Why is it that some people have success very quickly, early on, and then crash and burn? Why do some start out rough and then climb quickly? And why the heck are some fortunate or skilled enough to go fast early and then continue to succeed over the long term? Most importantly, of the small percentage of folks who have success early and can sustain it, why are some miserable and some report being completely happy and fulfilled?
Brendon Burchard has spent more than 20 years looking for detailed answers to those questions and performing some of the most comprehensive research on high performers in the world. But early on he hit a pleateua in his career coaching high performers. One day, one of his more introverted clients got fed up, and demanded that Brendon show him HOW to be a high performer and not WHAT other high performers were doing.
We’re all hoping to achieve the pinnacle of success and fulfillment in our lives. But HOW?
Why I Decided To Read High Performance Habits
Thankful. Tremendously thankful. That’s how I feel when discussing the lessons I learned in athletics growing up. I remember trotting apprehensively onto the field as an energetic, naive and very impressionable 2nd grader for my first ever football practice. Looking back, thank god my mother allowed me to play organized sports, especially football. Playing sports helped teach me a number of what I would later read in this book to be “high performance habits” by building confidence, pulling alot of my natural abilities to the surface by holding me accountable to rise to the occassion when I was scared, and making it very clear that we were in it for eachother, the team, the community, something much bigger than ourselves. I bring this up because part of the value in this book, which I hope you read and come to find out, is that everything can be learned, and learned by anyone.
So there weren’t any bumps along the way? Absolutely not. Like trying to quit in 5th grade because coach supposedly promised me I would start at running back. Being told I was too small to play Linebacker. Hearing my friends, who I worked at least 10 times harder than, declare lofty goals that I didn’t even have the courage to discuss. Or almost never playing Lacrosse in college because I never considered it to be possible even during an All-American campaign my senior year.
Yet it turned out to be the bumps in the road that made me dig deeper and find new levels of performance. The failures and setbacks forced me back to the drawing board. Forced me to look inside myself, and say, if I wasn’t going to quit, then I had to come up with a plan to find the inputs to my athletic performance that I could absolutely control and then master. I was never the guy who could “just show up”, and I realized early on that my weapon was effort, competing and the process.
Focusing on the inputs I could control – running sprints, stretching, nutrition, footwork, taking hundreds of shots and playing hundreds of hours of wall ball when no one was looking – molded me into the guy who would run you ragged. Break your will. As I grew older, and my body matured, my athleticism caught up to my preparation but I kept the same chip on my shoulder, that appreciation for the process and details. The respect for it.
Because I had success athletically that continued into collegiate sports, I became more and more confident in my approach. I brought it into the workplace as management consultant. As a matter of fact, I credit this approach as the only reason I even had a sniff at the professional opportunities that have come my way. Early on the approach worked wonders, but eventually I got burnt out and I slowly, apprehensively, had to admit to myself that this aggressive “push through it”/”keep grinding” approach wasn’t sustainable. The funny thing is, the approach became a limiting agent for my success both personally and professionally. It was hard for me to admit, but what is one to do once you land there?
Well, I started by going back to the drawing board, much the way I’d advise you to. Admitting a certain sense of defeat or submitting yourself to a more open mind is liberating. Or at least it was for me. I had always been obsessive about preparation, controlling my outcomes and really driving away from my fear of failure or rejection.
I started reflecting. Even as a young kid, I remember feeling bewildered by people who didn’t understand my approach. Who didn’t work as hard. Who didn’t understand that success and failure was determined largely by your effort. Early on it was family, friends, teammates. Later in my professional life it was still family and friends, but there was a lot of reinforcement from colleagues, too.
Why is he so focused? So driven? Why are his expectations so high? Why doesn’t he just take a break? Why does he take certain things so seriously?
So as part of my own journey of learning, I wanted to look for books, people, situations, etc. that would help me better understand the psychology of high performance. Maybe make better sense of my own approach. To tweak that approach. And most importantly to understand the opportunities I have to improve my approach, especially in those areas where I tend to get in my own way. Things like analysis paralysis, being a perfectionist with the wrong things, focusing on the wrong things completely, not delegating, not managing time effectively, etc.
I first heard Brendon Burchard on Lewis Howe’s School of Greatness podcast and immediately his story resonated with me. Walking through the six habits with Lewis, Brendon dropped the hook, line and sinker on me when he started talking about how many people find successful early on, but burn out or simply plateau. The truly extraordinary are those who can sustain success and prolific output, and most of the time, it takes throwing away some of the habits that got you there, reengineering some, and adopting a learners approach to fostering new ones.
