The best concert I ever saw was Joan Baez and Paul Simon at the Orpheum Theater, Boston, circa 1989. We went to see Joan Baez, but it was Paul Simon who stole our hearts. He was funny, warm, talented, so real. He sang many songs from his not so acclaimed album, “Hearts and Bones.” It is still a favorite of mine, (in fact, just last week I heard my 13-year old daughter listening to it in her room!) When 20 years later I saw Carrie Fisher’s one-woman play, “Wishful Drinking” (a painful and hilarious insider guide to the life and times of Princess Leia), I felt like a true insider when she quoted one of Simon’s lyrics from this album.
So quite naturally an article in this month’s The Economist entitled “Non Cogito Ergo Sum” (I don’t think therefore I am) had me humming Paul Simon’s much more accessible translation and tune, “Think Too Much.”
Author, Ian Leslie’ writes about “unthinking” or how thinking too much can squelch judgment and performance. His story begins with the very painful 2011 U.S. Open semi-final match between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Now, I am a big U.S. Open fan, so this is close to my heart. Federer has gone from the #1 seed in men’s tennis to #3 and those of us who love him, have struggled watching his fight for a Grand Slam win these last few years. In this match, during the last set, Federer was ahead 5 games to 2 and needed ONE point to win the match. One point. But you know where this is going. Federer served, Djokovic returned an extraordinary shot and went on to win the US Open men’s final.
Leslie’s assertion is that Federer choked because he was thinking too much and Djokovic was able to stop thinking and tap into the “ fluid, physical grace required to succeed that moment.” Choking is another way to describe the “mental frailty that emerges at crucial moments.” Leslie wonders: is Federer finding it harder to reach this unthinking state?
Leslie shares psychological studies, anecdotal conversations with Bob Dylan, (“you’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.”) behavioral research in rats and business school research about performance anxiety that correlates overthinking with less successful outcomes. Thinking too hard can paralyze us, especially when the stakes are very high. The solution? “The only reliable cure for overthinking seems to be enjoyment, something that both success and analysis can dull.” Easier said than done, but something worth remembering next time your brain is racing and your body is tight.
Is Federer’s loss more reflective of the physical difference between a 25 and 31 year old uber-athlete or the changing brain of a man who has settled down and matured more? I am not going to think too much about this, because I’ll still be rooting for Roger during the upcoming French Open.