Excellence is a full time job. High performers of all kinds, athletes, musicians, actors, and other professionals are good because they are all in. They don’t take days off. Every moment of every day, down to the last minute, is deliberately designed about being “always an ________”.
A hallmark of high performers is an ability to fine tune their focus so fully on their objective that their goals seem to pull them forwards. They see their desired outcome so clearly that all else dissolves into the distance. They become single minded in their approach to their craft. Somewhere along the way they have determined that “this matters” to them. Their commitment may seem more like an obsession to the rest of us. They look to have very clear decision filters in place. Everything that they are presented with is ruthlessly evaluated against the binary option of will this make me better at my craft or not? If the answer is yes, they dive into the task. If the answer is no, they are comfortable saying no. Rightly or wrongly, it appears they live in a clean, clear world of black and white. They aren’t tortured by decisions. They aren’t torn by competing choices. Their world isn’t messy or murky at all. They reflect Benjamin Disraeli’s observation, “The secret to success is consistency of purpose.”
Our commitment follows our assessment of how important we see something as being. It follows a clear goal which reflects something that matters which becomes a magnet that attracts our actions. Being clear with something that matters deeply is like not needing willpower as it takes distraction and decision making away. It’s like having only one outfit in the closet from which to choose. No decision, just do. In Why The Best are the Best, former NBA coach Kevin Eastman, introduces us to the idea of three “time zones” that represent categories of commitment we can assess in ourselves and others. Eastman writes, “These are the times zones of winners vs. losers. The time zones I am referring to are: Spare time: I’ll do it when I get to it. Part time: I’ll do it every now and then. Full time: … I’ll do it when it’s required. All the time: I will do what it takes, and more, every time you need me regardless of the circumstances.” Eastman’s time zones are similar to our meter gauging How Bad Do You Want It. We each operate at different levels of intensity of interest towards something.
Kelly Starrett, PhD in physiotherapy, Cross Fit guru, and author of Ready to Run, affirms the idea that performance follows a decision to be an athlete 24/7. He points out differences in approaches of recreational runners which reflect the level of their commitment. Starrett writes about the typical, middle aged runner that wakes up before dawn, stumbles to the bathroom, limps downstairs with joints popping, throws on a coat, pulls up the hood, steps outside, dipping their chin deep in the collar and makes their way around their 5 km loop to return home feeling proud of themselves for being disciplined and committed to their exercise routine. This effort is then contrasted with how they spend the rest of their day. Upon returning from their run, a hasty shower is taken, ill-planned breakfast eaten, cramped commute, followed by the balance of the day spent sitting, slumped over one’s desk. The effort at exercising isn’t being supported by numerous other activities which ultimately compromises performance opportunities. Yes, they’ve done something to improve their health, but then they spend the majority of the balance of their day taking actions inconsistent with it. Most of us in this category are working in Eastman’s time zone of Part time.
Author TJ Murphy offers a similar scale of commitment to Eastman’s time zones. In Inside the Box, Murphy writes about the different levels of commitment reflected by those enjoying Cross Fit programs. He refers to those that demonstrate deep commitment as “Firebreathers.” Murphy writes, “Because there are so many skills to learn, the Firebreathers at a gym will typically add extra hours before or after workouts to work on skill development. They are the ones who show up early for a workout and stay afterward.” When we eat, sleep, and breathe our subject, we want to show up early and stay late. This commitment spurs our progress.
I served in the past on the board of directors for the Canadian Ski Coach Federation. At the time, it was an organization responsible for licensing and providing education to coaches for the sport of Alpine ski racing in Canada. The board consisted of rabid zealots that loved the sport of ski racing. Or so I thought. We were trying to build an education and training program that would continue to put Canada at or near the top of the pile in performance for this sport. We would meet several times a year to discuss our organization’s efforts at helping coaches help athletes to excel. It was great fun being part of a committed and conscientious group trying to make a difference. Our in person get togethers typically occurred over a weekend during the winter season. As our day wore down and we looked forward to dinner and a drink, talk shifted from skiing to other things. There had usually been a ski race somewhere in Europe where Canadian athletes had participated. I wanted to get together with our group to blow off some steam, decompress from discussions and enjoy the sport we cared about as a group. Most others in the group were more than happy to have their attention shift from skiing to hockey. It was hockey that dominated the apres-ski racing conversation, not skiing. Time after time of seeing our conversations stop at the end of the day helped me understand all too clearly that the “work-life” balance being sought was reflecting a limited commitment to the cause. We weren’t serious about making massive improvements. We were putting in time, patting ourselves on the back, and moving on to something else at the first opportunity. I’m pretty sure the hockey players and their coaches we were watching weren’t leaving their activity in order to think about or watch other sports. Their focus was all hockey, all the time. If we wanted to become a serious ski racing nation, we needed the same complete and total focus. We, like our recreational runners, were operating in Eastman’s Part time zone.
Michael Hutchinson, a former British Cyclist, in his book Faster, recounts a story of spending an evening with some junior cyclists near the end of his career which reflects what the time zone of All the time looks like. Training was over for the day. A big soccer match was being played on the TV. After a few minutes of disinterestedly watching, one of the younger athletes said, “Do you mind if we watch something else? We’re not really into football.” Hutchinson remembers thinking that he has come into contact with the only group of teenaged males in Britain with no interest whatsoever in soccer. One of the younger athletes took out a video tape of a bike race and began to play it. The whole group of athletes then excitedly reviewed the video forwards and backwards for hours while chiming in and analyzing why the winner won and what the also rans could have each done better to enhance their chances. They were looking for any opportunity to learn more about their sport. Hutchinson writes, “These were riders who knew they had some talent, who wanted to succeed, and who knew what that meant. There was no danger whatever of them going to the local supermarket and bringing back a few tins of lager. There wasn’t even any danger of them going to the local chip shop. They knew they’d got a golden opportunity, and they were not going to waste it.”
