Navigating life’s unpredictability often resembles the exhilarating world of alpine skiing. Mikaela Shiffrin, a superstar of the sport, imparts insights into a high-performance mindset, saying,
While taken from the realm of competitive skiing, this guiding principle resonates profoundly beyond sports, offering the transformative potential to shape our personal and professional lives. It emphasises maintaining high quality and performance standards while tempering expectations around future outcomes. So, how can we cultivate this mindset, and what benefits can it give?
Standards vs expectations
Fundamentally, standards are often seen as the internal benchmarks or criteria we set for ourselves, encompassing our definitions of quality, competence, or excellence. They are self-generated and typically align with our values, aspirations, and sense of identity. On the other hand, expectations represent our forecasts or assumptions about future events or outcomes. While our personal beliefs and experiences shape them, they are also susceptible to external influences such as societal norms, peer input, or past results. These predictions can significantly influence our emotional responses and subsequent actions, for better or worse.
Insights from the leadership and strategy expert, Sydney Finkelstein, align well with Shiffrin’s principle. Finkelstein highlights,
This mindset promotes the potent power of adaptability, urging us to expect the unexpected and welcome it with open arms. Finkelstein’s emphasis on embracing surprise complements Shiffrin’s philosophy and brings a new dynamic to it – teaching us that the keys to success lie in our ability to pivot, adapt and thrive amidst life’s most surprising turns.
Maintaining excellence and expectations
We should strive for excellence in our pursuits, whether it’s producing top-quality work or meeting project timelines. However, it’s crucial to remain aware that external factors like market fluctuations, organisational shifts, or managerial decisions could impact our anticipated outcomes.
Applying this perspective across various facets of our professional life can yield significant benefits. The following strategies amalgamate Shiffrin’s principle and Finkelstein’s insights:
- Foster a Growth Mindset: Shift the focus from the final outcome to the effort and process. Emphasise the value of consistent effort and dedication rather than setting unattainable, vague targets. This mindset can be reinforced by celebrating the consistent efforts and hard work involved in achieving professional milestones.
- Encourage Personal Bests: Remind everyone that success isn’t always about outperforming others but about personal growth, continuous learning, and achieving personal bests, irrespective of external markers of success.
- Allow Space for Mistakes: Encourage learning from failures. This approach cultivates resilience and adaptability, essential traits in any professional setting.
- Offer Continuous Support: Extend support during the process, not merely after achieving the outcome. This can involve listening empathetically, providing constructive feedback, or offering resources for professional development.
Striking a balance
Among these strategies, it’s vital to remember that balance is key, particularly when it comes to praise and reassurance. Excessive or unfounded praise can unintentionally communicate low expectations, undermining the motivational power of genuine appreciation and constructive feedback. It’s a delicate act of maintaining high standards and keeping expectations in check — a true testament to the wisdom of Shiffrin and Finkelstein in our professional pursuits.
Shiffrin’s approach to maintaining high standards while tempering expectations, coupled with Finkelstein’s emphasis on embracing surprise and adaptability, provides a robust framework to navigate the complex landscape of the professional world. This balanced methodology promotes growth, resilience, and adaptability amidst life’s unpredictable twists and turns, transforming us from passive observers to active, resilient participants in life’s dynamic game.
Exercise and positive expectations
The integration of this philosophy extends beyond professional life into our approach to exercise and overall well-being. A study by Hendrik Mothes and colleagues at the University of Freiburg highlights that individuals’ expectations and beliefs significantly influence the psychological and neurophysiological benefits arising from a single exercise session. Participants holding positive expectations about exercise’s benefits consistently reported greater psychological benefits, including increased enjoyment, mood enhancement, anxiety reduction, and a rise in alpha-2 brain waves, indicating relaxation.
Such findings underscore the profound impact our mindset, expectations, and internal narratives can have on our health journeys. In high-pressure environments—whether they’re sporting arenas or corporate boardrooms—the pressure to meet personal and external expectations can be overwhelming. Ambition can motivate and drive progress, but continuous high-pressure situations can lead to mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and depression.
Organisations must balance their success drive with care for their employees’ mental well-being to foster healthier and more productive environments. Initiatives like emotional well-being programmes provide structures to support employees’ mental health, offering varying levels of care and engagement tailored to individuals’ needs.
By embracing a mindset that unifies an understanding of mental health with Shiffrin’s high-standards-low-expectations approach, we can embark on a holistic path towards better physical and psychological well-being. This integrated approach can significantly enhance our quality of life and performance across multiple life spheres.
More on positivity
- We still need to find out how and why optimism scientifically influences these diagnostics, but we know it yields clear-cut results with empirical certainty. (Read more)
- “Regarding and building upon the last point, mindfulness is deriving positives from what is happening now or not allowing the negatives to alter the future detrimentally.” (Read more)
Are you tired? Let’s be honest, the answer for most of us sits somewhere between, ‘Yes, quite’ and ‘Could collapse any second’.
