This article introduces the practices for generating and sustaining high performance for yourself, your teams, and your organization. This roadmap (aka model) is most useful when you, yourself, and your team, take a trip with it to discover and embody the lessons that only the experience can teach. Though stimulating, an intellectual grasp of the model will make little to no difference. This is NOT an invitation to learn, it’s an invitation to practice. So, walk with me as I share my most recent trip via this roadmap.
Stage 1: I Can’t
January 30, 2021, day 15 of 42 of the six-week Whole Life Challenge, a health and well-being game that I play four times a year. My scheduled workout for that day was a five-mile run. It was cold, rainy, and windy. The little voice in my head said: “No running today. It’s too hard. I could use the treadmill downstairs, but 5 miles on the treadmill is just too boring.” It went on and on. Thirty minutes later, I had finally gotten dressed. I hesitantly stepped outside, as a wind gust sprayed me with a cold mist and shoved me right back indoors. Hoping that my wife would assign me an emergency honey-do task, I walked slowly by on my way to the treadmill downstairs. Ten minutes later, I stepped on the treadmill, turned it on, adjusted the settings, and took my first stride.
When you set goals, unless they are small goals, the first thing that confronts you is the difference between the perceived difficulty and the objective difficulty of accomplishing those goals. Consider that the objective requirements of executing on goals are often less important than the interpretations that you have of these requirements. Perhaps your performance is less related to the objective difficulty rather than to the subjective difficulty as with my example.
Research suggests that perceived difficulty is dependent on the quantity of resources, or effort, that was invested to reach a given level of performance. At the same time, the perceived difficulty is precisely what stops you from making that first investment and taking the next feasible action toward the achievement of your desired goals. High performers are keenly aware of this tension between perceived difficulty and action and are fanatical about the next feasible action.
Practice 1: Observe That Perceived Difficulty ≠ Objective Difficulty
It’s worth stating the obvious because at the onset of any worthwhile endeavor, it’s true for me and you that Perceived Difficulty IS HIGH and EQUAL TO Objective Difficulty, and who we are for ourselves is I Can’t.
For human beings, the impact of this innate misconception ranges from paralysis, to endless study and preparation, and then to procrastination. The prevailing mood is it’s too hard. I can’t because I don’t have the knowledge. I can’t because I don’t have the resources. I can’t because I don’t have the experience. I can’t because it’s never been done it before. All of those “I can’ts” is a function of perceived difficulty, not the objective requirements of any tasks associated with moving our goals forward.
The essence of this practice is the distinction between perceived difficulty and objective difficulty. This distinction awakens you to the axiom: Nothing is ever as difficult as it seems. It makes your first step possible. Your first step paves the way for the next feasible action.
Practice 2: Take the Next Feasible Action
Nothing budges until you take the next feasible action. The next feasible action is the action you can take with what you already have. What you already have is your level of knowledge, your resources, (i.e., money, manpower, etc.), your experiences, your network. All of these, you already have. Whatever it is that you already have right now can support the next feasible action for you. You don’t need anything else to take the next feasible action. The emphasis is here on the word feasible. It’s not the right action. It’s not the correct action. It’s not the action that’s going to get you to win. It is just the next feasible action that is consistent with moving you in the direction of the accomplishment of your goal.
The next feasible action is your ticket out of the I Can’t stage of the Roadmap to High Performance. Beyond being the proof that you can be in action, it starts to exert downward pressure on perceived difficulty.
Stage 2: I Won’t
Five minutes into the run, the heart rate monitor registered 124 beats per minute, barely knocking on the zone 3 threshold for my age. It felt like my lungs were going to explode. Any minute now my legs will give out, I’ll fall, and the running belt will rub half of my face off. The little voice in my head said: “Stop before you get hurt. Alright, run slower and stop after 3 miles.” Huffing and puffing I reached for the controls and ramped down to a slower pace. Five agonizing minutes later, the treadmill’s android voice announced that I had ran one mile.
Practice 3: Let the Next Feasible Action Teach You
Along the way, “I Can’t” quietly gives way to “I Won’t”. Given that the level of perceived difficulty is still relatively high, there is this kind of unwillingness that sets in. This stage on the roadmap is seemingly impassable. Until once again, you take the next feasible action.
There’s something magical about taking the next feasible action. It reveals the new information you need, additional resources you need to acquire, relationships you need to create and nurture, the structures, processes and systems you need to put in place. It equips you with what you need to have to take the next feasible action. In fact, it is your official guide on the roadmap.
