|Cutting Edge Ideas from 2500 Years Ago|
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:
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:
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!