Pressure is a Privilege

September 15, 2023

I always appreciate my friend Mikke for his humor, fantasy football banter, and his sense of adventure. But way more than that, I appreciate him because he is a very wise man who has listened and helped me to be my best on numerous occasions. He now serves as an executive coach, and he has been kind enough to share the daily affirmations and truths that he sends to each of his clients with me. One of them from last week truly struck a chord.

The affirmation was inspired by the recently completed US Open Tennis Championships, home to a large plaque featuring a famous quote from Billie Jean King: “Pressure is a Privilege.” What a statement. I should have heard it before. Billie Jean King wrote a book with that title back in 2008, and the plaque has been at the US Open since 2020. But I had not heard it. Until now.

I love it.

The pressure of fighting for every point, alone on the court in front of 24,000 fans, must be immense. I will never know that kind of athletic pressure, unless my pickleball game takes 32 giant leaps and bounds forward. But what Ms. King is urging these competitors to have is perspective – to recognize that by doing all of the work that it takes to get to this point, and by overcoming all of the obstacles it takes to get to the highest level, these athletes have a privilege that very few in the world get to experience – the chance to compete against the very best. I believe she wants all of us to embrace that same mindset. If we feel a sense of privilege and fortune when we face our own challenges, it frees us to let go of the pressure and just do our absolute best to succeed.

King’s quote applies so well to leaders and to all of us who face pressure during the course of our careers and lives. Let’s be clear – the amount of pressure in my life has diminished by approximately 96.8% since I retired. It feels healthy and good. But for nearly 40 years, I experienced a wide range of pressure and stress. Early in my teaching career, Sunday nights were rough. I acutely felt the pressure of making the week’s lesson plans, believing that if my lessons were not good enough, I might not make it as a teacher. If I hadn’t made it, my life would have been so very different, but the pressure I put on myself made me a better teacher and made a difference for my students. That pressure gave me the opportunity to develop into the teacher I needed to be. Many, many times, I lived through the pressures of making big decisions as a principal and as a superintendent. Sometimes the pressure stemmed from a school crisis, and sometimes it came from people who publicly stated they wanted me to lose my job. I wish I had known Billie Jean King’s quote during those times. I did feel the sentiment, but I did not have her words to express it. 

My mentality during those difficult times was to work with the really smart and talented people around me, and simply make the best decisions we could. If those decisions were not good enough, and I was fired as a result, I believed in myself enough that I knew I would be able to get another job. I felt honored and privileged to be in a position of leadership. After overcoming the initial blows of the crisis, I was always able to work with my team, make a plan, and execute it. We all think we have plans, but a new crisis can challenge everything. Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It sounds odd, but I believe it was a privilege to recover from those punches, then develop and execute new plans and strategies.

But let me be completely honest. In many high pressure situations, my brain quickly realized that the pressure is a privilege mentality was the right way to go. I knew that thinking that way means your brain can fully focus on the actual problem, instead of focusing on how the pressure makes you feel. But all too often, my stomach, at least at first, refused to listen to my brain. And boy did I feel that pressure. Tommy Lasorda said, “When you start thinking of pressure, it’s because you’ve started thinking of failure.” My stomach would ignore my head, think of failure, feel that pressure, and push the misery of that pressure throughout my body.

I could overcome it, but it took my brain lecturing to my stomach during sleepless nights and sometimes over the course of several days. It took friends and colleagues talking me through issues, reinforcing what my brain already knew. As I gained the wisdom that comes with age and experience, I got better at that. But even in my sixties, I still have to fight it and actively remind myself. Sometimes, I write these posts to remind myself of what I already know. Because even though I know it, writing it down gives me that Mennen Skin Bracer slap in the face that I sometimes need.

Pressure makes us better. It was Kobe Bryant who said, “Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.” When pressure was highest, Kobe wanted the ball. He wanted the opportunity to rise.

My golf buddies who read this post (yes, a few of them can read) are going to watch me standing over a three-foot putt that I should be able to make. But that short little putt will have pressure on it. If I make it, I may win a whopping $5, $10, or even $20. I can hear them now, “What a privilege this is for you, Mike.” It’s funny how stupid stuff like that can actually feel like pressure. We’ll see if I can channel my inner Billie Jean King and Kobe Bryant on not just that three-foot putt, but on the real challenges that I will face as life goes on.

For all of you who are working to do your best, and for those of you in leadership positions doing the same, I thank you. Thanks for your extraordinary efforts to do your job well. I hope you feel that it is a privilege to do the work you do, especially when the going gets tough.

– Mike

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Post #91 on

(Note: I had to trim quite a bit from my original draft to get to this still-too-long published version. If you want to see the trimmings from the cutting floor, and some of my thoughts behind it, click here.)

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  1. Connie Harrington says:

    Mike, totally relate. And I wasn’t aware of the pressure I felt until I retired and then I felt the 96% reduction! But I don’t regret any of it! Like you!


    1. Mike Matthews says:

      If you weren’t aware, that’s a really good thing. There was plenty of pressure on you and all of us. I always appreciated your positive spirit no matter what the situation. You are the ultimate optimist, Connie. I love it. Thanks for reading!

  2. Dan Stepenosky says:

    Nailed it! Thank you for helping me better understand my sleepless nights!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      You continue to do great things, my friend. Thanks for all you go through to do it.

  3. Dermot Stoker says:

    Lee Trevino knew real pressure, while standing over a four foot putt to Win a high dollar hole in a skins game, knowing he only had two bucks in his pocket. Good read Mike, many thanks, Cheers, Derm

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      No question about it. That’s why people ask you and me to pay our money ahead of time. They want to make sure we have more in our pocket than Trevino. Thanks for the insight, my friend.

  4. Bill McGarvey III says:

    Yep….resonating blog of the past 35 years in the residential remodeling industry! Good times figuring out the remedies that came with the (unknown) pressures of the craft! Always made it work for all parties concerned….thru the sleepless nights and the nervous twitches and the sense of sometimes overwhelming circumstances……it all made me a better contractor and person thru the pressures of privilege!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Many of the people making comments on this and other posts are relentlessly positive people. That’s coming through for me HARD today. You sir, have faced extraordinary pressures and I’ve never seen you do anything than bring positive energy to all of those around you. I’m proud to call you a friend, Bill.

  5. RoseAnn says:

    Hi Mike, Thanks for this post…for many reasons, it was what I needed to read today for an attitude adjustment as I go into another deadline. I also read your “notes and cuts” post and enjoyed those sentiments as well. I always enjoy your writings as they are so insightful & thought-provoking combined with being optimistic & humorous. Without fail, I always smile …thank you, my friend, for sharing! 🙂

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I figured you would be one to read the notes and cuts section. Thanks for making the effort. I’m happy to make you smile, and glad that this came at a good time for you. Other than my family, no one reads this post who has known me longer than you. I’m glad to stay connected through this. And I owe you a phone call. I’ll call next week!

  6. Bill Sampson says:

    LOL. You know me too well my friend. Nevertheless what a pleasant surprise to find that I am mentioned in the last paragraph of the “cutting room” post.

    I have not been a golfer nor tennis player since my early 20s but have always loved Lee Trevino stories and have also been a great admirer of Bille Jean King and of Arthur Ashe. Most of the pressure in my life has indeed been a privilege – if I think about it. I’ve been pretty fortunate.

    I’ll share a Trevino type bit of pressure. For close to two months before I started law school in 1972 I lived in a 1949 GMC panel truck with my dearest friend, who happens to be visiting me in Malibu right now. We were in Sheridan Wyoming to visit my college roommate and made a watering stop in a cowboy bar (there are no other bar types there). Since we were, as usual, hungry and broke and thirsty, and since I was then a pretty good 8 ball player, I financed a not very nutritious dinner and some beverages by playing pool for a few bucks when I had no money. I wasn’t a hippie exactly but certainly looked considerably shaggier than the other patrons. There was a noose in front of the mirror with a sign that said: “Support your local Hippie.” Perhaps that was not so good pressure. I survived without broken thumbs (or anything else).

    Wonderful post as always.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I would have put big money on you reading to the end. Thanks for sharing the story about the cowboy bar (funny comment on that too!). It is nice to get a glimpse into your youth. I think that so many people, certainly including our kids, just would not believe the kind of crazy things we did as kids. Not crazy as in wild, but crazy as in not having money for a meal or otherwise living on the edge. That could be a good post sometime.

      Thanks for living up to my expectations, my friend. #notsurprisedonebit

  7. Whitt says:

    Dr. MM, thanks again for this…dang! It’s …once again…just the message I needed to hear today (and I’m on my way to 8:00 a.m. mass so the priest better bring it ).
    Head vs. stomach, sleepless nights, smart and talented and good and inspiring people on the team, all of it…spot on! I could say much more about your post, but I’m going to mass…I’ll give thanks for the privilege of pressure and for those around me that get me through. I’ll give you a shout out! Thank you, sir. 🤗

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks for the response, Katherine. I love putting the pressure on your local priest – I hope he inspired you at even greater levels. If not, at least the music and the environment were inspiring. Thanks for your leadership and continuing to deal with all that comes with it.

  8. Thanks Mike, like many obstacles in life, I have learned to be grateful for pressure – lets me know Im still alive!. Your post helps me to put it into an even better perspective. Thanks for sharing brother!!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Bill. You seem to deal with pressure better than most, but I know there’s a lot we don’t see. Thanks for keeping it so positive for everyone around you.

  9. Great, now I have the “Under Pressure” song stuck in my head until I do something important… could be days!
    Thanks for your continued wisdom of experience.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      You never know, Merlin. Today could be the day. Enjoy the earworm.

  10. Mark Massey says:

    Thanks. I needed that.

    Get it?

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Of course I do, and the fact that you do as well tells me that (1) you watched your share of TV, and (2) you’re old like I am. Thanks, Mark.

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