Week in Review

Review: Braunias on helpful gibberish from AB’s shrink

Steve Braunias reviews a self-help book in which Ceri Evans attempts to teach people how to perform under pressure. Spoiler alert: He hated it.

I think it’s true that at any time in my working life – as a chatty young punk with great hair and a very bad attitude, a more even-tempered professional with delusions of talent, and now, as an elder statesman of the trade, holding on to what he’s got, of brittle age and temperament – it would be my instinct to immediately and absolutely loathe Dr Ceri Evans. His gig is to teach businesses and teams how to perform under pressure. I’d sit at one of his work seminars and think: oh STFU. And: baldie. Also: look okay, I accept that his teachings no doubt work, in the way that religious mania works, in the way that recreational ketamine works, but I don’t want a bar of it. I tried reading his self-help book Perform Under Pressure. I didn’t want a bar of it.

It’s such an ugly book. To look at, I mean, and try to read; the design is so vile, the typography such a restless disgrace. Imagined case stories (Emma the receptionist, Ian a senior executive) are told in grey boxes. Key words leap out in bold. There are arrows, bullet-points, italics, bad drawings. Worst of all, there are a lot of CAPITALS. Sorry, A LOT OF CAPITALS. There are headlines and subheadings in caps, which isn’t too bad, but you’re sick of the sight of any kind of capitals by page 21, when Evans unveils his amazing discovery of two kinds of human responses and calls them RED and BLUE.

Look at this, if you can stomach it, from page 27: “The RED system uses images, but the BLUE system is able to put names and labels to things. BLUE brain processes are conscious, slow and rule-bound, in contrast to RED processes, which are fast and unconscious. Our BLUE mind is often explaining and making sense of events...”

God almighty. Page after page of this Tourette’s shouting, RED and BLUE and RED and BLUE, like manic traffic lights – there’s no green, there’s no escape, there’s just the frantic, constant strobe of RED and BLUE and RED and BLUE on every goddamned page. The book soared to the top of the Nielsen best-seller chart when it was first published. But it’s steadily dropped and I think part of the reason it hasn’t proved a blockbuster success is its sheer off-putting ugliness.

The central reason it hasn’t proved a blockbuster success is that Evans’s RED-BLUE mind model reads really badly. He makes up dumb hyphenated words – ESC-APE, IM-PACT. The language of self-help is forever trying to pervert the course of English; the mumbo-jumbo of invented words, dense sentences and hysterical exclamation marks (there's a big red one shrieking on the cover) are an attempt to cast a spell on the reader. But the spell doesn’t work if the magic is a dog. Evans’s teaching is all over the place, it’s hard to know what the hell he’s on about, and he’s profoundly, sincerely humourless.

Not one laugh! God. And yet, and yet. His teachings work, they get results. Evans was a motivating shrink for the All Blacks, and there is Richie McCaw, or Richie McCaw’s ghostwriter, saying nice things about him in the foreword. Evans gave the All Blacks his RED-BLUE teachings before the 2007 World Cup. McCaw, or McCaw’s ghostwriter: “Ceri showed us examples of how people react differently under pressure and how they go ‘into the RED’. It all made sense...We started to use the RED-BLUE model and straight away I began to see it work.”

RED is action, feeling, sexual, gut-based, dumb as a bag of hammers. BLUE is logical, decision-making, has a memory, works things out, doesn’t get laid. And so: “However our RED systems reacts under pressure, we can increase our BLUE control over these reactions...Rather than relying on the RED emotion to carry us through, it ought to help to add the steely clarity of BLUE.” 

You have to get them in sync. You can’t overthink stuff but you can’t just act. And so on, and whatever; heart and head, I get it, it’s all good, but there are over 300 pages of this stuff and most of the instructions on how to apply the BLUE-RED model are complicated, and, worse, boring. "Step 1: Rename - redefine your creative challenge in terms of a puzzle. Write this down. Spend no more than one minute. Step 2: Reframe - on a blank piece of paper, draw a spontaneous diagram of the puzzle..." Oh FFS.

Still, I was interested in his thoughts on to-do lists. He hates them, thinks them weak: "They are a cunning method for not doing things...We're too busy writing our 'to-do' list, too busy doing easy, unimportant things on our list - the quick emails - and too busy doing things that aren't even on our list. We're too busy doing anything and everything but the awkward item."

I don't compile a to-do list as such but I kind of subvert the concept with another approach. A typical day will require five or six major tasks to complete. Each has a set of deadlines - the things that ought to be done now, the things that can wait. I start off with the things that can wait. I give them my full attention, I don't cheat or cut corners, but I work fast, and I enjoy knowing that the clock is ticking on the tasks that I haven't began. Eventually, I'll tear into the work that I should and could have started earlier, and get it done in time. I don't miss deadlines. I like the whole process, I like the speed of movement and the way it encourages a clarity of thought. It's possible that Evans might approve, and describe my work habits as performance under pressure, that I'm a shining exponent of RED and BLUE. I just think of it as work, and I like work.

Evans prefers to throw around quasi-scientific words and concepts such as "pinnacle events", "the offload technique", "performance line", etc etc. All self-help pap is pop psychology. So little of it is intellectually rigorous. Let us now observe Evans as he hauls out the famous social-science experiment conducted at Stanford in 1970 by Professor Walter Mischel: the Marshmallow Test. Children as young as four were put in a room, and asked to sit at a table. Each kid got a marshmallow. If they waited 15 minutes without eating it, they’d be rewarded with a second marshmallow. How to resist? Mischel observed that some kids would "cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they couldn’t see it, others start kicking the table, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal". Others simply scoffed the marshmallow.

What made the experiment of particular psychological interest was Mischel’s follow-up interviews with the subjects as they grew up and became adults. He found that children who waited for the reward tended to do better at school, sports, and in their careers. The lesson: willpower pays off.

In Evans’s schema, the Marshmallow Test went like this: “It set up a mental struggle within each child between their hot RED emotional system, which wanted to eat the sweet straightaway, and their cool BLUE thinking system, which tried to delay instant gratification in favour of a bigger goal. Would BLUE control be able to inhibit RED craving?” Those who obeyed the BLUE logic are heroes, he applauds. They performed under pressure, he smiles. They would apply the same executive control over their chosen occupation, he blathers.

Except it’s a nonsense. A 2018 study, niftily titled “Revisiting the Marshmallow Test”, restaged the experiment but with a larger group of subjects from a wider socio-economic background. As The Atlantic reported: “The new study found limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success."

The rich could afford to wait; time is an investment. The poor don't know where their next marshmallow is coming from; better that they scoff theirs, then wait and steal both marshmallows meant for the indolent rich. The article by Indiana sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco continues: “The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees. There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.”

So much for RED. So much for BLUE. But the truth about the Marshmallow Test doesn't really take away from the effectiveness of Evans's colour-coded goobledegook. His helpful gibberish worked for McCaw. There are a bunch of testimonials at the front of the book by other satisfied customers. I wish I had the patience and the faith to believe in it. There just seems such a disconnect between Evans's focus on our work performance and the people who we really are. He traps everything in an office environment, or wherever it is that we ply our trade and make our money. Away from work, in my actual, personal life, my way of completing tasks and working at speed doesn't add up to a hill of beans. When I’m under real pressure, such as an employment crisis or some relationship mess of my own making, or even just losing my eftpos card, I collapse like a house of cards. He’d look at me at one of his seminars and think: loser. He’d be right. And I’d just switch off, and think: baldie.

Perform Under Pressure by Ceri Evans (HarperCollins, $39.99).

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