This is a very important question that doesn’t get asked enough. There is a fuzzy back-ground comprehension that high performance has to do with efficiency, quality, productivity, and effortless competence. Now the definition of high performance is “(of an aircraft or motor vehicle) designed to achieve high speeds, (of a product) designed to a high standard,” so, on face value, it makes sense that this is what we think of.
The critical thing here is that these are definitions for objects. For things. Not for humans, and we should be weary about attaching these same definitions to people. And yet this is what we unconsciously do. These definitions are for objects that have been designed to do their job very well. Any Google search will bring up hundreds of articles stating that high performance is only to do with work. One top result confidently states that “to be a high performer, your job is to prime your mental ability to perform an activity well.”
Even typing “how to achieve high performance” into Google throws up the suggestions “at Work”, “In the Workplace”, “Teams”, and “Under Stress.”
This is also seen in the concept of “Hustle Culture”, which is the state of overworking to the point where it becomes a lifestyle, where all you live for is your job, and the perceived rewards that come from it – status, prestige, and money [for more on if these rewards are really worth it, look at our blog from June – Money, Motivation, and Making a Better Life].
In a sense, the modern idea of high performance in a human is the idea of an object that has been designed to do its job very well.
And this is terrible, for two main reasons.
Firstly, and obviously, humans are not objects, and whilst we can all learn new skills and develop new areas of aptitude, we can not be built to a blueprint. And secondly, because it implies that the only reason we have to exist is for our work. Philosophers have been arguing about the true meaning of life for quite some time now, and whilst they’ve not come up with a good answer, they’re pretty sure that your job isn’t it.
As I’m very fond of saying in these blogs, we have to work [perhaps I’m trying to convince myself!], and it's important that we do a job that we enjoy – and there’s a difference between doing a job that you find rewarding, and changing yourself to fit your job. There are so many jobs out there that you will be able to find one to fit you.
There is a wonderful quote [from a wonderful podcast that I shall link down below,] that really encapsulates the best way to look at high performance.
“High performance doesn’t mean being an Olympian [as in an Olympic athlete, and not a Greek god], doesn’t mean being a billionaire, doesn’t mean being a tech entrepreneur or the best investor in the country – it means finding what your own high performances is, and for some people, that literally means being happier than you were yesterday.”
Each of us are unique individuals, and so high performance has a different definition for all of us, and so it makes sense to take a while to think about what high performance truly means for you. There isn’t a yes/no answer and this isn’t a trick question. The Icelandic have a quote that we like at Push: “ad ganga med bok I maganum.” This literally means “there is a book in everyone’s stomach”, which links into the idea that we each are writing the story of our life.
A basic rule of storytelling is that you need an active character; basically, you need the character to want something and then go out and try and achieve their goals. Stories with passive characters, characters that sit back and react to events, aren’t nearly as interesting – or as fun. So take a moment to ask yourself what you see high performance as; in a sense, ask yourself how you can live your best life. Obviously you might well want to throw yourself into your work – professions like lawyers and doctors take up huge quantities of your time and do become the main aspect of your life, and there’s nothing wrong with this. But it's important to follow these career paths because you know that this style of hard work complements your personal idea of high performance, and not just because it's what you’ve been told or because it's what other people do.
I shall finish this off with a quote attributed to the Persian poet Rumi: “I asked a wise man, ‘Tell me sir, in which field could I make a great career?’ He said with a smile, ‘Be a good human being. There is a huge opportunity in this area, and very little competition.’”
To find out more about wholesome high performance:
How To Build A High Performance Mindset - Jake Humphrey | Modern Wisdom Podcast 408 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVPWmlXc9Gc
Guy Reynolds is a graduate of Cardiff University with a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Guy’s plan is to gain his doctorate and spend his life studying increasingly niche areas of history. Guy has lots of experience working with wild animals, from Falconry Centres to Wetherspoons, and he loves anything to do with books.
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