Just beyond your current limits

Excellent performers judge themselves differently than most people do. They're more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay.

By contrast, the best performers judge themselves against a standard that's relevant for what they're trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare it with the performance of competitors they're facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare it with the best known performance by anyone in the field.

Any of those can make sense; the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research confirms what common sense tells us, that too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated

the secret power of deliberate practice

You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn't what counts. Or you may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.

Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it "deliberate," as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one's hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone's mental abilities.

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long.

Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we're good at, we insistently seek out what we're not good at.

Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see - or get others to tell us - exactly what still isn't right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we've just done. We continue that process until we're mentally exhausted.

If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and no one could distinguish the best from the rest.

The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.

Geoff Colvin, Why Talent is Overrated

The Workaholic

A person can become a workaholic by over-committing himself financially, by making unrealistic plans, or simply by failing to recognize a personality defect. Often he may use work as an escape mechanism. Thus he has to drive himself to the exclusion of what should be his properties.

It is most unfortunate that we deplore drug and alcohol addicts but somehow promote and admire the work addict. We have him status and accept his estimate of himself. And all the while his family may be getting so little of his time and energy that they hardly know him.

Obsessive, compulsive striving for our goals is not the way to pursue a life of excellence. When the Apostle John wrote his three brief but beautiful and intimate epistles, he was a very old man, possibly in his nineties. As he reflected on his life and the human needs that continued to surround him, all he chose to say, basically, was, “Little children… love one another.”

Ted Engstrom, The Pursuit of Excellence

Solo Performance

A mountain of studies has shown that face-to-face brainstorming and teamwork often lead to inferior decisionmaking. That’s because social dynamics lead groups astray; they coalesce around the loudest extrovert’s most confidently asserted idea, no matter how daft it might be.

What works better? “Virtual” collaboration—with team members cogitating on solutions alone, in private, before getting together to talk them over. As Susan Cain (who write Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) discovered, researchers have found that groups working in this fashion generate better ideas and solve problems more adroitly. To really get the best out of people, have them work alone first, then network later.

Sounds like the way people collaborate on the Internet, doesn’t it? With texting, chat, status updates, comment threads, and email, you hash over ideas and thoughts with a pause between each utterance, giving crucial time for reflection. Plus, you can do so in private.

(The) overall the irony here is pretty gorgeous. It suggests we’ve been thinking about the social web the wrong way. We generally assume that it has unleashed an unruly explosion of disclosure, a constant high school of blather. But what it has really done is made our culture more introverted—and productively so. Now if we could just get some doors on those cubicles.

Clive Thompson writing in Wired Magazine

the audience effect

The effort of communicating to someone else forces you to pay more attention and learn more. You can see this audience effect even in small children.

In one of my favorite experiments, a group of Vanderbilt University researchers in 2008 published a study in which several dozen 4- and 5-year-olds were shown patterns of colored bugs and asked to predict which would be next in the sequence. In one group, the children simply repeated the puzzle answers into a tape recorder.

In a second group, they were asked to record an explanation of how they were solving each puzzle.

And in the third group, the kids had an audience: They had to explain their reasoning to their mothers, who sat near them, listening but not offering any help. Then each group was given patterns that were more complicated and harder to predict.

The results?

The children who didn’t explain their thinking performed worst. The ones who recorded their explanations did better—the mere act of articulating their thinking process aloud seemed to help them identify the patterns more clearly. But the ones who were talking to a meaningful audience—Mom—did best of all. When presented with the more complicated puzzles, on average they solved more than the kids who’d explained to themselves and about twice as many as the ones who’d simply repeated their answers.

Researchers have found similar effects with adolescents and adults.

Interestingly, the audience effect doesn’t necessarily require a big audience. This seems particularly true online.

Clive Thompson, Smarter Than you Think

Giving your Best

Expecting the best means that you put your whole heart (i.e., the central essence of your personality) into what you want to accomplish. People are defeated in life not because of lack of ability, but for lack of wholeheartedness. They do not wholeheartedly expect to succeed. Their heart isn’t in it, which is to say they themselves are not fully given. Results do not yield themselves to the person who refuses to give himself to the desired results.

A major key to success in this life, to attaining that which you deeply desire, is to be completely released and throw all there is of yourself into your job or any project in which you are engaged. In other words, whatever you are doing, give it all you’ve got.

A famous Canadian athletic coach, Ace Percival, says that most people, athletes as well as non-athletes, are “holdouts,” that is to say, they are always keeping something in reserve. They do not invest themselves 100 percent in competition. Because of that fact, they never achieve the highest of which they are capable.

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking

The best moments in our lives

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his won record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person, there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expend ourselves.

Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmers muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue – yet these could have the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life –that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow