Pre-Game and The-Game

In the past five years, I’ve had the chance to watch many exceptional performers do their work. Three in particular are aligning in my head right now because they all had something in common: a pre-game ritual.

Example: Pre-game ritual # 1:

I remember the time I was invited to a significant meeting with my boss. Since the meeting was about a mile from my office, I left early and figured I would go to the room before the meeting and answer some emails. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that my boss was already in the room . . . and he was standing in the middle, just sort of looking around.

For the next few minutes, he moved tables around (declining my offer of help) until the room was exactly the way he wanted it. He did this in a suit, which made his actions look rather incongruous.

Participating in the meeting, I realized that the room’s organization was the perfect complement to the meeting’s agenda and flow. Everything seemed easy and natural, and I countered that, in my mind, with the picture of a man in a suit moving tables. In complex institutions, lots of things happen by accident . . . and some don’t.

Example: Pre-game ritual # 2 and #3

I also remember the times when I was facilitating a speaking event for two speakers, both of whom are world renowned entertainers. In both cases, the exact same thing happened. The speakers arrived and went through a sound check of sorts. They asked a few questions. They sipped some water. They made small talk. And then, seemingly mid-sip or mid-sentence, they disappeared.

As the crowd built in the auditorium, in both cases, I heard a nervous chatter backstage. People were looking for the speakers. “Where could they be?” “Did we lose them?”

Pitching in to help, I found both speakers (two years apart) in the exact same place. They were backstage, in a dimly lit corner, sitting in a chair (the only chair they could find). And they both seemed to be meditating. They were just sitting back there, eyes closed, breathing deliberately, seemingly uninterruptible.

I waited as long as I could to call their names, and when I did, they opened their eyes, rose to their feet, and in the dozen steps it took to walk from “sanctuary” to stage, they went from literal zero to literal sixty. They went from total calm to uncontainable energy, connecting with our audience in a way I have rarely seen before.

After my second experience with this transformation, I asked an actor-friend if he knew what was happening backstage. Was this just a coincidence, or was this a technique?

If the topic is important, then a [true professional] will psych himself [or herself] up for it. Every opportunity to talk is an opportunity to sell your ideas, so you’ve got to give the audience [a high] level of energy and enthusiasm, and that definitely requires some self-talk. That energy will lift you vocally, focus you physically, and pull the audience in. It’s all about mental prep, I think. 


Three of the best of the best; two clear pre-game rituals; zero coincidence.

What’s your pre-game ritual? What’s the one thing you can do to lift and focus the activity that is most useful to your success? What’s the one thing you can do to pull in your audience and contribute meaning and delight to their work / day / life?

And, before you can answer those questions, I’d add: What’s your game? Not, What’s your job, but, What’s the thing that you do that makes the biggest impact on your work and your audience’s reception of your work, and are you preparing appropriately — with enough focus and intensity — for that moment, that meeting, that event?


I took the #bookcover2019 challenge today, posting my first entry. You’ll have to visit my twitter page (@sjvalentine) to see what I posted, but here are the book’s first sentences:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you.

The Number One Piece of Advice

It’s the start of a new semester, so I’ve been meeting with a lot of students lately to help them reflect on the successes and setbacks of the first semester. Puzzling through their issues — whether related to reading, writing, or some combination of the two — I find that we continue to arrive at the same, basic piece of advice: find inventive ways to show your thinking in the act of. . .

So, for example, students sometimes state, as a goal, that they would like to improve their ability to read for comprehension. They arrive at this goal because either they don’t understand the insights that arise during our class discussions or they are not doing well on our reading comprehension assessments. They need a way to improve before these events; they need a way to practice.

“Find inventive ways to show your thinking in the act of reading,” I find myself saying. “What does that mean?” they find themselves asking. “As you read, circle sentences where you feel confused. Draw question marks next to these passages. Then, during a free period, bring the passages, and their attendant question marks, to my office so that we can read them together and discuss them.”

This works because it allows students to show me not only the moments where they understand, but also the moments where they are fuzzy or confused or struggling or puzzled. This, too, is thinking! It’s just not the kind of clear, neatly packaged, polished thinking that teachers expect to process and that students believe they need to generate.

If students can show up in my office and say “these are the six moments where my thinking became a little confused,” then we can really get to work. We don’t quite achieve the same result when students show up and say, “this book is confusing,” or ask, “why do I keep earning low grades on my reading comprehension quizzes?”

Thinking Big vs. Doing Small

I’m not at all a photographer, but I’ve been taking pictures lately. I’m trying to be deliberate about lighting and angles and my subjects. I’m trying to keep things simple and the assignment (i.e., time commitment) as small as possible: take at least one picture of a tree every day. Here’s what’s happening:

First, I’m seeing the world differently. Already. After only a week of my new hobby, I’m much more aware — than ever before in my entire life — about the way light shows up, or hides, in the world. I’m also experiencing a not altogether unpleasant version of FOMO. Sometimes, I’ll be in a building and I’ll catch a glimpse of a particular moment during a particular day and I’ll think — again, for the first time in my entire life — “the weather outside seems perfect for a photograph.” Sometimes I sneak out and snap a quick picture.

I expect that the above sounds slightly smarmy to anyone who has ever taken a photography course or bothered to learn how to use a camera, but my point in sharing has less to do with my newly acquired perspective and more to do with the fact that I’m succeeding in seeing the world in a new way by simply committing to a new serial project: take at least one picture of a tree every day.

For those of you who have recently made a New Year’s resolution, I would ask this: is it a resolution that resembles the “see the world in a new way” kind of thinking or the “take at least one picture every day” kind of doing? In terms of actual change, of actual progress, the distinction matters. The former, an aspirational thought, might not lead to the latter, a functional behavior. But the latter, a functional behavior, often leads to the former, an aspirational thought.

Or at least that’s what I’ve learned over the past few cycles of my New Year’s resolutions.

The Every Time Opportunity

I try to read Ellen McGirt’s newsletter everyday when it arrives in my inbox. Today, she offered some general guidance (along with a lot of meaningful specifics) about speeches and speechmaking. Here’s a useful reminder for anyone within arm’s length of a microphone:

[Every] time someone steps up to deliver even semi-formal remarks, it’s an opportunity. To be human and transparent, to declare a value you embrace, to encourage people to act, to think, to see themselves as part of something bigger.

Here’s the full text and my source.

A First Principle for Productivity

First principle: Schedule work blocks (not just meetings or appointments) and then honor those commitments when they appear on your calendar. It’s easy to keep an appointment with other people, especially if they show up in your office at an agreed-upon time. It’s much more difficult to keep an appointment with yourself wherein, say, you’ve set aside time to read something important or write something or synthesize your notes from a meeting.

If you become an expert at applying the above principle, you will become more productive because, as you develop certain goals or aspirations, you will immediately schedule the work blocks it will take to complete them or reach them. And then, when you keep those appointments, the work will add up, the work will get done.

Additionally, you will become a more effective collaborator, in part because, when someone asks you to do something, you will be able to quickly tell him/her: “I’ll handle ______ on _______.” Communicating about the scheduled work will help to settle your partner, allowing him or her to move on to other tasks. And actually delivering on your promise to complete said work at said time, again and again, will build the kind of trust that allows collaborative work to flourish.