Peak Performance: Fulfill Your Potential
The following is a peak performance tutorial including definition, process, qualities, tools, inspiration and assignment. Use this tutorial to fulfill your personal potential and the potential of others.
The Beautiful Laundress Peak performance is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.
A Perfectly Beautiful Laundress When I was very young—5 years old, as I remember it—I heard my mother say that she had engaged a perfectly beautiful laundress, and being by endowment curious of feminine charm, I hid behind the kitchen sink to have my first look at beauty—my first look and my first disenchantment. The face of my mother’s laundress was less beautiful than the soap that she exercised on my jumpers and my stockings, and her figure was, like that of her tub, round, stable, and very wide.
My mother had spoken in metaphor, inaccessible to my understanding. She had used the word beauty to signify not an attribute of the laundress but of quality of workmanship for which the laundress, irrespective of her appearance, had become an embodiment.
That which was called beautiful was neither the laundress nor the objects of her laundering but the performance to which these were machine and medium; a performance made express and visible in the comforting, crisp cleanliness of linens, pajamas, towels, and pillowcases.
The work done was well done; the task and the process were perfectly mastered; the end was well attained, completely and without excess; and my mother, perceiving this unity of intention, method, and product, cast over all of these the aureole of beauty.1
The moral of this story is that whatever you are called to be in life, you should perform your tasks, even as Beethoven composed music, Marie Curie was a scientist, and Shakespeare wrote poetry. You should do your work so well that all the hosts of heaven will pause to say, “Here is a great baker, machinist, farmer, or chief, who does the work well.”
Personal Best and Lessons Learned
Personal Best Describe a time in your life when you performed at your personal best. When was it? Who was involved? What happened? What were the results?
Lessons Learned As a result of your personal best, what did you learn about yourself? About other people? About excellence?
The Road Ahead Based on your personal best and lessons learned, what are your plans for the road ahead? What goals do you have? What steps can you take to perform (again) at a peak-performance level?
The Peak Performance Process Achieving peak performance requires three basic steps: setting goals, visualizing success, taking action.
Step 1—Decide What Is Important to You. After studying the lives of highly successful people, Napoleon Hill presented his conclusions in Think and Grow Rich. Hill’s analysis showed that the starting point of success is “definiteness of purpose.” This points to the importance of having a dream that will guide you and against which you can measure success. Happy is the person who has a grand plan. In support of this view, Abraham Maslow wrote, “If you purposefully set out to be less than you can be, you are guaranteed to be miserable for the rest of your life.”3
Step 2—Picture the Completed Thing. Success is visualized, and the steps to achieve it are rehearsed in the mind. Top performers attribute success to some form of purposeful daydreaming that focuses and energizes their efforts. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “If one advances in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live a life which he has imagined, he will meet success and fulfill his destiny.4 In all areas of life—professional and personal—the visualization process is the same:
Relax mentally and physically.
Let the image of the situation come to mind.
Visualize handling the situation in precisely the manner desired.
Visualize handling one or two unexpected aspects of the situation.
Visualize a positive outcome.
For example, you may be asked to speak in public. The process is to visualize yourself at the beginning, middle, and end of the presentation. See yourself starting to speak confidently and clearly. See yourself speaking fluidly and effectively. See the audience responding positively. See yourself answering questions thoughtfully and thoroughly. See yourself ending successfully.
Step 3—Take Action. This doesn’t require setting records or even winning first place in a contest. What it means is performing at your full potential in a given endeavor at a certain point in time. The effect of this is exhilaration, a little used term. The exhilaration of the professional is no more than that of the amateur when each performs at his or her personal best. Be sure the actions you take support your grand plan.
The Power of Self-Image What you think about yourself is more important than what others say about you in fulfilling your potential in life. In fact, a positive self-image is an important defense against public detractors, as the following examples illustrate.5
Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was too stupid to learn anything.
Albert Einstein’s teacher described him as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.”
Anne Dunwoody overcame military history to become the first woman to serve as a Four-Star General in the U.S. Army.
Walt Disney was fired by his newspaper for lack of ideas.
Winston Churchill’s father told him, “You will become a mere social wastrel and you will degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.”
An expert said of Vince Lombardi: “He possesses minimal football knowledge and he lacks motivation.”
