8 Proven Performance Practices from Billionaires and Elite Athletes
This article originally appeared at Fortune.
The middle-ground has all but dissolved, leaving you in one of two positions:among the leading few or mediocre many.
Your relationship with technology will either facilitate unthinkable opportunity and growth or keep you on the wrong side of average. As Cal Newport has said in his recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Success has never been so attainable, thus making many of us spoiled and lazy. But the following eight strategies are intended to shake up your approach, challenging you to work and live at a higher and more conscious level.
Here we go:
1. Don’t Be Afraid Of Making An “Ugly” Move
Until recent history, certain chess strategies were unquestioned dogma among the world’s elite. They were written in books and taught to all rising padawan learners.
But the validity of these strategies have come into question as computers have been programmed to consistently beat top players. While analyzing the computer’s strategy, players have been shocked and amused by the computer’s use of certain “ugly” moves — which no trained chess player would ever do — that utterly clash with conventional wisdom.
Rather than finesse and aesthetics guiding their strategy, the computer’s brute calculations allow it to examine every position concretely. In response to the surprising insights learned from computers, chess players have been forced to question their long-held assumptions.
As Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion, explained in an interview with Business Insider:
“You cannot rely on what has been taught in books — that this is good, this is bad — there are always exceptions and every situation is different.
Even if something looks bad, it doesn’t look right, you calculate it, it works and… there you go! It’s just forcing us to look a bit further, to look away from what the books used to teach us. It’s forcing us to break the rules.”
No matter what field you are in, there are rigid norms guiding your thinking — the rules considered “best practice.” However, life (and chess) is messy and complex, and every situation calls for a more contextual analysis.
What is right in your situation may not be right in mine.
For example, it makes little sense to most people why I’m getting a PhD. Many would consider it an “ugly” move. And perhaps, to most people pursuing my aims, it is an ugly move. But given my situation and personal calculations, it’s a strong strategic decision. The ugly zig while most are zagging.
There are always exceptions.
And rather than obsessing how your decisions are perceived, make the best possible decisions you can — whether standard or anomaly. Your calculations are solid, and like the computers in chess, you’ll be able to “connect the dots looking backwards.” What may look ugly to others in the moment will be your victory in the end.
2. Realize That You’re Not “Way” Behind
In sports and all other forms of competition, people perform best when the game is close. Which is why big magic happens at the end of games, like on-sides kicks retrieved followed by 30 second touchdown drives. But when the contest is decidedly in one opponent’s favor, neither side acts with the same effort.
When you’re winning big, it’s easy to get lax and overconfident. When you’re losing big, it’s easy to give up.
Sadly, you probably perceive those at the top of your field “in a different league” altogether. But when you do this, you perform with less intensity than you would if you perceived the “game” to be closer.
When you elevate your thinking — and see yourself on the same level as those at “the top” — you quickly become disillusioned by the fallibility of those you once perceived as immortal. They are just people. Most importantly, you will begin playing with an urgency that often surpasses even them.
The game is close. The game is close.
3. Do More With Less
We have all become addicted to input. As a culture, we’ve developed cognitive dependencies in order to sustain even lackluster performance.
For example, although people think they perform better on caffeine, the truth is, they really don’t. We use it to merely get back to our status-quo. When we’re off it, we under-perform and become incapable.
A recent Kickstarter campaign — a rug alarm-clock that literally makes you get out of bed and stand on it to disarm it — is another example. Although clever and funny, I personally would not want to depend on a rug to get me out of bed. Our culture’s obsession with extrinsic behavioral conditions reflects a fundamental lack of intrinsic motivation.
We can move beyond the dependencies of constant training, spiritual assurances, and external reinforcements. We can learn to be agents that act rather than objects that are acted upon.
We shouldn’t need the best software to start a business, or the best guitar to play guitar. As Jason Fried and DHH have said in Rework:
“Guitar gurus say, “Tone is in your fingers.” You can buy the same guitar, effects pedals, and amplifier that Eddie Van Halen uses. But when you play that rig, it’s still going to sound like you.
Likewise, Eddie could plug into a crappy Strat/Pignose setup at a pawn shop, and you’d still be able to recognize that it’s Eddie Van Halen playing. Fancy gear can help, but the truth is your tone comes from you.
Many amateur golfers think they need expensive clubs. But it’s the swing that matters, not the club. Give Tiger Woods a set of cheap clubs and he’ll still destroy you.”
Detach yourself from your dependencies. Try going running without all the running gear. Try waking up without a Ruggie. Try living a day without caffeine. Try outputting without having to “inspire” yourself.
Do more with less.
4. Increase Your Responsibility
Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, he had it backwards.
The constraints of responsibility force you to think more creatively. Responsibility qualifies you to show up at a higher level. I never thought parenting three foster children would increase my productivity, but it has. Failure on my part doesn’t impact only me anymore.
