Magical ways to maximise performance: How Harry Potter can help you conquer your fear

Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling
Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban, by JK Rowling

When your goal is to achieve confident leadership, so the saying goes, there’s no magic wand. You cannot suddenly become a great leader and remain one forever. It’s a journey not a destination. And even if you do have a magic wand, it’s still a challenge. There are no super spells that Harry Potter and his friends can cast to solve their confidence issues. (The books would be pretty dull and short if they did!) But JK Rowling provides them with useful ways to confont their deepest fears. And they provide us muggles with powerful images: magical ways we can use to maximise our performance.

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Remus Lupin introduces his defence against the dark arts class to the Boggart. Here is the scene in the excellent film produced by Warner Bros. Entertainment.

A Boggart is a magical creature that works out what your greatest fear is and mimics it.  Professor Lupin sends each student up to face their fear and to learn to conquer it. “The charm that repels a Boggart is simple,” Lupin explains, “yet it requires force of mind.  You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.”

So the young wizards are trained to use the Riddikulus charm which (no surprise) makes the Boggart ridiculous and causes them to burst into laughter. And once you laugh at a Boggart –  once you laugh in the face of fear – it’s no longer frightening. So the wizards are trained to follow a very simple two-step process:

  1. Know your Boggart. They identify what their greatest fear is. For Neville Longbottam, it’s Professor Snape.  For Ron Weasley, it’s a giant spider.
  2. Make it ridiculous. They think how to make their greatest fear laughable, and, if they concentrate on that, the Riddikulus charm will make it happen. So Neville’s Snape ends up wearing Neville’s granny’s clothes, and looking extremely funny. Ron’s spider has roller skates on each of its legs and skids around hilariously. Once they’ve laughed at it, the Boggart is no longer scary. Their fear is gone.

Most of this is not magic: Laughter is the best medicine because it releases feel-good chemicals which ease our anxiety and stop our fear – that’s how our physiology works.  So try the same process:

  1. Know your fear. How often do you reflect on what is going on inside you? “I can’t afford to spend the time to reflect,” I hear you reply. “I’m way too busy.”  In fact, you cannot afford not to spend the time to reflect. Because if you let your fears go unchecked they will limit your performance, and you will waste a lot more time. So take a moment to think about what is going on inside your head, and identify what is causing you worry and anxiety.
  2. Make it ridiculous. Now, we muggles can’t just wave a wand and utter a charm. You need to work a bit harder. Try to look at your fear through the eyes of a friend, and ideally discuss it with friends. For instance, Hermione’s Boggart turns into Professor McGonagall. “P-P-Professor McGonagall! Sh-she said I’d failed everything!” The idea that the brilliant and overworking Hermione might fail everything would certainly make Harry or Ron laugh at the absurdity of the idea: it’s not going to happen. Seen through the eyes of our friends many of our fears also look absurd.

If you cannot immediately find a way to laugh at your fear, because you still think there’s a risk it might come true, then make that risk as small as possible. Confront it head-on and make a plan.  Think what you can do to stop it happening. If failure is your fear, seek help, find extra time to complete the task, re-prioritise other work to make time, learn new skills that will help you achieve it … there are lots of things you can do to minimise that risk. Keep working on it and minimise it until the risk is so low, the chances of it happening become so remote that your fear becomes ridiculous. And when it is, make sure you actually laugh …  out loud! Enjoy your triumph over fear.

Now I hear the Potter fans objecting at this point: but what about Harry? What you fear something really big, like the terrible Dementors. Some fears defy laughter. So there is a third ultimate step that the wizards can take:

  1. The Patronus Charm. As Lupin explains it to Harry, “The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementor can’t hurt it.” The first requirement is to concentrate “with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.”

And then they need to hold that concentration even when gripped by the more terrifying fear. That is the challenge: maintaining concentration and forcing the fear out of your head. The wizards have to practise it over and over again to perfect it. But if a wizard succeeds, then a Patronus issues from the wand, taking a shape unique to each wizard, and acts as a force field protecting him or her from their dreaded fear.

We can use the same process. Think hard about the time when you were most happy, most satisfied, most fulfilled; when you were at peak performance, in flow, in the moment. You need to practise it – just as the wizards do. We don’t have wands – but we have something almost as powerful: our senses. So once you’ve thought of your happiest moment, you need to feel it.  What did you hear? (Is there a sound or piece of music that can transport you instantly back to that feeling?) What did you smell? (A flower, perfume, a food?) Taste? (Is there something you can eat which will take you back there?) What did you see? (Is there a single image that reminds you of it.) Once you identify it, that sense becomes your own Patronus.

Like the wizards you have to practise using it. You have to establish a habit so ingrained that whenever you feel the panic/fear/anxiety raising in your throat, your mind automatically switches to the positive thought of you at your happiest. Use the taste, sound, smell, look, feel like a wand to help conjure up the happy memory. And that memory positive chemicals and emotions (hope, happiness, the will to thrive), which will gallop to your rescue and disperse your fears.

So with reflection and force of mind, as Professor Lupin says, you too can make your fear appear ridiculous and you can defeat it. Think:  Boggart >> Riddikulus >> Patronus.


I am grateful to the Harry Potter Wiki for assembling every conceivable fact about Boggarts, thereby simplifying my research for this post.

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