While I wait for more chances to try the drug, a friend texts me in a panic. He’s recently taken a new job, and the next morning he has to make a one-on-one presentation to his firm’s CEO. He cuts to the chase. “You know those pills you were telling me about for performance anxiety? Can I grab some from you before I get on the plane?”
I say no, fearing it would be illegal to share them. He pressures me. I come up with a compromise. “Okay, I’ll drop some pills off late tonight,” I tell him. Then I drive to CVS, buy a bottle of vitamin B12, and leave five tablets in an envelope taped to his door. I text him careful instructions: Take one pill 90 minutes before the presentation, and another 15 minutes beforehand if he still feels nervous.
Later, he texts me from the plane: “What is this medication called?” “Propranolol,” I lie. He googles it and starts reading online reviews. “Wow, people really rave about this stuff,” he says.
After the meeting, I text him: “How did it go?” “Really well,” he replies. “Those pills are magic.”
My friend’s experience illustrates how hard it is to know how well these drugs really work: Because we want them to work, the odds of a placebo effect is high—and because the pills’ effect is signified by the absence of something, it’s difficult to know if the pills really kept you from feeling nervous. It’s similar to the flu vaccine: If you get the shot, and you don’t get the flu that year, can you say for certain that the immunization prevented the illness?
Placebo or not, I notice an effect when I start trying them. Although I don’t have any other public speaking opportunities in the weeks after I obtain the prescription, I take the pills a few times before important interviews at work. I tend not to get nervous during interviews ... except, occasionally and unpredictably, I’ll start sweating. I remain sweat-free while on beta-blockers, with no rapid heartbeat or shallow breathing—though it’s hard to say how much to credit the drug for that.
The beta-blockers have a more noticeable effect in an unlikely setting: a two-day, 20-man annual golf tournament I play in with friends each year. I’m the worst golfer in the group, but on the first day, I play poorly even by my low standards. The next morning, on the driving range, I pop a propranolol. On the first tee, I’m unusually calm. (There’s a reason the PGA bans players from taking beta-blockers.) I still post the day’s poorest score, but I play far better than I usually do. The lack of nervousness is especially noticeable on tee shots and important putts—and with my handicap giving me strokes against my opponents, I keep my match competitive until the 16th hole. By then the drugs have worn off, and as I stand over a putt, I feel the familiar jitteriness—one I hadn’t felt that morning. Nonetheless, even my opponents notice the difference. “Dan played out of his mind today,” one announced over drinks at the clubhouse after the round.
I can only hope the pills work that well at my next public speaking opportunity.
This article is adapted from McGinn’s recent book, Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed.