The Story of High Performance

The story of high performance

Deep involvement, presence, when you're fully engaged with something. That's performance. Jonny Wilkinson played rugby for Newcastle Falcons and Toulon and represented England and the British and Irish Lions. “All of me in every moment, and that's performance.”

In a podcast I discovered via Rachel Botsman, Wilkinson talks about breaking the ambivalence and conflict within. On the other side of ambivalence and fear is flow. All the grace, intuition, and possibility are there. This is the fight, isn't it?

Wilkinson was a relentlessly driven, ultra competitive, hard-nosed winner. He “lived between the whistles.” He “survived” a stellar career. And since then, he has been on a courageous quest to understand himself and discover true, lasting fulfillment and sustained happiness.

What he figured out:

by spending enormous amounts of time stressing, suffering and sacrificing, I developed a strong habit of stressing and sacrificing.

Which leaves no room for flourishing, experiencing the joy of the present moment, and enjoying life. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, “I'll do that at some point in the future.” Travel comes to mind lately. Because suddenly you see how much was possible that is much more challenging now.

Something else Wilkinson says struck a chord. When you see someone high on self-belief, you see someone who's covering up fear. A sense of self-importance locks you in and now you live through the mind, with the need to control life.

But, look at the most amazing athletes and high performers and you see how hard they are to pin down. Bruce Lee comes to mind. He was fluid and flexible. In no particular hurry to categorize himself, to fit in a box.

“You can't organize truth. That's like trying to put a pound of water into wrapping paper and shaping it.”

Lee also pointed out why seeking approval from others is at odds with individual evolution. Wilkinson describes how he'd made himself into a plug that fit the rugby game. On the field, he plugged into the game. Anywhere that wasn't that field, he couldn't plug in.

This reduces us to spare parts. As I've been saying:


We've made ourselves so small

that we've become spare parts in someone else's game.


Why? To understand the psychological tether, let's talk about fame.


Thinking about fame

Someone quite popular in social circles shared this in his newsletter a few months back.

“Have you ever thought about it? We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don't love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems, if you really loved it you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not. To want to be famous is tawdry, trivial, stupid, it has no meaning; but, because we don't love what we are doing, we want to enrich ourselves with fame. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more important than the action.

You know, it is good to hide your brilliance under a bushel, to be anonymous, to love what you are doing and not to show off. It is good to be kind without a name. That does not make you famous, it does not cause your photograph to appear in the newspapers. Politicians do not come to your door. You are just a creative human being living anonymously, and in that there is richness and great beauty.”

This piece was shared with an email about courses and building an audience and making money from it. Maybe a hedge against anonymity? The author of the piece is Jiddu Krishnamurti from The Book of Life.

Why does this author share his opinions on the vice of fame and the virtue of anonymity if he thinks he knows the answer? Why did this doctor of the soul not take his own medicine and set up his practice behind a bushel? 

The answer might be in Wikipedia. Jiddu came to early prominence thanks to claims, made on his behalf, that he was to be a Messiah. An anonymous messiah would kind of defeat the purpose. He had it made. I will point out the obvious: Jiddu died many years ago.

It seems he is still cashing in on his hedge.     


Why energy drops

When we think we know who we are and how life works, we have something to protect. Maybe that audience that took time and sacrifice to build. Wilkinson describes a situation in the field. He proposed the team just go out and have fun.

Love of the game and months of preparation.

Doesn't that feel a little bit like when you're rearing to create?

Surely curiosity would find new space to explore in the game. If there's a great disappointment, you can be curious about it, he reasoned. But all of a sudden the coaches would say, “well, we can't just do that. There's a lot riding on the game.”

“And you could feel the energy drain.” Things changed palpably. To perform at the highest levels, athletes need to feel at their very best. This works for all professions, all levels. How does that work with the energy-draining bit? Is this kind of talk-to liberating?

There are trade-offs with performance.

In March 1994, when in Key Biscayne for a tournament, Perry Rogers invited Brad Gilbert to dinner with Andre Agassi at an Italian restaurant on Fisher Island. After they're settled in their seats, Perry asks Brad for his take on Andre's game.

“You try to his a winner on every ball, when just being steady, consistent, meat and potatoes, would be enough to win ninety percent of the time.”# When you try to be perfect all the time, your confidence takes a hit. Because things won't work perfectly every single time. 

The entire argument is that when you stop swinging for the fences, you actually start hedging your bets and managing risk better. Companies that try for perfection assume too much risk. Every decision becomes critical. Every conversation or piece of writing better be the winner.

There's little being open to uncertainty and curiosity to work out kinks or explore adjacent ideas. Especially in digital media this won't work well. And it will clip your wings. Because the truth is humans are voluble. It's built-into our DNA.


It's the energy, stupid

The more sustainable word starting with “e.”

We build and sustain relationships through the exchange of energy. Some people draw more energy than they give. Or at least we perceive it as such in our minds, says psychologist Toru Sato. Using what he calls “the internal conflict model,” he says:

“When things are going our way, we are comfortable. When things do not go the way we want to, we feel discomfort. All of this has to do with what we desire (or need) and what has, is, or could happen. When what we desire (or need) matches what has, is, or could happen, we feel comfortable. When what we desire (or need) does not match what has, is, or could happen, we feel anxiety or some sort of discomfort.”

It's all about hedging, isn't it? Wilkinson's coaches were hedging their bets on the team winning. That was the sole desire. Of course, athletes want to win. A lot of practice and work go into making that happen.

But when you do that, you move away from exploring. Now the game is all about extraction—a win. Which is where playing it safe comes in. The folding into yourself to protect the ground you've conquered in your desire. This fear of exploring comes into play in companies.

I see it all the time. Explore and reframe is where you set up the vision. That's where all the potential energy is. Connections and relationships, leadership and storytelling depend on it. It's the fuel you use to create and catalyze. Where you build momentum through what is available.

When there's too much focus on extraction, you lose the exploration piece. It's all about maps and the way we do things here. Because what worked before. And you lose sight of the territory. Where there is so much possibility.

This is why unplugging from careers or losing a jobs creates displacement. A trauma. The city you had built around yourself gets smashed into oblivion. Displacement is physical. But a great part of it is mental, the identity part.

Companies create this kind of trauma daily when they use broken systems. Or when they use the wrong story. One that has conclusions that don't work in a new context. Exploration is a chance to redefine opportunity. Because that's where the energy is.

Where does it start, then?

We start from where you are.


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