Photo Gallery - Bret Hedican - 04_19_2007.jpg

I used to take an adult hockey class. Each session started with all of us facing the boards and skating backwards on the instructor’s whistle. We were all supposed to stop on a second whistle; then the instructor grouped students by how far they had skated in the limited time.

(This is a picture of Bret Hedican of the Carolina Hurricanes. Arguably, one of the best skaters in the NHL, Macintosh user, and heckuva nice guy.)

The instructor was trying to group people of similar skill levels for a more efficient learning environment. However, I made the case to him that by grouping people in this way, the folks in the slower groups (like me) learned that we sucked, and our heads got filled with negative thoughts. As a result, we performed worse than we (theoretically) could have for the rest of the class. Of course the instructor ignored my brilliant insight—after all, he’s from Minnesota and I’m from Hawaii.

Recently I read “The Choke Factor: How Stereotypes Affect Performance” which analyzes how stereotypes compromise performance—particularly of negatively stereotyped groups. For example if female students are told that women are stereotypically worse in math immediate before a math test, then they score lower in the test.

The theory is that by making a group aware of their stereotype, you can introduce “enhanced cognitive load.” Instrusive and negative thoughts cause a load that interrupts and harms performance. What do you think will happen when (not if) you are told that you don’t know how to run a company? Entrepreneurs—like wannabe hockey players and female math-test takers—should heed the scientific underpinnings of choking and the impact of negative stereotypes.

Here’s what you can do to avoid choking:

  1. Avoid negative people. This refers to the folks who are likely to express the negative stereotype that first-time entrepreneurs don’t know what to do. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to avoid venture capitalists because they never tell you what they really think.) Certainly you should avoid “proven” older entrepreneurs who don’t remember how clueless they were when they were “your age” and now consider themselves experts.

  2. Ignore the people you cannot avoid. As George Orwell should have said, “Ignoring is bliss.” If you think about what they said, it could lead to what they said, so figuring out what to ignore is as important as what to listen to. The best way to ignore negative people is to bury yourself in your work—to prototype like hell. When I’m writing, nothing enters my brain but the need to eat and pee—and sometimes not even that.

  3. Invoke positive stereotypes. Positivity can enhance performance according to the article—it’s “fighting fire with fire” as the saying goes. For example, entrepreneurs could invoke the positive stereotype that a couple of guys/gals who love technology and aren’t “proven” entrepreneurs can start companies like Apple, Yahoo!, Google, YouTube, and Facebook. Perhaps this is one reason that Silicon Valley rocks as a place for young people to start companies: the wunderkind stereotype is a very positive one here.

  4. Frame, or reframe, yourself. Finally, you can control how strongly you identify with any social group. For example, you don’t have to identify with “first-time entrepreneurs.” You could more strongly define yourself in terms of being a mom, dad, wife, husband, scholar, programmer, marketer, or whatever works for you. Or, in my hockey experience, not as a lousy beginning skater, but a 53-year-old guy from Hawaii whose peers are mostly playing golf if they are exercising at all.

Addendum: Several readers have pointed out the work of Carol Dweck regarding how one’s mindset can affect performance. Duh, I wrote about her and linked to a video of her. And here is a Scientific American piece that she authored. (Thanks to Mitch and Luke Burton.)