If you want to get better at what you do — whatever that may be — a good place to start is by looking to the world’s best, and for good reason. It turns out that the mind-sets and practices of the top athletes, artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs are actually quite similar; generally backed by science; and, best of all, available to just about anyone. At least that’s been the major finding of my work over the past two years researching, reporting, and writing about health and the science of human performance — not only for Science of Us, but also for my new book, Peak Performance. While unfortunately there is no “one simple trick” (at least none that are backed by evidence), there are a handful of principles that, if cultivated over time, can dramatically improve performance.
1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
World-champion big wave surfer Nic Lamb once told me, “No one grows from being in their comfort zone.” But few people enjoy the pressure of giving a presentation, lining up for their first marathon, or taking an important exam. While being uncomfortable is not generally thought of as a capability that we can practice, fascinating new research shows that we can; in particular, by pushing ourselves physically. Managing the discomfort associated with strenuous exercise — choosing to say “yes” when our bodies and minds are begging us to say “no” — teaches us how to be okay with discomfort more generally and shows us that we are capable of embracing and working through challenges. In other words, you need not be an athlete to view exercise as part of your job. It doesn’t just improve your physical fitness — it improves your mental fitness, too.
2. Focus on the process more than results.
Big goals serve as a wonderful motivational tool. But oftentimes we place far too much emphasis on whether or not we achieve a specific goal and not enough emphasis on executing the incremental steps along the way. Adopting a process mind-set means that you set a goal, figure out the steps to achieving that goal that are within your control, and then mostly forget about the goal and focus on nailing the steps instead. It also says that you should judge yourself less on whether or not you accomplished your goal and more on whether or not you executed the process along the way.
A process mind-set ensures that your self-worth never hinges on events that are outside of your control (e.g., the boss that was going to promote you gets fired or you get a flat tire in your first big bike race) and thus increases your stamina and ability to bounce back from failure — something that in and of itself is key to long-term success. It also helps keep your passions “harmonious,” or driven predominantly by intrinsic motivation, versus “obsessive,” which is all about external results and validation. Whereas harmonious passion is linked to sustainable performance and life satisfaction, obsessive passion is linked to anxiety and burnout.
3. Be patient: Stress + rest = growth.
In exercise science there is a concept called progressive overload. It says that if you want to grow a muscle or function (e.g., your biceps or running) you need to progressively challenge it, adding intensity and duration over time. Hard days are followed by easy days and prolonged periods of intensity are followed by prolonged periods of recovery. Repetition and consistency are key. Results don’t manifest overnight but after months, and even years, of sticking to the same routine. As I learned in researching and reporting my book, this equation holds true for creative and emotional growth as well. For example, research on creativity shows that breakthrough ideas tend to follow a common pattern:
• Immersion: a period of total engagement in one’s work with intense and unremitting focus.
• Incubation: a period of rest and recovery when one isn’t think about their work at all.
• Insight: the occurrence of “aha” or eureka moments — new ideas and growth in one’s thinking.
If you think about relationships — or pretty much anything in life — they work in much the same way. Romantic couples, families, and even entire organizations grow after facing challenge, or what a scientist might call “stress,” and then having time to recover from and process it. Too much stress, not enough rest, and the result is injury, burnout, or failure. Not enough stress, too much rest, and you’re left with complacency. As I refer to it in my book, the “growth equation” is: stress + rest = growth.
4. To reach your goals, imagine you already tried and failed.
Though optimism allows us to pursue and accomplish big projects —whether they be climbing a mountain, starting a company, or losing ten pounds — it comes with a significant blind spot: all the stuff that could go wrong. Normally, we don’t realize these mishaps until they derail our projects. It’s not until after the fact that we debrief everything that went wrong in what is commonly called a “postmortem.” But Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman says this timing doesn’t make sense. Rather than wait for things to run amok to figure out what went wrong, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes that we should go through a “premortem” before we start working toward our goals.
A premortem — beneficial for just about any endeavor, from running a marathon to starting a business — simply asks you to envision that you already tried and failed, and to ask yourself: What went wrong? Going through this exercise not only helps to ensure that your optimism is at least somewhat grounded in reality, but it also helps you to uncover potential pitfalls on the path to your goal that might otherwise be overlooked. This way, you can prepare for them in advance. The best athletes are rarely caught off guard when things don’t go to plan, because they have trained themselves to expect the unexpected.
5. Adopt the mentality of a “super champion.”
Talent development researchers Dave Collins, Áine MacNamara, and Neil McCarthy recently examined the differences between athletes who overcame adversity and went on to become world-class (what they call “super champions”) and those who struggled in the face of hardship (the heartbreakingly named “almost champions”). Whereas super champions were playing in premiere leagues and/or competing on national teams (think: Olympics), almost champions had achieved well at the youth level but were playing in less prestigious leagues as adults. The researchers found that super champions were characterized by a few key traits:
• They viewed challenges in a positive light — as opportunities to grow.
• They followed their interests throughout their lives, not what someone else wanted them to do.
• Their goal was simple: to get better. That is to say, they were driven from within, not by external benchmarks.
• They had supportive, but not obsessive, parents.
• They were involved in long-term, empowering mentorship relationships.
While this particular study examined athletic performance, there’s a wealth of psychological research that suggests these traits are key to becoming a super champion off the field, too.
6. When facing a challenge, pretend you’re giving advice to a friend.
The world’s best adventure athletes often find themselves in trying circumstances. It’s the nature of their sport. When they do, their secret to getting themselves out of the struggle is to step outside of their “self,” quite literally.
When you need to make a challenging decision or find yourself in an emotionally fraught situation, ask yourself: “What would you tell a friend to do?” and then do that. This strategy — sometimes referred to as “self-distancing” — allows you to remove your emotional self from intense situations, paving the way for more thoughtful insight and subsequent decision-making. In an article published in the Journal of Research in Personality, the psychologists Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross, who have studied the effects of self-distancing across contexts, write that self-distancing “leads people to focus relatively less on recounting the emotionally evocative details of their experience and relatively more on recasting it in ways that promote insight and closure.” This shift, they write, “leads to lower levels of emotional reactivity,” giving the more rational parts of the brain space to operate effectively. Put differently, by taking yourself out of the picture, you’re likely to gain a much fuller and more rational view of it.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive With the New Science of Success. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.