The Ultimate Guide to Achieving Peak Performance in Anything
Overview: This in-depth guide explains the science of peak performance in any activities and provides proven methods for accessing your potential.
There’s an indescribable joy in peak performance, at performing at one’s best.
The ultimate rewards of peak performance are found in breaking through to a higher level of development in oneself.
These breakthroughs bring a sense of freedom. Internal resistance falls away, and often, our sense of self with it. Absorbed in the task at hand, we access more of our innate potential.
We can pursue peak performance in whatever field interests us: sports, business, music, arts, negotiation, selling, mathematics, philosophy, writing, just to name a few.
But consistent peak performance eludes most of us. Peaking is the exception, not the rule.
In this week’s guide, we will explore the science of peak performance to discover ways to access this state with greater consistency.
Table of Contents
- The Anatomy of Peak Performance
- The Key to Cultivating Talent
- The Art of Deep Practice
- Deep Practice Strengthens the Brain
- The Inner Game of Peak Performance
- The Battle With Our Inner Saboteur
- Why We Fail to Perform at Our Best
- A Formula for Performance
- The Science of Flow
- Realizing Unconscious Competence
- Peak Experience and Self-Actualization
- Three Elements for Focus Necessary for Optimal Performance
- How to Silence the Inner Critic for Peak Performance
- The Power of Attention
- How to Hack Peak Performance
The Anatomy of Peak Performance
There are two key components for peak performance:
- Your talent or ability and
- Your internal framework or mental state.
All available research on talent and learning suggests we’re not born with talent. We cultivate talent through deliberate, deep practice.
The Key to Cultivating Talent
Let’s say you want to improve your skills in tennis. You have a strong forehand, but a weak backhand. Your overall performance will increase by strengthening your backhand.
To accomplish this, you need to embrace the discomfort, focusing attention and effort on your backhand. It’s awkward at first. But by staying conscious of your movements as you strike the ball with your backhand, you get feedback.
- How you feel when you swing the racket and contact the ball, and
- Where the ball lands on the court.
And perhaps you get additional feedback and suggestions from a coach.
If you pay attention to this feedback, adjusting your performance through repetition, you improve.
The Art of Deep Practice
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explains:
Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.
The key to improving your talent is knowing where you want to improve and then breaking the technique down into smaller chunks.
For example, before you learn to transition between chords on a guitar, you first practice strumming and hitting your chords cleanly. Learning these skills take deep practice.
At first, the tips of your fingers are soft, the muscles in your fingers are weak, and your fingers lack the dexterity to maintain the proper positions on the guitar’s frets.
As Coyle wrote, you start in a dark, unfamiliar room.
Deep Practice Strengthens the Brain
Through deep practice, our brains grow myelin, a kind of insulation between neurons that reinforces neural connections.
The more myelin you have, the more automatic your response becomes. With practice, your mental map brightens the room.
Learning anything takes us through four stages:
- Unconscious incompetence
- Conscious incompetence
- Conscious competence
- Unconscious competence
Myelin gets stronger between the third and fourth stage.
For mastery and peak performance, our goal is to realize unconscious competence. Here, we can perform a task well without effort or concentration.
The Inner Game of Peak Performance
But talent is only part of the story. Many talented people rarely experience peak performance. They fail to realize their innate potential.
Sadly, this is the case for most of us. Why? Because achieving peak performance requires mastering the inner game.
Timothy Gallwey was a nationally ranked tennis player and the captain of his Harvard University team in the 1960s.
Then, he went to India and met a guru who taught him meditation techniques. Gallwey noticed how these methods increased his concentration and improved his game.
These books were revolutionary. Instead of focusing on external techniques, they highlighted the athlete’s internal state.
As an expert tennis coach, Gallwey realized that if he could help a player remove or reduce the mental obstacles to their performance, an unexpected natural ability flows with little need for technical input.
Inside each and every one of us is one true, authentic swing. Something we was born with, that’s ours and ours alone. Something can’t be taught to you or learned. Something that’s got to be remembered.
Over time, the world can rob us of that swing and [it gets] buried inside us under all our woulda’s and coulda’s and shoulda’s. Some folk even forget what their swing was like.
Bagger Vance plays the role of our Divine inner coach. In this scene from Robert Redford’s version of the story, watch how Bagger Vance helps Junuh get out of his own way.
The Battle With Our Inner Saboteur
So if we’re open to the idea we have a natural talent—an inborn, authentic swing in whatever field that interests us—why do most of us rarely experience it?
The answer is because we get hijacked by our inner saboteur.
