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An Olympic athlete, a best-selling author…and the rest of us

August 18, 2015 Matt Norquist

I’ve had the good fortune of knowing a handful of people who are the very best in the world at what they do. Reflecting back, I’ve learned a couple of things along the way that have shaped my perspective on how to create peak performance, as a leader and as a trusted advisor to clients who rely on us to advance leadership performance.

These experiences combined with relevant research that I’ve read on positive psychology, the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and other writing on the role of practice in peak performance have informed my thinking about what produces greatness, and what we can do to foster greatness in ourselves and in others.

Sometimes even the best experts in the world have a chance to demonstrate greatness for only very brief periods of time. Consider these examples, including that of my close friend Bryan Clay, whom I trained with extensively during my less than illustrious athletic career. Bryan won an Olympic gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the decathlon event. Prior to that, Bryan won a silver medal in 2004, and a couple of World Championships in between. For about five years, he was the very best in the world at his job. But, think about this: in his performance to win an Olympic gold medal, he was in actual competition for about 9 minutes. He spent 40 hours a week, practicing for more than 10 years, for 9 minutes at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing!

Then, there’s my former colleague Tom Rath, whom I worked with at The Gallup Organization. He is a human behavior expert who has sold more than 5 million books, made 300 appearances in the Wall Street Journal best seller list, and is widely regarded as one of the best non-fiction writers of his time. The amount of time he spends actually putting pen to paper (or hand to keyboard in this case) is miniscule in comparison to all that goes into and comes out of writing a book.

These examples, others that I’ve observed, and research that I’ve read have informed a model for how I approach peak performance:

  1. Inspired Purpose – Nobody can give you a purpose, and we can only inspire reasons or purpose in others fleetingly. It’s up to each of us to identify and choose our own purpose. You don’t accidentally write a book, or do a decathlon—no more than you accidentally become the best in the world at either. If you choose to do something at an elite level, pick something you have some natural inclination toward. I could choose or purpose to be a world-class ballroom dancer, but my size 12 two left feet, 220-pound frame, and lack of interest are not going to get me too far toward that goal. We must first clarify and give voice to our own individual purpose to support others in achieving their purpose.
  2. Preparation – Preparation is where the best spend most of their time. Great preparation is planned. It is mastering how to throw a baseball, how to read music and harmonize notes to write a song, devouring the words of other writers as you develop your own voice, or studying a customer’s business model before offering solutions. The best athletes have their physical training mapped out over multiple years, and are careful not to develop one strength at the expense of another—not to do too much too soon and risk injury. Working individually, with a team, and with coaches allows you to build a preparation plan to move toward your purpose—and also provides the benchmarks to measure your improvement.
  3. Practice – Different from developing general capabilities, practice is about refining and improving those capabilities. This is where you work on how you hold that violin bow, how you make that business case in a way that makes a client forget about everything else, where you swim lap after lap adjusting how you make that turn at the end of the pool, when you test each word of your campaign speech to figure out which ones spark your audience. Practice is about using your preparation to be ready for the big event.
  4. Peak Performance – The 9.69 seconds of the final in the Olympic 100 meter dash. The interception to win the Super Bowl. The sold-out show at Radio City Music Hall. The moment your fingers hit the keys as you write that best seller. The final conversation when you help a client understand how to implement your recommendation. Or the handmade birthday card from your daughter saying “You are the most awesome mom in the universe.” Peak performance is when you get a chance to display or realize the purpose you set out for.

So, how do you build toward your purpose as a leader, an athlete, a team member, a mother, a father, a wife, a partner, a husband, or other?

My thoughts: Work on your preparation and create a plan to practice and master the capabilities you need to meet your purpose! Let me hear from you and maybe we can practice together.

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