How do some athletes and artists stay dedicated to their craft over many years, even decades? And throughout that time, how do they continue to improve, and turn in game-changing performances and create break-through works of art? In their book, Peak Performance, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explore how some individuals are able to find another gear, and develop the focus and dedication to achieve mastery. What is their secret?
Well, it’s not really a secret because almost everyone who reaches that kind of success is willing to share with others how they did it. And it’s not even that complicated. However, it is very, very difficult to execute. What I love about the book is how the authors break down the recipe into chunks that are doable, and they layout a roadmap for how to get there.
1. Stress is good. Stress + Rest = Growth. To get better, we have to create experiences that challenge us and stretch our abilities. Afterward, it’s equally important to build in time for sleep and restoration. This is the growth equation and a good analogy for how this works is a muscle. To get stronger we must stress our muscles by lifting weights at the gym. But the time at the gym, when we are stressing our muscles, is not when our muscles grow. Afterward, when we sleep, the tissue that was torn during the workout grows back even stronger. So stress is good, but too much stress is detrimental. So what is the right level? Look for what the authors call Just Manageable Challenges.
2. Just Manageable Challenges. Great athletes, writers, and musicians are masters at using practice time to hone specific skills by creating challenges that are just beyond the outer limits of their ability. This was first defined by Anders Ericsson as deliberate practice, and entered the public lexicon through Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I like the Just Management Challenge label over the Deliberate Practice label because it more accurately describes what high performers do to continually improve. This is one of those habits that’s easy to say and hard to do. The hard work required to face a Just Manageable Challenge day after day is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Most of us reach a certain level, feeling good about the progress we’ve made, and we coast. One way to overcome this inertia is to create routines in your life.
3. Develop an Optimal Daily Routine and Stick to It. Some of us are Night Owls while some of us are Morning Larks. Find out when your mental and emotional energy is surging, and schedule your deep focused work for this time. Once you develop a routine, don’t deviate from it. The idea is to manage your energy in concert with managing your time, so you’re at your best when you need to do the work that requires the greatest level of concentration and focus. And don’t forget to build sleep into your schedule. World class athletes prioritize sleep in the same way they prioritize practice and healthy meals. Stulberg & Magness write, “The best performers are not consistently great, but they are great at being consistent. They show up every day and do the work.” But even the most dedicated professionals go through periods when they lose their motivation and performance suffers. To avoid this focus on why you’re doing the work in the first place.
4. Transcend Yourself. Find Your Why. If you want to truly achieve great things you must push yourself beyond the limits, but who defines the limits? It turns out, our brains define the limits. The limits we perceive are self-imposed, designed to prevent us from burning out or suffering complete exhaustion. But if the ultimate purpose for our actions is not centered on ourselves, rather it is centered on others, we can break through these limits. The authors tell the story of Meb Keflezighi, the winner of the Boston Marathon in 2014. He was the first American to win the race since 1983, and his victory came one year after terrorists detonated a bomb during the marathon, killing and injuring spectators. The authors write:
Keflezighi credits his incredible performance to the inspiration he felt while running for those who had died in the terrorist attack the year before. He even wrote their names on his race bib…he ran with greater purpose and motivation. “Toward the end I was remembering the victims who passed away,” he said. “They helped carry me through.”
Find a purpose greater than yourself and dedicate yourself to achieving that purpose. The authors offer a step-by-step process to help readers create their own purpose. It sounds corny, I know, but in this case, it’s powerful. I went through the process myself and developed a personal purpose statement. I’m sure it will evolve over time, but for now I find it really does give me greater purpose and urgency to do the work that is important for me. I highly recommend Peak Performance for anyone interested in creating purposeful, long-lasting work that transcends your own narrow interests, and serves to make the world a better place.
If you prefer podcasts, co-author Brad Stulberg talks about the ideas in Peak Performance on Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s podcast Invest Like the Best.