As Dan Sullivan has said, “We are at our most alert when we are in danger of failing. The greatest growth comes from being alert, scared, and striving.”
Similarly, chess players are at their toughest when it matters most, when everything is on the line. If you must perform to provide for your family, you’ll get it done. If it’s a matter of life or death, you’ll do whatever it takes. If your vision is compelling enough, you’ll avoid distractions.
Although most people avoid limitation and constraints, they end up being the very thing needed to get a breakthrough. Said Frank Lloyd Wright, famed American architect, “The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest, and therefore where most was required of imagination in order to build it all. Limitations seem to have always been the best friends of architecture.”
5. Every Billionaire’s Secret: Build a Team Around You Sooner than You Feel Comfortable
“The bigger your dream, the more important your team.” — Robin Sharma
According to Alex Charfen, CEO of Charfen consulting services and founder of the Entrepreneurial Personality Type™ (EPT), the one thing billionaires have in common is that they are comfortable.
And by comfortable, he doesn’t mean they wear comfy slippers — he means they barely lift a finger except when they’re doing what they do best. In order to do so, they build a team around them to take care of the rest.
When most people hear this, they initially think, “Of course, they are billionaires.” However, the truth is that this is why they are billionaires.
When Charfen was in his 20’s, he was at a friend’s (a billionaire) and was surprised to see a staff of two people working at his house, and a team of 30 people, including a driver. Charfen couldn’t help but ask his friend:
“Is it ever embarrassing to have so much help and so much fuss as you go through the day and get around? I mean at least 10 people have helped us so far and it’s only 11 A.M.”
His friend responded:
“It would be irresponsible for me to do anything that you observed any member of my team doing today. They are there for me and I am there for them. We have grown together and we built everything together.
If I had done anything that one of my team members had done today they would’ve been uncomfortable and worried. Each one of them is here for a reason and many of them played a role in training and hiring each other. They know that the more they help me get accomplished, the more secure we all are and the more we can grow our foundation.”
High performers build a team around them much sooner than they are comfortable with. They are willing to think big, take on greater responsibility, and focus in on their superpower. The sooner you can remove all of the personal pressure and noise the faster your income will skyrocket.
Thus, increasing your responsibility is not about doing more. It’s about leading more.
6. How Much Are You Willing To Put On The Line?
Elon Musk is considered eccentric in many ways. One of which is how uncomfortably long-term his thinking is. The man is trying to change the world and populate Mars. He’s willing to make any sacrifice — no matter how difficult — today, to manifest his worldview in the long-awaited future.
Musk sunk all of his own money into his companies. Most of his decisions make little sense to other people. He’d rather wait to have his company go public if going public means stalling or misdirecting his mission to populate Mars.
But he’s calculating. He’s willing to make ugly moves because he is not flinching on his long-term vision. Dramatic risks accompany everything Musk does.
His propensity for risk does not come from insanity. But rather, from a level of conviction so intense as to be off-putting to some. When asked, “How much are you willing to put on the line?” he responded:
“Everything that other people hold dear. I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact. Ideally, I’d like to go for a visit, come back, and then go there when I’m like 70 or something and just stay there. If things go well, that would be the case. If my wife and I have a bunch of kids, she would probably stay with them on Earth.”
7. Short-Term & Low Cost Experiments
Tim Ferriss doesn’t do what he thinks will make him happy. He does what excites him.
Although his overarching vision remains consistent, Ferriss doesn’t have long-term plans. Instead, he does 3–6 month “experiments,” which he puts all of his energy into. He has no clue what doors may open as a result of these experiments, so why make long-term plans? He’d rather respond to the brilliant and best opportunities that arise, taking him in now unforeseen directions.
Experiments are a fun way to pursue goals because they allow you to get innovative and bold. Experiments are short-term — and thus relatively low risk — thus, they should be “moon shots.”
Why play small? What’s the worst that could happen, you waste a few months and learn a lot while doing it?
8. Stay In The Zone As Long As You Can
There is a concept in weightlifting known as “time under tension,” which basically means the longer your muscles are being pushed, the more fatigued, and ultimately, stronger they will get.
Yet, the concept of time under tension applies to everything.
What about focus, for example? When was the last time you pushed your mental/focus muscles to fatigue? If you’re like most people, you barely flex your focus muscles — the equivalent of doing one rep of an exercise then taking a break.
We have an addiction to input. If given a few spare moments, we hastily resort to our devices. Half of Americans couldn’t make it 24 hours without their smartphones. According to research, most men and a large portion of women would rather experience painful electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts.
However, the longer you can stay in the zone, the greater will be your reward and impact in the current economy.
“The only way I’ve found to get over this is to sit with the discomfort. Like most creatives, I’m at my best when there’s a bit of fear and a lot of discomfort thrown into the mix. Being alone with my own thoughts is truly frightening, but truly necessary.” — Paul Jarvis
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