Approximate reading time: 2.8 mins
“I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.” Andre Agassi’s belated and shocking admission explodes the myth that peak performers only achieve their results because they love what they do.
Plenty of other stars have publicly confessed to disliking, rather than loving their chosen calling. Yet that did not stop them reaching for peak performance, and in many cases achieving it. Marlon Brandon famously hated acting. British cyclists Chris Boardman, the former Olympic pursuit champion, liked the winning, not the cycling itself. He literally had to drive himself to win. Nothing then of that easy, mind-relaxed state of affairs so often portraying peak performance!
The idea that peak performance stems from loving what you do was certainly the assumption of the work of the pioneer of peak performance research Charles Garfield. His 1986 book of the same name drew on extensive contact with peak performers. It was insightful, helpful but in at least one respect, wrong. Namely the idea that you must love what you do to excel at it.
In making sense of the maelstrom now comprising the field of talent management, one issue stands out as being head and shoulders more important than the complicated software programmes and systems that purport to deliver talent management for companies. That issue is outstanding performance.
How do managers and leaders “talent manage”, so their people perform not just well or competently, but beyond. That is, how do you go about producing exceptional performance, and not just from your talented elite, but from everyone in the organisation?
Nor am I talking about permanent peak performance, which is something of an oxymoron. By definition, a peak is just that, the summit, an aspiration towards which people attempt to travel and only sometimes arrive there. And once there it would be utterly unreasonable to expect them to stay there, permanently.
Peak performance is therefore a transitory state of affairs. Even so, talent managers need to know how to help their people aspire to it. Along the way they need to know some of the myths associated with peak performance, and to avoid making mistakes that merely make getting to the peak even harder.
Therefore, while talent managers need to understand peak performance and how to encourage it, they also must learn to be less precious about it. What is more valuable to their organisation than transitory and hard to repeat peak performance is sustained high-level performance.
Achieving sustained high levels of performance can be even harder than triggering absolute peak performance. The latter usually has the merit of being a single-minded goal, narrow and explicit. You either get there or you don’t.
In contrast, sustained high levels of performance are both harder to define but equally challenging in their demands, on both the talent manager and those performing.
This challenge is writ large in the theatre, where producers and directors must maintain high standards of an award winning show, month after month, even year after year. How do they do it?
What they do is accept that while occasionally the actors may hit an absolute peak, what really matters is that they deliver something outstanding every night. This can only happen by approaching each event as if it is the first, not the ninety third. It means introducing new levels of risk, creativity and fresh thinking that must be constantly renewed.
This is why the best long-running shows continue with rehearsals, long after every actor knows his or her part inside out and backwards. This is why producers change the performers regularly, even though they are neither exhausted nor performing badly. It’s also why actors themselves move on despite their continuing success in a part.
Five Myths About Peak Performance
1) To reach peak performance you must love what you do
2) Peak performance can be sustained for long periods
3) Better to praise team performance than an individual hitting peak performance
4) Peak performance is about skills rather than a state of mind
5) Peak performers always achieve a state of mental relaxation and perform without “thinking.”