Published January 31, 2013
The night before our wedding, Eleanor and I stood awkwardly in the center of a large room, surrounded by our family and our closest friends. There was no particular reason to be uncomfortable; this was just a rehearsal. Still, we were in the spotlight and things weren't going smoothly. Neither the rabbi nor the cantor had arrived and we didn't know where to stand, what to say, or what to do.
It had taken us 11 years — and a lot of work — to get to this point. Eleanor is Episcopalian, the daughter of a deacon, and I am Jewish, the son of a Holocaust survivor. The one thing our parents agreed about before the wedding was that we shouldn't get married.
A friend of ours, Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, a Methodist minister, offered to stand in for the Jewish officiants who were absent. She moved us through the rehearsal, placing people in position, reading prayers, and lightening the mood with a few well-timed jokes.
When the rehearsal was over and we were feeling more relaxed, she offered me and Eleanor a piece of advice that remains one of the best I have ever received.
"Tomorrow hundreds of people will be watching you on the most important day of your life. Try to remember this: It's not a performance; it's an experience."
I love that she said "Try to remember this." On the surface it seems easy to remember but in reality it's almost impossibly difficult, because much of what we do feels like a performance. We're graded in school and get performance reviews at work. We win races, earn titles, receive praise, and sometimes gain fame, all because of our performance. We're paid for our performance. Even little things — leading a meeting, having a hallway conversation, sending an email — are followed by the silent but ever-present question: "How'd that go?"
In other words, we think life is a performance because, well, it kind of is. We feel judged by others because, often, we are. And let's be honest, it's not just they who judge us; most of us spend a considerable amount of energy judging others as well. Which, of course, only reinforces our own experience of being judged. And fuels our desire to perform.
But here's the paradox: living life as a performance is not only a recipe for stress and unhappiness; it also leads to mediocre performance.
If you want to get better at anything, you need to experiment with an open mind, to try and fail, to willingly accept and learn from any outcome.
And once you get an outcome you like, you need to be willing to shake it up again and try something different. The best performers are life-long learners, and the definition of a life-long learner is someone who is constantly trying new things. That requires performing poorly much of the time and, often unpredictably, brilliantly some of the time.
If you view life as a performance, your failures will be so painful and terrifying that you will stop experimenting. But if you view life as an experience, your failures are just part of that experience.
What makes a performance different than an experience? It's all in your head.
Are you trying to look good? Do you want to impress others or win something? Are you looking for acceptance, approval, accolades, wild thunderous applause? Is it painful when you don't get those things? You're probably performing.
If you're experiencing, on the other hand, you're exploring what something feels like. Trying to see what would happen if...
When you're experiencing, you can appreciate negative outcomes as well as positive ones. Sure, acceptance and approval and accolades feel good, but those things don't determine success. Success is based on whether you fully immerse yourself in the experience, no matter how it turns out, and whether you learn from it. That's a result you can always achieve regardless of the outcome.
When you're performing, your success is disturbingly short-lived. As soon as you've achieved one milestone or received a particular standing ovation, it's no longer relevant. Your unending question is: what's next?
When you're experiencing though, it's not about the end result, it's about the moment. You're not pursuing a feeling after, you're having a feeling during. You can't be manipulated by a fickle, outside measure because you're motivated by a stable internal one.
So how can we let go of performance in favor of experience? Here's something that's helped me: Several times a day I'll complete this sentence: "This is what it feels like to..."
This is what it feels like to receive praise. This is what it feels like to be in love. This is what it feels like to be stuck writing a proposal. This is what it feels like to present to the CEO. This is what it feels like to be embarrassed. This is what it feels like to be appreciated.
Saying that, and feeling whatever comes up, instantly drops me into experience. Performance loses its primacy and my mind releases its focus on outcome. There are no bad feelings; they all make life richer.
On the day of our wedding, I took Sue Anne's advice. And when I think back now — it's been 13 years — the moments I remember most clearly and with most fondness are the things we did not rehearse, the things that went wrong but somehow gave the wedding its life. Even our rehearsal, which clearly did not go as planned with its missing rabbi, was perfect since it led us to integrate a minister — especially meaningful for Eleanor and her family — in a more substantial way than we had anticipated.
As a performance, I have no idea how to judge it. But as an experience, it was perfect. An experience always is.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.