The Lay Of The Land
Review + Recommendation
The book does a really good job focusing on the HOW: habits, routines, self-talk and literal things that high performers do. But for me the title makes it seem as if it will storytell on specific high performers and how they rose to high performer status. And I’m glad the book does not. But what I think the book doesn’t account for in the title is it’s most valuable asset: unpacking the self-talk and psychology of high performers.
I would rate this book very highly, probably a 4/5, but take that with a grain of salt because this is the type of material I love to read. It may be slightly lower if you’re not interested in specific habits and the psychology behind them. And I think this book is an absolute must read for:
- Anyone who wants to understand the psychology and “backbone” behind high performers. Whether that’s yourself, a loved one or a friend.
- Anyone looking to get rid of bad habits, reengineer and fine tune existing ones and foster new ones for peak performance.
- Anyone who has hit a wall or plateaued and needs to transition into deeper work and deeper planning for the next level.
If you don't have clarity of ideas, you're just communicating sheer sound
— Yo Yo Ma
High Performers are constantly seeking clarity. This doesn’t necessarily mean they get clarity, but the research shows that they are in search of it much more than other people. If they’re not finding pursuing it, even if it’s outside of their comfort zone, they’re not comfortable.
Worknig with Oprah, Burchard notes, she starts every meeting with seeking crystal clarity on purpose and on what matters. “What’s important for this meeting?”, “What’s our intention for this meeting?”. In my career as a consultant, I found this to be the case with the top performers too. There were more senior consultants than me, or even director and c-level clients, who took their time and intentions so seriously it came across as standoffish. But those types of high performers want to be clear on their intentions.
High Performers aren’t scared of the answers they might find in pursuit of clarity. They’re comfortable getting clarity and focusing on what’s important even if they’re wrong.
How are they Seeking Clarity? Burchard recommends focus on four categories: Self, Skills, Social and Service.
If you spend more time honestly and deeply answering clarifying questions around those four areas more than others, you’re going to have an edge.
- How do you want to describe your ideal self?
- How do you want to behave socially?
- What skills do you want to develop and demonstrate?
- What service do you want to provide? [to others, customers, clients, family friends, community especially]
Burchard alludes to research, that not surprisingly, shows that most people lose energy thoughout the day and by 2 or 3pm they’re ready to have a nap. Do you know any high performers that are ready to checkout in the afternoon? Nope. I’ll bet the majority of high performers you know are off the walls with energy, glowing, the entire day…leaving you wondernig what the hell they’re on?!
Now I’m someone who believes tremendously in the power of Nutrition, Movement and Mental & Cognitive Health practices as a huge key to improving your performance. It’s the basis for the High Performance Lab. Engaging in a low-carb/low-sugar nutritional protocol like the Ketogenic Diet, working out, yoga or mindfulness practice in the morning are all some of the things I’d recommend doing to stoke the fires of your furnace and generate energy.
When it comes to executing at your best day in and day out, Burchard and team found that most energy is lost in the transitions between tasks, meetings, etc. High performers have the transitions figured out.
So what does Burchard and team recommend to be more energized, creative and effective in your execution? Give you’re mind and body a break every 60 minutes – even if it’s just for 2 or 3 minutes. This is something he repeatedly alludes to later in the book.
For many reasons, this section struck a chord with me. I’ve always been motivated to take a tremendous amount of pride in anything I put my hands on. It’s not perfectionism. It’s pride. And I think alot of it has been motivated by feelings of guilt when I’m not living in my values or bringing the best version of myself to the table. Burchard talks about Internal and External Forces in that drive our Performance Necessity.
High Performers are driven by all of these factors, but most people start out falling toward one side or another, and must adopt habits, and find ways to “raise the necessity” of their performance for themselves and for others.
Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my hear to do it well; whatever I ahve devoted myself to I have devoted myself to completely. – Charles Dickens
High Performers are finding ways the raise the psychological necessity of their performance. The top 15% of High Performers, out of more than 20,000 surveyed, interviewed by Brendon and who have worked with him personally, all associate a deep sense of identiy with performing well. It’s not just a sense of meaning or validation – it’s as critical as food and water for high performers.
Many people are scared to put their identities on the line. To show too much caring, too much effort. But high performers replace preference, or passion with necessity. It’s not an option.
To raise necessity, Burchard urges us to use the transition periods between tasks, meetings, work weeks, months, etc. to think about why you must perform well. And to do so, ask yourself: Who needs me on my ‘A’ game right now? Why?
"Nothing Is Less Productive Than To Make More Efficient What Should Not Be Done At All."
Research shows that if you simply “feel more productive” you’re statistically more likley to feel happier, more successfuly, more confident. Que the question in your head: yea, duh, but how is what we really want to know. How do you get more productive?