These types of athletes seem to be more capable of becoming successful as a result of being deeply involved and personally committed to what they are doing. Their commitment is captured in their conscience. They know this matters to me. They want to be where they are. They are devoted to their development. This recognition is reflected in consciously evaluating every decision against the filter of will the activity being contemplated make me better or not. Period. Hutchinson notes, “Everything from an everything point of view.” Hutchinson goes on writing, “Because an athlete makes their living with their body, everything they do to or with it, everywhere they take it, and everything they put in it has some consequence. It might be an immeasurably small consequence, but there is nothing that is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ Marginal gain or marginal guilt—your choice.” Precisely, because the activity matters so much to these types of individuals, everything they do, when they sleep, how long they sleep, what they eat, how much they eat, how much preparation and practice to put forth, and more is done intentionally.
Commitment overdone becomes obsession. It is a fine line, and for high achievers the only way to know if they’ve gone too far is to have pushed past the boundary of what’s considered reasonable. Richard Feynman was a world renown physicist. His commitment to his profession was such that he let his relationships struggle. He was divorced several times. His second wife offered the following as a complaint during their divorce proceedings, “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.” For Feynman, he was Always a Physicist. He couldn’t help himself but to think about the problems that fascinated him.
Eric Partaker in The 3 Alarms writes of Elon Musk’s extremes at work. “In 2018, Elon Musk told The New York Times he works 120 hours a week and sleeps an average of six hours a night. This means he works seventeen-hour days, seven days a week. He admitted to missing his own birthday party and that he could only spare a few hours away from the factory for his brother’s wedding, flying in two hours before the ceremony and leaving shortly afterwards. At the time of the article, Musk hadn’t taken a week off of work since 2001, which was only because he had malaria. He says he sometimes spends the night in Tesla’s factory, keeping a sleeping bag in a conference room so that he can inspect vehicles as they come off the assembly line. During the interview, the reporter said the SpaceX founder alternated between laughter and tears. ‘There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days,’ he said, ‘days when I didn’t go outside. This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.’ At this point, the interviewer notes that Musk stopped talking because he became overwhelmed with emotion. Is this success?”
Yes, there’s a dark side to complete commitment. We touched on the idea of seeking balance in a past article. The idea of always being a fill in your role here doesn’t mean that one should train or work 24/7. Overtraining isn’t the goal, nor is burnout. Improvement is. The goal is to consciously evaluate all options presented to you through the lens of will doing this make me better or not. If yes, let’s go. If not, let’s stop. For example, should I got to bed and get some rest, or stay up and finish off the latest season of my favorite Netflix show? Having a clear, two-sided decision filter helps you consciously say yes to things that will make you better while easily saying no to those options that won’t.
In Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger writes how the clarity of his objective served as the guide to decision making, “I continued doing precisely what I knew I needed to do. In my mind, there was only one possibility for me and that was to go to the top, to be the best. Everything else was just a means to that end.” A singular focus is like a sharp knife, it allows applied pressure to cut deep into a subject. It is the heart of the Engagement Equation. Like the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset observed, “Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.” What do your actions say about you? Are your actions consistent with a given direction? Are your actions consistent with your cause? Do your decisions reflect your desires? Are your goals guidelines for your choices? Is it easy for you to make decisions?
One of the six dictates set out in General George S. Patton’s “Letters of Instruction Number 1” which was written as direction for officers under his command in the U.S. Army instructs, “Discipline is based on pride in the profession of arms, meticulous attention to details, and on mutual respect and confidence.” General Patton recognizes that discipline develops from a complete commitment to a cause. It’s pride in the profession and respect for the cause that motivates. The idea of being Always an ______________ is seeking to create a combination of a vision that is both clear and compelling which makes decisions easier. Identifying that this matters to me is what makes motivation. When this matters to me, the path is easier to see. We’re not encouraging the path of professional athletes. The suggestion is to learn to understand what’s behind what looks like insane discipline and willpower. Life is easier when we know where we’re going and why. Instead of berating ourselves for not having discipline or willpower, we can work to use the idea of always an ____________ to heighten our commitment.
Our default is to do what we desire. Piers Steel wrote The Procrastination Equation. In it he crafts a three variable formula which can help explain procrastination. A component of the formula is value. We put off doing things we don’t care about. Procrastination reflects an apathy about the task. If it isn’t valuable to us, we defer. The less value a task has to us, the more difficult it is to dig in and get going. Our operators in the All the time zone do so because they place high value on their targeted activity. Procrastination isn’t possible for these performers. If we find ourselves procrastinating, consider that it may be less a personal weakness and more a reflection that our compass is weak. We aren’t weak or deficient, our purpose is. Worrying about willpower, motivation, and overcoming procrastination are just efforts at treating symptoms. The underlying cause is that we’re not connected enough to a specific outcome. Motivation follows both knowing where to go and understanding why it’s deeply important to get there. Once we know these things, we’ll take steps to get there.
We can start to develop our awareness as to where we are. Perhaps we, like Starrett’s recreational runner, think we’re doing all that we can in an area without realizing that much of our effort is being diluted by activities which aren’t in support of our direction. Where are we on the how bad do I want it meter? Is our identity fused with an outcome such that decisions are binary and either serve to move us toward our desired objective? When done well, it looks wonderful and is appealing. When done well, it serves our development. If you view your identity this strictly, your role becomes easier. You don’t depend on discipline. You aren’t prone to procrastination. You follow the “only” choice available, that is, the one consistent with your identity. In a future article we’ll offer some suggestions to help develop this type of deep interest in a direction for yourself as well as how to help others achieve similar levels of commitment?