Flex Your Excellence by Following this High Performance Regimen
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Flex Your Excellence by Following this High Performance Regimen

Book Bites Career Habits & Productivity
Flex Your Excellence by Following this High Performance Regimen

Dr. Eric Potterat has a 30-year career as a clinical and performance psychologist. He has worked with thousands of top performers: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, top business leaders, medical professionals, and a decade spent as a psychologist for the Navy SEALs. He was notably the performance psychologist on teams that have won the FIFA World Cup and MLB World Series.

Alan Eagle is an author and executive communications coach who helps leaders and companies tell their stories. For instance, he spent 16 years at Google, helping executives craft their company narrative.

Below, co-authors Eric and Alan share five key insights from their new book, Learned Excellence: Mental Disciplines for Leading and Winning from the World’s Top Performers. Listen to the audio version—read by Eric and Alan—in the Next Big Idea App.

Learned Excellence Eric Potterat Alan Eagle Next Big Idea Club

1. Know yourself.

The very best performers in the world aren’t born that way. They may have innate and superior physical and intellectual traits, but that’s not what makes them champions. The difference between good and great isn’t physical. It is entirely mental. The world’s best performers learn excellence. If they can do it, so can everyone else.

American figure skater Nathan Chen was the heavy favorite to win the gold medal in the 2018 Winter Olympics, but he faltered in the short program and came away with a fifth place finish. Nathan was too worried about what other people were saying and thinking about him. He forgot why he was there.

The best performers learn to focus on their identity while not worrying about their reputation. They pay attention and draw strength from who they are and mostly don’t care about what others think about them.

Focusing on identity is a trait we are born with. Babies and toddlers throw fits without much regard for what such behavior does to their reputation. But as we grow older, we start caring about reputation very much. We become risk averse and less confident as that nagging “what will others think” voice in the head won’t shut up.

“When you stay true to your identity, reputation takes care of itself.”

To move away from reputation and focus on identity, you need to know what that identity is. Who are you? What do you care about and stand for? To understand your identity, create a values credo. Notice and write down the things you care about, the identity markers that define you. What brings you energy and joy? What are your core characteristics and attributes?

Start with an expansive list, then take a few weeks to think deeply and cull it to its most essential elements. This is your values credo. Commit it to memory and refer to it whenever you have to make an important decision or when you find yourself worrying about your reputation. This ensures you are acting for yourself, not others.

When you stay true to your identity, reputation takes care of itself. Nathan Chen returned to the Winter Olympics in 2022 armed with his values credo. When he started feeling anxious about what the press, spectators, and judges were thinking, he successfully re-directed those thoughts to remind himself why he was there: he loved skating! It was fun! Buoyed by his credo, and a sense of joy, Nathan stayed true to himself and blew the competition away.

2. Stay in the circle.

You hear a lot about the importance of mindset. There is a growth mindset, a grit mindset, and a warrior mindset, but how do you practice mindset?

Carli Lloyd is one of the best soccer players the U.S. has ever produced: a two-time World Cup and Olympic gold medal winner. But in the 2011 World Cup final against Japan, Carli’s missed penalty kick contributed to her team’s defeat. Carli was devastated for weeks after that.

The way to practice a chosen mindset is to control what you can control and ignore everything else. The only things you control are your attitude, effort, and behavior. Everything else is beyond you. For example, you can’t control whether or not it’s going to rain, but you can control whether you bring an umbrella. Now, imagine the controllables are in a circle with you, and all the other stuff is outside the circle. The umbrella is in the circle; the rain is not. Practicing mindset is all about staying in the circle, focusing on the things you can control: attitude, effort, and behavior.

Attitude is often manifested via self-talk. As you encounter the normal minor challenges and setbacks throughout the day, notice what you say to yourself. When you talk to yourself, are you a critic or a coach? When your negative self-talk kicks in, interrupt and change it. Speak the attitude you want to see in yourself into existence.

Effort is pretty simple. Whenever you can, choose effort. The best performers always do.

Finally, behavior. The best performers refine, practice, and perfect their behavior. They visualize their performance over and over, and often have some sort of pre-performance routine—a mantra they repeat or a song they play—that gets them in the right mindset.

After the 2011 World Cup, Carli Lloyd stayed in her circle. She took on an attitude of confidence, telling herself that she would never miss another penalty kick in the World Cup. She refined her technique and practiced it over and over. In the 2015 World Cup, she nailed two penalty kicks, and the U.S. won.

