I’m often asked, “How do I know if I’m a peak performer?” Frequently the people who ask seem afraid that the answer will be “You aren’t. You don’t measure up.” You begin answering the question by examining your current situation, “the horse you’re riding on.” You may have chosen wisely and well, knowing that loving your work and being inspired by its possibilities are critical to a life filled with challenge, rewards, and energy. You may have selected your job on those grounds. Still, amid job stress, internal politics, firefighting, and the craziness of daily life, your mission may be nearly forgotten: “I did love it once—or at least I knew I could love it. Now that sense of being in the right place, working at the heart of things, feels faraway.”
Anyone who feels that way will find it difficult to see his or her direction, values, and opportunities as part of a coherent mission. To paraphrase George Santayana, many of us redouble our efforts when we have lost our direction. The result is not necessarily failure. Several famous and wealthy people have mislaid their original missions. The result is, though, that their redoubled efforts often secure gratification not quite their own, at considerable cost to body and soul.
So they must ask another question: “Is my place to stand, in my current commitment, true to my real passions, or have I traded my passions for security or glory, and settled for gratifications hot quite my own?”
The key is to identify your current situation—candidly, with “ruthless compassion,” and then to act in your own behalf. Peak performers assess the degree to which their abilities, jobs, and work environment coincide to move forward their mission the degree to which their current stand gives them leverage to achieve those ends they feel destined to accomplish.
Many of us know the feeling of being close but not quite there, having the mission in sight but a bit out of focus. We adjust; we move elements around; we struggle, perhaps for years. We fail to see that we are having difficulty not with coping and adaptation but with growth and change. To others our struggle might seem puzzling. Those who know us well may feel that what is best for us is obvious. But, obsessed with the trials of daily life, we ignore the “real stuff” of our place to stand and the “right stuff” in ourselves.
“Will I ever discriminate between what really matters in work and life and what only seems to matter? Will I ever judge wisely and have the courage to act in my own behalf?” For the peak performers, the answer to these questions is yes.
Some of us have yet to find our place to stand. We have not taken our best stand, have not fully engaged our mission. But old missions—real ones don’t die easily. They may recede into the background, but they are still waiting there, ready to move to center stage. Like an unrequited love, a real mission lives on in the mind of its creator, awaiting its resolution: “It just didn’t work out. I got pulled away by different interests and responsibilities. The circumstances changed, and the passions cooled. It just wasn’t practical to go on. Besides, something more reasonable came along.”
Promote Peak Performance
Our reasoned, reasonable loves offer but shadows of the motivation and potential of our real ones. Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye once observed: “Realistic people with practical aims are rarely as realistic or practical in the long run of life, as the dreamers who pursue their dreams.” Peak performers know this distinction.
With work, as with people, there must be 50 ways to leave your lover. But if the love is real, its feelings bone-deep and wholehearted, the 50 ways serve only as rationalizations and excuses. Many of us have major responsibilities: equity positions, family obligations, our friends’ expectations, our familiarity with a place and a job. Instead of allowing themselves to be trapped in such situations, peak performers accept the risks and temporary discomforts of challenging themselves to better the situations. In spite of their fears and self-doubts, they exercise their courage and face the difficulties.
As they reflect on the journey, a memory, an award, or a picture may trigger associations with a face, a name, or an old life plan. With missions loved, as with people, come a torrent of images. There is a certain pathos to such reflection, taking its origin as William Wordsworth said poetry does: “from emotion recollected in tranquility” This emotion, not sadness, reconnects them with the source of their motivation. Peak performers move ahead and pursue their dreams.
Others might say: “I always wanted to be .. .I wonder what would have happened if .. .I never knew why it didn’t work. .. If only … If only … If only … ” Such normal feelings trigger further reflection for the peak performer: “What did I learn from that situation? How can I recapture those old dreams, perhaps in an altered or updated form? How can I act in my own behalf? And how can I ensure against being like those people who are unable or unwilling to learn from such reflection, who continue in their rut, riding the horse long after the race is over and the beast has died?”
As a peak performer, you recognize yourself as a person who was born not as a high achiever but as a life-long learner. With the capacity to grow, change, and reach for the highest possibilities of human nature, you regard yourself as a person in process. Not perfect, but a person who keeps asking: What more can I be? What else can I achieve that will benefit me and my company? That will contribute to my family, community, and society? And then answering for yourself.