In his seminal book Why We Sleep1, Matthew Walker notes that two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep. They do so despite the fact that the physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep are substantially worse than those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise. In fact, human beings are the only species on Earth that will deliberately deprive themselves of sleep without legitimate gain. Cutting back on sleep, often in favour of work– and in doing so imbuing our everyday routines with a heavy dose of masochism – has become the norm. And it’s having a seriously negative effect on people’s lives, both personal and professional.
Why don’t we sleep?
Margaret Thatcher famously slept only four hours a night. And this sleep (or lack thereof) came to represent something. A narrative developed around it, one that the iron lady and her team were more than happy to fuel. Thatcher’s lack of sleep, the narrative would have you believe, was yet further proof of her industriousness, her willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, with the obvious implication that people who were less successful (which, given she was the country’s leader, was everyone) were wasting their time with nightly slumbers. If these layabouts traded time sleeping for time working, then they too could soon become titans of their chosen field. Sleep, in other words, was just another form of laziness.
It’s a fallacy that’s permeated modern culture, with billionaire CEOs and lifestyle gurus perennially endorsing wake-up times that would have even cockerels’ eyes watering, all in pursuit of the past decade’s holy grail: productivity.
The 5am club! Seize the day! The early bird gets the worm! Whatever the slogan may be, we’ve been conditioned to believe that time in bed is time misspent, even though every morsel of scientific evidence points to the contrary. Studies show that reducing sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for even a single night could cause a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent2, while also doubling the person’s risk of sustaining an occupational injury. People who average less than seven hours of sleep are nearly three times more likely to develop a cold3, not to mention suffer dire effects on their mental health4.
Business leaders like to offer inspirational quotes about their work ethic, like Ari Onassis’ famous, “Don’t sleep too much or you’ll wake up a failure. If you sleep three hours less each night for a year, you will have an extra month and a half to succeed in.”5 Perhaps such advice truly worked for him – he certainly found the requisite levels of success, after all. But the amount of sleep we need varies widely from person to person and is based more on genetics than anything else6. Such a quote suggests Mr Onassis was able to function and even thrive on very little. But the truth for most people that if you sleep three hours less each night for a year, all you will have to show for it is an extra month and a half in which to be miserable and incompetent. The early bird may get the worm, but before you test that theory by dragging yourself out from your duvet’s warmth into a cold, dark morning, you best be sure that you’re really a ‘bird’ – because the saying indicates that the early worm gets devoured fast.
Sleep and the black mirror
Screens are a problem. We all know it. We’ve been told enough times. And yet, when bedtime approaches, how many of us truly disconnect? Blue light from our computers, TVs, tablets and smartphones suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone ‘melatonin’7, making it harder for us to get to sleep. If this was a problem before the pandemic, it has been infinitely exacerbated with the increased prominence of home and hybrid working. The dividing lines that separate our personal and professional lives grow thinner and more penetrable with each passing year.
Many modern work cultures expect their employees to be “always-on”, whether that’s explicitly said or simply made obvious, with ominous implied consequences for those who dare view non-working hours as a brief window of respite. As such, workers are glued to their screens too late which causes them to sleep less, which in turn causes them to work less productively the following day due to that lack of sleep, which in turn causes them to stay up later and work harder to catch up, until they’re sent spiralling into a Catherine wheel of exhaustion and poor performance. It’s unsustainable, with a hugely negative impact on workers, but on businesses too.
The problem in numbers
A 2007 study9 found that fatigue was costing US companies around $136.4 billion dollars a year, $1,967 per employee. Unsurprisingly, with sleep patterns having worsened significantly in the years since, more recent numbers suggest the economic costs of sleep deprivation in 2015 ranged between $280 and $411 billion US dollars10. Sleep deprivation is also the leading cause of absenteeism and was thought to be responsible for 1.23 million lost working days in the US in the same year11. If such numbers were caused by any other aspect of a business, leaders would work to address it immediately, so why not with this?
As Professor Vicki Culpin, author of The Wake-up Call: The importance of sleep in organizational life, notes12:
It is common for managers and colleagues to look at a lack of focus or motivation, irritability, and bad decision making as being caused by poor training, organizational politics or the work environment. The answer could be much simpler – a lack of sleep.
On the employee side, meanwhile, lack of sleep has been shown to lead to worse job performance, productivity, career progression and satisfaction, and to increase job-related accidents, absenteeism, and counterproductive work behaviours13. While better sleep has been linked to improved memory and learning, as well as being pivotal for our cardiovascular health and the functioning of our immune system14.
Sleep hygiene and the role of employers
There are many ways to go about improving your sleep hygiene. You can create a more regular sleep routine, in which you go to bed and wake at the same time every day. You can exercise more (though avoid doing so close to bedtime, as exercising too late can affect sleep negatively). You can avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed, as well as eschewing your phone/TV/tablet for a good book or some other such blue-light-free activity.
