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Psyched Up Review

I read this book partly in preparation for my annual review. While dozens of Pocket articles and previous books have shed light on the art of mental preparation (think mental models from Smarter, Faster, Better), I thought a book solely dedicated to the art of mental preparation would increase my expertise on the matter.

Daniel McGinn organizes this book in a very logical, easy to understand flow. I find that my favorite books are replete with examples from research or personal experience, and this book does not disappoint. McGinn covered some areas of mental preparation that I never considered, such as music, anger, and drugs.

The first part of the book addresses routines/rituals people do before big events. One example he provides is of a surgeon who unconsciously goes through a checklist of errands before going into surgery. Some of these idiosyncrasies (think beyond a good night’s rest – aka specific numbers, location of certain things, specific foods) do not necessarily relate to the big event itself, but serve to provide a semblance of control. Every time I board a plane I always pat the outside of the jet right before stepping in, wishing it good luck. I did not think about it until reading this book, but we all have our flows right before an event.

Another section discussed the use of pep talks, based on the old “Win one for the Gipper” slogan. How effective are pep talks? As with many concepts, the conclusion appears ambiguous and contextual in nature. Frequency lessens the effectiveness of each pep talk. Scenes with coaches inspiring their players in the locker room before the critical moments of a game are seldom. In fact, the head of a Navy SEALS unit explained that he rarely gives pep talks to try to pump up the crew. Instead, the focus of a pep talk should be related to the business and/or tasks at hand – as a final mental preparation of sorts. The concept makes sense, but until reading this book I had taken the pep talk as something people did.

The channeling of anger to fuel mental strength surprised me as I had never considered anger as a tool for motivation. This is perhaps the most reckless form of motivation (in my opinion) because if left unchecked anger can create more dire consequences than say, a pep talk. As with other forms of preparation, anger should never be taken to its extreme, but McGinn suggests there is a healthy level of anger that can lead to favorable results.

While I do not really listen to music, and did not glean much understanding from this chapter, music seems obvious as a means of psyching up an individual. However, the last section, about drugs, really surprised me. I never thought physical enhancers would be useful as a tool to increase productivity. While I believe meds for depression and other mental conditions (seemingly less favorable to society) have proven useful, beta blockers as a means to focus stood out to me. However, while drugs (adderall,┬áPropranolol, etc) can calm anxiety and increase focus, I guess pop culture’s treatment of drugs and their more abusive uses have scared me away from ever trying them. McGinn cites some examples of beta blockers allowing individuals to stand up in front of audiences and others to meet deadlines in a calmer manner. However, he did share a story where a friend heard about his Propranolol use and wanted to give it a shot, so the author gave some over the counter pills that looked like propranolol – which appeared to work. While it is hard to quantify the use of drugs versus the mental belief that the drug will actually work, as far as tangible evidence that suggests drugs can be helpful – there is plenty.

On the flip side of drugs, I do have some ethical concerns (as we all do) regarding these drugs as uses for mental stimulants or steroids. Productivity drugs allow users to enter a focus funnel and bring out some of their best work, but should we as humans pursue such a goal? Increased productivity may help businesses in the short term, but what does it do to the mental health of an individual? I think there are some biological laws that are designed to help us perform at optimal levels (think rest, healthy foods, etc), but an abusive use of said drugs would hack our way to doing more, while quality of life goes down. In the U.S. we make heroes out of those who push through long days and sacrifice themselves for the sake of work, but that is not something I would cheer or continually encourage. Furthermore, in the long term how would this affect the human race if we looked to pills as the solution for curing lack of productivity? Like the availability of information, which could explain why there is less of a need to memorize and retain minor details as long as you know how to find the answers, would we push ourselves internally to reach our optimal best if we knew there was a shortcut? Do not get me wrong, these are questions I have, not absolutes I conclude. However, for me personally, while I acknowledge the use of drugs as a means to ease the symptoms of fear and anxiety, I worry for the altered use of these drugs to unhealthily push forward instead of healthily catch up.

I recommend reading this book, simply because it seems like McGinn raises questions and shares the research for each section. I left with some useful takeaways, and I have thought about setting up a routine before any big events that I come across in my life. I have made a mental note to lessen the frequency of pep talks, relying instead on a mature look into the business of an operation that utilizes clear headed thinking. Would I use drugs in the future to improve my mental performance? At the time of this writing, no. I would seek to max out my current mental capacity. If I do reach a state where I am more anxious and my quality of basic living is hindered, I would consider it. But for now, I’ll stick to the mental tools available to psych myself up.