What do all people who achieve true excellence and consistently high performance have in common?
The answer isn't great genes, although they're nice to have. It's the willingness to push themselves beyond their current limits day in and day out, despite the discomfort that creates, the sacrifice of more immediate gratification, and the uncertainty they'll be rewarded for their efforts.
The first way I've seen this is physically, through my body. I work out regularly with weights. I do push myself to discomfort, and I've grown considerably stronger over the years. At 60, I'm stronger than I was at 30.
But in truth, I rarely push myself to exhaustion. If I did, the evidence suggests I would get significantly stronger than I already am. The key here is intensity, not duration. If I was willing to push hard, I could do fewer repetitions, and derive more benefit in way less time than I invest now.
So why don't I do it? The answer, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit, is that I'm not prepared to endure more discomfort than I already do. The mind tricks us into thinking we've hit our limits long before we actually have.
Human beings have two powerful primal instincts. One is to avoid pain, an instinct that helped us to survive when we were vulnerable to predators in the savanna. The other is to move towards pleasure, an instinct that once kept us foraging for food, which was scarce, and still helps to ensure that we pass on our genes.
Unfortunately, neither of these instincts prompt us to delay gratification in the service of longer-term gain. For that, we need to enlist the more advanced, reflective part of our brain — the prefrontal cortex — to consciously resist the primitive cravings that originate in the lower part of our brain.
The other place I've seen this play out is in my writing. I'd love to stop working right now and check my email, or visit my refrigerator, not just because either one would provide a hit of pleasure, but also to get away from the discomfiting challenge of trying to wrestle the jumble of ideas in my head into clear, evocative sentences.
Over the course of my life, I've taught myself to stay focused in front of my computer. But even after four decades as a writer, it's never easy. The Pavlovian pull of email has only made it harder to focus in recent years — and nearly impossible for many people I know.
The unavoidable truth is that the willingness to endure discomfort and sacrifice instant gratification is the only way to get better at anything, and to achieve true excellence.
There are three keys to strengthening this counterintuitive capacity:
1. Minimize temptation, which operates the same way the house does in a casino. It will always defeat you if you expose yourself to it for too long. Think about cake or cookies at an office party. If they sit there in front of you, you're eventually going to succumb. The same is true of incoming email. If you don't turn it off entirely at times, the ongoing pings will inevitably prove irresistible.
2. Push yourself to discomfort only for relatively short and specific periods of time. Interval training is built on short bursts of high intensity exercise offset by rest and recovery. It's harder than aerobic training, but it's also a more efficient, less time-consuming way to increase fitness.
3. Build Energy Rituals — specific behaviors done at precise times — for your most difficult challenges. Try beginning the day by focusing without interruption on the most important challenge in front of you, for no more than 90 minutes, and then take a real renewal break. It's much easier to tolerate discomfort in short doses.
Choose one area of your life and push yourself just a little harder than you think is possible every day. You'll feel better about yourself, and over time, you'll get better at whatever it is you're doing.