1: The answer, according to one of the world’s leading experts on human performance?
Learning to be at our best when we are at our worst.
“And you have to train this kind of grit on its own, as a separate skill, But if we can do this, what we discover is real power. There’s real power there—and it’s power we probably didn’t know we had.” Steven Kotler writes in The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.
The good news? There are easy ways to train this kind of grit.
The bad news? It isn’t going to feel good along the way.
One of the recurring themes in RiseWithDrew is the idea of “being comfortable being uncomfortable.” Which is precisely what Steven is writing about.
Because when we press on through the discomfort, a surprising thing happens: “The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away,” Steven notes, “and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a new level of energy. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth ‘wind; may supervene.”
Early in his career, Steven was a journalist covering action sports. He also enjoys participating in extreme sports himself. “One of the secrets to staying out of the hospital is learning to maintain balance under conditions of exhaustion,” he writes.
“To train for this, at the tail end of every workout, I close with a high-intensity jump rope session (to ensure exhaustion), and then get on an Indo Board (a very dynamic balance board) for ten minutes. If the board touches the ground during that period, I start over. It’s a way of training balance under conditions of serious distress—a best-at-worst exercise that has definitely reduced my medical bills.”
This approach is not limited to the physical.
“I take a similar approach to training cognitive skills,” Steven writes. “When practicing a new speech, I always do one run-through from hell. I pick a time when I haven’t gotten enough sleep, have already worked for ten hours, and put in a heavy training session at the gym. After all that, I take my dogs into the backcountry, hike up a mountain, and give my speech along the way. If I can sound coherent scrambling up cliffs, I can sound coherent under any conditions.”
When we push through, when we “embrace the suck,” as the Navy SEALS motto reads, we often find power we didn’t know we possessed, “sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points,” he writes.
More good news: We can learn to train our thoughts: “When I’m exhausted because of work done for a worthy goal, my exhaustion is an offering,” Tufts professor emeritus of psychiatry Keith Ablow says. “By seeing it this way, I’m reframing exhaustion from a negative to a positive, and this confers a certain immunity to exhaustion. It also dampens down fear, which can often be the by-product of exhaustion, but it is a huge barrier to creativity. Just lowering anxiety a bit seems to free up hidden levels of innovative thinking.”
2: A second related skill to “being our best when we are at our worst” is intentionally training our weaknesses.
“Even if you practice being your best when you’re at your worst, there will always be a few weak links in that chain,” Steven observes, “And these potential fail points become actual fail points once the pressure gets turned up.”
And, as the Greek poet Archilochus once observed: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Under stress, we revert to “those habitual patterns we’ve executed over and over again,” Steven notes.
The solution? “Identify our biggest weaknesses and get to work,” he suggests. “This is why skier Shane McConkey would consistently seek out the worst conditions on the mountain, why Arnold Schwarzenegger always began his weight lifting sessions targeting his weakest muscle group.”
3: We begin by identifying our biggest weaknesses.
There are three high-level categories to be aware of: Physical, emotional, and cognitive.
“Lack of stamina is a physical weakness. A hair-trigger temper is an emotional issue. The inability to think at scale is a cognitive problem,” Steven writes. “But all three can’t be approached in the same way.”
That said, it’s not always apparent to us what our most significant weaknesses are. It’s hard to read the label when we are inside the jar.
One way to address the problem? “Ask for help. Ask friends to identify our weaknesses,” he recommends. “A list of your top three weaknesses is often enough to provide fodder for training, without the ego blow that comes from hearing everything that’s wrong with you. More important, your friends also come with built-in biases, so don’t just ask one. Ask three or four or five and look for correlations among their answers. If a weakness shows up on five different lists, that’s a pretty good place to start.”
With physical and emotional weaknesses, we are wise to take it slow. “Don’t expect you’ll solve these problems in a week or two,” Steven notes. “Old habits die hard. Learn to love slow progress. Learn to forgive yourself for the inevitable backsliding.”
Taking on cognitive weaknesses can be more difficult.
Art of Learning author Josh Waitzkin recommends reflecting on the last three months and asking: “What did I believe three months ago that I know is not true today?” He then follows up with two additional questions: “Why did I believe that?” And: “What kind of thinking error did I commit to arrive at that erroneous conclusion?”
One thing we must be ready for: Whether it’s a cognitive, physical, or emotional weakness, we can expect it to be uncomfortable every step of the way.
Reflection: What did I believe three months ago that I know is not true today? Why did I believe that? What kind of thinking error did I commit to arrive at that erroneous conclusion?
Action: Journal my answers to the questions above. Create a recurring task to do this exercise at the beginning of every quarter.