Most of what we believe about individual performance simply isn’t true. Talent isn’t the great driver that separates the best from the rest. Neither is luck, IQ, or previous successes. These are all stubborn myths.
Luckily, science offers us an alternative. Decades of research and hundreds of experiments offer us a more accurate view of the underlying principles behind exceptional performance. And the good thing is that these insights not only explain why some people are more successful than others, they also offer us guidance to improve our own performance.
1. Actively cultivate passion and purpose
Mixed in the right way, passion and purpose are a boundless energy source. Passion provides activation energy—the initial motivation to start something. It is the sprint muscle, triggered by our need for novelty. Purpose, on the other hand, is the marathon muscle. It’s triggered by our need to find meaning and belonging, and gives us a reason to keep going. In short, passion ignites performance, purpose makes it last. To perform better, we need both.
We all know that great performers are passionate about what they do, but it’s easy to misunderstand where passion comes from. Passion—interest on steroids—does not happen to us, nor does it have an on-off button. To become truly passionate about something, science shows us that we need to actively cultivate our interests.
The existing research on purpose tells a clear story as well. Purpose—let’s define it as the intention to contribute to the wellbeing of others—offers us psychological benefits, as well as a long-term performance boost. Looking for meaning is part of being human. But as with passion, we don’t stumble upon our purpose. We all need an active approach to find our ‘why’, the internal or external community we can serve.
2. Use deep practice
Greatness isn’t born, it’s grown. It’s not talent that drives performance, it’s a specific kind of long-term training called ‘deep practice’. Tons of research and bold experiments show us that dramatic improvements are possible in pretty much every field if we apply the rules of deep practice. If we are not improving, it’s not because we lack talent, it’s because we’re not practising in the right way.
Here the four rules of deep practice:
--- Practice ‘chunking’ – breaking information down into small chunks
--- Repeat your skill
--- Push past your plateau
--- Solve problems and find your way to the next level
3. Build resilience by changing your mindset
We all have a consistent thinking pattern about life’s twists and turns—a mindset of which most of us are unaware. By studying people who do not give up easily, researchers found that optimists are grittier than pessimists. Luckily, we can all become more optimistic. It all comes down to the explanatory style we use to categorise or frame bad events.
Some people are knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. This resilience is what enables us to achieve at the highest levels at work, to have fulfilling, loving relationships, and to raise healthy, happy successful children. It is what enables us to bounce back quickly after a crisis at work or home.
We all know resilient people. They inspire us. They do not show shame when they don’t succeed. Instead, they derive meaning from failure and use this knowledge to climb higher.
Research shows us that our capacity for resilience is not genetically fixed. We can all mould our mindset into a more resilient one.
4. Be smart with your mental state
‘Flow’ or ‘being in the zone’ is a mental state where our abilities match the challenge at hand, often associated with remarkable flourishes of achievement. Flow provides us with energy, whereas deep practice drains it.
So while we want to practise a lot to improve, we should be mindful of counterbalancing the energy drain that causes, by accessing our flow state as often as possible - even if that means we aren’t always stretching ourselves. If not, we will run out of energy very quickly and stop practising.
Greatness isn’t a lottery ticket handed out to a privileged few at birth. It’s available to all of us. We can all achieve exceptional performance if we apply ourselves.
Jeroen de Flander is an author and speaker. His book The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness is out now
Image credit: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty images