7 Steps to success and becoming a high performer

BY Morton Hunt

13th Mar 2024 Life

5 min read

7 Steps to success and becoming a high performer
Profit from these tips and steps to success to make yourself a high performer. From the September 1993 edition in the Reader's Digest magazine archives
Two of my classmates hoped to have careers in publishing. Each was talented, personable, ambitious. Yet Roger now heads a multimillion-pound book company while Jack has a dull, modestly paying job editing business directories. Why has one man flown so much higher than the other? Not because of luck, connections or dedication to work—but simply because Roger is a peak performer and Jack is not.
Charles Garfield, associate professor at the University of California's medical centre in San Francisco and head of the Peak Performance Centre, his own research institute, has studied 1,500 outstanding achievers in nearly every walk of life. He finds they all have certain traits in common—traits that are not innate but which can be learned by anyone.
This doesn't mean that everyone can become a company president or win an Olympic medal. It does mean that all of us can learn to make much more of the gifts we have. Here, based on Garfield's research, are seven steps that can lead to peak performance:

1. Lead a well-rounded life

High achievers, we often hear, are inevitably hard-driving, obsessed people who bring work home and labour over it until bedtime. Not so, according to Garfield. "Such people tend to peak early," he says, "then go into a decline or level off. They become addicted to work itself, with much less concern for results."
"High performers are willing to work hard—but within strict limits; work is not everything"
High performers, in contrast, are willing to work hard—but within strict limits; for them, work is not everything. When Garfield interviewed top executives in ten major industries, he found that they knew how to relax, could leave their work at the office, prized close friends and family life, and spent a healthy amount of time with their children and intimates.

2. Select a career you care about

Three women in an office walking, talking and laughing
Although he really wanted to edit children's books, my former classmate Jack chose business-directory publishing as a likelier path to a large salary. For 30 years he has dragged himself out of bed five days a week to work at something he doesn't care about—and which has never produced the hoped-for income. If Jack had done what he really wanted to do, he might—or might not—have made more money. But he would have almost certainly been a happier and more successful human being.
Garfield's data show that high performers choose work they truly prefer, and spend over two-thirds of their working hours doing it and only one-third on disliked chores. They want internal satisfaction, not just external rewards such as pay rises and promotions. In the end, of course, they often have both. Because they enjoy what they are doing, their work is better and their rewards higher.

3. Rehearse each challenging task mentally

Before any difficult or important situation—a board meeting, a public appearance, a key tennis match—most peak performers run through their desired actions in their minds over and over again.
"Most peak performers run through their desired actions in their minds again and again"
Nearly all of us daydream about important coming events. But idle daydreaming isn't the same as a deliberate mental workout that hones the skills used in the activity. In China, a pianist imprisoned for seven years during the Cultural Revolution played as well as ever soon after he was released. His explanation: "I practised every day in my mind."

4. Seek results, not perfection

People celebrating a work success
Many ambitious and hard-working people are so obsessed with perfection that they turn out little work. A university teacher I know has spent ten years preparing a study about a playwright. Haunted by the fear she has missed something, she has yet to send the manuscript to a publisher. Meanwhile, the playwright—who was at the height of his fame when the project began—has faded from public view. The woman's study, even if finally published, will interest few.
When a psychiatrist tested a major insurance company's top 69 salespeople, he found that those who had perfectionist tendencies earned considerably less a year than those who did not. This doesn't surprise Garfield. High performers, he has found, are almost always free of the compulsion to be perfect. "They don't think of their mistakes as failures," he says. "Instead, they learn from them so they can do better the next time."

5. Be willing to risk

Most people stay in what Garfield calls the "comfort zone"—settling for security, even if that also means mediocrity and boredom, rather than taking chances. I know a soprano opera singer who has a splendid voice and is a fine actor but who has only ever sung the smallest roles. "I don't want the responsibility of a major role," she says, "the whole evening depending on me, the audience listening to my every note."
This woman—and there are many people like her—isn't necessarily a coward. She has simply made no effort to think through what might happen if she did fail.
"High performers are able to take risks because they consider how to adjust if they fail"
High performers, by contrast, are able to take risks because they carefully consider exactly how they would adjust—how they would salvage the situation—if, in fact, they failed.
"When I want to take a leap of some sort," one business executive told Garfield, "I construct a catastrophe report for myself. I imagine the worst that could happen if I tried my new plan, and then ask myself what I would do. Could I live with it? Frequently I can. If not, I don't take the chance."
Constructing a "worst-case scenario" allows you to make a rational choice. If you remain immobilised by fear, you have no choice at all.

6. Don't underestimate your potential

Man and a woman in office celebrating a work success
Most of us think we know our own limits. But much of what we "know" isn't knowledge at all but belief—erroneous, self-limiting belief. "And self-limiting beliefs", says Garfield, "are the biggest obstacle to high-level performance."
For many years everyone "knew" that running a mile in less than four minutes was impossible. Articles published in journals of physiology "proved" that the human body couldn't do it. Then, in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier. Within two years ten other athletes had followed suit.
This is not to say there are no limits on how fast a human being can run—or on how much weight a person can lift or how well someone can do any particular task. The point is: we rarely really know what these limits are. Too many of us too often set our individual limits far below what we could actually achieve.
High performers, on the other hand, are better able to ignore artificial barriers. They concentrate instead on themselves—on their feelings, on their functioning, on the momentum of their effort—and are therefore freer to achieve at peak levels.

7. Compete with yourself, not with others

High performers focus more intently on bettering their own previous efforts than on beating competitors. In fact, worrying about a competitor's abilities—and possible superiority—can often be self-defeating.
Because most high performers are interested in doing the best possible job by their own standards, they tend to be "team players" rather than loners. They recognise that groups can solve certain complicated problems better than individuals and are eager to let other people do part of the work. Loners, often over-concerned about rivals, can’t delegate important work or decision-making. Their performance is limited because they must do everything themselves.
Such are the skills of the high performers. If you want to make the most of your talents—to live up to your full potential—then learn to use them.
As Garfield explains, “I’m not saying ‘Try harder’ or ‘Why don’t you do better?’ I am saying that you have the power to change your habits of mind and acquire certain skills. And if you choose to do so, you can improve your performance, your productivity and the quality of your whole life.”
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in September 1993. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently. 
Banner photo: Barbara Comyns was a hugely talented novelist who captured the complexities of life. Credit: Publicity photo for Sisters by a River, 1947. Provided by Julian Pemberton
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