Imagine for a second that you're a world-famous athlete in a gold-medal race at your first Olympics. You stand at the apex of the mountain, thousands of tilted gazes fixed upon you. Awaiting the sound of the beep to signal the downward descent, your head fills with the sound of an icy exhalation, and you realize: All the work, all the blood, sweat, and tears of the hundreds of hours of training is culminating at this exact moment.
What do you say to yourself?
Shaun White, five-time Olympian and one of the best snowboarders in the world, recites this motto to himself before every single run.
The paradox of not caring -- to be better
It may sound counterintuitive, but this idea of "trivializing by design" is a skillful strategy that top performers use all the time. Famous author Neil Gaiman does something similar. "I trivialize what I'm doing," says Gaiman, "to not make it important and freighted down with weight, because that paralyzes me."
In all performance contexts, including leadership in organizations, the pressure can be a lot at times. And that weight needs to be lifted, lest we choke under the pressure.
Choking and the yips at work
Similar to an athlete, leaders need to perform and to "compete" at work, like when delivering a presentation or town hall or delivering bad news to an annoyed client executive. The ability to perform under heightened levels of pressure and to keep one's cool is often the differentiating factor in leaders who achieve continued success and those who do not.
The psychological breakdown in high-pressure situations -- choking -- happens when the weight of anxiety interferes with ideal behaviors.
Asking yourself, rather rhetorically, "Who cares?" isn't done because you want to convince yourself that no one, including you, really cares about your success. That's crazy. Imagine actually believing that no gives two hoots about our success, and still going about our day-to-day? Nietzsche himself would recoil at that level of nihilism.
Instead, I see such trivializing as an effective solution to choking. Assuming you care about your leader identity and your sense of worth as a hard-working professional, then just like Shaun White as an Olympic athlete or Neil Gaiman as a prized author, asking the question "Who cares?" will help to take some of that weight off at the moment when the pressure can be too much to bear.
And, paradoxically, there'll always be that little voice in the back of your mind, once the high-anxiety moment passes, that will give the answer to your quirky question:
"I do. I care."