If we observe our minds, there’s a constant internal dialogue between multiple voices or parts.
In his Inner Game series, Gallwey distinguishes two selves: Self 1 and Self 2.
Self 1 is the voice that commands and criticizes.
Self 2 stays quiet and does the actions.
Self 1 is the brain (prefrontal cortex). Self 1 instructs.
Self 2 is the subconscious mind or body. Self 2 acts.
When we watch this inner dialogue between Self 1 and Self 2, we observe several things:
- Self 1 is very bossy, critical, and unfriendly.
- The conversation is one-sided; Self 2 doesn’t say much.
- There’s little trust between these two selves.
Even though Self 2 does the work, Self 1 often intervenes and tries to take control.
Why We Fail to Perform at Our Best
Put simply, when Self 1 tries to dominate Self 2, we tense up and make mistakes.
Self 2 is our Center. It’s intuitive; it knows what to do. Self 1 only knows about what to do.
Self 1 is our personality, or what the Taoists call the acquired mind. This acquired mind is conditioned by our environment, by anyone that’s ever judged us.
First, someone judges us (usually our parents, teachers, and peers), and then an inner judge or inner critic is born in us.
And so Self 1, when in control, hijacks our performance in anything we do.
Imagine having someone stand next to you as you write, play music, or compete in sports that constantly tells you why you’ll fail, what you’re doing wrong, and why you can’t do it right.
It’s like being a comedian with a heckler sitting in the front row.
Well, that’s what happens most of the time internally for the majority of us.
When Self 1 doesn’t trust Self 2, we get tripped up by a myriad of interferences.
A Formula for Performance
Gallwey offers a simple formula:
Performance = Potential – Interference
When Self 1 doesn’t intervene, we can enter a state of flow and become immersed in whatever we are doing.
The Science of Flow
You’re heard the term “being in the zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has studied peak performers throughout his career, popularizing what he calls flow.
Flow is a mental state where an individual is absorbed in his performance with an energized focus, engagement, and enjoyment in the activity.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi outlines seven elements or conditions for flow:
- A challenging activity that requires skill. Too little challenge leads to boredom. Too much challenge brings anxiety. Enjoyment occurs in the sweet spot between the two.
- The merging of action and awareness. When all of our internal resources are engaged, there’s no psychic energy left for Self 1 to engage in counter-productive dialogue. Instead, a person becomes absorbed with full awareness in the activity itself.
- Clear goals and feedback. The more awareness we bring to an activity, the more feedback we receive both internally and externally. Goals or a clear vision gives us a personal sense of what peak performance looks like in advance.
- Concentration on the task at hand. All distraction falls away. Immersed in an enjoyable activity, the mind (Self 1) has no space for irrelevant information (like rumination).
- The paradox of control. Self 1 clings to wanting control, which creates tension. When we’re in a flow state, we experience a sense of being in control while not clinging to it. The desire or worry about control falls away.
- The loss of self-consciousness. The more we cling to our self-concepts and self-identity, the more we inhibit flow. Without interference from Self 1, we merge with the activity itself. We find our “authentic swing.”
- The transformation of time. One common theme in flow states and other altered states of consciousness is that one’s perception of time changes. Freedom from the “tyranny of time” adds to the enjoyment of our activities.
This flow state is another way of describing unconscious competence.
Realizing Unconscious Competence
In Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Csikszentmihalyi writes:
In the flow state, action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which he is in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future.
I recall the process of learning how to type in high school.
At first, the process was awkward. You have to be aware of your finger positions:
Then, you learn how to shift your fingers up and down from those positions, returning to their starting point.
Q and Z were particularly tricky. Reaching up to the numbers seemed unfathomable. But when you develop the motor skills to type fluidly you achieve conscious competence.
Still, you don’t trust yourself, shifting your eyes back and forth from the keyboard to computer. (Back then, it was a word-processing keyboard, not a computer.)
The teacher assesses your typing proficiency by two factors: speed (words per minute) and accuracy (how many mistakes you make).
I typed slower when I looked at the keyboard, but I was more accurate. My typing speed increased when I gazed at the page of words I was typing.
But true typing speed didn’t come until I trusted myself. I was typing about 60 words per minute on average with Self 1 still engaged.
When I trusted my fingers—essentially letting go and trusting Self 2—my speed increased to over 90 words per minute.
Self 1 was interfering with my performance. To Self 1, mistakes are unacceptable. With Self 2 doing the typing, my speed increased by 30 percent.
