Peak Performance Paradox Explained

The word ‘Peak’ is a great differentiator. It denotes a zenith, an ultimate state of being at, whether its academics, career, or performance. Somehow, when you say someone has peaked, your outlook towards that person changes immediately. You now associate that person with the highest levels of accomplishment, confidence, high levels of motivation, and sustained performance levels. Is that all really possible, to achieve, firstly and then to sustain for long? That last phrase matters a lot, because it may be easy and possible to attain peak performance levels but how are you going to sustain it for long?
All success it seems (I don’t understand why it should be so) comes after hard work. Take Malcolm Gladwell’s 10000-hour rule. Per this rule, all achievers must put in a lot of practice and effort to reach that peak level. However, that success can be sustained only when you start functioning effortlessly. In a flow state. That is the peak performance paradox.
Does this seem complicated? Let me elaborate.
Take the skill model developed by an employee of the Gordon Training Institute, Noel Burch, in the 1970s. Noel Burch developed the Conscious Competence Ladder which can be used to manage your emotions during a potentially challenging learning process.

It has four learning levels :

  1. Unconsciously Unskilled: This is the level 1. This is when you do not know that you need this skill.
  2. Consciously Unskilled: This is the level 2. This is when you know you are not skilled but you need to learn.
  3. Consciously Skilled: This is the level 3. This is when you know that you are skilled.
  4. Unconsciously Skilled: This is the final level. Level 4. This is when you are unaware that you possess a skill and are also quite good at it.

To achieve peak performance, one must climb through this ladder from Unconsciously Unskilled to being Unconsciously Skilled, i.e. flow state where you know you have mastered the skill and are now allowing yourself to perform with ease.

The term Flow State was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and denotes that state when a peak performer is not ‘Trying’ to achieve peak performance, he is not at all stressed and is rather at ease with himself while giving his best.

I am constantly reminded of the teaching from the Bhagwad Gita, wherein Lord Krishna advises warrior Arjun who is flabbergasted with the thought of killing his own kin on the battlefield in the epic Mahabharat. Krishna tells Arjuna to concentrate on his Dharma, i.e. His duty is towards being a warrior and not to worry about the consequences. What he is saying in effect is that nothing else must come between the person and his act, not even the thought of what the consequences could be, should be or need to be. Not even an iota of doubt, no focus on how it is being done but complete concentration on performance as you know it best.

Can someone master peak performance effortlessly?

Yes, if you conspicuously give it a thought. Here again, I wouldn’t say try.

Take for example a potter. He learns his craft for a long time, perhaps from a master or from his father. He hones his skill through practice over the years. Now when he embarks upon creating a vase, he cannot be consciously aware of the nuances of his craft and skill, about all the years spent in training, nor can he be conscious about the errors that can happen on the way, neither can he be wary of the end product. If he gets trapped in all these thoughts, his focus will be on the process and not the outcome. So what is important? Process or outcome? Of course, the process is important and so is the expected outcome. However, I would say outcome through the unconscious process is the key. That way you would put to use all your skills to the best of your abilities and yet stay detached from the outcome, being perfectly sure that it will be your best performance, as always!

Thoughts about the outcome, thoughts about possible errors, about the level of difficulty of the task and the process itself will distract you and take you off track from your focus and that is exactly how and where errors creep in. So being in a flow state ensures that you perform your best while being aware of your ability to do it but not focusing on the outcome.

In management parlance, we can say that when the process is standardised and religiously followed to the T, the outcome will definitely be the best.

It’s all about letting things happen through you rather making things happen by you.

How do you know you must enter a flow state?

It is not as easy as it sounds but is not impossible either. When you have mastered your craft or honed your skill, when you have consistently good results but you fall short of achieving that peak performance is the right time to “let things happen through you and not by you”.

One might often be in a dilemma of whether the time is to let go or to tighten the grip for things are still not perfect. Well, the tighter you hold the grip, the increased chances of errors creeping in because your focus is not on your performance but on whether you would go wrong after coming this far.

How do people get into flow states?

Have you seen a master musician struggle and fret over his instruments just before and during a major performance? No. He is, in fact, enjoying the process for he has faith in his craft and does not worry about the outcome because when he is sure about peak performance, he loosens the grip on the worry about the perfect outcome.

Oftentimes, people get weighed down by the ‘stuff’ that accompanies the performance of any kind- the papers, the instructions, the manuals, guidelines, expectations from others about sustained performance, the devices, gadgets that aid your work and their optimal performance, etc. So while you think about all these things, where is the focus on the one thing that matters the most- performance? It takes away the steam from the process and leaves gaping holes for errors and mistakes to be committed. Then the next time you start the same work, you’re more worried of not repeating what mistake you did the last time. That way, the whole things gets jinxed from the word go.

Learn to let go. Have faith in your abilities and focus on doing the task rather than its outcome. It’s like people say enjoy the journey till you reach the destination. If you fret about the destination all the while, you will miss out on the right path and may lose your way.

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