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)
Following The 1% Podcast with the brilliant and funny Des Bishop, a background thought came to the foreground with further reflection. At the outset of the episode, we settled into our conversation by talking about how past errors or indiscretions helped position us toward a new course. In that regard, we can follow a negative trajectory downward, exacerbating what has gone wrong, or gain clarity and make necessary changes by understanding how and why certain events unfold against our desires or best-made plans.
Making the most of your mistakes
Many know this but may not want to hear it. The concept may be anathema to your sense of being and thinking, and you may not even be willing to process the possibility in your workplace. Nevertheless, let’s talk about it. No matter how cautious, discerning, motivated, prepared, and skilled you are—failure is inevitable. So why does it happen, and why are we afraid of it?
Why we fail
Failure has many makers, and any of the causes below could prove costly. Yet, as a concept, it is something we should be less afraid of, if only because it is unavoidable and can aid us once we grapple with it. According to Shiv Khera, author of You Can Win (2014), we usually fail for one of seven reasons:
- Lack of persistence
- Lack of conviction
- Dismissal of past mistakes
- Lack of discipline
- Poor self-esteem
- A fatalistic attitude
Forbes magazine reiterates a lack of belief and expectation of sub-par outcomes and adds:
- The desire to not be disruptive even if required
- The instinct for self-preservation
- Losing sight of our agency
- Fear of risking what has been built and our legacy
- Real and imagined stagnation
Impatience, a lack of a clear plan, a missing long-term or contingent strategy, and poorly thought-out or unattainable objectives, can be included in the list.
Tuning in versus tuning out
Additionally, failure is frequently related to something happening in our lives. In other words, it is already within us and is a manifestation of an existing discomfort. Humans are complex entities, our psyches are even more layered and nebulous, and we are routinely impacted by unexpected and undesirable circumstances happening to us or around us. Moreover, the minutia of everyday life can easily influence all the causes above.
Therefore, to believe that unwanted aspects of our personal or professional lives can be wholly cordoned off from influencing job performance to some degree is naïve. That said, and as outlined in a previous 1% article, the ability to compartmentalise and conquer is necessary at certain moments, but what happens if and when we cannot do that entirely and are forced to face failure head-on?
Redirection through reappraisal
Random and not-so-random outcomes go against us or do not go according to expectations. Sometimes there is no logic for what has happened, at least in terms of the event itself. Befuddled as we are, we must act. In the corporate environment, often, there is little time or room for context.
What comes next—i.e., fixing it—requires consideration. Once we figure out how and why we can devise and execute a response. That does not simply mean carrying out damage control, although that, too, is a skill. Rather it entails an alteration of our mindset. We must reappraise the situation as well as ourselves. What was our role, if any, in this? What could have been done differently? What was learned, and how can we turn it into a gain? Mistakes can represent an opportunity, one specifically for change.
When we fail, we are highly conscious of the meaning of that setback and its repercussions. Our self-awareness is heightened, and we become more malleable and open-minded because we may be less sure of decisions or what is happening around us. Humans and markets are not always predictable or rational. However, these conditions help enact evolution and transformation, which are metonyms for progress. In that regard, failure precedes success.
Ad astra per aspera
You may know the meaning of the somewhat ambiguous, albeit ubiquitous, Latin phrase above (a rough road leads to the stars), but did you know that it adorns the memorial plaque for the astronauts who died on Apollo I? Not only is the phrase befitting, but its application to this tragic event is instructive.
On February 21, 1967, a cabin fire killed the three astronauts on board during a launch rehearsal. The mission had failed before it had even gotten off the ground. Rather than lose hope and stop, the American space programme looked inward and studied the series of mistakes that led to the accident in granular detail to learn from its errors. It saw fault within itself and did not attempt to shift blame or explain away the tragedy to either bad luck or the unknowable. Ultimately, NASA was better for it.
This shift was embodied by Gene Kranz, the legendary boss of Mission Control, who delivered this impassioned speech three days after the tragedy:
“Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. […] From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. […] Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased.”