I might have made a few more mistakes at this higher speed, but I attribute those errors to Self 1 injecting comments like, “Wow, look at how fast your typing,” and “You’re doing great. Keep up the good work.”
Comments from Self 1 interfere with our performance.
Peak Experience and Self-Actualization
Peak performers in every field enter flow states often. Abraham Maslow called these flow states peak experiences.
In his research, Maslow found that although anyone (including children) can have a peak experience, self-actualizing individuals have these heighten experiences more frequently.
Maslow’s findings suggest self-actualizing individuals are those people who have, consciously or not, discovered ways of silencing Self 1 when they’re doing what they love to do. They have learned how to get out of their own way.
And these peak experiences, Maslow believed, are important for humanity. Instead of seeing peak performance as something relegated to a gifted few, Maslow believed, these experiences are part of our biological destiny.
In Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, Maslow writes:
Man has a higher and transcendent nature, and this is part of his essence, i.e., his biological nature as a member of a species which has evolved.
Three Elements for Focus Necessary for Optimal Performance
The key to peak performance is to maintain attention and focus on whatever we’re doing. Attention is critical for learning and proficiency in anything.
Distraction inhibits attention. While certain distractions are external (like noises, other people, etc.), most of what disrupts our attention is internal, or what Gallwey calls self-interference.
Gallwey highlights three factors that enable us to focus (stay in Self 2):
Awareness: Focus of attention on a particular task.
Choice: Our desires govern what we focus on. In The Inner Game of Work, Gallwey writes,
Desire drives focus. Our choice is over which desires to nourish and which to starve. Nourishing the desires of Self 2 builds stability and leads toward self-fulfillment. The nurturing of Self 1 desires strengthens self-interference and leads to inner conflict and distraction.
Trust: We can focus when we let go of mental control. When Self 1 is in command, it provides instructions on what to do or poses questions that lead to doubt. Again from Gallwey:
Doubt leads to confusion and to paralysis of action. When you are focused, you are conscious of your purpose, fully engaged in the present, and the voice of Self 1 is not heard.
How to Silence the Inner Critic for Peak Performance
How do you usually try to focus or improve your performance?
If you’re like me, you may try to force your inner critic into submission or just try harder.
In a sense, we try to fight with Self 1. It doesn’t work. What we resist grows stronger. And so resisting the impulses of Self 1 only makes the voice of Self 1 stronger and louder.
So what’s the alternative?
Gallwey suggests choosing Self 2—acknowledge its desire and allow it to express itself. He observes:
Once I can acknowledge Self 2, I can reach for it and give it whatever attention I have at my disposal. By that conscious choice I am ignoring the voices of self-interference. A little attention is withdrawn from Self 1, diminishing its influence, and I simultaneously gain greater access to the resources of Self 2.
Makes sense, right? But how do we choose Self 2? The first step is always to increase self-awareness.
We learn to feel the difference between the compulsive forces of Self 1 and Self 2’s natural drives. From Gallwey:
Self 1 desire feels as if I’m being driven by a tight hand at the wheel, Self 2 as if I’m doing the driving with a relaxed but firm grip. Self 2 is naturally joyous in its expression of its excellence; Self 1 is trying to prove itself or earn something it often doesn’t think it really deserves.
The Power of Attention
Perhaps you’re noticing a theme in many of my guides: self-awareness and the skill of attention.
Whether it’s owning your shadow, strengthening self-leadership, changing your mindset, or integrating your body-mind, the skill of directing attention inward is key. The same goes for achieving peak performance in any activity.
There is no general skill more important to learning and the achievement of excellence than focus of attention. Like most skills, focus requires practice and conscious effort. Unlike most skills, though, it can be practiced during any and every activity—mental or physical.
With greater attention and focus, we then strengthen the muscles of conscious choice. We choose the body’s instinctual drives (Self 2) while weakening the tendencies of our mental chatter (Self 1).
How to Hack Peak Performance
There are things you can do to quiet Self 1’s interference. Remember Self 1 is the brain; Self 2 is the body. Self 1 lowers our performance because it’s usually in the driver’s seat.
In essence, our minds impede optimal performance.
When Bagger Vance said you have to get out of your own way and let your swing find you, this translates to: get out of your mind and into your body. This is the key to achieving peak performance in virtually any activity—even business.
So it follows: to silence Self 1, get rooted in your body first.
Here are four guides to help you get rooted in your body:
Do these activities to set the conditions for peak performance. Master these methods. Use them before learning, training, or engaging in any activity that’s meaningful to you.
You’ll upgrade your abilities in ways you can’t imagine.