Those Damned Expectations

Peak performance is about paradox. Be intense and stay relaxed at the same time. Play with bravado and humility simultaneously. Be fully trained nearly beyond the bounds of health – and fully rested too.

The bigger picture of peak performance is the same. When we commit to big goals, we can be seduced by the expectations that go with them. We can lose track of the work needed to get there and lose sight of our progress. Both of these diminish our potential. Today, we’ll talk about setting aside expectations and keeping connected to progress.

PERSPECTIVE FOR LONG-TERM DOMINANCE

Perspective makes the experience of pursuing goals more effective and rewarding.

While it’s useful to attack our huge goals and aspire to greater achievement it’s also important to keep things in perspective and to celebrate successes. Let’s say your huge goal is dominance. You want to be the number one company or the number one athlete or have the greatest social impact of any activist in history. If our expectation is achieving that at the next milestone, we are setting ourselves up for frustration. Becoming the Dominant One can feel like trudging forward, but there is a more rewarding, effective road.

A problem with enormous goals like dominance is that they are always in the future until they aren’t. Sometimes we only see dominance in retrospect.

In the meantime, it can be a pretty bleak road where we only see disappointment at not meeting our expectations. Even the victories seem smaller than we want.

But let’s step back for some perspective. What seems disappointing today might have been an unimaginable performance five years ago. Most of the time we don’t see that. Our progress is entangled with end goals and ego. Expectations. We’ve lost sight of how wonderfully we are moving forward, and with that we’ve lost an opportunity to be even more dominant.

CONFIDENCE

Seeing progress gives us access to confidence. When we are bound by expectations, our self-talk might sound like “why is it never good enough?!?!?!” or “of course! Another mistake that puts me behind everyone else.

Freeing ourself from expectations with a bit of perspective, we are free to say “that’s not the level I’m ultimately going for, but it’s so much better than last time.” We give ourselves credit for progress, but there’s something else available. One of the key factors in clutch, dominant performance is confidence or bravado. By giving ourselves credit, we also give ourselves permission to own a higher level of bravado.

Team leaders take note. If your folks have just hit their number or delivered on a deadline, give ample time for celebration. Talking about the bigger goals too soon spoils the fun and prevents the team from locking in their well-earned bravado. It’s also possible that your newly confident team might have bigger, better ideas for what’s possible next.

TINKERING TO OPTIMIZE

Seeing progress also lets us evaluate and see new opportunities. We’ve gained bravado. Now we get to add a dose of humility to shake things up.

True dominance requires tinkering. It requires a paradox of complete immersion in generating momentum toward the goal AND self-awareness of what’s working and what’s not.

Sometimes we get so inside our pursuit of a goal that we lose sight of what it actually takes to succeed. We become reactive instead of strategic. We might take short cuts, sacrificing long-term success for a short-term win. In this moment, we might feel frustrated or drifting or fuzzy about how we’ll ever get where we want to go. It’s at this point that many people give up.

Not you.

By taking a step back and seeing your progress, you can access both the bravado of a champion and the humility that makes a dominant force.

Take an honest look at what’s working and make a comprehensive assessment of what’s needed next. Remember, we don’t always know everything the ultimate goal will require of us. Pausing gives us a chance to notice things like:

Are my assumptions flawed?

What are others doing that might work for me?

What are others doing that might be completely wrong for me…or even them?

How am I enjoying the experience of getting there?

Where can I cultivate a surprising dominant advantage?

We pause. We tinker. Then we do it again.

And through the tinkering, we discover opportunity.

Now go tinker!

Plateaus and Four Ways to Get Past Them

Everyone hits plateaus on the way to impossible goals, but there are things you can do to get past them more quickly: staying with the plan, changing the plan, easing up and staying one step ahead.

Why Am I Stuck On This #@*%ing Plateau?

I’ve hit a plateau. Actually I’ve hit hundreds.

We all reach a point where progress toward a impossible goal stalls or even feels like we’re moving backward. It plateaus.

If you don’t reach one, it’s a sign that you’re worthy of a bigger goal.

Plateaus can feel awful, but they can also be a beautiful waypoint. And they are an inevitable part of reaching for something extraordinary. By learning to move past them quicker, we reduce the pain and get to the finish line faster.

Four Plateau-Busting Strategies Plus 1 Essential Component

Below are four ideas for moving past a plateau. The common element to all of them is having people around you for support. Whether that’s a coach like me, a colleague, a spouse or a friend, information from external sources helps you to design your next steps and experience plateaus with less discomfort.

1. Stay With The Plan

It’s possible that you underestimated what it takes to reach your goal.

Sometimes our idea of how fast things should happen is simply wrong. Especially for those of us who have had an easy time learning new skills, we might believe the next skill should come quickly. Wrong. That’s called a fixed mindset, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

That new skill we wanted to learn in 10 repetitions might take us 100 repetitions to master. Or 1000. With a fixed mindset, those last 990 repetitions (if we do them) feel like a death march of failure.