Before we get to the more advanced practices, Burchard believes there are three fundamentals or basics when it comes to increasing productivity. By increasing your the level of your Goals, Energy and Focus in that order.
Goals: whether you’re a team or an individual, being productive means establishing lofty goals that are highly specific, measurable and I’ll reiterate – aimed high.
Energy: increasing your energy is the focus of chapter 2 called “Generate Energy”. But all of those habits around taking care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally hold true here. Generating energy is a prerequisite for the majority of the book and for high performance as a whole. Your productivity is tied to physical, emotional and mental energy that makes you happier and not just more productive but more creative, dependable, consistent, etc.
Focus: today more than ever we’re plagued by what I always call “the gift and the curse”. It’s technology and access to information. Burchard highlights three key areas that you must attack to maintain focus.
- Information Overload – analysis paralysis is real. You need to find ways to filter this information and reduce stimulus especially at key times where you’re engaging in deep work. One of the keys to avoiding this? Dedicate a morning routine and avoid checking social media or email until specific times.
- Distractions – want to kill your productivity by 20% or more? Allow for distractions. How about slow your thinking by 50%? Allow distractions. One of the biggest culprits is email and social media. Avoid checking these first thing in the morning and set dedicated time for email within your routine. The king of distraction is multi-tasking, which many people put on resumes or claim to be a skill. The truth is, and many other writers like Peter Drucker allude to this, being effective requires that you focus intensely on a single task at a time for results. Moving on to another task while your brain is performing another, or has yet to fully process it, impacts both tasks.
- Interruptions – for many people, especially in large organizations, being interrupted during a given task, activity or meeting is just the norm. While I think it’s wrong and definitely a productivity killer, it’s hard to imagine how to solution for this. Just one interruption in the worday can throw off important and scheduled tasks by up to two or three hours.
Now let’s talk about the three more advanced practices Burchard prescribes…
PRACTICE #1 | INCREASE OUTPUTS THAT MATTER
“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all”. – Peter Drucker
Earlier in the book Burchard talks about how High Performers have identified their Primary Field of Interest (PFI) and focus on specializing there. Gaining knowledge, expertise, credibility, etc. Once you figure out your PFI(s) you then need to hone in on doing the right things.
What are the right ouptuts, deliverables, products or content you need to be developing as outcomes? If you spend a day at the office struggling to create a deliverable that sends you home saying “what did I really create today, and why doesn’t it have any real impact?” then you’re probably not focusing on the right outputs.
The greatest authors, artists, entrepreneurs, and other high performers have determined their PFI, exactly what outputs they should produce, and then focus aggressively on Prolific Quality Output (PQO) – which means producing a ton of high quality outputs.
How do you implement this practice? First, you have to be solid on your PFI(s), or at least one of them. Second, get clear on your outputs. Third, if possible, dedicate 60% of your working hours to PQO – which might be research, writing, content devlopment, etc. while the other 40% includes the other tasks and activities that support or enable your primary functions. Things like going over strategy, managing your team or colleagues, managing upward, building relationships with customers or clients, spending time on email, and social media.
PRACTICE #2 | CHART YOUR FIVE MOVES
“I believe half the unhappiness in life comes from people being afraid to go straight at things” – William Locke
So many of us decide on a goal and have success early. Sometimes tremendous success. And we reach that success even while handling everything, wearing every hat as an entrepreneur, or even being a do-it-all athlete. Eventually, though, the same habits that get you there will need to be refined. Shooting from the hip will need to be replaced with planning. And multi-tasking replaced with deep work and focus.
Now that you’ve determined you’re PFI and the field or industry where you want to generate Prolific Quality Output (PQO) it’s time to set ambitious goals and then ask yourself…
“If there were only five major moves to make that goal happen, what would they be?”
The question is one of the bases for what Burchard calls “5 Move Planning”…
- Decide What You Want – this is where you set the most amitious goal(s) possible for yourself.
- Determine The Five Major Moves – prioritize a list of five major moves that you must make. Each of them becomes an individual project or bucket with deliverables, tasks, activities and deadlines that must be mapped out and managed.
- Do Deep Work On Each of The Five Major Moves – 60% of your time
- Supporting Tasks/Enablers – 40% of your time should be spent designating the remaining support activities under one of three categories: 1) Distraction; 2) Delegate; or 3) DO – where you block off pre-defined time to execute on these activities alone or as a team.
For steps #1 and #2, the most important thing is to remember that the HOW? doesn’t matter until you know the WHAT?…so for every major goal you have, figure out the Five Moves.
