As a performance psychology consultant, I’ve learned a great deal from my clients over the years, but perhaps the strongest lesson is this: development of great thinking severely lags behind the development of great technical skills. At every level, too much emphasis is placed on grades, spreadsheets, standardized test scores, and production statistics – the visible, easily measurable aspects of performance. But people who consistently end up on top have more than that. They develop the “intangibles” of success: confidence, concentration, healthy commitment, and a host of other talents that are on the inside.
Fascinatingly, research is beginning to show that the traditional psychological “therapies” addressing these inner measure of performance – such as relaxation and goal setting – lose their effectives once people reach middle class. To go beyond mediocre, to go beyond average, chances are you’re going to need to start un-thinking what you already know.
Here are a few of tips from my book “OVERACHIEVEMENT” to help get you started.
Hard Work is Overrated
Overachievers know when to stop working and start playing. Too much organization and preparation can turn them into an “over-motivated underachiever,” a classic grinder who chokes when the outcome really counts.
Many middle managers were over-motivated underachievers themselves, who climbed the ladder by logging in more hours than anyone else, working hard at their modest talents but falling short of greatness. They tend to be keen on volume of effort and overlook efficiency. They tend to encourage meetings, paperwork; they tend to reward long work days.
But ask yourself: what is the real meat of your job? What tasks and projects are the keys to your success? Then enjoy those things – perform at them most of the time rather than consuming yourself with preparing and organizing.
Setting Goals is For Couch Potatoes
The long-standing practice of goal-setting can actually be a major obstacle to sustained, vigorous motivation – and being great.
Goal setting focuses you on the outcome: rewards, promotions, bonuses, awards – even cars, houses, and vacations. But those things are ultimately out of your control. Trying to manipulate the future like a marionette will increase instances of frustration, impatience, and discouragement. It will distract you from the important tasks at hand, especially the task of enjoying your work.
Yes, it’s important to have a compass. High achievers, however, set their compass and then essentially put it away. They stay focused on the present. They are passionate about what an excellent day feels like and they chase that feeling – day in and day out – not the outcome of the feeling.
Using Your Head is Stupid
In a high-stakes performance, the real genius is someone like Yogi Berra. On his way to 10 World Series rings and a place in the Hall of Fame, Yogi was thinking about nothing.
Neither should you. Whether you are giving a presentation to the board, making a sales pitch, negotiating a merger, or just interacting with a customer, you are “on stage.” In those moments, brain science reveals that humans perform better when they rely on their training, experience, and instincts, not their head.
In other words, stop evaluating your performance and making it a conscious mental exercise. Think less; act more. That’s how Robert Redford got so good – even when he was still perfecting his craft, learning to be better, he put his thinking and evaluation aside when he went on stage. You should too.
There’s No Such Thing as Overconfidence
The best in every business are likely to strike most people as irrationally confident, but that’s how they got to the top.
Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Michael Dell – they first believed in themselves, utterly, and let their belief be their guide. Sure they experienced numerous obstacles and setbacks and failures. Confidence allowed them to keep getting up and looking for ways to move forward.
Most importantly, leaders like Branson and Gates, prioritized believing in the people around them. Confidence is also not arrogance, and unless your employees think that they’re better human beings in general than everyone else, let them believe that they’re good enough to do exceptional things.
Legends Never Say They’re Sorry
Having a long or frequent memory for mistakes and a short or infrequent memory for successes is a guaranteed way to develop fear of failure. High achievers dwell on what they do well – and spend very little time evaluating themselves and their performances.
Learn from your mistakes? Of course. The road to success is full of adversity from which we can gain significant insight. The key, however, is to set aside specific, deliberate times for evaluation. Process setbacks, errors, and your performance in general only at times when you have planned to.
The alternative is to get caught up in second guessing, doubt, and worry whenever things look a bit gray. You excel during the tough moments by having a positive blueprint to look at – and to have a positive blueprint you have to spend a lot of time looking at the image of success.
The Best Need Stress
Classic breathing and relaxation tend to undermine performances, eliminating the possibility of setting records. Think of stress as the high-level performer’s PowerBar. By relaxing you slow down the heart and keep much-needed blood, oxygen, neurotransmitters, and adrenaline from stimulating your senses and cerebral cortex.
The so-called detriment of stress is the psychological interpretation you place on critical situations, not the stress itself. If you want to perform at your best, change the lens through which you view stress, don’t reduce it – in fact, increase the stress more often.
Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
Unlikely accomplishments are born out of single-minded purposefulness. Future superstars don’t get there by keeping part of their heart in reserve.
I often tell executives to stop multitasking. Multitasking is merely doing a bunch of things half-heartedly all at once. Isn’t the idea to perform at your utmost? If you truly want to find out what your potential is, you’ve got to pour everything you’ve got into one thing at a time. If you hold back, you’ll never know.
And if you put all your eggs in one basket and drop the basket? Guess what: they’ll make more eggs, and there are plenty of baskets to choose from.
Put the “I” in “Team”
A team is made up of individuals, and as the manager of a great team you should encourage individualism – by definition, striving to be exceptional, to make a uniquely beneficial contribution to the whole, to think outside the box, to finding new solutions to tough problems.
Besides, if you encourage a group to all fall lock step in line with one another, you’ll have a pretty boring atmosphere at the office. And you’ll miss the creativity that is necessary for innovation – the life blood of progress.
There is no ideal; there is no perfect. Striving for either is a sure fire way to tie yourself up in knots.
I tell performers all the time: Perfectionism is simply putting a limit on your future. When you have an idea of perfect in your mind, you open the door to constantly comparing what you have now with what you want, how you are performing now with how you want to perform. That type of self criticism is significantly deterring.
In addition, the idea of perfect closes your mind to new standards – just ask Roger Bannister about breaking the 4 minute mile. When you drive hard toward one ideal, you miss opportunities and paths, not to mention hurting your confidence.
Believe in your potential and then go out and explore it; don’t limit it.
Only Wimps Weigh the Risks
For exceptional people, risk equals reward. The challenge of uncertainty is the fun of doing the job in the first place – and where overachievement lies.
A high achiever does not look for the safest, most comfortable or sure solution. That would not push them or their companies to grow. Growth is the key – something stockholders certainly understand. But growing requires going to new places, and thinking new things – not succeeding at the new, but learning from the process regardless of outcome.
Michael Jordan, perhaps the most legendary basketball player of all time, based his entire performance philosophy on the notion: “I am a success because I have failed more times than anyone in history.”
Perhaps you can find some of Michael in you!?