Peak performance requires determination and perseverance, as both the story and the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull show. Eighteen publishers turned down Richard Bach’s 10,000-word story about a “soaring” seagull before MacMillan finally published it in 1970. By 1975, it had sold more than 7 million copies in the United States alone.6
People with positive self-images have high self-efficacy expectation. That is, they believe they will be successful—so they usually are. Psychologist Albert Bandura has identified three basic beliefs of people with high self-efficacy: (1) they believe the outcome of a given behavior is important to themselves; (2) they believe that performing the behavior will lead to that outcome; and (3) they believe that they can successfully perform the behavior.7
Self-efficacy expectation, or the little engine that could phenomenon, is important, not only for performance attainment, but also for our ability to deal effectively with stress. Research shows that when we are faced with a challenge, high self-efficacy helps reduce the negative effects of stress, and, at the same time, helps us achieve our goals.8
Peak Performance Profile Do peak performers have a profile of shared characteristics? Psychologist Charles Garfield identifies six qualities or traits of top-performing people.9 Evaluate yourself on the six qualities of peak performance. For each quality, circle the number on the scale (1 is low; 10 is high).
1. Challenge Peak performers resist the tendency to fall into a rut or zone of complacency. Instead, they seek missions that motivate and challenge their abilities.
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2. Continuous Improvement Peak performers are dedicated to transcending their previous levels of accomplishment. They embody the spirit of the childhood rhyme: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good gets better and the better is the best.”
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3. Intrinsic Reward Peak performers do what they do for the joy of doing it. They are guided by compelling internal goals and feelings as opposed to external standards and rewards.
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4. Problem Solving Peak performers love to solve problems. They are energized by difficult tasks. In solving problems, they focus on possibilities and results rather than problems and blame.
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5. Risk Taking Peak performers readily take risks. They consider the worst possible consequences beforehand, and judge if they can live with the outcome. Then, they take action with focus and full commitment.
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6. Positive Visualization Peak performers picture success in their minds and visualize doing the tasks needed to accomplish their goals.
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Using sports as a metaphor, your scores and their meanings are as follows:
9 or higher on all six qualities You embody the qualities of the peak performer. Like Magic, Michael, Billie Jean, and Babe, your attitude and actions set the standard for others to follow.
7 or higher on all six qualities You are on the floor and on the field with the first team. Your fundamentals are good and you have flashes of excellence.
5 or higher on all six qualities You are in the league but on the bench. You travel with the club and they know your name, but you need to practice more to start the game.
3 or higher on all six qualities You know the sport and have basic talent, but serious performance will require focus and hard work.
2 or below on any quality You have potential, of course, but it is underdeveloped at this time.
The Intrinsic Satisfaction of Peak Performance
Peak Performance is intrinsically satisfying. The process itself is motivating over and above wages and work environment. Writer Studs Terkel explains:
It’s about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as for daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.10
As the following story shows, peak performance transcends all ages and occupations.
A friend asked Michelangelo:
“How’s the work going at the Sistine Chapel?”
“About the same. You know, I really never should have started this thing. Four years, on and off, I’ve been at it. What I really wanted to do was a tomb for Julius II. But they made a decision, and I’m stuck with it. The worst thing is that I had to start at the entrance of the chapel first, which I thought was a stupid idea. But they wanted to keep the chapel open as long as possible while I was working.”
His friend inquired:
“What‘s the difference?”
“What’s the difference? Here I am trying to do a ceiling mural on the creation of man, right? But I have to start with the end of the whole scheme, and then finish with the beginning. Besides, I have never painted a ceiling before, and I’m not very experienced at murals either.”
The friend sympathized:
“Boy, that’s tough.”
Michelangelo went on:
“And on top of that, the scaffolding material I have to use is dangerous. The whole thing shakes and wiggles every time I climb up there. One day it’s boiling hot, and the next day it’s freezing. It’s dark most of the time. Working on my back, I swallow as much paint as I put on the ceiling. I can’t get any decent help. The long climb up and down the ladders will kill me yet. And to top everything, they are going to let the public in and show the thing off before it’s even completed. It won’t be finished for another year at least. And that’s another thing, they are always nagging me to finish. And when I’m finished, what then? I’ve got no security. And if they don’t like it, I may be out of work permanently.”
The friend responded:
“Gee, Michelangelo, that’s tough. With no job security, such poor working conditions, irritating company policies and inadequate subordinates, you must really be dissatisfied with your job. Are you ready to quit?”