PRACTICE #3 | GET INSANELY GOOD AT KEY SKILLS
“Everything is trainable”
From the get go, I was relieved to see Burchard’s support of specialization and mastery. Throughout the book, he places emphasis on the fact that high performers, regardless of their profession, have focused a very small number of Primary Fields of Interest and aggressively sought to build skills and knowledge.
Burchard’s advice is to determine the knowledge, competencies and skills you need to excel and win in your Primary Field of Interest (PFI). Right now, determine the 5 major skills to be developed over the next three (3) years.
The underlying principle and belief required to develop your skills is that “everything is trainable” – otherwise people are enabled to make excuses or simply “try” to master things.
Bruchard recommends leveraging “Progressive Mastery” which is similar to Deliberate Practice, coined by Anders Ericsson, except it places much more emphasis on emotion, socialization and teaching. Below are the steps to progressive mastery:
- Determine a skill that you want to master
- Set specific stretch goals
- Attach high levels of emotion and meaning to developing that skill
- Identify the critical factors for success and develop strenghts in those areas/fix weaknesses
- Develop visualizations that imagine what success and failure look like
- Schedule challenging practices develped by experts or careful thought
- Measure your progress, and get outside feedback
- Socialize your learning and efforts by practicing or competing with others
- Continue setting higher-level goals to keep improving
- Teach others what you’re learning
How many people have challenged your words, your actions and your character? Probably not too many. But High Performers do this on a regular basis, developing influence by teaching people how to think and challenging them to grow.
Teach People How To Think
In every situation of potential influence, ask yourself how you want other people to think about themselves, other people and the world at large. And then ask questions or say things that shape the way they think like “Think of it this way…” or “What would happen if we tried…”
Challenge People To Grow
Observe people’s character, connections and contributions. Then actively challenge them to develop these things even further – “Have you given this effort your all?” or “are you treating those around you as best you can?” or “have we seen your best contributions yet?”. While some people think that this is confrontational, there’s an art to it, but it brings people to higher levels especially when you set an example yourself…which is the next key.
Role Model The Way
71% of high performers from Brendon and team’s survey said they think about being a role model every day for their family, team, community. Ask questions and more importantly take actions that inspire others to believe in themselves, give all of themselves to the task at hand and serve others around them with heart, integrity and excellence.
How many people have challenged your words, your actions and your character? Probably not too many. But High Performers do this on a regular basis, developing influence by teaching people how to think and challenging them to grow.
Honor The Struggle
We’re surrounded by memes and media and influencers telling us we’re not supposed to struggle, that life should just be an easy flow or we’re on the wrong track. Imagine what that’s doing to our abilities. Imagine what that’s doing to our odds of ever taking courageous action.
Older generations chammpioned worker harder than anyone else, striving for a dream in the face of hardship because those efforts make you better. Meeting struggle with poise is what earned you respect and made you a leader. Today, that is simply not the case. Everyone has a sense of entitlement, and turns their back when it gets tough. Entrepreneurship today is cool, until you have to have some skin in the game. School is cool, until classes get in the way of partying or sitting on your ass. Saving up for a car or to start a business is cool, until you actually have to do it and it’s not handed to you, right?
When you have the opportunity to learn, serve and strive through the hard times, do it. Expect it form yourself. Welcome it…because it makes you stronger. High Performers welcome it, they honor the struggle.
Share Your Truth and Ambitions
Humankind wants to be free. We also want the freedom of truth and authenticity – what’s called personal freedom. Be strong and courageous enough to show up in the world as your true self by consistently sharing your truest thoughts, feelings, needs and dreams.
Find Someone To Fight For
You’ll do more for others than you will for yourself. Find a noble cause, community or significant other to rise to the occasion for.
The #1 Thing - The Three C's of Confidence
As is our confidence, so is our capacity. – William Hazlitt
Burchard ends the book with an overview of the three components of confidence, which he refers to as, “the #1 thing” when it comes to high performance.
Competence is your knolwedge, skill or ability. It’s something you can train and build with effort. All of the top 15% of high performers cited the confidence-competence loop, where your confidence increases as a result of years of dedicated practice, focus and learning that pays off with accomplishments, validation and taking on new challenges to build both confidence and competence.
Self-trust is the first secret of success
You can’t be exactly the same in every moment or situation. That wouldn’t be healthy. But you need to stay true to who you are, and be congruent with how you “show up in the world”. What are your standards, and are you honoring them? Do you practice what you preach and think? Are you being honest with who you are? Do you make a stand when the world challenges who you can become?
Seeking clarity is highly correlated with congruence, and therefore confidence. Clarity begets congruence begets confidence.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Be interested in other people. Confidence comes from less projection and more connection.