Employers have a role to play too. Bad leaders tend to add to their employees’ levels of stress, which can affect their sleep, especially if they’re being asked to work unrealistic hours and given no time to detach. Good employers ensure their staff are happy and engaged because they know that’s how to get the best of them. Ensuring employees are well rested is a huge part of that. It’s the humane thing to do, but it’s also profitable. Before splashing cash on flashy motivational speakers or intensive retraining courses, any leader or worker looking for simple and immediate ways to improve professional performance might want to try starting with something simpler: sleep.
More on Sleep
- The Power of Sleep: Unlocking the Secrets to Success with Elite Sports Sleep Coach Nick Littlehales
- Cracking The Performance Code with Justin Roethlingshoefer
- Performance improvement lessons from leading sleep expert Pat Byrne
- The impact of sleep on performance with Motty Varghese
1 Walker, M. (2018). Why we sleep. Penguin Books.
There is a striking ‘work list’ that went viral a couple of years ago. Under the heading “10 Things That Require Zero Talent”, the creator wrote of actions we can all take to improve our work performance immediately and without any financial cost or training.
Nothing included on the list is revolutionary – Being on Time, Work Ethic, Effort, Body Language, Energy, Attitude, Passion, Being Coachable, Doing Extra, and Being Prepared. All very sensible, and all traits and characteristics that employers, managers, and executive recruiters love to recognise… and very often reward!
Talent or consistency
That list came to mind again when Justin Roethlingshoefer joined us for a brilliant episode of the 1% podcast in April 2022. A performance coach to elite athletes and executives, a bestselling author, and respected entrepreneur, Justin was a Performance Director at the National (Ice) Hockey League (NHL) in the US for over ten years – an experience that shaped his current areas of research and focus in ways that he didn’t quite expect.
Early on in the episode, Justin says the following: “Talent will get you noticed, consistency gets you paid.” Simple, and yet quite profound – especially in today’s world where talent seems, on the surface at least, to be what secures the high-end roles and accompanying salary and benefits package.
Justin explained that the comment was made to him as a young boy when he returned home after a performance that was not up to his usual standards in a hockey match. His father’s advice struck him deeply and led the aspiring athlete down a path of seeking to understand as much as possible about everything within his own control and what actually and practically impacted his capabilities on the ice each and every game.
Heart rate variability
Unfortunately for us all, there is no magic solution to consistent performance – be it on the sporting field, in the workplace, or elsewhere. Everyone’s capabilities are unique, but Justin has identified Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and how it changes as a person responds to stresses around them as an effective indicator of improvement potential.
Working with his research team, he has gone on to develop a framework of eight ‘controllables’ that help to positively affect a person’s HRV and, in turn, deliver more consistent performance. You can read more about Justin’s thinking and how HRV can be monitored here.
- Stress Management / Self Care
- Immune Function
No ‘controllable’ on this list will be brand new to regular readers of our 1% Extra articles. However, their effectiveness lies in the consistent implementation of small, yet sustainable changes under each of the headings. What’s the one thing you can do to improve your nutrition this week? It can be as easy as preparing your breakfast or lunch the night before when you’ve more time to consider what is suitable rather than what is convenient, and then making that part of your weekly habits.
Simple processes and being persistent in following them as part of an established and regular routine will benefit your performance in the longer term. And we already know some of this to be true in our own lives – we feel better when we eat well, a regular sleep routine is encouraged for adults as well as children, and we’ve often heard about the importance of drinking water as well as regular exercise and movement in our life.
Think of it within a work context. The processes and checks we put in place within project management methodologies are there to ensure that outcomes and quality standards are achieved regularly in work. Getting relevant structures in place, having robust review processes, and a mechanism to respond to blockers are several of the key components in any good project, and have a direct and telling impact on the final outputs and outcomes.
All eight “controllables” listed are considerations that we have the ability to change and improve at our own pace. And that’s the central argument of Justin and his team of researchers: attaining consistent performance and improving our individual capabilities generally is much more about focusing on ourselves and making incremental improvements rather than trying to influence broader factors outside of our sphere of control.
To make changes, awareness or a deep understanding of our strengths and capabilities is essential, but so, too, is not trying to transform your entire work life in one sweeping overhaul. People who are perceived as ‘greats’ – be it in sport, business, leadership – tend to have an innate awareness of their ability, a motivation to forge ahead into new territory, while also being curious and eternal students. These traits, though, are frequently matched by discipline, consistency, and adaptability.
None of our elite athletes or respected business leaders are slouches that fell into their career path by accident – they’ve found an effective balance between capacity and the capability to deliver time and again. As Justin remarks on the 1% podcast, “the world of average is full of talent”. What separates average performers from those recognised as amongst the “greats” though is consistency as well as the ability to “level up” or push themselves forwards to achieve even more. As employers and recruiters, it’s also our responsibility to ensure we reward those that deliver consistently!