The Blog

Performing Under Pressure: Martian Style

We all have our unique pressure moments -- situation in which we have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on our performance -- but I think we would all agree that being stuck on Mars with a limited supply of food and water and help being 140 million miles away would be a pressure moment for all of us.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

We all have our unique pressure moments--- situation in which we have something at stake and the outcome is dependent on our performance --- but I think we would all agree that being stuck on Mars with a limited supply of food and water and help being 140 million miles away would be a pressure moment for all of us.

That's the moment for astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian. Presumed dead by his crew after a fierce storm, he finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With his life at stake and only meager supplies, he must find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. In other words, he had to perform under pressure.

For me, though, it's just another film that illustrates the points I knew before I bought my ticket. I saw 4 science-nonfiction points that justified a Hollywood ending.

First, and contrary to wide audience belief, his survival was no spectacular feat --- he did not rise to the occasion. Rather, he simply applied his training that included his MIT math skills, Ph.D. botanical knowledge, and all the information he learned in his training.

True to Apollo 13 and Captain Sully landing a plane on the Hudson River, people who perform "spectacular feats" do not rise to the occasion in a pressure moment; they are executing what they have learned. More often then not, this will result in success. It is an important point to recognize because many people in pressure moments think to succeed they have to do better than their capabilities allow. This mindset causes them to try harder, to "press," and paradoxically they do worse. Astronaut Watney trusted his experience and by doing so, he remained confident that he could perform his task. Confident people tend to succeed more often than not.

Second, he kept his focus by remembering his "meaningful" (and thus energizing) mission -- get back to earth. Keeping his mission in focus directed his attention to the tasks that he needed to perform to accomplish it. Most people in a pressure moment get distracted by "worry cognitions," -- thoughts that generate feelings of anxiety and fear.

Whether they occur moments before a presentation, audition, crucial conversation, worry cognitions downgrade your cognitive success skills such as judgment, decision making, and memory -- you're too busy worrying about the possibility of a dreaded outcome that you "forget" to pay attention to what is needed to get the job done.

Focusing on his mission allowed Astronaut Watney use his cognitive capabilities to remember his math, and chemistry so he could make water and grow food -- requirements if he were to achieve his mission. Science tells us that if you focus on your mission when you are under pressure, you will increase your chances to succeed.

Third, this updated version of Robinson Crusoe kept his spirits alive by creating hope (an underused management strategy.) He did this by practicing "where there's a will, there's a way." He certainly had the will -- the motivation that is required to pursue the task, and the fact that his task of surviving was meaningful, kept him motivated. His will allowed him to use his science knowledge to identify pathways -- multiple ways and resources that would help him reach his goal. Growing food, making water, increasing the power of his Space Mobile, all had the common denominator of helping him survive and by recognizing his "micro-successes" he became more hopeful that he could achieve a successful mission. That's because the more pathways you can create, the more hope you experience and the more optimistic you become.

Optimism fuels tenacity so it is not surprising that when Astronaut Watney encountered a setback, he stayed the course. He became tenacious. Focusing on his mission, trusting his skills, and remembering what he had already accomplished kept his confidence and optimism alive -- that's what happens when you are engaged in the tenacity process -- meaningful goals, focus, hope, problem solve.

Fourth, he kept himself enthused by capitalizing on the scientific fact that sound stimulates and communicates emotion. It wasn't his favorite, but periodically listening to the disco music that he had access to kept him positively aroused -- in a good mood. A by-product of his positive affect -- his thinking flourished when he needed it the most. (and at the same time, the film's music kept the audience upbeat and engaged throughout)

A final observation: while much of the tasks Astronaut Watney had to perform occurred in a hostile atmosphere, its ironic that his 16 million dollar NASA space suit wasn't really the suit that helped him accomplish his mission.

It was the other one that he never takes off and if you see the film, you will recognize it. It's more of a COTE than a suit. Its fabrics: Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity and Enthusiasm.

Wear your COTE every day and you'll be more likely to achieve your missions!

Follow me @pressuretweets, visit me at