Why Sometimes You Gotta Say ‘What the F**k’

Worrying about results ruins your work and play, according to performance experts.

May 17, 2018 6:00 am
Tom Cruise laughs in a scene from the film 'Risky Business', 1983. (Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Tom Cruise laughs in a scene from the film 'Risky Business', 1983. (Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Back in the ‘80s, before the invention of texting, the acronym “WTF” had a different meaning. It entered the popular lexicon in the context of the wise words, “Sometimes you just got to say what the f**k,” uttered in the 1983 teen angst film Risky Business, a breakout role for Tom Cruise.

Cruise plays a clean-cut high school boy who follows the rules set by his uptight parents and heeds the social expectations of his affluent suburban community. As a result, although he’s barely made it through puberty, he’s wracked with worry over the rest of his life, which he’s convinced is dependent on grades, SAT scores, and getting into Princeton.

The words of wisdom comes from his scruffy pal, who notes Cruise’s agitated state and deduces that he’s fretting over future events, trying to over-control them rather than allow them to simply unfold. Saying what the F gives you freedom, he tells Cruise in the pivotal scene. Freedom gives you opportunity, and opportunity makes your future. Distilled further, it’s something like this: don’t confuse what you need to do with what eventually happens. There’s that which you can control and that which you can’t, and the wise person knows which is which, while the anxiety-addled fool stares at the ceiling at 3 a.m.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably caught in these situations all the time. On a sunny Sunday, you meet a friend for tennis, trade barbs and set up a wager. You come out swinging for victory from the first rally, but after sending three balls to the bottom of the net, you panic. What’s wrong with your forehand? Your mind races through every lesson you’ve ever had, and now the ball is sailing to the back fence. You try brushing, punching, and windshield-wiping, focusing on your footwork, then your shoulder turn, then your follow-through, and nothing works and after 15 minutes you’re down five sets to zero.

On the verge of making like John McEnroe and destroying the nearest glass of orange juice, you tell yourself you suck at the game of tennis, you’ll never play it again, and you just don’t give an F anymore.

You can guess what happens next: you hit a few nice shots, find yourself transported from personal hell to the “zone,” and pull off the greatest comeback of your park-and-rec department tennis career. So why when you were trying your hardest did you fail, yet when you said you didn’t care you performed at your absolute best?

What happened was that in saying that you didn’t give an F anymore, you freed your mind from stiffening stress over future results and got in tune with the process, with the moment, which is driven by subconscious-driven skills honed from practice and experience, uninhibited by conscious worries about results. When it comes to saying you don’t “care” anymore, note that care has two different meanings, according to Dr. Joseph Parent, a performance psychologist and  author of Zen Golf, considered one of the best books on the mental side of golf, who’s coached many businesspeople and whose forthcoming book is on mindfulness for children. The difference comes down to care as in “to take an interest in” and care as in “to worry about.”

Say you botch-up a work project and say “I feel like I want to kill myself.” If the situation is one in which you don’t even deserve to live, says Dr. Parent, then you’re too dependent on externals for your sense of worth. On the other hand, “When you’re feeling good about yourself, you don’t need external feedback to prove to you that you’re a good person. Confident people may do things well or poorly, but fundamentally they believe in themselves.”

Of course you care about what you’re doing, otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing it. But if you’re making a sales presentation and are anxious over whether you can close, your clients will pick up on it. “And you’ll be so careful in your presentation that they’ll think you’re hiding something,” says Dr. Parent. “You’ll stutter and won’t sound confident. Worry about results makes you think ‘Be careFULL.’ Now you don’t want to go to the other side and become careLESS, you want instead to be careFREE.”

All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare wrote, and every day the curtain goes up and you perform your life. Anxiously focusing on how the performance will turn out interferes with giving it your best, says Dr. Parent, and the way to break from compulsive over-control is to cultivate a sense of detachment, especially the humorous kind, which brings acceptance. Humor and acceptance are the buffers that properly protect the ego from its fears of the future, as possible negative outcomes are seen as a threat to the ego’s sense of self-worth. “But if you have a sense of humor about yourself,” says Dr. Parent, “you say, ‘Hey, some things work out and some don’t.’ But if you don’t have a sense of humor, you say you need things to come out a certain way or you’ll feel really bad about yourself, and that starts a negative spiral.” In a self-fulfilling prophecy, fearing a poor result hampers performance, thereby bringing about the very result that was feared in the first place.

Consider the stuttering sales presentation, Dr. Parent says, that quickly turns you into a moron — as in “more on.” Worry about results often makes you overdo things. “In your presentation, you’ll add all this extra stuff on. I call it being a moron— because you’re adding more on.” So instead of speaking simply and confidently in your presentation, you keep adding on more and more information, leading your audience to feel that you don’t believe in yourself — or the product or service you’re trying to sell them.

The feeling of freedom comes from confidence gleaned from practice and preparation, so you can step up, just do it, and be fully present. “If you’re not fully present, you’re not really there,” says Dr. Parent. “So you won’t pick up on the cues, and then you’ll miss opportunities. You have to be present, in your mind, in order to win.”

So when a bad shot in life happens, he summarizes, instead of saying “What’s wrong?” say “Whatever.” And when it’s time to take another shot, don’t say to yourself “Watch out,” but instead say “Watch this!”

In “Risky Business,” Tom Cruise’s character learns he can trust his wits and get through harrowing situations by taking action in the moment rather than brooding over possible negative outcomes. When you invoke the mantra “sometimes you just gotta say what the F,” you give up the demand that things must turn out a certain way, what Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, called “must-erbation,” according to Dr. Elliot D. Cohen, who studied under Ellis. “Some people are approval junkies who must do well,” says Cohen, who is executive director of the National Philosophical Counseling Association. “It’s almost like they don’t care about what they’re doing, only what somebody is going to think of them.” In therapy sessions, Dr. Cohen has clients activate this suboptimal state of mind and then practice letting it go, “because, in the end, you don’t have to think that way. Then you can just be you, focus on what you want to, and not feel like you’re on display.

“And once you start cultivating such virtues,” he continues, “they become self-proliferating. You feel better about yourself, which makes you more likely to perform better. As soon as you’re on the right track, you find other benefits opening up.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy draws on the wisdom of Stoic philosopher Epictetus, showing that the way to bring about personal change is by understanding that it’s not so much the things in life that happen to you, but one’s interpretation of them. “If you say I must be perfect, well you’re not going to be,” says Dr. Cohen. “So you’ll place unrealistic demands upon yourself and you’ll fall flat on your face. You’ll create your own stress just by the way you think.”

Which brings us back to Tom Cruise’s kid in Risky Business who thinks his life will be over if he doesn’t get into Princeton. The movie’s dramatic twist is that deep down every character knows the theme of the film: even the tyrannical father, in his own safe and sanitized way, says at the end that “sometimes you’ve just got to say what the heck.” And not just every character, but the man who wrote them.

In 2013, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Risky Business, Salon asked writer-director Paul Brickman about the what the F theme of the movie, his first as a director. “I either had to take a swing from the batter’s box or throw in the towel,” he said, “because I wasn’t getting my work realized in the way I thought it should have been. So there was a what-the-f**k attitude to taking on the work on my own and making the film I wanted to make.”

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