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The Psychology of ‘Rising to the Occasion’

Whether it’s a boxing ring or the White House, it takes way more hard work than most people expect

A few weeks ago, perpetually hired and fired Trump employee Omarosa Manigault Newman appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and called Trump “a great disappointment.” In her appearance, she told Noah that she’d hoped that Trump would have risen to the occasion of the office of the presidency. “And boy was I wrong,” she added. Omarosa was far from the only person — including former president Barack Obama — who, in the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration, believed that Trump was capable of rising to the occasion in the White House.

Whether Trump has risen to the occasion or not really depends on which flavor of Kool-Aid you’re drinking these days. Nonetheless, it got us thinking about what the idiom actually means.

Clinical psychologist Allen Wagner tells me that the potential to rise to the occasion ultimately comes down to confidence and a manifestation of an outcome. “If you see how it finishes, and you take the steps ahead of you, one at a time, as opposed to listening to inner voices of doubt or excuses, then you’re far more likely to execute,” he says. “People are ultimately far more powerful than they think.”

To that same point, this Inc article, “How To Help Employees Rise to the Occasion,” cites Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and the author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, who explains the consequences of self-doubt in limiting a person’s professional growth. “If someone on your team is hampered by a harsh inner critic, they’re likely to talk themselves out of sharing their ideas and insights,” she writes in the Harvard Business Review. “Held back by self-doubt, some of your most talented people will shy away from leading projects or teams, or put off going for the big opportunities — new clients, new business lines, innovative moves — that could help your business grow.”

But according to Ryan M. Niemiec, an award-winning psychologist, author and international workshop leader, it’s not quite as cut and dry as Wagner and Mohr suggest. Niemiec makes a distinction between character strengths that are “tonic,” and those that are “phasic.” Tonic strengths — better known as signature strengths — are those that we use consistently across contexts and situations. “By definition, a phasic strength is a strength that rises and falls based on the situation we’re in,” he writes in his Psychology Today article on the topic. “Said another way, a phasic strength is not your signature strength (therefore it appears in the middle or lower end of your strengths profile), but when the situation calls for it you bring it forth very strongly. You rise up, rising to the occasion. You do what is necessary and you do it strongly.” The classic example would be, say, displaying bravery in a crisis situation.

But when I ask William Trillo, co-founder of acclaimed boxing blog Pound4Pound, about coaching a fighter to literally rise up to his feet during a 10 count, he seems perplexed. “I don’t know anybody who actually coaches a fighter on his mental state when he’s trying to stand up after being knocked down,” he says. “Maybe they’ll discuss not getting up right away, or taking a knee and catching your breath, but they’re not coaching you to think about your kids or supporting your family when you’re down on the ground like they show in boxing movies.” Instead, Trillo tells me, either you have it or you don’t. “Some guys are just wired to stand up,” he says. “Other guys get knocked in the face, they don’t like it, so they go down on their own.”

Andrew McConnell, a writer at Forbes, agrees with Trillo that there’s no magic that helps motivate a person to rise to the occasion. That’s why he emphasizes that hard work can help someone push themselves further than they’d otherwise expect. “Rising to the occasion can be fun for daydreaming, but in the real world it rarely plays out with a fairytale ending,” writes McConnell. “We are all capable of so much more than we can ever imagine. To realize these capabilities, however, requires we put in the hard work and practice needed to stretch ourselves.”

Essentially then, the office of the presidency is unequivocally a prestigious one, but just because you’re sitting in the Oval Office and you get access to the nuclear codes, doesn’t mean you’re any less likely to blow yourself (and the rest of us) up.