Non-attachment for the win

Austin was a college freshman when he applied to work as one of the twelve orientation leaders who run our university’s summer orientation program that welcomes and transitions thousands of new students each summer. It’s a challenging, prestigious position, and there is always an impressive applicant pool, made up of the best and brightest leaders from a campus of more than 30,000 students.

Austin had a great interview during the first round, which was a group interview. He was thoughtful and enthusiastic and a strong communicator. We invited him back for the final round of interviews, which was an individual meeting with the program directors. He was even more impressive in his individual interview. We hired him. The next week we gathered the twelve newly selected student orientation leaders together for a first meeting to start planning their training and to meet each other.

After the meeting, Austin approached me privately and said he had a question for me. He looked a bit distressed. His question: “Why did you hire me?” That’s not the question I typically get the day someone begins a new position. I told him we hired him, of course, because he was a great fit for the job and would be terrific in the role.

He then related that, before he applied, his friends had told him that we do not hire freshmen for this particular job. Freshmen could apply, they said, but only to gain interview experience. He was stunned (and ended up being delighted) to actually be offered the position. Well, his friends were wrong. Freshmen were rarely selected because the competition was so strong, but they were just as eligible as any other student.

Austin walked into those interviews certain that getting the job was not even an option. He thought it was just practice. He was completely unattached to any outcome. And he was awesome.

Contrast that with a young woman, in the same selection process, who, when asked the very first question (which was a softball: “Tell us why you want this position”), immediately began crying. We scrounged up a box of tissue, and when she finally composed herself she said: “I’m sorry. I just want this… so… much.”

She was so attached to the outcome that she couldn’t even engage in a conversation. Austin was not attached at all and was able to focus completely on the moment and shine. For him, it was just a conversation, not a job interview.

There’s something powerful about this state of non-attachment. The great performers seem to have mastered the art of the present moment. Think of superstar athletes in clutch situations. The greatest ones aren’t weighed down by the stakes, the fear of failure or anticipation of the next day’s headlines.

There’s a classic story of football legend Joe Montana in the 49ers’ Super Bowl against the Bengals in 1989. Time was running out, and the 49ers were behind on the scoreboard. While his teammates are huddled on the field during a TV timeout, stressed about the challenge they were facing, Montana was unflappable, seemingly oblivious to the team’s dire straits. Just before the timeout ended, he pointed into the crowd and told one of his offensive linemen: “Hey, isn’t that the actor John Candy?” His teammate was incredulous that the quarterback was so relaxed in that high-stakes moment that he could point out celebrities in the stadium. When play resumed, Montana methodically moved the team down the field and into the end zone for the winning score with just 34 seconds left on the game clock.

The next time you’ve got an interview or a presentation or a first date, even, put your focus only on the moment at hand. In the interview and the date, make it your goal simply to have a great conversation, one where you listen intently and seek to understand before seeking to be understood. And then don’t be afraid to be interesting. And if you abandon any expectation of getting the job or a second date, you will be freed up to be your best and shine in the moment. Same with a presentation or any task you pursue, don’t attach to the outcome. Be awesome in the present moment and let the future unfold as it will. The more you practice getting yourself into that zone in low-stakes moments, the easier it will be when the stakes mount.

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