Contrast that to the growth mindset. The growth mindset is neutral and observant. After 10 reps, the growth mindset experiences something like “Wow, we’re not making the progress we hoped for. Okay, let’s evaluate. What’s working? What’s not? Is this still the optimal plan? Cool. Let’s keep going and see how things progress.” The growth mindset is aware, it’s hopeful but not attached to a result. And it’s scientifically proven to lead to better outcomes.

Six years ago I started a quest to become one of the top players in a second sport. I had already won 14 world championships in freestyle flying disc, and I would win 2 more while taking on this new adventure. While I knew what it took to become a top player in freestyle, I didn’t have all the information on this new sport (called DDC). Fortunately, I had a great mentor who sped my progress.

And I still hit plateaus.

What I didn’t realize was that truly mastering the essential skills for DDC was going to take a lot more work than I thought. Once I came to terms with that, I not only stayed with the plan but doubled down on it. I knew my throws were not at a high enough level for the DDC I wanted to play, so I started noticing more opportunities for throwing practice. These sessions were exciting and injected new energy into my experience of DDC.

Thousands of practice throws later, I was more consistent and effective. My stress level in games went down because I could count on the muscle memory of my practices when executing plays.

2. Revise The Plan

Most of the time, our first instinct is to work harder or give up. That temptation to give up is real. It’s a heavy feeling to wonder whether we can actually get there and if it’s all worth it. When we get to this point – and we all do – it’s a symptom that we’re focusing too much on the end point and not enough on the experience of getting there.

Staying connected to a winning mindset is essential. Any victory is going to be fleeting. If the purpose is to finish a marathon or get a promotion or win a world championship, what happens once you’ve done it? There is a literal graveyard of people whose lives felt completely empty after achieving an impossible goal.

What if you could arrive at that finish line and be more of yourself, full of pride in the effort invested in the chance at victory? If we can do that, we emerge stronger with more long-term resilience.

So, the plateau. What you’ve been trying feels like it’s not working. Your performance isn’t improving. Your progress seems stalled.

For my DDC project, I had timelines for my progress and ideas of where I should finish at my next tournaments. It all seemed very obvious. And I was wrong most of the time.

I was catching up to the level of more experienced players and thought I knew what it took to get there. With every breakthrough, a new blindspot opened up between me and my goal. After feeling frustrated by underperforming over and over, I took a fresh look at the plan.

As I mentioned, I started practicing more often on my own. I also started noticing what else might work. Playing with the local club was a great learning lab, and it didn’t put me in enough top level games, so I played as many pick-up games after competitions as I could. Teaming up with elite players helped me learn to adapt and deal with more sophisticated game situations than what I was familiar with. And it started to build my reputation.

I noticed that the additional throwing practice was helping with basic technique but that the top players had resilient technique that performed in a variety of wind conditions, so I practiced in “bad” wind too and threw hundreds of incompetent shots in order to raise my level of competence.

By revising my plan often, I believe I shortened my plateaus and accelerated my progress.

3. Ease Up

This is the fun one, and it has its risks. Sometimes the best way to get past a plateau is taking a break. Most often, by taking a break, we are allowing our brain to go to work in the background integrating all our learning so it’s more ready to be used next time. During intense periods of learning and training, we sometimes don’t give our brain enough time to do its thing.

Over the past few years I’ve been learning new languages using an app called Duolingo. I’m probably one of their power users. I have a streak of more than 650 consecutive days of doing lessons. When learning new languages, I have the visceral experience of how we reprogram our brain when we master new skills. There are very few things as basic as the words we use to communicate. Changing that code sometimes feels like I’m twisting my mind. I go through cycles of immersing myself in Duolingo’s lessons and easing up to a minimum level. What I’ve noticed is that my brain starts to pick up new patterns after easing up. I give my brain time to catch up and lock the learning in, and I get more out of the next lessons.

For my DDC project, I’ve found the best results easing up after a competition. During the competition, I’m learning but my brain needs needs more time to let it all soak in. Giving myself some time after a competition opens the door for improvements. Something that was a struggle before is more natural. Or, strategic opportunities become more obvious. It changes every time.

Here is the risk: there is a fine line across easing up, being lazy and giving up.

When you decide easing up is your strategy, monitor whether it’s actually a strategy or whether you are avoiding doing the work. Monitor your gut. Is easing up just a sneaky way of quitting? Keep connected to the motivations for your goal and keep designing the experience you want to create for your life as you pursue it.

4. Stay One Step Ahead

Most of the time, we realize we’ve plateau’d while we’re already struggling. What if we could be one step ahead, predicting the plateau and solving it before it sets in?

Going back to my quest to learn DDC, what if I had been in deeper communication with my mentor about what it takes to get to the top? I had such absolute trust that my approach was much closer to “he’ll reveal what’s next when the time is right,” but what if I had been in conversation about what to expect, what to be doing differently.

It’s possible that I could have skipped or shortened a plateau or two. It’s also possible that I wasn’t ready to hear the complete plan. You know how when rereading a book, we see things we never noticed during the first read? If I read a book six years ago about becoming a better DDC player, I might have seen some lessons but not really noticed them, not known how they were actionable. On rereading, previously invisible lessons would jump out as A HA! moments.

To stay ahead of plateaus, we need to gather information and feedback and hope we notice the important lessons in time to speed us past a plateau and toward the finish line.

