his boys how it felt last time around (Brazil lost the previous World Cup final to France in 1998; Zizou, then remembered for better reasons, scored two goals); how heartbroken the Brazilian people were; how they cannot let them down: “The whole of Brazil is watching us, praying to Jesus that we will win; think of them, think of the children in the favelas who hero-worship you, the poor whose only joy is football and watching Brazil win; think of your families. Now go out there and make them proud.”

(Wow. Cafu, my man; I’m ready to go out there myself, right now.)

So now, Oliver Khan, the German captain and goalkeeper, that frightening giant of a man, turns round to his team-mates to give his own speech:

“OK, everyone” he says calmly. “Now get in a straight line.”

And that was it (how very Deutsch).

Now aside from a contrast in cultural differences, this story could also be used to demonstrate different approaches to an unbelievably high-pressure situation.

In fact, I’ve always felt the story is one that shows you two different extremes in terms of dealing with pressure.

The Cafu approach inflates the situation: He’s managed to work in the players’ families, the barefoot favela-dwelling urchins, the whole Brazilian population in fact (all praying to Jesus for victory) into his speech. Heavy stuff.

The Oliver Khan approach, on the other hand, deflates the situation (fssssssssssssssssss): Calm down, my dears, he seems to be saying, we’ve done this a thousand times before; it’s just “another day at the office”. Now show me that lovely straight Teutonic line. Jetzt!

I said I felt these two approaches represented extremes on either side of the pressure-management spectrum. And, of course, where there are polar extremes, there is always a middle ground between them. Predictably, this is where I am heading to.

Why the middle ground? Well, the Cafu approach will give me a nervous breakdown; too much of the Oliver Khan approach and I’ll sit down (I sometimes type standing up, crouching over the keyboard, back bent double like an old man, to get me really going), have ten cups of coffee, twice that amount of cigarettes, and a whole litany of candy bars. Too much relaxation and I may start to imagine I’m a fat 16th Century Turkish potentate reclining on a divan and surrounded by his eunuchs, foot-soldiers and harem. Way too indolent.

How, then, do I get to that impossible place, that mid-point between Cafu and Oliver Khan?

I can’t answer this question satisfactorily, but I’ll make an attempt nonetheless.

Well, this is simply “another day at the office”; I’ve done this three times before, and each time simply consisted of a bunch of ideas typed out in the form of words (it’s essentially that simple).

But I’m in a taxi, the traffic is crazy, heart is beating faster and faster as the clock ticks by. I’ve learnt, over the years, to love this experience. To relish it. I lose my temper a bit, utter profanities at the computer, do a bit of silent praying, but all goes well in the end.

So relish the race. Do the 100 metre sprint on the outside, but remain the calm, indolent Turkish potentate smoking the hookah (no surprises what’s in it) on the inside. The Cafu-Oliver Khan approach.

So there you go. Column done. Mission accomplished.

Now, please, if you don’t mind, get in a nice straight line and do the samba. Jetzt!

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