3. Change your role, change your mindset.

One morning, when I was the lead psychologist for the Navy SEALs, one of my clients, a SEAL sniper Chief, came into my office with an issue. He had recently returned from a six-month, highly active deployment and was having challenges with his son. The boy kept spilling his milk at dinner, and the SEAL, whose day job requires near perfection, was not handling it well. After a third night of him yelling at his son, his wife demanded that he see me.

Too many people become what they do. They take their work mindset home. The problem is that most people have different roles in their lives. They have jobs, but also a family, community, and friend groups. Each of these roles requires a different mindset for success. The work mindset may be great for work but not so great for these other roles.

“Pick three to five words that define each mindset for each role.”

To be excellent in each of your roles, you need to define the best mindset for that role and then learn how to transition between mindsets when you transition between roles. Think of a dimmer switch on a light. When you leave one role and transition to another, like coming home from work, you need to turn the dimmer switch down on your work mindset while raising it on your home mindset.

Pick three to five words that define each mindset for each role. For example, at work, you may want your mindset to be competitive, relentless, and gritty. But at home, as a parent, you may want to be empathetic, patient, and playful. Repeat those characteristics to yourself as part of a transition routine.

I asked the Navy SEAL Chief if he brushed his teeth that morning. He said yes. I asked if he was going to brush them tonight. Again, he said yes. So, I told him that starting tonight, while brushing his teeth, to look into the mirror and say to himself, out loud, “I’m not at training. I’m not deployed. My son is three years old today and he is going to spill his milk today. Probably twice.” Repeat this mantra every time he brushes his teeth at home.

The SEAL Chief agreed. The next morning, he called to let me know that his son had tipped his glass over again the previous evening, but he had remained calm. A week later, he dropped by my office to tell me that the milk spilling had stopped completely.

4. Black box it.

Every performer makes mistakes, be that a baseball player who makes an error or a guy on a date who spills his wine. When the mistake happens, the performer is instantly presented with a critical fork in the road.

In one direction, the mistake distracts the performer from the task and mission at hand. They think about the mistake. This triggers the human stress response. Breathing, heart rate, and perspiration increase, clear, rational thought shuts down, and all you want to do is fight, flee, or freeze. This is not the path to excellence.

The best performers choose the other path. They don’t avoid mistakes, but they avoid letting those mistakes turn into more mistakes. Rather than be distracted when things go off-track, elite performers learn to quickly forget about the mistake and refocus on the task at hand. The psychological term for this is compartmentalization. The only reason a person who just made a mistake is more likely to make another mistake is if they think about the mistake.

“The best performers use mistakes to their advantage.”

To not think about a mistake you just made, create a metaphorical black box in your mind (literally picture it) and stuff the mistake in the box. Tell yourself, I’m not going to think about that now; I’ll worry about it later. When you lock away the mistake, you stop the human stress response in its tracks. You can quickly shift focus back to the mission: winning the game, getting the second date.

After the event is over, open the box and review what happened. Ensure you, your teammates, and observers are in a safe emotional space and distance from the performance. Then, assess what happened and why. What can you learn? Were these flukes, or can you improve your process?

The best performers use mistakes to their advantage by not getting sidetracked in the moment, and later learning how to improve from their errors.

5. Force balance.

Imagine a beach house built on pillars. It will always be unstable if it’s built on just one or two pillars. If one pillar gets compromised, the entire structure can collapse. But if the house has a solid foundation of five or six pillars, it’s going to be rock-solid even if a couple of pillars are damaged. Life is filled with waves of adversity, so a balanced foundation is key.

Every life has multiple pillars: work, relationships, health, hobbies, spirituality, and legacy. To achieve excellence, force a balance between these pillars. If all you have is your job, you better knock it out of the park because you have nothing else going on. When adversity happens, balance helps you stay grounded.

Imbalance can also be a problem when major transitions happen. Many top performers across every field find it challenging to retire from their careers because they have invested so little in the other pillars of life.

The question of how much balance to force depends on where you are in life. Many top performers are engrossed in their careers at the same time they may be starting or raising a family, so those two aspects of life will suck up all their time and attention. Finding any time or energy for other aspects of life is daunting at this stage. This is fine; it’s ok not to be 100 percent balanced at any given moment. But be aware of the imbalance, make it intentional, and have a plan to address it when circumstances change. The best performers figure out a way. For instance, create a space on your calendar for a vacation and carve out time in that vacation for other pillars of life, such as health, hobbies, or spirituality.

To listen to the audio version read by co-authors Eric Potterat and Alan Eagle, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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