These words are known as the ‘Kranz Dictum,’ and they remain pillars of the programme. Surprisingly, Kranz’s 2009 book about the missions he was a part of is entitled, Failure Is Not An Option. Although inspiring, his title is a little misleading. Kranz, and everyone involved with Apollo I, failed. However, they were not defined by this and are instead remembered by their response. Two years later, the programme landed three men on the moon, one of the crowning achievements in the history of the human race.
Looking back, although NASA was interrupted by catastrophic failure to such a degree that it suspended crewed flights for twenty months, they were undeterred and used their mistakes as a catalyst for self-improvement. If we choose (and it is a choice) to use reflection, understanding, and growth as tools, every one of us can harness misfortune and miss-steps similarly.
References & Resources
Khera, Shiv. You Can Win: A Step by Step Tool for Top Achievers. Bloomsbury India, 2014.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
What does it mean for a person to function at their peak? Peak performance means that all basic needs are met so the mind and body are nourished, which allows for the highest level of success. It’s about long-term, consistent, and sustainable growth.
Often, peak performance is a term used in the athletics world. Athletes are in a constant cycle of training and recovery, learning their body’s cues in order to perform their best in matches or competitions. But the same mentality and techniques can be applied to entrepreneurship, the business world, or to anyone who is striving to live their best life. Superhuman status is not just for the elite.
“Peak performance in life isn’t about succeeding all the time or even being happy all the time. It’s often about compensating, adjusting, and doing the best you can with what you have right now.” — Ken Ravizza, Sport PsychologistKen Ravizza, Sport Psychologist
The power of the to-do list
It may seem simple, but one way to achieve peak function is by writing down goals and to-do lists for accountability. The goals should be SMART goals: specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. But a to-do list can include everything from long-term planning to what to accomplish before breakfast the next day. To-do lists help to organise the mind in a more linear fashion and create space to focus on the present moment rather than stressing about what’s to come.
It is also important to not rigidly adhere to a to-do list. Psychologists have found that a growth mindset is more indicative of long-term success and motivation. Part of being a highly successful person is learning to adapt to the inevitable fluctuations of life.
Mindfulness & mental health
Mindfulness and meditation can help with stress and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Prioritising mental health is equally important as physical health and the items on a to-do list. Goals are important, but they also need to be sustainable.
In fact, in a study in The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, athletes who performed just twelve minutes of meditation a day showed higher mental resilience than those who didn’t. They also had more improved focus during training. Rest and recovery can often seem counterintuitive when schedules are jam-packed and the lists endless, but ultimately, taking the time to be present and slow down will lead to more effective results.
Diet, nutrition & sleep
A healthy diet, nutrition, and adequate sleep are essential to achieve peak performance. Sleep debt — fewer than seven hours of sleep — may be an ‘unrecognised, but likely critical factor in reaching peak performance’, says Cheri Mah, researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorder Clinic and Research Laboratory. There is a strong correlation between diet and nutrition and quality of sleep. For example, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol negatively impact sleep, whereas eating a Mediterranean diet, and a diet high in Omega fatty acids, may lead to more restful sleep (Godos et al., 2019).
Many high performers work around their ‘peak performance hours’, which is the time of day when a person is most efficient based on the body’s chronotype and circadian rhythms. In other words, knowing whether one is a night owl, or a morning bird can help determine the day’s structure for optimal success.
The importance of deep work & flow
Lastly, the ability to be in flow is not only a factor in success but also happiness and overall life satisfaction. ‘Flow’, a term first coined by positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to being completely immersed in the task at hand. It can be achieved by avoiding multitasking, focusing on quality of the work rather than doing as many things as fast as possible, and by doing a task that is enjoyable.
In the book, The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, the authors explain that optimal focus also requires some level of stress. Too much stress will inhibit focus, and too little leads to a lack of motivation. To achieve deep flow, then, there needs to be some sense of urgency in the work. There needs to be a purpose driving the task.
Peak performance is not achieved overnight. It requires consistent practice, having clear goals, and holding oneself accountable, while also maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Anyone can achieve peak performance and success by implementing the right habits.
More on sleep
- “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 percent, while also doubling the person’s risk of sustaining an occupational injury.” (Read more)
- 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