Q: What would you say are the non-negotiables for elite performance?
Dr. Preston: The way we look at it, there are these fundamental building blocks for high performers, especially in the moment. One of them, as we were just discussing, is confidence or trusting yourself and owning your capabilities, which is a cornerstone most people understand.
A lot of people struggle with what we just alluded to, and there are other reasons for that. They tie their self-worth, their self-image, to external results instead of to the work they’ve done. So when results are up, they feel great. When results are down, they feel terrible. They worry too much about what other people think. There’s a lot that goes into that corner block. The other big one for me (on the other side of the spectrum) is focusing on the process. How well can you get dialed in? There’s no noise, no worrying distractions about the results, and you’re just focused on the task at hand and your process, and immersed.
Those are two big ones. The other two fundamentals we talk about are resilience and composure. Composure is about your ability to stay calm, composed, and relaxed under pressure, to stay centered and not swing between highs and lows, elation and deflation. Resilience is about dealing with adversity. If you want to be a high performer, there will be challenges and adversity, and your ability to be resilient, persistent, adaptable, flexible, and work through challenges is crucial. They’re all interrelated.
You can’t have great confidence and then be terrible at one of the other aspects; they’re all connected. When working with someone, we identify the area they can improve the most, and then we give them principles and strategies to focus on that, which helps the others as well.
After that base level, being a high performer involves discipline, the ability to be coachable, and doing the work. Another aspect is your ability to be centered and have a healthy life, especially when becoming a high performer or in business and working all the time. Then the rest of your life becomes chaotic, and that can seep in and cause stress, and vice versa. Do you bring the stress of your sport, career, or main focus to other areas of your life? There’s an ability to be grounded and centered in life.
I call this the second tier: elite habits. The top tier is being a leader, your ability to influence and inspire others, whether they’re employees, followers, teammates, etc. Can you have a positive impact on others? When you do the fundamental pieces, you’re automatically going to be a better leader because you’re in a more grounded, centered, confident state. But there are other traits, characteristics, and skills involved in interacting with others.
So, that would be the seven mental skills pyramid that we use.
Krati: The qualities that you mentioned, especially relating to your character, like resilience and staying grounded, they are qualities that I think are game changers. Have you ever met a performer or someone you coached who had these from the get go, who had these qualities from the very start of their journey?
Dr. Preston: I would generally say no, for a couple of reasons. Kids are born pretty resilient, but they’re not necessarily born managing their emotions, and they’re carving and creating their capabilities. Then, as you earn more capabilities, you have to keep owning it. It’s a never-ending thing that we all do. Your ability to focus on the process, for example, and be engaged in it is crucial. The problem with a lot of these is our society literally teaches us the opposite. We get taught to tie our confidence to external things, to whine and complain instead of being resilient, or to get phased and rattled. We get taught to get nervous and worried about what everyone thinks instead of being calm, composed, grounded, and centered. We get taught that society pushes results and worries about that as what success is, instead of focusing on who you are being, your process, and your definition of success.
Generally, as a society, I would say we are struggling with these because of the way a lot of things are set up and the norms that are currently set. Now, there are a lot of people doing relatively well, and some parents or coaches guide and help people develop these traits better. Some people learn them naturally or figure it out along the way, leaning into certain things where they heard somebody say something. I use an example of a pro basketball player who came from nothing, really from the streets more or less. He had a really good mental game, thinking, “I’m getting out of here,” worked hard, and climbed the ranks in basketball, making a really good living now. And then, suddenly he’s worried about losing his contract and other things.
It’s a constant work in progress on all these aspects. Even as someone who teaches this and coaches people on it every day, I haven’t mastered it completely. I still focus on the results, get nervous or worried, or doubt myself. But then it’s about using the skills and strategies or knowing who to lean on to keep moving forward.
So, that was a long answer for a simple question, but the answer is no, no one is naturally everything super high, and it’s subjective too.
Krati: Yes, I agree with you. I often feel like when I listen to young kids talking, especially online or even at a social event, things are still different in India compared to the US. Here, students are either not interested in their studies or very laser-focused because family dynamics are different. However, I get a lot of American clients, and what they tell me often sounds very self-indulgent. You can’t tell them that everything they’re complaining about is part of being an adult. If you say that, people get defensive, and there are many who will support them in this narrative, keeping them in a victim mindset.