Ready To Jump To Your Next Plateau?

Which strategy do you need now? It may take some exploration.

Let’s be clear. Whichever strategy you choose, it leads to another plateau.

Sound depressing? It doesn’t have to be. As we navigate these plateaus, leaping from one to the next, what keeps it beautiful is being in the moment. By staying connected to why we are taking on the impossible, we can shape our experience as we stay in the process. We can see plateaus as inspirational evidence that things are working. And as an opportunity to optimize our plan.

As for me, as I write this I have made three finals at major tournaments this year, including a runner-up finish at the world championships in England. I’m ready to jump to what’s next.

Trust Is Your Job

Trust

I’ve been thinking about trust recently after hearing two heartbreaking leadership stories:

If I Trust You, You’ll Cheat Me

In the first, the head of an organization’s branch sent out a message through his managers: no remote work during the holidays, even though the facility itself was essentially closed. As this message was shared, you could feel the deflation in morale across the entire branch.

Staff correctly interpreted this rule as a vote of no confidence. You’re all cheaters and I don’t trust you to get anything done. You’re just going to take vacation days and not document them. I don’t trust you unless I can see you are working. Making the situation worse, the message was phrased in a way that implied it was a worldwide rule. When word got out that other facilities were shutting down for the holidays or giving days off, it destroyed staff morale and exposed this manager’s lack of trust.

If I Trust You, I’ll Fail

In the second, a leader under pressure from her bosses turned her frustration on her team. The team had delivered a successful program a month before, except in the leader’s mind the success was due to her taking over the program halfway through planning. In her narrative, the team had let her down, and she had saved the day. She hadn’t trusted her team to deliver, so she did “all” the work herself.

She shared her perspective in surprise conversations with each team member. One described it as an ambush. Another reminded the boss that she had never even celebrated the completion of the program by thanking the team for its hard work. The boss’ response: there was nothing to thank the team for.

By getting stuck thinking of herself as the savior, she shrunk as a leader. She lost sight of the needs of her team, their talents, and their substantial work that she had simply repackaged into the final program. In situations like this, a cratering of morale isn’t the only result. They can be triggers for the disintegration of the team itself.

When trust disappears, it can cost organizations their very lives.

Being A Leader When Trust Falters

There are schools of thought that it is the employee’s job to earn trust from the manager. It’s just the opposite. It’s the manager’s job to cultivate trust.

Noticing you’re not trusting your team? As a leader, it’s your job to fix it.

Leadership means taking responsibility for the situation. And here’s a key point many leaders forget: responsibility doesn’t mean doing everyone’s work for them. If you’re doing that, you’ve surrendered responsibility. By doing it all, you’ve relieved your team of expectations and weighed yourself down with work that isn’t yours.

The boss in our second story shared that she felt like if she didn’t do all the work, she could never ensure that there would be a positive result. I empathize with the pressure she felt, and I thirst for her to see the greater possibilities of letting go of control: the wonders of using the full talents of the team, and the incredible upside of chaotically unexpected insights.

Your work is building teams and team behavior that create results. And trust.

This is the point where some team leaders are thinking “I can’t imagine ever trusting my team.” What if you did anyway? What if there is no way to actually be a compelling leader than to trust your team when you’re not sure you can?

Like our leader above. What if she set aside her perspective of “I can’t trust” and trusted her team to kick ass on the next project? What if she practiced expert management to maximize their talents? It might feel terrifying at first. There aren’t even any guarantees that the project would work out. What I know is that the team would be stronger at the end and more ready with each succeeding challenge.

Trust is always there to give, even if you don’t feel it.

That sounds hard. Yup. Sounds that way, and with practice it can feel easier. Amateur leadership is easy and ineffective. World class leadership cares enough that stepping up to “impossible” challenges is the only option.

So how do we fix things when we’ve lost trust?

Fixing Distrust

The solution comes down to courage and communication. It’s courageous leadership to hold back and not blame your team members for the situation. It’s courageous leadership to look deeply at the situation, be honest about your role and imagine what positive contribution you can make. And it’s courageous leadership to make that contribution.

More often than not, it’s going to be about communication designed to elevate the skills and leadership capacity of each member of the team. Diplomatic communication. Nonviolent communication. Some of your team members may not yet have the communication skills needed to thrive with you, and your challenge is to communicate anyway and support their growth. Becoming a better leader means summoning more courage and expanding your own willingness to communicate effectively, in service of trust.

And yes, sometimes it’s not going to work out. Sometimes people are not ready to contribute at the level needed by the team. Sometimes people are not ready to be trustworthy. And your team needs you to replace them, but only after you have shown tremendous leadership in owning the situation.

Trust Is Everyone’s Job

Trust

One more thing. This is for all of us on teams who are relieved by this article, that it’s the boss’ responsibility to fix things. Let’s go back to this statement from earlier: there are schools of thought that it is the employee’s job to earn trust from the manager. It’s just the opposite. It’s the manager’s job to cultivate trust.

I take that back. Leadership is the responsibility of every team member. So if you’re noticing something is off, look courageously at the issue and communicate to create the working experience you envision for the team.