Consider that the road to high performance is paved with a string of next feasible actions. As the frequency of your actions increases over time, the perceived difficulty of taking the next feasible action plummets. You find yourself being someone who is beginning to enjoy practicing and is continually in action.
Stage 3: I Am
Two and a half miles into the run, roughly 25 minutes since my first stride. My lungs were no longer burning. I started to believe that my legs would carry me through the distance. The noise in my head subsided. I could now apply the lessons from the last 4,872 strides. I adjusted my posture, steadied my breathing, and settled into an almost hypnotic rhythm. One stride after another, one next feasible action after another, “I Won’t” gave way to “I Am”. The little voice in my head euphorically exclaimed: “I am doing it!”
Practice 4: Take the Next Feasible Action For Its Own Sake
The old adage “Keep Your Eye on The Prize,” though motivating, isn’t always empowering. Keeping your head in the game requires being in the moment. Having your attention on the outcome, (i.e., growing revenues, increasing profits, getting promoted, closing the sale, winning the contract, finding a mate, finishing the race, etc.), will cause you to lose focus quickly. Why? Because you can’t control all of the variables. There are too many. The only thing you can control is what you’re doing in that moment, the next feasible action.
Taking the next feasible action makes you stronger and more confident, especially in controlling your life and claiming your rights to taking the next feasible action. The results you get are not why you take the next feasible action. They are just the results you get.
Research confirms the importance of having the factors impacting your performance under your control. When you assess possible failure to be related to a skill deficit or a lack of effort, (i.e., factors that you control and can improve), you will persist and take the next feasible action. Conversely, when you assess possible failure to be related to external factors that are out of your control, (i.e., chance, the economy, industry trends, superior’s decision, competition’s strength, etc.), you will likely delay or abort the next feasible action.
The crux of this practice is “Keep Your Eye On The Next Feasible Action.” Want to be a high performer? Be fanatical about the next feasible action.
The Eye of The Needle
The treadmill registered and celebrated 5 miles with its electronic chime. I celebrated with the realization that I had more left in the tank. I had reached the eye of the needle, that point on the roadmap to high performance where perceived difficulty matches objective difficulty. At this juncture, I was not the proverbial camel. Perhaps you’re not either. What was at once intuitive and logical for me, was to stop, celebrate with pizza and beer, and maybe repeat the performance a month later. The little voice in my head said jokingly: “This is a crazy idea. Let’s do it anyway.” I reached up, raised the incline to level 4, increased the speed by 2 clicks, and cruised for another 0.41 miles. I crossed through the eye of the needle.
Practice 5: Always Go Through the Eye of the Needle
The home of high performers and high-performing teams lie beyond the eye of the needle. Those who choose not to go through assume they’ve reached the end of the roadmap. They live to repeat the stimulating yet unfulfilling cycle characterized by overcoming their resignation in Stage 1, justifying their resistance and the draining starts and stops in Stage 2, to celebrating their heroic perseverance through Stage 3, just as they reach the eye of the needle and stop.
Going through the eye of the needle is a simple choice, the choice to take the next feasible action.
Stage 4: The Seat of High Performance
Beyond the eye of the needle lies the expanse of Stage 4 where high performers give themselves the freedom to:
- Learn it and go beyond the constraints of what they already know. In this realm, learning is no longer about accumulating knowledge. It’s about discoveries, innovations, and breakthroughs. New companies, new products and services, real competitive advantage, new processes and systems, sixty-year-old grandfathers with six packs, Olympic champions, leaders from all walks of life are born here.
- Master it and experience the joy of dissecting every word, every move, every nuance, every fold for no reason at all. In this realm, time stands still and there is no distinction between the end goal and the next feasible action. The next feasible action is a microcosm of the end goal. It is the thing itself. A new relationship to self is born and nurtured here.
- Share it and taste the immortal nature of unconditional contribution. In this realm, one’s existence is all about causing others to travel through the roadmap to high performance and reach this point. A new relationship to life, the world and others is born and nurtured here.
A Journey with No End and No Beginning
Don’t let the model fool you. There is nothing linear about the roadmap to high performance. In one of my businesses, I have gone through the eye of the needle and I am crawling my way up the learning curve. In another, I find myself wanting to celebrate my perseverance through Stage 3 and stop. In some areas of my life, I am in Stage 1. In others, I am in Stage 2.
Practice 6: Give Yourself the Freedom to Be Wherever You Are
Keep practicing and enjoy the journey.