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What Drives Extraordinary Performance?

What is it that drives human beings to extraordinary performance?  When I say, “extraordinary performance,” I am speaking about performance beyond what is predictable.  The domain in which it occurs can be business, athletics, science, or anywhere.  I suggest that there is a palpable commonality between our client, the physicist, working to advance the study of Turbulence Theory, and the individual who sets out to climb Everest/double organizational productivity/take a new company from innovation to public company, etc.

I am writing this from the middle check point on the route of the Adirondack 540, Ultracycling race.  For those of you who don’t know, this is a bit of an obsession of mine.  I am a member of the board of the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association and spend much of my time on the bike, riding in big circles and striving for more. This year I am not at a fitness level that makes is reasonable to participate in this event with four separate races of 136, 262, 408 and 544 miles.

I will not be offering an answer here, only questions.  And I suggest that these questions are the same whether we are talking about the people I am supporting here today, or the people who work in our companies. What makes human beings strive for performance? What makes people run marathons or climb big mountains?  What makes them strive to win championships or lift more weight, go faster than they ever have before, make more money, invent new means of production or new avenues for sales?

The leaders of the race are now 340+ miles into it.  Some participants look as if they are holding on to the finest threads of life, others like they are on a nice long walk.  All of them have something about them – inwardness, a silence.  They speak few words or chatter endlessly.  Some of them will stop and sleep, others sit with their shoes off for a bit, and still others never stop, fueling on the bike from support vehicles on the move.  However they approach it, the commitment is palpable.  And when it is not, they usually quit soon thereafter.  So far, 1/3 of the participants have dropped out of the race. Two participants have crashed, one of them suffering only slight mechanical problems as a result, and continuing on, and the other removed from the course and treated for a broken wrist and various minor injuries; he will not continue.  Most of the people who dropped out did so for some other reason.  The commitment, presumably, did not equal the challenge of finishing.

So what is it that has people take on a commitment to extraordinary accomplishment?  What drives us to commit to that which is not easy?  Why, and I ask this seriously, do we not sit with 437 channels of cable television and internet streaming more information than we could possibly ever use, and do nothing?  Why do we do what is hard, dangerous or requires us to grow?  Why do we not stick with what is easy?  What makes us want to accomplish something beyond what we know we can do?

It seems that our access to this is access to performance in any domain of endeavor.  It seems that if we can impact how people see their work and their lives with respect to accomplihment, the sort of accomplishment worth striving for, and increase whatever that thing is that keeps people engaged in their commitments (in ultracycling, this is called mental toughness, sometimes we call it Integrity), we can impact the performance of the organizations in which we work.  It seems that if we can access the point at which someone is truly committed, we can make a massive difference in their capacity to achieve.

So, with many words here, and few conclusions, let us take some time to examine what you are committed to.  Let’s talk about what accomplishment looks like for you.  I suggest that in getting clear on this one thing, the nature of accomplishment, for the individual and the organization, we unlock a capacity for going beyond what is predictable. Willingness to develop our minds, bodies, systems, resources and organizations will produce something new, beyond what the past tells us is possible.  Such is the process that put a human being on the moon, built Ford’s first assembly line and then the second, until Ford had created a new model, not just for how to build a car, but for industry as a whole.

As always we welcome all communication, and invite, specifically, conversations about what might be possible in your business.

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