“What? Quit? Are you crazy? It’s a fascinating challenge. And I’m learning more and more every day about murals and ceilings. I’ve been experimenting and changing my style for these last few years, and I’m starting to get a lot of recognition from some very important people. You can see for yourself that it’s going to be one of the finest achievements of all time. I’m the only one responsible for the design, and I’m making all of the basic decisions. It may bring me other opportunities to do even more difficult work. Quit? Never. This is a terrific job.”11
At any point in life, one may ask, “Are my best years ahead of me? Is my personal best yet to be done?” To this, the peak performer declares enthusiastically, “Yes!” Ralph Waldo Emerson explains the power of enthusiasm:
When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Stamp it with your personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your objective. No matter the age or vocation, nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.12
Achieving peak performance requires knowing your strengths and capitalizing on your natural interests. The concept of job families can help in this area. One of the best models comes from John Holland, who identifies six personality or occupational types.13
No person is a pure type. Most people have a pattern of interests combining all six. The following are descriptions of each personality-occupational type, including general characteristics, personality traits, sample occupations, and a typical high-stress activity or situation. Put a check mark next to the words that best describe you.
Realistic people like working outdoors and working with their hands. They prefer to deal with concrete physical tasks rather than people. They are described as:
Sample occupations: engineer, surveyor, farmer, electrician, mechanic
Typical high-stress activity: making a speech
Investigative people enjoy the research and discovery process. They are task-oriented and prefer working alone. They are described as:
Sample occupations: biologist, chemist, physicist, anthropologist, geologist
Typical high-stress situation: parties and small talk
Artistic individuals thrive in artistic settings that offer opportunities for self-expression. They are described as:
Sample occupations: artist, writer, architect, actor, composer
Typical high-stress activity: following rules and regulations
Social people like to work with people and are concerned with their welfare. They have little interest in machinery or physical exertion. They are described as:
Sample occupations: teacher, counselor, social worker, advisor, therapist
Typical high-stress activity: performing maintenance and repairs
Enterprising people enjoy leading, speaking, and convincing others. They are impatient with routine and detail work. They are described as:
Sample occupations: salesperson, business executive, producer, promoter, lawyer
Typical high-stress situation: restricted freedom of action
Conventional people prefer highly ordered activities, both verbal and numerical, that characterize detail work. They have little interest in artistic or physical skills. They are described as:
Sample occupations: accountant, coder, banker, cost estimator, tax expert
Typical high-stress situation: ambiguity and clutter
There are hundreds of professions and specialties in the world of work, and these are constantly changing. John Holland’s model of basic personality and occupational types is useful in considering avenues for peak performance throughout your career. Circle the two personality–occupational types with the most check-marks.
Deciding what not to do can be as important as deciding what to do. The best approach is to be who you are and do what you love. Success and happiness will follow. For inspiration and encouragement, consider Steve Jobs’s advice: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”14
Theodore Roosevelt’s well-known words encourage individuals to get involved in life and be all they can be:
The credit belongs to the man Who is actually in the arena, Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; Who strives valiantly; Who errs, who comes short again and again, Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; But who does actually strive to do the deeds; Who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, Who spends himself in a worthy cause; Who at the best knows in the end The triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.15
Peak Performance Assignment:
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden lived by three “peak performance” rules he learned from his father: Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece. Use these rules to fulfill your potential at this point in time.
Hudnut, J. (1949). Architecture and the spirit of man. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.
Hill, N. (1966). Think and grow rich. Hollywood, CA: Powers/Wilshire Book Co.
Schultz, D. (1977). Growth psychology: Models of the healthy personality. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Thoreau, H.D. (1991). Walden, or life in the woods. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Canfield, J. & Hansen, N.V. (1993). Chicken soup for the soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Canfield, J. & Hansen, N.V. (1993). Chicken soup for the soul.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A., Taylor, C., Williams, S., Medford, I., & Barchas, J. (1985). Catecholamine secretion as a function of perceived coping self-efficacy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53, 406-414; Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman; and Benight, C., et al. (1997). Coping self-efficacy buffers psychological and physiological disturbances in HIV-infected men following a natural disaste Health Psychology, 16, 248-255.
Garfield, C. (1986). Peak performers: The new heroes of American business. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Terkel, S. (1974). Working. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Cummings, B.J. (1978). Organizational psychology. Highland Heights, KY: Northern Kentucky University.
Bridges, W. (1994). Job shift: How to prosper in a workplace without jobs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Holland, J.L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources; and Bolles, R. (2018) What color is your parachute: A practical manual for job hunters and career changers. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Jobs, S. (2005). Stanford University commencement speech.
Address at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, April 23, 1910; see Strenuous Life. In Works of Theodore Roosevelt (vol. 13) (p.510).
Related Reading The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews—Decisions that determine your life.
Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham—Professional growth
True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence by Tom Morris
The Art of Achievement by Tom Morris
Ted Talk Celebrate What’s Right in the World by DeWitt Jones—Change your lens to gain perspective
George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn
Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor
Freelance editor, writer, and consultant