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 Helping Managers and Salespeople Thrive in Turbulent Times Vol. 2, #4, June 2004 
in this issue
  • Peak Performance? Get Off The Mountain!
  • About Jim Schaffer & Associates


  • Greetings!

    This month we discuss how achieving peak performance need not involve a struggle to reach the top.
    As always, just click "reply" to send along your comments at any time.

    Best regards,

    Jim Schaffer
    President, Jim Schaffer & Associates


    Peak Performance? Get Off The Mountain!

    Riding from Denver to Boulder recently on a mini- vacation (what used to be called, in the Mesozoic era, a long weekend), I gazed long and hard at the mountains in the distance. Beautiful in reality, of course, but I couldn't help reflecting on how often they serve as a powerful metaphor for that in business for which we all strive: peak performance. For many of us, it feels like this: we fight our way to the top, against all odds, and when things really start to cook for us we earn the right to stand alone at the summit, feeling triumphant as we look down on those who are less swift and capable than we.

    But it's not a useful metaphor. Maybe it's because I've lived in Massachusetts for thirty years, but my own preferred metaphor for peak performance lies in the Berkshires, home to old hippies like James Taylor and Arlo Guthrie, as well as the site of Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony orchestra. I have witnessed numerous peak performances there over three decades, with guest soloists and conductors including Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Leonard Bernstein. And yes, the supreme talents of each of these gentlemen stood out during these performances, but that was far from all that made them "peak." On a summer night, even the artists would admit that everything comes together to contribute to the experience. The fresh air, the softness of the lawn, the brightness of the moon and stars. The lushness of the picnic: sandwiches on French bread, pasta salad and fruit from one of the nearby gourmet shops, goblets of wine, candlelight. Good vibes from the people sitting nearby. Yes, at some point the soloist stands and delivers his art, often characterized by technical superiority as well as interpretive talent. But the "peak" in the performance is connected to everything at once.

    The mountain or the lawn. Two very different metaphors. The first leaves you with the adrenaline rush of victory and the excited fatigue of a hard-won struggle. The second is more of a process, leaving you feeling connected to everything. The first is like drinking 5 Starbucks triple espressos. The second is like taking three sips of Chateauneuf du Pape.

    Training for peak performance is not easy. It requires quieting the mind, learning not to judge, and surrendering to life as it is, rather than as you think it should be. Once you get better at these things, however, the instructions are simple: "Be Present."

    In business, that usually translates to how you interact with other people in the course of working toward your goals. Peak Performance, then, becomes not merely a statement of the result, but applies more to how you relate to others in the process of reaching it which, after all, is 99% of what work really amounts to.

    Noted Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein describes this process in his book, Insight Meditation, the Practice of Freedom:

    "You do not have to start at any particular place. Rather, you can open to another's experience and see where that person actually is. What are the concerns? Where is the suffering? Where is the interest? Begin from that place.If you genuinely hear a person, and if your outlook is one of lovingkindness, then there is already an intimacy of connection.."


    Learning to perceive the connections is the key step in optimizing not only your results but your whole experience of work itself. You, your colleagues, your customers and even your competitors are parts of the same whole ("the media business", for example).

    Train your mind for even six months and you will begin to notice the difference in results and, more importantly, how you experience work as you attain those results.

    For those of you who are feeling skeptical right about now, let me share with you some questions I've gotten in my workshops over the years along with some answers I typically give:

    1. But won't I ultimately be judged on individual performance? Of course you will, and you also will die someday. Ain't that, as Dino crooned, a kick in the head? You basically have two choices: to experience work as a series of battles or to try extra hard every day to find that which connects you to others rather than that which divides you. Along both routes, you will experience ups and downs (even YoYo Ma has a bad day now and then). But you will do better and have more fun if you seek the connections.
    2. Cmon, Jim. You know customers will eat you alive if you give them a chance. As I see it, that is a mislabeling of reality. What is true is that it is currently a buyer's market and customers have become more insistent on getting the very best deal. Period. Once you perceive that correctly, any stress you might feel has more to do with your own wish that you could charge higher prices, or not have to throw in so many extra things just to get the business (i.e., your wish of how things should be, rather than how they are).
    3. I have no problem with what you're saying if times were more forgiving. But wouldn't you agree these days it's tough enough just to survive? No actually, I think we have it easier. When I graduated from college, it was the time of the Watergate recession and the oil embargo. As a young New England Life agent, I often assisted formerly successful engineers in their 40's and 50's in obtaining loans against their life insurance policies so, while unemployed, they could continue to pay the mortgage. It was pretty bleak. And compared with the Depression (no, smarties, I wasn't around then), even that time wasn't so bad.



    Peak Performance is more of a glow which surrounds you than an event. When you're truly operating at peak, you will begin to enjoy the respectful but firm requests of your customers for exactly what they want, camaraderie from your competitors who realize they could be working beside you or for you in the near future, and gratitude to be part of a larger whole, which might be characterized as "celebrating life through business."

    So, yeah, it feels a little cold out there, and there's snow on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, and you've seen fire and you've seen rain, but once you begin to forget your separate self and see the connections among everything around you, work becomes like a five-hour dinner in your favorite restaurant — Alice's Restaurant, for instance — where, as you remember, you can get, quite literally — anything you want.

    See you on the lawn!

    For more on Joseph Goldstein and Insight Meditation, click here:

    About Jim Schaffer & Associates

    Jim Schaffer & Associates helps management teams & salespeople stay focused, get results and keep high morale — regardless of what may be going on around them.




    Copyright 2004 by Jim Schaffer & Associates.

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