They prop them up, telling them, “Oh no, you’re doing the right thing. Yes, we shouldn’t have to work more than four hours a day. We should get the weekend off. We should also get this amazing pay package.” And I think, this is so strange. Thank you for saying what you’ve said; it doesn’t get said enough. But we do need to remind everyone that if you want all of these things, you have to put in the work. And yes, you have to cultivate these qualities.
Q: How important it is to prioritize discipline on a daily basis. Where would you place a routine, like a proper routine, to get that performance out of yourself? How high would you prioritize that?
Dr. Preston: Quite high. If you do the foundational pieces, it will probably help with the discipline. Just to piggyback on what you were saying about the self-indulgent or a common word is entitlement, right? Like they’re entitled to this. I do like to call people out. I do it softly because if you do it too hard, it’d be too offensive. But I don’t necessarily do it on the first day I meet somebody. What I like to do is ask them to, imagine you’re in your sport or on a workday and there’s just a little bit of entitlement. Of course, we’ve all been there to some degree. Maybe not all of us, but a lot of people have that feeling at some point. But if you’re holding onto that entitlement, it can ruin a lot of things and throw off your mindset.
I try to prime people to self-reflect, to be like, “Yeah, maybe I’m getting a little entitled at times.” Even if we, as outsiders, might think it’s a lot, from a coaching standpoint, I say it’s a little bit. Because if I can get them to admit and self-reflect, even just a little bit, there’s no bit that’s enough. We don’t want any bit of entitlement because it can ruin everything. It’s like a weed that spreads once it’s there. So we want to get rid of it.
Well, I shouldn’t have to do all the extra work. I shouldn’t have to wake up and do this and, you know, commit to my routing. What? What do you mean you shouldn’t have to? You don’t get to be healthy without doing exercise and eating well. You don’t get to become a medical doctor if someone just gives you a degree, you’ve got to study and do the work.
You earn these things, you’re not entitled to them. It takes discipline to earn things and to progress in your life.
One way I look at it, for myself and others, is learning to enjoy doing hard things. Everything’s so easy now with technology, Netflix, ordering food online. We get comfortable doing easy things and not getting challenged. But if you show me someone whose life is easy all the time, I’ll show you someone whose life is going to get hard and they’re not going to like it. Like being a drug addict. It’s easy to pick drugs, but their life’s going to get hard or it’s easy to not exercise, but then your life’s gonna get hard real quick and unhealthy with different challenges. It doesn’t mean we have to be David Goggins. He has his thing and I don’t know if that’s for everyone, but what I am encouraging is learning to change the narratives in our head to be like, “No, I like hard things, not all hard things, not all the time, but I’m not afraid.”
Like you said, do two ambitious things a month. That’s great! Right. A lot of people don’t do that. I would even encourage to do some little things each day. Like for me to get up a little bit earlier and go to the gym, it’s a bit hard and challenging, but I’m like, no, I like that. I want to learn to do the hard thing because on the other side is the result which is that my life gets easier because I did the hard thing. Or choose easy things and life gets harder.
But we want to change the narrative because a lot of people’s narratives is, avoid hard things. Hard things are bad like it’s funny that athletics, let me give this example. Not everyone’s probably an athlete listening, but when we can work with athletes, and especially up and coming athletes and they’re like, ah, I have to go work out on, oh, such a hard workout.
I’m like, you don’t become a good athlete if you don’t do hard workouts. If you don’t love training and just pushing your body to exhaustion, you’re not going to be very good. How are you going to have the sustainable energy for that? So now the average adult, not in sport, doesn’t need to love working their body to exhaustion like David Goggins. You don’t have to become a six-pack athlete or never eat. But we can push our comfort zone a bit. Maybe a couple of times a month, do something really hard or a new project. Like me playing piano, it pushes my comfort zone, and I’m failing miserably, but it’s intriguing.
A lot of this comes from growth mindset literature. We have to learn to embrace failure, to go through it. It’s not a bad thing and it can help us grow. Most people don’t live that and it’s like, Oh yeah, I get that but then when it comes to a failure, like nope, avoid! Hard things? Nope. Avoid! It’s like, no, no, we got to learn to go through it, go do it.